In the medieval world, just about anything you could forage, or anything you could grow, had a use…or many uses. All kinds of plants, even things we would consider to be weeds, might be used for medicine, cooking, as strewing herbs to combat vermin and bad smells, or they might have sacred or magical uses.
Here is part two of last week’s popular post, with more examples of things we consider ordinary that the medieval people grew or gathered for extraordinary uses.
Flax: It is well known that the stems from this plant were used in the production of linen fabric, rope, bowstrings, wicks, and nets, in addition to a wide variety of other useful things. Its oil and seeds were used for cooking. Though we now know that eating too many of the seeds can poison you, apparently Charlemagne didn’t. He required his subjects to eat them as a way to maintain their health.
Flax oil was used as a medication for coughs and other respiratory issues, to dissolve gallstones, and cure urinary infections. As a poultice it was applied to burns, abscessed wounds, and swollen areas of the body. The very same oil was used to make paint, ink, and soap, and to lubricate wheels. It was probably one of the most versatile plants, cultivated not just in the Middle Ages, but back through many ancient civilizations to the prehistoric era.
Grapevine: We all know how tasty grapes are and how they can be used for wine, juice, or jelly, and dried into raisins, currants, etc. But medieval people made just as much use from the vine itself, which was thought to have tremendous healing powers. Its bark and dried leaves were used against wounds and to stop bleeding. The leaves and vine shoots were an antacid, anti-inflammatory, and helped with headaches. Grape seeds were also thought to “settle the stomach.”
Hawthorn: Maybe not so common for us today, but I’m including it anyway because the information is interesting. The fruits of this tree were used for heart and circulatory problems. Its seeds, boiled in wine, supposedly relieved internal pains. Most interesting, however, is the mythology surrounding this plant. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures used it as protection against evil spirits and saw it as symbol of hope. By contrast, medieval legend said that Jesus’ crown of thorns was made from Hawthorn. Carrying its cuttings into the house was believed to invite death or other disaster. Some said the plant literally smelled of death. It was thought to have been brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea around 63 AD.
Hazel: The hazel nut has a long history of culinary use, but in the Middle Ages, it value went well beyond that. The nuts, leaves, and plant bark treated a variety of circulatory disorders and menstrual issues. It supposedly also treated varicose veins and hemorrhoids, and wounds that were slow to heal.
Additionally, the wood was used to construct the wattle and daub buildings so common to the medieval world. You could find its oil in cosmetics and soaps. Hazel was sacred in Celtic mythology, and was believed to have magical powers. For that reason it was used to make dowsers, diviners, and sorcerer’s wands. Hazel nuts were carried as a way to repel evil spirits.
Ivy: Not something we think of today as anything but decorative landscaping. But in the Middle Ages, ivy was considered sacred and had a myriad of uses.
Climbing ivy is poisonous, yet its leaves were used relieve pain, whooping cough, and bronchitis. As a poultice it was used to treat sores, wounds, burns, and other external injuries. One source claimed that the yellow berries “prevent and heal the plague.”
Ground ivy, on the other hand, is not poisonous and was eaten raw in salads, or cooked as part of other dishes. It was also used to clarify ale. Medicinally, ground ivy was used as a cure for many different ailments, from colds to kidney disorders, and ground up, it was thought to cure bad eyesight.
Parsley: To us, a simple cooking herb–to people of the Middle Ages? So much more! Parsley was use for infections, asthma, gout, jaundice, respiratory issues, and menstrual problems. Chewed it freshened breath, used as a poultice it soothed bites, cuts, sprains, and reduced swelling. However, country lore also associated parsley with the Devil, and it was said by some that “only the wicked could grow parsley; and those that gave it away, or transplanted it, could expect misfortune.”
Rosemary: This is another herb common to our modern day kitchens that had extraordinary uses in the medieval world. Aside from its many culinary uses, rosemary was used on wounds, sores, ulcers, and as a hair tonic. Made into a tea it aided digestion. It was believed to reduce headache, calm nerves, help liver function, increase blood circulation, and even cure colds.
Non-medicinal uses also abound. It was a strewing herb, moth repellent, an ingredient in shampoos, perfumes, and disinfectants, and was burned as incense. The wood of the plant was used to make musical instruments such as the lute. Placed under one’s head at night, it was supposed to keep away evil spirits. It stood as a symbol of love, friendship, and remembrance. Legend says that a rosemary plant “will grow for thirty-three years, until it reaches the same height as Christ when He was crucified, then die.”
Want to learn more? There are lots of great historical sources out there. Many of them were used to create the book Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden, where I found much of this information. It remains a well used resource book on my shelf.