Medieval Monday: The Philosopher

It’s the beginning of the month, so here’s another episode of Medieval Lives with Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. He talks about the medieval philosopher, which was really more of a scientist or alchemist, and also about the medieval physician. Were they really as backward thinking as we suppose? Or were the seeds that eventually grew into the age of Enlightenment planted during this era? There is some fascinating stuff in this episode, including why people in the Middle Ages were so preoccupied with the idea of changing other metals into gold–it’s not for the reason you might think!

Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.


Medieval Monday: Labors of January

winter-snowball-fightWinter had tightened its grip, and the most important labor of January was staying warm! With only hearth fires for heat, the cold was a very real danger for everyone, but especially the young, the elderly, and the poor. There were still several feasting days to be celebrated, which continued to be a blessing for those who needed help getting through winter. January 6th, the day after Epiphany, was the Feast of the Three Kings. Christian tradition was often blended with agricultural ceremonies rooted in pagan tradition, even though the Church frowned on these practices. The plow and distaff, symbols of male and female societal roles, were both honored. There might be plow races, or processions though villages. The plows might also be pulled around a bonfire to bring good luck for the new year. Actual plowing could not begin until after Candlemas (February 2nd) which was the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. At that point, the winter respite from the fields was officially over, and they were tilled in preparation for spring planting.

harvestingclayThere were other things to do during the month of January. On the coldest days, medieval people completed any type of work that could be done indoors. Spinning thread, weaving, repairing hunting and fishing nets, making utensils, and repairing or sharpening tools were among them. With spring not so far into the future, all the necessary farming equipment would need to be in working order. On milder days, people could do some outdoor work, such as gathering firewood, mending fences, pruning vines, or using a hoe to harvest clay from riverbanks.

Enjoy one last “Tales from the Green Valley” episode. We’ve now followed this team of experts through an entire year on a medieval farm, and the information given has been amazing. Lots of really fascinating details in this one, including tending cattle, harvesting timber supplies, repairing tools, building work, hedge laying, breaking ice, mucking the cow shed, harvesting oak apples (for dye or ink), making ink, repairing shoes, preparing and using medicines, distilling water, preparing the field for spring, harvesting kale, winter foods and recipes.

Though I won’t be posting these at the start of each month anymore, you can still watch the videos anytime,  or read my labors of the months posts, by using the Medieval Monday Index.

What Herb to Use in Your Fantasy Story by Whitney Carter

herbs-chartInteresting article for fantasy writers! I haven’t dabbled myself in growing and testing out plants that would have been available in medieval times, though I have benefited from historical accounts and the research others have done. I’m so glad that I don’t have to test remedies out on myself to find out what they can do, as people sometimes did in the past. For those who are new to my blog, I posted some of my own discoveries in the Medieval Monday section. Feel free to check them out as well. (Plants and herbs, part 1, and Plants and herbs, part 2)

But first, read Whitney Carter’s take on the subject…

I first started exploring herbs and what I could collect and do with them myself some years ago, and I have to confess that I was nervous about it at first. As a kid, there was a berry bush that grew at the edge of my back yard, and sometimes I would sit out there and pick the berries, just to squish them in my hand and smear the dark purple juice around.

I know now that they were Pokeberries, and they’re quite poisonous if ingested. This discovery highlighted my own ignorance about the plants around me, and even as I started dabbling and researching I was always well aware of the potential to miss something important. I have to imagine that the people who were first discovering the uses for all of our plants today had the same kind of excited fear going on.

As a writer, you needn’t worry about endangering yourself; research and creativity are your tools here. Before we get into some of our herbs that could translate well into a fantasy setting, take a look at the following list…

Source: What Herb to Use in Your Fantasy Story


Medieval Monday: Plants and Herbs (part 2)

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.”

treeWant 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.

Medieval Monday: Plants and Herbs (part 1)

gathering spinachIn 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 are just a few examples of things we consider ordinary that the medieval people grew or gathered for extraordinary uses.

Almond:  Aside from the wide variety of culinary uses, the oil from almond seeds was used in mixtures against coughs. Almond was also used as a laxative and was thought to prevent intoxication.

Birch: The tree’s sap, and juice from its leaves, were used as a mouthwash and to dissolve kidney and bladder stones.  Tar from its wood was used to make ointments for skin disorders.  Birch tea was thought to relieve arthritis and gout.

Its bark was used as paper, and its twigs to make brooms.  The Celts revered the Birch as sacred and thought it could drive out evil spirits.  Medieval magistrates carried a bundle of birch rods on their way to court as a symbol of their authority.

Chestnut:  Used against coughing, fever, and the “spitting of blood.”  Its wood was used for interior beams, paneling, and fencing.  Nut meal was used to make starch and to whiten linen.

Clover: This common plant had a large variety of uses.  Externally it was used for conditions of the skin, to heal wounds, sores, and venomous bites.  Made into a poultice, it was said to ease rheumatic pain, inflammations, and even heal cancerous growths. Taken internally, it was used against bronchitis, whooping-cough, and conditions of the liver and gall bladder.

The leaves symbolized the Trinity and were worn for good luck as well as for protection against witchcraft.  It was said that when clover trembled and stood straight, a storm was coming.

dillDill: Not just for culinary uses, it was also made into cordials to soothe digestive issues, and was used to perfume soap and cosmetics.  Dill was “added to love potions and witches spells, or hung up in a house as protection against the ‘evil eye’.”

Fennel: This herb had a huge variety of culinary, medicinal, and other uses.  It was said to relieve a host of digestive issues, improve eyesight, reduce wrinkles, enhance memory, soothe sore throats, help with weight loss, and stimulate milk flow in nursing mothers.  It was made into a mouthwash and its seeds were chewed as an appetite suppressant during times of fasting.  Monasteries used fennel as a strewing herb, inserted it into keyholes, and hung it over doors to ward off evil spirits. It was also given as an antidote against poisonous snake bites, and poisonous herbs and mushrooms.  Fennel was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo Saxons.

Stay tuned for more to come next Medieval Monday!