Myth & Magic
We may not think of blackberry brambles as a medicinal herb, but they did in medieval times. One of the stranger beliefs was that being drawn backwards through an arch of brambles would cure blackheads, acne and whooping cough.
Medieval herbals said that the root of bramble boiled in wine would cure sore throats and mouth ulcers. Eating the fresh leaf tips was considered very good for you as it fixed loose teeth – there is probably some truth in that, in that it may well have prevented scurvy. Piles could be relieved by both eating the fruit and applying them externally to the piles.
And if you are thinking of weaving your own clothes, brambles are a very valuable source of dyes. The fruit dyes sheep’s wool grey and dyes silk slate blue; the green shoots produce a black dye.
Helleborus niger or black hellebore, so named because though its face blazes with innocence, its root is black. The ground-up root was often mixed with food to kill household vermin.
A Medieval mystery play tells of a poor girl who wept when visiting the baby Jesus because she had no gift. An angel took pity on her, touched the earth and a rose instantly blossomed for her to offer to the baby.
The Christmas Rose was a powerful charm against evil. A piece of root was put inside the ear of an animal which had been ‘witched’ to cure it, and all new animals were blessed with it to ward off the evil eye. Houses too were purified with it to drive away the hungry ghosts and Christmas roses were planted near doors to prevent evil spirits entering cottages and stables.
Atrope belladonna, otherwise known as Deadly Nightshade. Dwale comes from the French, meaning ‘mourning’. It was thought to be a key ingredient in witches’ ointments, used to help them to fly or transform into animals. It was widely used in the Middle Ages in sleeping draughts. Chaucer refers to it when he says, ‘There needeth him no dwale.’ Highborn women would put drops of it in their eyes to make their pupils dilate to make them more alluring. But it was a deadly poison. In the Parthian Wars, Marcus Antonius’s troops were said to have been killed by dwale being added to the drinking wells. According the legend, in 1010AD, the Scots mixed the juice with food for the invading Danish army and they became so stupefied that the Scots were easily able to slaughter them.
Old English for the herb known today as yarrow or Achillea millefolium. It was also called Milfoil from the Norman French mille-feuille because of its frond-like leaves. It was used in the Middle Ages as an important ingredient in spells, but in later centuries was used to ward off evil and protect against witchcraft. Throughout the centuries it has been used in love charms and in divination to discover if your lover was faithful or who your future spouse would be.
Yarrow was thought to have great healing properties, especially if used as poultice on wounds, and if pushed up the nose it would cause a nosebleed which was thought to relieve the pain of migraine headaches, hence its other folk names – nosebleed, bloodwort, sneezewort and soldier’s woundwort. Yarrow broth was said to be an efficacious tonic for maintaining good health. Sadly, in medieval times many innocent women were accused of casting spells simply because they kept yarrow in the house for medicinal purposes.
Known as ‘The seed that breedeth madness’ has been used since at least 1,000 AD. The most poisonous parts of the leaves can cause giddiness, hallucinations and if you eat them – death! But in the Middle Ages this poisonous plant was an important garden herb, because when the seeds were thrown onto heated charcoal, the fumes worked as a very effective painkiller for ailments such a terrible toothache. The fumes were a crude but effective anaesthetic allowing surgical operations to be performed without pain to the patient. The trouble was it was very risky – if the patient breathed in too little they might wake up half way through having their leg sawn off, but if they breathed in too much and they would never wake up again.
From the Old English holen or holegn; always a symbol of good luck. A holly tree growing near the house was thought to protect it from lightning, and a sprig of Christmas Holly should be kept in the house for the rest of the year to protect against lightning.?In the Middle Ages holly was hung in homes to welcome in the good fairies and spirits. Holly must be hung before mistletoe or ill-fortune will be drawn into the house through the chimney on Christmas Eve.
To discover your future spouse, you had to gather nine holly leaves from the female tree at midnight on Friday, tie them with nine knots in a three-cornered cloth and place them under your pillow, then you would dream of your future partner, but only if you kept silence from gathering the leaves to dawn.
Legend has it that no primroses will ever grow in Cockfield, Suffolk because, along with villagers, in the Middle Ages the primroses caught the Plague and died. And there’s the medieval belief that you should never bring fewer than 13 primrose flowers into a house, because your hens would only hatch as many chicks as there were yellow flowers.
Even as late as 1852, a Norfolk mother accused a neighbour of witchcraft, because she’d given a single primrose to her little daughter to bring home. This not only caused the woman’s chickens to lay just one egg, but brought death into the house.
Saint John’s Wort
Nowadays we often use it in tablet form, but it is a pretty little flowering garden herb which looks lovely in tubs. In the Medieval times they believed the sap turned red as blood on St. John’s day (June 24th) and indeed if the weather is hot and dry, I discovered the sap actually does become red.
It was a powerful herb of the Middle Ages, hung over doorways and windows to keep the evil spirits from the house. The herb itself was prescribed in medieval times as cure for hysteria and forms of madness. The seeds eaten for exactly forty days were thought to ease sciatic, epilepsy and palsy and the leaves when boiled in wine would cure snake bites. But the Medieval physicians also discovered that if the leaves were boiled up and applied to bedsores, inflamed wounds and ulcers, it would sooth and reduce inflammation, and people still use it for that today.
A common English name for the Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), otherwise known as fleur-de-lis. Skeggs is Anglo-Saxon in origin from segg meaning a small sword, in reference to the leaf shape. In the sixth century St Clovis I of France was able to escape the Goths when he noticed a patch of yellow iris growing in the middle of the River Rhine indicating shallow water. In gratitude he took the fleur-de-lis as his emblem. In the twelfth century Louis VII of France adopted it as his emblem during the Crusades. The English called the French soldiers ‘flowers’ a derogatory nickname which seems to be a reference to the French emblem, the Fleur-de-lis.
Video about Medieval Herbal Remedies
Karen Maitland talks about the importance of the herbal, the records of herbs and remedies used to treat and help people.