THE MEDIEVAL HERB GARDEN: One of the most important household duties of a medieval lady was growing and harvesting herbs, medicinal plants, and roots. Herbs cultivated in the summer months had to be harvested and stored for the winter. Although grain and vegetables were grown in the castle or village fields, the lady of the house had a direct role in the growth and harvest of household herbs. No respectable lady would be without her medicine chest, which often proved a lifeline for those afflicted with winter colds and fevers. Failure to secure a good harvest could be the difference between life and death.
Herbs and plants grown in manor and castle gardens basically fell into one of three categories: culinary, medicinal, or household use. Some herbs fell into multiple categories, and some were grown for their ornamental value. Purely ornamental plants, however, were much more rarely cultivated than they are today, and many plants we consider ornamental now had more practical uses in past times. For instance, Dianthus (Dianthus caryophyllus) or “pinks” were cultivated in medieval times for culinary uses. Pinks had a clove-like flavor and were used fresh to flavor many summer dishes. They were known for their strong and pleasant smell and were believed to promote general health. The Dianthus grown today has little smell or taste and is cultivated mainly for its beauty.
MEDIEVAL CULINARY HERBS: Culinary herbs were grown for use during the summer and were preserved to add to winter fare. Herbs and vegetables had to be harvested in quantity and preserved, usually by drying, to last through the long and arduous winter months. Some herbs were able to withstand winter in the ground and provided a yearlong bounty. Herbs often able to grow through all but the harshest winter conditions included chives, garlic, oregano, and winter savory. Other herbs had to be harvested and dried including basil, coriander, lavender, rosemary, sage, and tarragon.
Medieval matrons increased the longevity of their harvested herbs by drying them. Herbs were usually dried in bundles hung in a cool place with good airflow for two to three weeks. Dried herbs could be left hanging or could be stored in jars or crocks or used in unguents and vinegars. Culinary herbs were dried separately from medicinal and household herbs to avert confusion.
Herbs were an important source of vitamins and nutrients during the winter months when greenery was scarce, and also provided needed variety from the repeated grain and meat dishes in the winter. In addition, they served as a camouflage for meats gone rancid or poorly preserved. Rosehip jelly was a special favorite during the winter, and herbed jellies, jams, and wines added variety to winter diets. Culinary medieval herbs included chives, garlic, oregano, winter savory, sweet basil, coriander, lavender, rosemary, sage, and French tarragon.
FIRE CIDER: a popular folk cold and flu tonic and immune-boosting remedy that combines apple cider vinegar with spicy and aromatic herbs, fruits, vegetables, and raw honey. The earliest use of this amazing recipe was in 400BC when the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, prescribed an oxymel, a basic honey and vinegar recipe, to his patients as a general tonic. The oxymel was mentioned in his “On Regimen in Acute Diseases” transcript 14 times.
The recipe continued to evolve through the ages, and in Medieval times, more herbs were added, resulting in the ‘Four Thieves’ vinegar, a legendary herb and vinegar infusion believed to protect against the bubonic plague. The story goes that a group of thieves was caught robbing the dead during the European plague, and in exchange for their freedom, they gave up the recipe for the vinegar that protected them against the disease. Insect-repellent herbs such as wormwood, cloves, and camphor were used in the concoction and are known to repel fleas, which were carriers of the plague bacteria.
In the 1950’s, Dr. D.C. Jarvis prescribed ‘Honeygar’ for his patients. This recipe is one teaspoon each of honey and vinegar in a glass of water three times daily. Dr. Jarvis prescribed this folk remedy to prevent and/or remedy many illnesses including arthritis, rheumatism, asthma, high blood pressure, colds, and fatigue. The recipe appears often in his best seller “A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health”.
Rosemary Gladstar coined the name “fire cider” in the 1970’s and formulated it as a master tonic recipe. Fire cider is potent medicine, and is a natural antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic, anti-candida, immune strengthening, and is a powerful circulation booster. It can be taken several times a day for acute illness or daily as a preventative tonic. At the first sign of a cold, fire cider can be taken as a shot or mixed with warm water and honey as a tea. It does wonders to soothe a sore throat and tame a cough. Fire cider is also great as a daily preventive tonic, and can be added to salad dressings, soups, and stews for both flavor and added health and immunity benefit.
MEDIEVAL MEDICINAL HERBS: Medicinal herbs were grown and dried for use during the winter. Herbs could be preserved dried for up to a year without losing their potency, or they could be powdered or added to fats to create ointments and pastes. Sachets were also created and carried to stave off illness and to sweeten the air. They served the dual purpose of deodorant during winter months when bathing was all but impossible. Herbs that were grown and dried for winter use included boneset, dandelion, feverfew, goosegrass, peppermint, self-heal, and tansy. Willow bark and some other medicinal herbs and plants could be harvested throughout the year.
MEDIEVAL HOUSEHOLD HERBS: the uses of herbs beyond the culinary and medical areas are attributed to the unusual concentration of oil glands in the leaves. Herbs such as rose were scattered on dirt floors to let smells swirl up and sweeten the air. Herbs such as citron, mugwort, oleander, rue, and wormwood were used to alleviate pests including locusts, rats, ants, weasels, fleas and scorpions. Herbs that provided colors for dying included black walnut, indigo blue, saffron yellow, bloodroot orange, and geranium purple. Herbs were also used for “landscaping purposes” during medieval times. The formal and intricate knot gardens could be viewed from atop castle turrets.