Medieval Herbs

sage

Sage

There have been a couple of recent discussions on the post about food eaten by the peasants to the effect that, although it would be possible to exist on pottage and bread, the pottage, in particular, must have tasted rather bland. My response was that the peasants would have had herbs available which would have added some flavour. Wealthier peasants might even have been able to afford spices. When I was gathering herbs from my own garden a few days later, I wondered just how many herbs were available to the medieval peasant and whether they were sufficient to make something as tasty as herb dumplings.

Herbs were grown and used in cooking in the fourteenth century. It’s not known how much of a peasant’s garden would have been given over to them, however, so we can only guess at their ability to flavour their food. Pottage could often sit in a pot for days, so even strongly flavoured herbs would have lost their potency by the time the meal was eaten.

Herb omelettes were popular then as now. Most people were able to keep a few hens for their eggs. Sorrel, my current favourite flavouring for an omelette, was very popular, as its taste is very pungent. It’s also very easy to grow.

In much the same way as I don’t expect to eat all the herbs in my garden, so a medieval household grew herbs for a variety of purposes. I grow borage and lavender to attract bees in the hope that they’ll pollinate other plants. Lemon balm and peppermint make refreshing teas.  Some of the herbs in a medieval garden were used to flavour ale. Others were grown for medicinal purposes. Fennel and dill were cures for flatulence. Hyssop was used to relieve coughs. An oil made by mixing sage, parsley and olive oil was used for joint pains. Betony was used for headaches.

Many herbal remedies were based on trial and error and passed down from one generation to the next. Others were recorded in herbals and came down from ancient medical schools.

Some herbal medicines were very effective, others little more than placebos. Herbal medicines became even more effective when they were made with alcohol, which was first distilled successfully in 1351.

I assumed that there probably weren’t very many herbs available to the fourteenth-century household, but I was wrong. The following is a list of plants that could be grown in England in the Middle Ages: chives, chervil, mugwort, borage, caraway, chamomile, garlic, chicory, coriander, cumin, fennel, woad, lavender, lovage, lemon balm, pennyroyal, sorrel, rue, sage, comfrey, spearmint, catmint, basil, marjoram, wood germander, thyme, valerian, vervain.

If a medieval peasant grew only a few of these, their food could have been tastier than we often imagine.

 

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “Medieval Herbs

  1. Thanks for spicing up the history lesson

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We are sure that folks back in the day would have improvised in more ways than we can imagine today!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, that’s a much bigger list than I expected too. Wicked interesting, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Since I live in a village, I can’t help wondering how many herbs would have grown wild instead of needing to be grown in a garden. Around here, off the top of my head, we have wild thyme and garlic mustard, wild garlic, and Cornish leeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did wonder about wild garlic, since that was probably fairly widely available. I had to look up wild thyme. Apparently it grows in chalky areas, which will be why I haven’t come across it. I don’t know garlic mustard either, but it looks very useful.

      How are Cornish leeks different from anyone else’s leeks? Google couldn’t help me with that one.

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      • Cornish leeks are a sort of wild onion. As far as I can figure out, you don’t eat the root but the top. You wouldn’t want to cook them for more than a few seconds, if at all, just sprinkle them onto something. They have a strong scent when you walk past. In fact, they always make me want a pizza.

        Wild Thyme grows on the cliffs here, and we’re not on chalky soil. This is slate country.

        I’m sure I’ve missed some local herbs, but after that list I seem to be stuck. I do know that people ate nettles in the spring, during what they called the hungry gap, when they’d eaten up whatever they’d stored for the winter and the summer foods weren’t in yet. If you cook them, the sting goes out of them. They don’t have much taste, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for the explanation. Google directed me to Cornish hens and my herb books don’t mention them.

          My grandmother mentioned eating nettles and dandelions, but she didn’t say what they tasted like.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Dandelions, I think, are pretty bitter. I’ve heard (both in the U.S. and here) that you can make a salad with young leaves. And wine, I think, with the flowers, but I wouldn’t swear to that. And for whatever it’s worth, the only place I ever heard of Cornish hens was in the U.S., and they were called Cornish game hens. I don’t know what that means, if anything.

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            • I think I might have had dandelion wine. An aunt of mine used to make wine out of just about anything. The one that sticks most in my mind is the oak leaf wine. Since she was very good at making wine, I suspect that this must have been especially delicious.

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  5. Kawn

    Thanks very interesting!

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  6. What does it mean if fennel has the reverse effect on me. Just kidding. 😉 Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I find this kind of stuff fascinating. It’s part of history I paid little attention to when I was learning it! You probably know better than I that there are some wonderful places to visit that grow contemporary herbs – at two extremes, Acorn Bank in Cumbria and Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex spring to mind. Great post, really enjoyed it – off to get some fennel for a friend immediately.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so excited I found your site! I love reading about anything medieval, and how people really lived back then. It’s so interesting to know what they would have used to cook back then. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, April. I’ve often wondered about taste, and remembering ‘sugar’ and ‘spices’ don’t always align to our present stereotype…

    “It’s also very easy to grow.” – I’m going to have to look into getting some sorrel!

    Liked by 1 person

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