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.