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Friday, October 16, 2015

Herbs in Medieval Medicine

by Regan Walker

While doing the research for Rogue Knight, my new medieval set in 11th century England, I learned a lot about the herbs they grew in gardens or were found in the wild. They were, after all, the only medicine they had. So they used herbs and plants, individually or together, in infusions, teas, salves and other forms to treat their various illnesses and maladies.

Long before the Normans came to England, the Anglo-Saxons used herbs and plants of all kinds in remedies for things like headaches, fever, stomach ailments, pain and respiratory illnesses. Winter was especially hard on medieval society, as cold, drafty dwellings led to numerous cases of deadly pneumonia.

The earliest surviving texts that speak of herbal remedies in Old English are from the 9th century, but there is evidence that older texts were not all in Latin. Bald’s Leechbook and Lacnunga are among the most complete texts.

The Leechbook is an Anglo-Saxon medical manual made up of three books (labeled I, II and III), probably compiled in the early tenth century. It contains some of the best Mediterranean medicine from the third to the ninth centuries, so apparently they shared information. While some of the herbs mentioned in the texts were only available around the Mediterranean, some were traded from distant areas, such as frankincense, pepper, silk, ginger and myrrh.

The Lacnunga, a tenth century herbal, praises nine sacred herbs of the Nordic god Woden: mugwort, plantain, watercress, betony, chamomile, nettle, chervil, fennel and crab apple. (Thyme occurs in other lists of the “nine sacred herbs”.)

With the Norman Conquest, many Anglo-Saxon texts were destroyed and replaced with books written in Latin. Greek and Roman writings on medicine were preserved by hand copying of manuscripts in monasteries.

The monasteries thus tended to become local centers of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens provided the raw materials for simple treatment of common disorders. At the same time, folk medicine practiced in the home as well as the village supported numerous wandering and settled herbalists.

Some herbs and their uses:

Lemon Balm: Used in a drink as an aid against melancholy.

Borage: It was associated with courage: "I, Borage, Bring Courage."

Chickweed: Used to treat constipation, upset stomach and to promote digestion, also used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems such as colds. It can be used on wounds as well.
Horehound: syrups and drinks for chest and head colds and coughs.

Lemon Balm: Used in a drink as an aid against melancholy.

Borage: It was associated with courage: "I, Borage, Bring Courage."

Chickweed: Used to treat constipation, upset stomach and to promote digestion, also used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems such as colds. It can be used on wounds as well.
Horehound: syrups and drinks for chest and head colds and coughs.

Marjoram: Used in cooking, in spiced wine, in brewing beer and in medicines to treat the stomach. 

Mint: Mint vinegar was used as a mouthwash; mint sauce restored the appetite. Also used for stomach ailments, in treating fevers and wounds.

Mugwort: A charm for travellers and used in foot ointments; also used in treating women's ailments.

Nettles: Eating nettles mixed with the white of an egg cured insomnia. And nettles were used in salves. Bald’s Leechbook contains a recipe for a nettle-based ointment for muscular pain.

Rosemary. The flowers, boiled in tea, were an all-purpose medicine. Putting the leaves under your pillow supposedly guarded against nightmares. The ashes of the wood were used for cleaning teeth. Brides and grooms exchanged rosemary wreaths instead of rings; rosemary was also planted or strewn on graves. Rosemary was burned as an incense to kill or prevent infection, including the plague.

Rue: a sour-smelling perennial called “the herb of grace” because it was used as a holy water sprinkler. Also used to treat venomous bites, and poor eyesight.

Sage: The leaves were used in salads and green sauces and as a spring tonic.

St. John’s Wort: Most effective for curing fever if found by accident, especially on Midsummer's Eve.

Thyme. In addition to its use as a seasoning, it was burned as a fumigate against infection. Supposedly ladies embroidered a thyme sprig in flower, along with a bee, on favors for their favorite knights.

Yarrow: Used to treat headaches and wounds, especially battle wounds, and the bite of mad dogs. The wound treatment caused it to be associated with knights.

Willow bark: Willow bark and slippery elm, boiled, were used as a tea (sometimes with honey to make it more palatable) for fever and aches.

Some of the Flowers:

While not herbs, these flowers were used to treat ills, and the medieval folks also ate flowers.

Calendula, also marygolde or Mary’s Gold: Flower petals were used in broths and tonics, and in treatments to strengthen the heart. And they made nice garden borders and keep away pests.

Chamomile: Used for headaches. Helps to settle the stomach and soothe the nerves, which may be why it was used in fevers.

Lavender. Used in food, and in refreshing washes for headaches. It was also used extensively in soaps and baths, as a personal scent and as a moth repellent.

Linden: In tea, used for insomnia disorders and anxiety. Also used for stomach disorders and diarrhea.

Roses: there were wild roses, of course. Their petals and the distilled water made from them were widely used in food as well as for scent, and added to medical preparations to strengthen the patient generally and to bronchial infections, colds, diarrhea and anxiety.

Do you have a favorite herb you use today to treat some ailment? Comment for a chance to win book 1 in my medieval series, The Red Wolf’s Prize. And don’t forget to check out my newest medieval: Rogue Knight
York, England 1069… three years after the Norman Conquest

The North of England seethes with discontent under the heavy hand of William the Conqueror, who unleashes his fury on the rebels who dare to defy him. Amid the ensuing devastation, love blooms in the heart of a gallant Norman knight for a Yorkshire widow.


Angry at the cruelty she has witnessed at the Normans’ hands, Emma of York is torn between her loyalty to her noble Danish father, a leader of the rebels, and her growing passion for an honorable French knight.

Loyal to King William, Sir Geoffroi de Tournai has no idea Emma hides a secret that could mean death for him and his fellow knights.


War erupts, tearing asunder the tentative love growing between them, leaving each the enemy of the other. Will Sir Geoffroi, convinced Emma has betrayed him, defy his king to save her?

Excerpt… the first meeting of Sir Geoffroi and Emma of York… a bit ominous, perhaps, but remember, it led to love.

Dear God.
She crossed herself and covered her mouth, fighting the urge to spew at the sight of so much blood and so many bodies strewn about the clearing, blood congealed on their clothing, their vacant eyes staring into space. Some of the blood had pooled on the ground to catch the rays of the sun. The metallic scent of it, carried by the wind, rose in her nostrils.
At her side, the hound whimpered.
So many.
Until the Normans had come, Yorkshire had been a place of gentle hills, forests and thatched cottages circling a glistening jewel of a city set between two winding rivers. A place of children’s voices at play, some of those voices now silenced forever, for among the bodies lying on the cold ground were mere boys, their corpses cast aside like broken playthings.
At the sound of heavy footfalls on the snow-crusted ground, she jerked her head around, her heart pounding in her chest.
A figure emerged from the trees, so close she could have touched him.
She cringed. A Norman.
A tall giant of a knight, his blood-splattered mail a dull gray in the weak winter sun, ripped off his silvered helm and expelled an oath as he surveyed the dozens of dead. The sword in his hand still dripped the blood of those he had slain. He was no youth this one, at least thirty. His fair appearance made her think of Lucifer, the fallen angel of light. A seasoned warrior of death who has taken many lives.
Had he killed people she knew? Her heart raced as fear rose in her chest.
Would she be next?

Links for Rogue Knight:

Regan Walker - Author Bio

Regan Walker is a #1 bestselling, multi-published author of Regency, Georgian and Medieval romance. She has been a featured author on USA TODAY's HEA blog three times and twice nominated for the prestigious RONE award (her novel, The Red Wolf's Prize is a finalist for 2015). Regan Walker writes historically authentic novels with real history and real historic figures. She wants her readers to experience history, adventure and love.
Her work as a lawyer in private practice and then serving at high levels of government have given her a love of international travel and a feel for the demands of the “Crown”. Hence her romance novels often involve a demanding sovereign who taps his subjects for “special assignments.”
Regan lives in San Diego with her golden retriever, Link, who she says inspires her every day to relax and smell the roses.


Regan Walker said...

Thanks for having me on your wonderful blog! I love talking about the herbs they used in medieval times. They knew a lot more than we give them credit for! And thankfully my heroine, Emma, knew the ones to use.

Laura Batton said...

Rosemary is my favorite herb. I love the flavor!

Dawn Morse said...

Lavender. .good healing on burns and scratches

Julie Fetter said...

Mint is at the top of my herb list.

Laura Russell said...

So interesting to read that Medieval 'doctors' had established treatments for melancholy and anxiety. Not such a modern disease then.