In Europe, the Middle Ages were a time of few advancements and many superstitions in herbal lore. In an era that witnessed Druid rituals and the practice of witchcraft, herbs played a major role in daily life, even if their uses often were informed by fantasy and imagination rather than scientific experimentation. Nearly every tree, bush, or root in the forest was believed to have some sort of magical power.
For instance, the elder tree (Sambucus nigra) was considered sacred in Germany and Denmark, particularly among gypsies, who believed that if a cradle was made from its wood, the Hylde Moer, or Elder Mother, would strangle the baby in revenge. Pagan fertility rituals in Britain coincided with the annual first bloom of midland hawthorn, or mayflower (Crataegus laevigata). On May Day, celebrants would go “a-maying”—they would crown a May Queen with wreaths of hawthorn in the hope that a bountiful harvest would follow.
The folklore surrounding European mistletoe (Viscum album) was especially colorful. Druids in Britain and Gaul (France) carried branches of mistletoe to celebrate the New Year, and since mistletoe could only be cut during a certain phase of the moon and with a sacred golden knife, these branches were known as golden boughs. Germans thought that mistletoe gave people the power to see ghosts. The Norse believed the plant was banished to the treetops because a Norse god had been killed by a mistletoe dart, and people meeting beneath a mistletoe branch were required to kiss to compensate for the god’s death.
Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) was believed to have even more fantastic powers. European practitioners of witchcraft believed mandrake enabled them to fly. In fact, when the plant is rubbed against the skin or crushed and inhaled, it has an intoxicating effect that could evoke a feeling of flying! This is due to the presence of powerful and potentially toxic tropane alkaloids that produce hallucinations. Because mandrake root resembles a human figure, many believed it would make a shrieking sound when pulled from the ground. They feared that anyone who heard the shriek would die instantly, so they often harvested the plant by tying a dog to it, then calling to the dog from a safe distance. The 1st-century historian Josephus provided precise directions for harvesting mandrake, noting that the dog pulling it up would die “instead of his master.”
For centuries throughout Europe, people continued to believe strongly in the magical power of herbs. They wore them around their necks as amulets to ward off evil spells, mixed them into ointments to prevent baldness and sunburn, hung them from doorways as charms to protect cattle or cure madness, and combined them with ale, milk, vinegar, or honey to create powerful potions.
Medieval Europeans also used herbs liberally in their daily diets, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. The use of spices was more than a matter of enlivening dull food. With few fresh vegetables and no refrigeration to preserve meat, spices were needed to make such fare palatable, to mask repulsive odors and flavors, and even to reduce contamination by killing organisms that could make a person eating it get sick.
Most people usually gathered herbs such as horseradish, parsley, and fennel locally, from nearby fields and forests, but those with more social status and larger incomes relied on intrepid explorers to import exotic spices from the Far East. The kings and gentry of Europe often ate meals and drank wines seasoned with cinnamon, pepper, and ginger grown and harvested continents away.
Medieval Europeans also had spectacular gardens of their own. While herbal medicine and scientific knowledge advanced little over the course of 1,000 years, the art of gardening went through several phases. After the fall of the Roman Empire, most of the gardening in Europe took place within the walls of monasteries. Gardening was considered a devout duty for monks. By the time the Benedictine order was founded in Italy in the 6th century, the importance of gardening was second only to prayer in the monastic hierarchy. For the European fiefdoms, monasteries acted as cottage industries that produced fruits and herbs for food, flavoring, medicine, incense, dye, and additives for wine and ale.
The first person to record the monastic theories of gardening was Walahfrid Strabo (ca. 808–849 CE), the abbot of Reichenau, in Switzerland. His book, Hortulus, a collection of poems, was an ode to his love of the labor of gardening, as well as an elaborate instruction manual on horticulture and healing herbs. He explained how to grow plants in raised beds just as the Romans had 1,000 years earlier, and he offered planting directions for the dozens of plants he tended.
Saint Hildegard (1098–1179), the abbess of Bingen, followed with four treatises on medicinal herbs. Recognized for her great powers as a healer, Hildegard wrote about the abbey’s fragrant herbs and how they were used in perfumes and medicinal concoctions such as lavender water, aqua mirabilis (miracle water), Benedictine liqueur, and the highly prized Carmelite water.
By the 13th century, products such as Carmelite water—a fragrance and complexion aid made from lemon balm, nutmeg, coriander, and angelica root—had prompted many wealthy Europeans to seek instruction from monks and nuns on how to grow gardens of their own. These ranged from simple household gardens stocked with herbs for the kitchen and flowers for the table to elaborate pleasure gardens with a center lawn surrounded by sweet-smelling herbs such as sage, rue, and basil, plus shade trees, benches, and a few resident peacocks for a splash of color.
In 1545, gardening in Europe took an educational turn: The first physic (herbal medicine) garden was commissioned by the University of Padua in Italy for the purpose of teaching botany and herbal medicine. During those days, there was a great deal of confusion about the identity of certain medicinal plants, and it was possible to confuse a healing herb with an ineffective or even toxic species. The Garden of Padua was established to standardize the identification of plants used in medicine and to train botanists and physicians in the plants’ proper identification and use.
A century later, universities all over Europe had established physic gardens. How they were used determined much of their design; at the University of Edinburgh, for example, herbs were arranged in rows by alphabetical order. The educational value of physic gardens grew as explorers carried new plant species back to Europe from all over the world and as scientists grew ever hungrier for knowledge about how herbs could be used.
HORTULUS: THE POETRY of HERBS
Walahfrid Strabo was a prolific individual who died tragically in his third decade of life while attempting to cross a river in France. Hortulus (The Little Garden), a collection of 27 short poems, is his only journey into the world of nature and is thought to be his best and most memorable work. His garden was a kitchen garden—a space protected by the monastery’s walls, inside which he grew vegetables, spices, and medicinal herbs, tending his plants with great care. While no original of this work written by Strabo himself still exists, four medieval manuscripts are believed to have been produced by scribes. One of them was translated into English and published by the Hunt Botanical Library in 1966. In the poem “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” Strabo noted:
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
the gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.
In Hortulus, Strabo wrote of 29 plants growing in his garden, most likely his favorites among many more. Of fennel he wrote:
Let us not forget to honor fennel. It grows
On a strong stem and spreads its branches wide.
Its taste is sweet enough, sweet too its smell;
They say it is good for eyes whose sight is clouded,
That its seed, taken with milk from a pregnant goat,
Eases a swollen stomach and quickly loosens
Sluggish bowels. What is more, your rasping cough
Will go if you take fennel-root mixed with wine.
The plants in his collection of 9th-century garden poems were actually medicines, and the poems were a medical guide for the day, meant to foster health and healing. The poems highlighted food plants, as well as medicinal herbs such as chervil, clary, mint, sage, and tansy.