Herbs for the Medieval Kitchen & Garden
by THL Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina

What is an herb? According to Charlemagne, herbs are “the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.”
* He sent a list to his royal stewards, instructing them to plant over 74 specific herbs in the imperial gardens.

Uses in period included food seasoning, vegetables and salads, food dyes, aromatic, decorative, dyes, strewing, brewing, medicinal, magical, and religious.

Vegetables:
onions, leeks, radishes, lettuce, parsnips, cucumbers, beans, peas, carrots, fennel, marshmallow root

Herbs:
parsley, sage, garlic, borage, mint, cress, rue, rosemary, purslane, dandelion, sorrel, dittany of crete, lavender, foxglove, monkshood, wolfsbane, lady’s mantle, mandrake, nettles, saunders, soapwort, mugwort

Flowers:
roses (hips and petals), marigolds, violets (candied), primroses

Fruits:
quinces, apples, pears

Spices:
cinnamon, cassia, ginger, galingale, saffron, sugar, nutmeg, grains of paradise, long pepper, cubebs. Also spice mixtures such as poudre douce and poudre forte

Medicinal forms:
teas, syrups, poultices, ointments, distilled waters, pills, conserves.
(Used different parts of the plant (roots, petals, bark, seeds, juice, or leaves) for different problems.)

Selected simples: (Freeman)
* Agrimony: “It hath power to heal cuts.”
* Betony: “It shields him against monstrous nocturnal visitors.”
* Cuckoo-pint: “If a man have any swelling, take this herb and seethe it.”
* Feverfew: “It is a virtue to comfort a man’s stomach.”
* Mandrake: “A maker of love medicines.”
* Vervain: “Good for them that have the stone.”


Humoral theory/food as medicine:
Four humors (wet, dry, hot, cold). When one is sick, the humors are out of balance. If someone has a fever and is hot and dry, need medicines which are cool and moist. Beyond teas and other medicines, the manor cook frequently prepared specific dishes to alleviate the lord’s flatulence, the baby’s sleeplessness, the lady’s gout. Since foods were believed to have specific humors (i.e., fish is wet and cold), they served dishes which would correct the imbalance.

Sources:
Margaret B. Freeman,
Herbs for the Mediaeval Household for Cooking, Healing, and Divers Uses, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1943.
John Gerard,
The Herball, or General Historie of Plants, London, 1633.

©1999 Chris Adler