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Herbs Section

Historical uses of herbs

Today we tend to think of herbs as additives to recipes but many of these recipes have herbs for a very good reason. Before the invention of refrigeration, meat was either pickled in brine, rubbed in salt and smoked or salted and dried to preserve it over the winter months. Although these methods slow down bacteria, they do not stop it, so by late winter the meat was often off.

Salamis are smoked, dried meat

Salami is dried fatty pork, mixed with herbs, that is smoked to preserve it. Click here to find out more in the Garlic pages

In foods

Herbs were useful to mask the 'off' flavour of the foods in the days before refrigeration. Some like garlic even added flavour to flavourless meat that had been soaking in brine for weeks. Mixed in bread dough, they gave a welcome lift to the plain cottage bread that was a staple during the long winters when very little grew.

Strewing herbs

People had little knowledge of hygiene. Food scraps were thrown on the floor, which was covered in rushes. What the hounds didn't eat, decayed with the previous layers of rushes leaving halls smelling like a compost heap. Strewing herbs were strewn or sprinkled on the straw, especially in high traffic areas so they were trampled, releasing their aroma and freshening the musty air in halls.

Items trapped in the reeds strewn on the floors of an early Christian Abbey form a time capsule of medieval life there.

This ancient Roman Christian Abbey's Banquet Hall floors were strewn with rushes. Items dropped on the floor would become preserved as new layers of rushes were added on top, over the years forming a time capsule of medieval life for today's archeologists as seen in this dig.

Here archeologists have excavated next to the wall in a Roman Christian Abbey dining hall in Southwell, Nottinghamshire UK, to get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the early Christian monks. Objects easily dropped became lost and preserved in the rush covered floors. Scraps were thrown to the dogs and the bones tell us what was on the menu there, way back in Roman times.

Mothers, Wicca and potions - The Birth of Medicine

Every village had a person with an extensive knowledge of the local herbs, known as the "village Mother", she was the equivalent to today's local doctor. She was well versed not only in the use of herbs but also in the growing of them and could determine when the end of the winter was here. They knew how to divine for water, to find the best place to dig a well and when the twigs were wic or green with sap at the end of the cold winter. This was the time to begin tilling the fields and have them planted, ready for the first spring rains. They were often called Wiccans in deference to their earthly skills. For ignorant and superstitious villagers, they were the source of information that affected their very survival.

Older woman gathering herbs

The village mother had to know what the herbs were, when they were ready to collect and what dosages to administer.

The power hungry church to gain more control over the simple villagers, accused these "village Mothers" of witchcraft, invoking evil. Anything from a cow not producing enough milk, to an illness and even a flood or drought, was the fault of these devil worshippers. Even an iron clad alibi wasn't any good; they were said to be able to possess animals or "familiars" to do their evil work for them.

Testing a witch with the ducking chair

A witch being tested with the ducking stool. If she doesn't drown, then the devil must be protecting her and she will be executed.

The poor women would be arrested and "tested". Testing was usually some form of torture where the victim died if innocent (and therefore went to heaven) or was proven to have satanic powers if they survived the testing, because the devil looked after his own and must have been protecting them. In many cases witches were tortured until they gave a "confession" and were then, on these confessions, found guilty and publicly put to death in the most painful ways imaginable. Burning at the stake was a favourite because there was no festering blood, excrement or rotting corpse to foul the village square afterwards.

Preparing a witch to burn at the stake

The victim was secured by a wet leather thong at the neck so she could not pitch forward out of the fire and the fire would completely consume all the body fluids avoiding the stench that was so common in the village square after beheadings and other forms of execution.

There were no medicines back then. All healing was done by the use of herbs and only the monks and village mothers understood where to find which herbs, their properties and what strengths to administer them. Removing the village mother meant the entire village was dependent on the church's representative and dispatching her cruelly in front of the crowd, was one way to discourage anyone else filling the vacancy.

Oddly enough this didn't work in many places. Many village mothers moved out of the village living outside the reach of the village bailiff, well out of sight of the inquisitor when he came to town to punish evil doers. What was once a craft now became magic, shrouded in secrecy and Witchcraft took on a secretive flavour. Gossip gave these poor souls more and more powers. Meanwhile the Church was busy promoting the evils of these witches, branding them as Satan worshippers at every opportunity. Civilisation had sunk into the Dark Ages and 1500 years of ignorance.

For the next 1500 years the Church controlled anything to do with science and learning. On the positive side, they classified and recorded all the herbs in use, in well illustrated books, called Herbals.

A page from a 13th Century Herbal

A page from a 13th Century Herbal

During the Dark Ages, science came to a virtual standstill. However, in the Islamic world, where Christianity and the Catholic Church did not have a stranglehold on science, they formed schools where herbal medicine was taught and experimentation was encouraged. Using alcohol distilled from wine, they perfected the art of extracting essential oils and tinctures, concentrating the properties of known herbs into more potent treatments. Herbalists were respected people in the Islamic community.

An Arabic Herbalist

Arabic herbalists were respected members of the community.

Fortunately, the language of science was either Ancient Greek or Latin, even in the Arabic lands. The arrival of the Renaissance and the Roman Catholic Church relaxing it's grip on all learning, meant European academics were able to easily access the Arabic records. They began to isolate different compounds from the oils and tinctures, to create the foundations of modern day medicine. The science of pharmacology was born.


In the middle ages, the ground floor of houses was usually where the servants lived. The floors were usually earthen and very dirty by today's standards. Medieval streets were formed with a central drain running down the middle and rubbish of all kinds, was thrown out onto the street. People had no concept of communal health and hygiene. There were no rubbish collections and it was rare for homes to be connected to the town's sewage system like they are today.

Residents lived upstairs away from the filth in the streets

Medieval streets had a central drain down the middle of the street. Only servants lived on the ground floor.The residents lived up stairs away from the filth and stench of the street.

Anyone entering the house brought the filth and grime from the street in, on their boots. The residents lived upstairs upstairs away from the filth and the stench of the street. With no sewage, the "night soil", contents of the chamber pots were thrown out the upstairs windows onto the streets below, each morning (probably one of the main reasons why capes and cloaks were such a popular clothing item!).

This toxic mixture of raw sewage and rotting food scraps, combined with the smell of the cooking fires formed a stinking miasma that was often evident to the traveller, long before the town itself came into view. Healers, without today's knowledge of germs, believed it was this miasma that brought illnesses into the home. Thus sweet smelling herbs with a strong scent like sage, thyme and rosemary were regarded like disinfectants are today. Ironically today's chemists have found several herbs do have antiseptic properties. To overcome the worst of this foul stench, aromatic herbs were kept in special pots in the room, along with cut flowers, especially near windows. These potpourri were tossed every once in a while to crush the herbs and release some of their aroma.

Today's tradition of "Rosemary for remembrance" at funeral services comes from the strong aroma of rosemary and it's ability to mask the smell of a corpse, ready for burial.


Traditionally, we say that Rosemary is for rememberence.

Nosegays and Posies

We have all heard the nursery rhyme, Ring a Rosey?
That sweet little verse, we teach our innocent infants, is actually a very gruesome tale describing how to recognise someone with the first symptoms of the Bubonic Plague or Black Death as they called it, the disease that killed half of Europe:

Ring a ring a rosy
A pocket full of posie
A-tish-oo, a-tish-oo
They all fall down

The first line, "Ring a Ring a rosy", describes the first symptom of the black death or bubonic plague, a plague spread by the fleas of rats (buboni is Greek for flea). The flea bite was surrounded by a bright rosy red ring. Notice there is no reference to the bite itching - people lived constantly with parasites like fleas, lice and bed bugs, so itching was nothing uncommon. However a bite that turned from a red itch to a bright red ring was cause for alarm.

The next line describes the belief of the time, that a posy or small bunch of scented herbs and flowers,would overcome the miasma that caused the disease and therefore protect the wearer. The third line describes the next symptom - sneezing. The Black Death began as a flu like illness with sneezing and a runny nose. Of course the last line refers to the victim collapsing and dying, but uses "They all" because everyone nearby would also be infected and would suffer the same fate. The rhyme was taught to children as a cautionary tale - if they saw these symptoms, they'd know to leave, to get out.

Woodcut print The Black Death

Medieval woodblock print - The Black Death - Both people have been infected. A clergyman strews herbs in the air for the scent to overpower the vapours, believed to spread the disease.

A small posy was known as a nosegay and was a common hand held fashion accessory for well-to-women. It was made of flowers and sweet scented herb leaves, like mint, lavender, pennyroyal, sage and thyme so it could be handled and the scent released would mask the foul smelling street air.

The use of a posy may seem a futile treatment now but in medieval times, they didn't have the cultivated flowers we have today. Daisies, rosemary thyme and sage were common garden flowers. These all have insect repelling essential oils, as do many strong scented herbs. Today we might get our fly spray from a high tech spray can but one of the most common and effective ingredients in that fly spray is pyrethrim, the aromatic oil from the Pyrethrim daisy, a common herb. Not only will pyrethrim repel flies, it will kill most insects but is harmless to humans.

Coconut Palms

Indonesia's Lethal Food
Did you know that at least 1000 people die in Indonesia every year from falling coconuts? Worldwide, they are more lethal than sharks. A coconut can weigh 5kg and a coconut palm can be up to 30 metres tall.


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Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Chemical versus Herbal Medicine

Although many of today's medicines are founded on herbal treatments, we have isolated the active components and increased their potency a thousand fold. In herbal remedies the active compounds are milder and often found with other compounds that act as a buffer, reducing their side effects. In Western medicine it is very common for a patient to be prescribed several medicines; one to treat the symptom and others to treat the side effects of the first medicine.

To develop a new drug, takes millions of dollars in testing to make sure it is safe for human consumption. Of course these costs and built in to the price of the medicine when it enters the market, so there are billions of dollars at stake in promoting new medicines. History is strewn with cases of tests of new drugs where information has been suppressed or test results ignored, in favour of releasing a new drug. Alarmingly the drug companies are able to invest millions to lobby influential people to pass laws that favour their cause. At present they are trying to get legislation passed that will outlaw all forms of natural medicine.

When it comes to compensation claims for their mistakes, they have millions of dollars in fighting funds to stall proceedings until the plaintiffs just run out of money. In the 1957 a sedative called Thalidomide was developed by Chemie Grunenthal, a drug company in Germany and was prescribed as a sedative or hypnotic, thalidomide also claimed to cure “anxiety, insomnia, gastritis, and tension". Later it proved effective against nausea and was widely prescribed to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women. Unfortunately it caused severe and often fatal birth defects, so severe that only 50% of the victims survived. Survivors were left with limbs that were missing or a stumps , where arms or legs should be. This year (2014) will see the start of compensation payments to those victims, 57 years later! Many of the thalidomide survivors have died of other causes and have never seen a cent of compensation.

Amazon rainforest

It's estimated that only 6% of the plants in the Amazon rainforest have been chemically analysed and even less of the fauna.

While science has brought us many wonderful medicines, it's important to remember that we are still learning about the amazing compounds in plants. Only 6% of Amazonian rainforest plants have been chemically analysed and even less of tropical African plants. Just another reason why it is so important to conserve native forest habitats. As viruses and all the other pathogens evolve they develop immunities to these drugs and become "super bugs". We have to develop new medicines to combat them and the plant kingdom is one of the greatest resources we have in the search for these new compounds.

Bar - Gold bar with Granny Smith Apple

Basket of Fresh herbs

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