The good herbs from the Middle Ages
by Laetitia Cornu - Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Jean-Marc Bulit
Aromatic herbs, green herbs, medicinal herbs
Since a large majority of the population didn't have access to spices (except pepper maybe) in the Middle Ages, housewives had to do with the growth of their gardens, to season all those porries and cabbage and lentil soups.
Whether the small and delicate leaves of marjoram, or the feathery and powerfully aromatic leaves of southernwood, or the dentate and peppery leaves of rue,
the aromatic herbs used in the Middle Ages were, above all, characterized by a pungent flavour, a necessity, actually, to successfully season a pot of cabbage.
Surprisingly, the recipes are essentially about parsley. It isn't so much about sprinkling a touch of parsley leaves with a light hand on a dish of meat, than about cooking parsley soups
with an egg and stock added, about purées with parsley and other herbs, and about green omelettes or arboulastes (herbolace pies).
The gardens were full of herbs that were to be cut without being pulled out. Thus were several varieties of celery, preferably perennial, gathered or cultivated. Apium or wild celery and lovage, grew their large leaves into jagged clumps within the gardens. The wrinkling of the leaves would issue a rich and powerful scent.
Southernwood which was known for its healing properties for gunpowder burns, is a small shrub with feathery leaves. Platearius also wrote about lavender cotton. The scent of this bush, mostly found in cemeteries, is so violent, that one can only wonder how it can be eaten.
Tansies are among the tall plants that grow spontaneously over and over again, year after year, without any particular care. When rubbed with the hands, the jagged leaves, whether flat or shrivelled, will give off this particularly vigorous and unpleasant odour. Tansies were eaten though, mixed in fritter, in the Middle Ages, before being limited, later on, to a unique use, as vermifuge medicine.
Surprisingly, only few herbs of the Medieval cookery came from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, while nowadays, the famous mixed herbes de Provence are often the only ones used. If marjoram and oregano were indeed cultivated, in the manner rare flowers can be, wild thyme was never used, for instance. Savory was somewhat prized for its aphrodisiac repute, but frost resistant hyssop, with its erect blue scapes, and sage, forwarded by its Latin name salvia, meaning that saves, were the favourites in that range of spices.
But aromas were far from being the only advantages found in modest garden plants. The staple diet of the peasantry was known to be unbalanced, lacking vitamins and proteins. These deficiencies were partially compensated by the green herbs and the vitamins they provided. Thus oxalis, at the beginning of spring, the hardest time of the year for the farmers, when the grain supplies were low or even spoilt by the cold season. These early greens, which started to grow as soon as the weather became milder, were a fortunate complement to a monotonous diet, bringing along freshness and vitamin C, as leeks, cabbage and dried broad beans were all that had been eaten through the winter.
Salads of Lamb's lettuce, also called corn salad, were made at the end of winter; oxalis blooms in the woods and was eaten raw; burdock, nettle and orache filled the pots with free and delicious porry, and if need be, people would do with ferns of the asplenium scolopendrium species, with young wild asparagus sprouts or butcher's broom, with different kinds of (water or land) cress, with buttercups and even with bouchibarbe, a food for dearth, so hazardous for the empty stomachs. In addition to the daily bread, green herbs would bring the healthy vitamins and the fibres, so useful to digestion. But eaten alone, they could cause those dearth diarrheas that would kill the unfortunate more surely than going without food.
From food to medicine, there's barely a step away, taken readily by the Medieval doctors, so powerless in the face of sickness, that no means to fight it off seemed derisive. Besides, the Aristotelian theory of the four elements was pervasive in the minds of both the people and the elites, and according to it, anything that enters into the body acts on the balance of the humours, therefore on health. Medical care was, first of all, a change of diet. Herbal plants, both food and medicine for the most (as sage, considered to be a panacea, capable of healing all ills) were taken regularly, without it being known, whether the consumer's motivation was eating or health care. Medical prescriptions would often look like special diets, and the very same plants of the vegetable garden were found in the potions.
The virtues of each plant were well known by the scholars, who wrote up dedicated dictionaries. Platearius depicts 420 different plants in his Book of simple medicines, including some as common as cabbage, and others, rare and exotic.
Finally, it would be convenient to speak of all the other virtues of the good herbal plants. They heal and comfort with their sole flagrance, that expresses the forces of the earth (in the same way as the forces of the heavens are expressed in birds). Both allies and danger, straining food or bouquet of flagrances, they are of the feminine world, just as everything related to the kitchen garden, the housewife's private domain. They express, in this sense, a more hidden part of the Medieval civilisation, as light as the aroma of acinos, but just as fascinating for who stops to it.
Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Jean-Marc Bulit
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