Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
.

  

Google

Home

Early gardens

Early plants

Growing heirloom plants

Garden folklore

Resources for gardeners

Site map

Contact us

The Bury St. Edmunds Herbal
(MS Bodley 130)

Oxford’s Bury St. Edmunds Herbal, dating to about 1100 CE, includes partial texts of the herbals of Pseudo-Apuleius and Dioscorides, and a shortened version of the De Virtutibus Bestiarum in Arte Medicinae (On the Virtues of Animals in the Art of Medicine), which is attributed to Sextus Placidus. The text is written in Latin; plant names are provided in many languages, including Old English.

The wonderful illustrations of plants are what make this manuscript, MS Bodley 130 so special, and it is highly unusual in that the drawings were completed and then the text was added. Charles Singer speculates that the artist who created this herbal, in the scriptorium of the Benedictine abbey at Bury St. Edmunds,

...had before him a herbal of the usual Apuleius-Dioscorides type. He began by identifying the plants in his MS with the plants in the monastery garden. These he painted. Thus, for "Viperiana" he adopted the milk thistle, Carduus marianus... now a weed of escape in Britain. Similarly, for the "Camedrium" of the ancient herbals he took Teucrium chamaedrys... which, though now established in parts of [Britain], is unquestionably a garden escape...

"The Herbal in Antiquity," J Hellenic Studies 47, 1927

Like the Lacnunga and the Leechbook of Bald, this book was written for use by experienced  physicians. But unlike the Leechbook or the Lacnunga, it was also intended for use as a field guide to medicinal plants. Each page includes an illustration of a medicinal plant (and sometimes two), along with its various names -- then as now, plant identification could be a challenge.

Information on habitat follows, and then very concise prescriptions for the use of the plant in treating specific conditions.

For example, below is a translation of the page that deals with the mersmalve, or marshmallow, today's Althea officinalis. The confection we call marshmallows was originally made with the sap of this plant, and was a soothing remedy for sore throats, among other things.
 

Mersmalve

V

from Wikimedia

 

Marshmallow
5

Omoeos

Moloce

Marsh

Mallow

Alii

Moloce agria

Another [name]

Field mallow

Alii

Moloce eretica

Another

Wild mallow

Anadendro

Molocin

Althea

Mallow

Alii

Sicofillotia

Another

Sicofillotia

Alii

Ligemone

Another

Ligemone

Romani

Ibiscum

Latin

Hibiscus

Galli

Fesmerion

Gaelic

Fesmerion

Nascitur locis humidis & campis. Springs forth in damp places and level plains.
Podagram.
Herba ibiscum pisata cum axungria vetere & imposita. tuam die sanabitur. Huic herbe experimentum. plures auctores affirmant.
 

GOUT

Mash the plant marshmallow with old lard and lay it on. In three days [gout] is healed. This herbal treatment is many authorities affirm.

Collectiones omnes que in corpore nascuntur .

Herba ibiscum decocta cum feno Greco & linis semine polline imposita duritias omnes discutit.

 

FOR ALL ABSCESSES THAT ARE FORMED IN THE BODY.

Simmer marshmallow with fenugreek and finely ground linseed; put it on the swelling; it dissipates [the abscess] entirely.

in  testinorUM dolorem.

Herba ibiscum in aqua decota in testinorum foves. Tuom die sanabitur. & quam sumus.

 

DISCOMFORT OF THE TESTES

Simmer the plant marshmallow in water; apply warm to the testis. In two days they are healed.

Pannicula que ininguine nascuntur.

Herba ibiscum elixata & cum axungra sine satie teris. Deligno in lignum inducis. & in linteam mundo porris. Adicit pannicula & recludit.  

 

SMALL SORES THAT ARE FORMED IN THE GROIN

Simmer marshmallow with lard in a small bowl without stirring. Stir with a wooden stick; add leeks And with clean linen apply to the small sores. And open them.


You can view many of the pages from the Bury St. Edmunds Herbal online. Some of the illustrations are remarkably lifelike, but not all, and art historians have suggested that some drawings actually show botanical specimens that have been pressed flat and dried, such as that for bugloss.

Our attempts to identify plants using the illustrations in medieval herbals are also complicated by our own expectations. Illustrations often focus on aspects of a plant that are less familiar to us as modern readers, accustomed as we are to being shown plants in full leaf or flower. For example, the illustration of the marshmallow shows it not in bloom, but after it has gone to seed. That of the asparagus likewise shows the plant after it has gone to seed, and focuses as much on the root as it does on the greenery, for the root also had medicinal uses. Perhaps the best known illustration from this herbal is that of the blackberry or bramble, and it is indeed a lovely piece of botanical art.

One of my first serious gardening endeavors was to grow the herbs pictured in the Bury St. Edmunds Herbal. Early scholars of medieval herbals often criticized them for being poorly illustrated and unscientific. In the work of these scholars, I read that it was impossible to know with any certainty what plants the herbals referred to, in part because the illustrations were so abstract or schematic as to be useless. It seemed to me that it would be hard to make a judgment about the accuracy of plant identifications in the herbals without  knowing the plants in question at all seasons and all stages of growth.

I found that the textual descriptions as well as the illustrations vary in quality, not just from herbal to herbal, but from page to page in the same herbal. Plant names aren't as consistent as we'd like; text is often confusing -- and so I grew agrimony to see how it compared with the plant called agrimony in the old herbals; and betony, and marshmallow, and celandine, and… well, it’s a long list. 

Sometimes the plants named in the early herbals do indeed appear to be the same plants we grow today in our gardens, and this link across more than a millennia gives gardening a special meaning for me, my own window looking out on medieval gardens.

From Wikimedia

Blackberry, from an early De Materia Medica
by Dioscorides

 

View the Bury St. Edmunds herbal online at this remarkable resource
provided by Oxford's Bodleian Library

 

Home | Early gardens | Early plants | Growing heirloom plants | Garden folklore | Resources | Site map

 

Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

Copyright 2015 S.E.S. Eberly
All Rights Reserved

Contact us