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The Healing Power of a Garden – A Medieval View

“Happy is he who can know the causes of things, especially whatever will be the cause of health.” – Henry of Huntingdon, Anglicanus ortus

When it came to healthy living, medieval people were careful on what they ate. It was commonly believed that foods could offer good (and not-so-good) consequences to the body, but it was hard to remember what ailments a certain food could cure. In steps Henry of Huntingdon to offer us a poetic guide to the healthy and medicinal qualities of what you can find in a garden.

A medieval garden - from British Library MS Royal 6 E IX   f. 15v
A medieval garden – from British Library MS Royal 6 E IX f. 15v

Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, is best known among medievalists as the author of a 12th-century chronicle that covers events in and around England. Scholars have been able to find more works by him, including Anglicanus ortus, a guide to 160 different herbs, spices and vegetables. Written in verse, Henry writes as if he is giving a tour of his own garden, explaining what he knows about these plants. He makes use of what medical knowledge ancient writers, such as Galen and Dioscorides, knew about them, and at times adds in his own observations.

Readers will easily recognize some of the plants – like Roses or Celery – while others – like Periwinkle and Giant Hogweed – are not as common. The work has been recently edited and translated by Winston Black. Here are excerpts from ten of the plants mentioned:

Oregano

The juice of Oregano, when mixed with milk, eradicates
an aural pain if it is poured into the ears.
If mixed with Iris and placed inside a nostril,
it will force hated blood of the head flowing out the nose.
Held long inside the mouth, it heals oral wounds,
or ground up with the teeth awhile it heals an ailing tooth.
It subdues a swollen throat or uvula with drying power.
The powder of Oregano with honey drives away a cough,
with hot water softens stomach gripes (I know of what I speak),
when drunk, it’s good for urine and will harm your stomach worms,
and in the end, the herb is good or everything inside.

Strawberry

The plot which follows commands those wandering through
to sample Strawberries, the best in taste. No other fruit will be
more beautiful to see than these, no other more sweet to taste.
We know from experts that nothing brings out urine so well;
we know from experts that nothing brings out a period so well.

Dill

Cheerful Dill makes sport while sitting in his father’s seat,
A progeny now born from father’s seed and ready to produce
A fatherly seed so be made anew by progeny renewed
(and someone would in vain plant figs for dill root!).

Enough of this. Dill is proven to be hot and dry;
Its degree is said to be second in either of these.
It both benefits and harms the eyes, for the root,
First ground and applied, takes away their heat.
If drunk too often it harms the eyes and destroys the genital path,
Drying the moisture of semen from within.

Horseradish

Do you want to remove a tumour? Take a frog and tie
it to the tumour; the tumour will drink up the whole frog so that
you’ll marvel that just a dry skin remains in the morning.
After this is removed, a Horseradish root, the urine of a cow,
and the flower of wheat will kill all the tumour’s strength.

Radish

The herb called Radish rightly follows Horseradish:
It also bears a similar power; but lesser by a little,
A similar taste, but weaker by a little,
Yet it is labelled excellent for the bringing out of urine.
It strengthens the chest, reinforces the insides,
So those who eat the aforesaid herb in the time of Mars
Puts off their time of death with these auxiliaries.

Lettuce

You will bring together hot Rocket with chilly Lettuces,
for a cold and humid power is discerned in Lettuces,
by which it lightens excessive fevers when ground and applied,
and when eaten bestows the same. It gives sleeps, moves the bowels,
and the seed drunk with wine stops the bowels.
Lettuce suppresses empty dreams, brings out overflowing milk,
and eaten unwashed is proven useful for the stomach.
Some relate that this is harmful for the eyes.

Onion

Diverse doctors hold diverse opinions on Onions
(but I will not linger over them long): the author Galen
asserts they are good for the phlegmatic but harmful
to the bilious, and Dioscorides said that, once given,
they puff up and disturb the head and kindle the thirst.
Asclepius pronounced them very sound,
especially for the stomach, and they bring colour
by a mere look at this beautiful herb. Always end fasts
with Onions – you’ll never be sick. If you often rub places
naked of hair, by this art you can bring back the hair.

Cloves

Kings rejoice in placing Cloves in their wine presses,
and nobles rejoice to carry Cloves inside their purses.
It is said to be comforting for every nature
and, great in value, does not stoop to the level of the poor;
therefore it is said to dry and heath in the second degree.
Powdered Clove, when mixed with wine, increases
the brain’s power of memory if it is often drunk;
taken thus is strengthens the liver and the stomach.

Cinnamon

The Cinnamons cannot be beaten for their powers,
nor can they be equalled for their sweetest taste.
This spice cures watery eyes by drying;
it cleans a face occupied by a nasty mole
if you apply this, ground with strong vinegar.
A cough and catarrh will be destroyed by this spice;
take this and the liver is cured and urine rushes out.

Buy this book on Amazon.com
Buy this book on Amazon.com

Mushroom

Great Galen, praising the Mushroom, said it makes
the insides clean and at the same time loosens blockages.
One with jaundice profits by it and an epileptic improves.
It causes menstruation, chases off arthritis, sciatica, and fever,
and – so the the Philosopher might sum up all things – he alone did add
it purges every hidden thing that bodies may conceal.

Anglicanus ortus: a verse herbal of the twelfth century, by Henry of Huntingdon, has been edited and translated by Winston Black and was published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in 2012. Click here to visit the publisher’s website to read more about it.

See also Winston Black’s article Henry of Huntingdon’s Lapidary Rediscovered and his Anglicanus Ortus Reassembled on Academia.edu

You can also follow Winston on Twitter @WinstonEBlack

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