Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Let's play... "Is it period?"

So as I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog,  I am a real life herbal educator and consultant, also.    One of the  tasks ahead of me now is to decide what puzzle out which of  my concoctions are "period" and which are more modern.    I took two  of the more ubiquitous preparations in herbals and attempted to trace them back to see how the legends stood up to scrutiny.  I wrote an article about this that will be published in the March/April issue of The Essential Herbal, but I thought I would share some of my research here:

Source- The Saturday magazine Volume 18 -1841

Queen of Hungary's Waters
While the formula to the left is undoubtedly is "period"  It should be pointed out that this  preparation  in no way resembles the acetum formula that Rosemary Gladstar has popularized in modern herbal publications. The original formula is a fairly typical rosemary water preparation which are mentioned in herbals as old as Bankes Herbal published in 1525 and making it requires distillation of an alcohol preparation. 
Some scholars in early publications question if distillation would have been known in Hungary at that time, but as the alembic was most likely  invented by the  Arab Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi  (or someone who studied under him)  who  lived from 721-815 C.E.  and aqua vitae has been distilled since the late 9th century, it seems a safe assumption to me.    I wonder if those people who question the timeline are confusing  Queen Elizabeth wife of Charles  with St. Elizabeth, an earlier queen of Hungary.   Or perhaps people confuse the history of distilling alcohol as a beverage, with earlier distillations used as medicines in apothecaries which were in fact alcohol, but not served socially.   For example in Irish history it is difficult to distinguish this because aqua vita or "uisce beatha" as the Irish called has come to be known as Irish whiskey, however the  the first preparations were probably used medicinally by the monks who produced them.  
Source : Pharmacologia Vol. II -1825   John Ayrton Paris

Four Thieves Vinegar 
The legend here goes is that it was a recipe originally commissioned by Elizabeth wife of Charles Robert King of Hungary. What I discovered is that the formula can be dated back to an herbal published in 1586  but the link to Queen Elizabeth is not mentioned in that manuscript (see left).    Reference to this relationship  can be found recorded in  an herbal published in posthumously 1656.  The author, John Prevot,  who died in 1636, Prevot reports that it was in the year  1606 that he  saw the receipt in a breviary in  the library of Francis Podacather.  It was reportedly handed down in his family having been given to his ancestor by said Queen who would have written it in perhaps, 1380?  (Beckmann)  However, no one has found this document in the subsequent years, so taking Prevot at his word, the earliest we can confidently date the receipt to is 1606.  

Four Thieves' Vinegar  -  The story behind this preparation is outlined in the excerpt on the left.   Another publication around this time attributes the formulation of this preparation to one Mr. Robert Forthave who lived in 1749,  claiming the name of the preparation is just a "corruption" of his name.   (Limbird)  
 Jean Valnet, a noted aromatherapist,  claims to have found the original formula in the archives of the Parliament of Toulouse 1628-1631  as follows:  3 pints white wine vinegar, a handful each of wormwood, meadowsweet, juniper berries, wild marjoram and sage with 50 cloves, 2 oz each of elecampane root, angelica, rosemary, horehound and 3 grams of camphor.   (Valnet).   I've not been able to locate a translation of these documents, so cannot verify his source.    So if  Valnet is to be believed, the story may be true.   Regardless the use of these aromatic vinegars such as the  "Acetum Aromaticum"  has been documented  as "period" preparations.  I would probably opt for that name as being more appropriate for SCA purposes.

Beckmann, J. (1846 ). History of Inventions, Discoveries and Origins. London: Henry G Bohn.
Hartshorne, H. (1881). The Household Cyclopedia. Thomas Kelly.
Limbird, J. (1828). Four Thieves' Vinegar. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction.
Paris, J. A. (1825). Pharmacologia: corrected and extended.... Volume 2. New York: Samuel Wood & Son.
Valnet, J. (1980). The Practice of Aromatherapy. London: White Crescent Press Ltd.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Period Herbal Preparations: Oxymels

So sekanjabin seems to be a pretty popular beverage drink in the SCA.   David Friedman refers to it as such on page 125 of  "How to Milk an Almond..."     He also laments being unable to find the recipe referred to in period literature.  I would put forth that it probably wasn't a beverage to be found in cookbooks, rather a medicinal to be found in those types of texts.     When I first tasted it, I recognized it immediately as an oxymel.   I would offer the conjecture that "sekanjabin" is simply the Persian word for a medicinal oxymel which at some point morphed into a popular beverage.   Keep in mind coca-cola was once tonic blend of medicinal herbs.

Some of the earliest evidence of oxymels being made from different medicinal herbs and used as remedies can be found in the Hippocratic  On Regimen in Acute Diseases written around 400 BCE.   Oxymel is mentioned as a medicinal drink frequently and at one point the manuscripts instructs the reader to "boil opoponax in oxymel, and, having strained it, to give it to drink."*
A period recipe for an oxymel can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Leech Book penned by Cild in the late 9th or early 10th century.** 
"Take of vinegar, one part; of honey, well cleansed, two parts; of water, the fourth part; then seethe down to the third or fourth part of the liquid, and skim the foam and the refuse off continually, until the mixture be fully sodden. If thou wish to work the drink stronger then put as much of the vinegar as of the honey..."

 My basic recipe for making an oxymel with honey follows:

1 1/3 cup honey
1 cup water
2/3 cup white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 cups mint

The process is simple.  Bring the water and the honey to a boil and boil for  about ten -15 minutes, skimming  the foam off the top.   Then you pour in the white wine vinegar into this and bring the mixture back to a boil.  Simmer over low heat until the mixture thickens.  This recipe does not get as thick as those I’ve done with sugar.

Then you take it off the heat,  coarsely chop up the mint and steep it in the mixture with a cover.   Basically you are making an herbal infusion or decoction with the vinegar honey mixture.

I use white wine vinegar due to the the recipe that is included in An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century as translated by Charles Perry: "sikanjabîn syrup is beneficial in phlegmatic fevers: make it with six ûqiyas of sour vinegar for a ratl of honey and it is admirable. "

This fall  I made up a batch of an oxymel that I had in mind to offer to a person suffering from the flu-perhaps with a  feverish condition.   In place of the mint, I used equal amounts of yarrow flowers,  dried elderflowers and peppermint.  Then I threw in a handful of lemon balm for good measure.    I covered the pan tightly and then let the mixture infuse all night long.   In the morning I strained it well and bottled the concentrate up.

To use the concentrate  I put one part of it in a glass with eight parts water. If you are wanting to work with the diaphoretic actions of the plants, you will want to serve this as a hot drink especially in the winter months.  That is also mentioned in On Regimen in Acute Diseases. 

*Hippocrates, “On Regimen in Acute Diseases," in Hippocratic Writings/On The Natural Faculties, translated by Francis Adams, (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1956), 40.

**Cild, Bald's Leechbook II. in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England Vol.II, by Thomas Cockayne,(London: Longmans, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1865), 287.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Medieval Herbal Advice for Today’s Encampments

This is my second contribution to my A & S 50 depth project in herbalism.  In this I will attempt to offer up ways that you can use herbs in a period manner around your campsite.

Culinary Herbs
Herbs used for cooking can be tied in bundles and hung in your encampment.   Then you can just break off a smidge or two when you need them.

Strewing Herbs
Strewing Herbs were commonly tossed about to sweeten the air in a room and ward off pests. These were the predecessor to potpourri but more utilitarian in nature.   Thomas Tusser made the following recommendations about which herbs to use for strewing  in his 500 Points of Good Husbandrie,  published in 1557.

For want of explanation Baulm generally refers to lemon balm, not the monarda spp.   Maudeline  is Tanacetum balsamita- the camphor plant.
In Medieval Days the herbs were likely strewn around on the floor and crushed by people walking on them or shoved in mattresses.   In my home,  I still use them under  rugs, appliances,  and between  mattresses and box springs.   You don’t often find them just lying around on the floors except in  garage underneath our bulk food storage bins.

At an encampment you would literally strew these herbs around on the ground. The more they are walked on and crushed, the more volatile oils are released.  When we camped at Gear of War,  I threw most of mine under our ground cloth and we didn't have any problems with insects in the tent.

Often referred to in Medieval texts as “sweet bags”.   Sachet are made by crushing herbs and sewing them up in linen or silk bags.  They were then  hung amongst the clothing to ward off pests.  I have also adopted this practice to protect the bulk dried goods I keep on a shelf in my garage.   So little bags of herbs hung with  garb may very well ward off moths and other insects that could damage your clothing.  

Once word of advice:
Unlike a potpourri, you don’t know want a sweet bag to hold its scent, rather it is the wafting off of the scent that repels insects. I’ve seen directions for sachets which include orris root powder or calamus root. These substances have a habit of absorbing orders thus detracting from their usefulness as repellents.


Most often called “sweet waters”, these were used for scenting clothing and linen by brushing them on or “sprinkling with pine sprigs.  For the most part around the home,  we use  spray bottles set on the mist setting. 

I use “sweet waters” to mist on bed linens when making the bed and find them to be quite useful for misting the air in a sick room. My daughter,  has been known to take the bottle and spray it directly toward people when they are ill. I must, of course, recommend against this.

Making a distillate for household use doesn’t have require a still. I find this to be an excellent use for fall trimmings. I have experimented with fresh and dried and oddly enough I have found that ground dried herbs tend to make more aromatic distillates. Any aromatic herb known for the its volatile oils is a good candidate for distillation. Mints, roses, lavender, orange peels are some of my favorite choices.   Conifer needles like pine and spruce make amazing distillates, so if you have a holiday tree kicking around, give this a try.    This is loosely based on the process discribed in The Medieaval Home Companion, but it is a trick that I learned early on in my days as a mundane herbalists so I've tweaked it a little. 

Directions for making a distillate:
In a large pot with a tight fitting lid, place a small inverted bowl, a brick or stones.   I have a glass nesting bowl set that works well for this. Stainless steel works, too.
 Place your choice of aromatic herbs around the inverted bowl and add water until the bowl is just covered.
Set a larger bowl right side up on the inverted bowl . Place the lid to the soup pot on it in an inverted fashion.The steam from the boiling herbs will collect on the underside of the inverted lid and run into the upright bowl.
Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat, for as long as you like until the water in the pot boils down and most of it is collected in the larger bowl.
Once cooled, this can be bottled and tightly covered. I store mine in our second refrigerator.

My favorite herbs for strewing or distillates:
The artemisia family are especially known as having strong repellant properties. Artemisia abrotanum (Southernwood ) was once known as “garde robe’. There is an ancient text which talks of boiling together rue and wormwood and then spraying the water on clothes to repel moths. I would hazard a guess that any of the artemisias would be suitable for this purpose depending on what would be local to your persona.    I tend to use mugwort for the purpose of strewing and sachets.   A friend of mine calls  mugwort the “white sage of the Northern Europeans”.

Ruta graveolens -  Rue has long been known as a protective herb.   According to M. Grieves “Rue has been regarded from the earliest times as successful in warding off contagion and preventing the attacks of fleas and other noxious insects. It was the custom for judges sitting at assizes to have sprigs of Rue placed on the bench of the dock against the pestilential infection brought into court from gaol by the prisoner.”(Grieves, 1931)   Rue works well  as a sprig for splashing around distillates.

Galium_odoratum – Sweet Woodruff is known to have a high concentration of coumarin, the ingredient in the modern rodent poison warfarin, and was used for strewing and stuffing mattresses to repel disease carrying pests.  I grow it purposely for using in my strewing herbs that go under the stove and in other areas that might be prone to mice- like under the shelving where I keep my bulk food bins or under the sink behind the bar in my home.   At an encampment it would be a good herb for using if you really go for the open basket method of food storage.

R. Rugosalavendula officinalis , calendula officinalis -  who doesn’t love  flowers?   I tend to put flowers, woodruff and rue in the bags I hang near the clothing and around the beds where I don’t want the stimulating scent of the mints.

Lamiaceae Family -   Catnip and spearmint are probably more plentiful in my strewing herbs,  but that is because I have so much growing.  I hoard my peppermint as it is just coming back from spraying incident a few years back.  Lemon Balm is in the mint family, as well.

Conifer needles are also often ground up and used in a lot of ways around here.     I love spruce, pine, cedar, fir.   Of course these would not be period to every persona.   You have to research the vegetation that would have been predominant.  In warmer climates, rosemary often was used in this capacity, as well.   

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Brief History of Herbalism through the Renaissance

Rue, Roses and Mint
This is my  first contribution to my A & S 50 depth project in herbalism.  I am kind of cheating here because this doubles as background handout for the classes I am teaching my mundane apprentices (I have three) on the history of herbalism, but I am trying to perfect the art of killing two birds with one stone as a form of time management.  

The use of herbs as medicine predates written history. Archeological findings from the Paleolithic period show that plants were being used medicinally as early as 60, 000 years ago. The oldest written documentation comes from Sumerian tablets listing medicinal herbs which are over 5000 years old. Shennong pen Ts’ao ching the first Chinese herbal has been dated to about 2700 BCE. The Egyptian, Ebers Papyrus, has been dated to about 1550 BC and contains references to cannabis being used to topically treat inflammation as well as 850 other medicinal plants. The Rigveda, written around 1500 BC, is the earliest written documentation of Ayurvedic principles, but it obviously stems from a body of knowledge that had being collected for centuries previous to it being recorded on paper. The Sushruta Samhita written in the 6th Century BC details plant, mineral and animal preparations that are still used by Ayurvedic practitioners, today.

Greco-Roman Medicine

The earliest Greek herbals were written by Diocles of Carystus in the 3rd Century BC. The information in his herbals seemed to be largely based on the previously mentioned Egyptian works. His work was largely eclipsed by later Greek physicians, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen whose works were to form the basis of medical practice for centuries to come.

Hippocrates - ( 460 -370 BC) - De herbis et curis - Founder: Hippocratic School of Medicine.
Dioscorides - (40 - 90 A.D.) - De Materia Medica written sometime between 50-68 A.D.
Galen - (131-200 A.D.) - Galen was known to have employed up to 20 scribes to write his works and over 600 treatises are attributed to this group known as the Galenic Corpus. He is probably most famous for his Art of Physick as translated by Culpeper.

It is important to note that the Hippocratic Corpus ( name of the collection of writings attributed to Hippocrates) was , in fact, written by as many as 19 different authors over the course of many 100's of years, yet the information in them is attributed to Hippocrates. Most of the writings seem to have been written in last decades of the 5th century BC and the first half of the 4th century BC and are probably those of a physicians college- perhaps the Cnidian school although that is conjecture. We will probably never know. Also some people will call mistakenly call  Dioscorides and Galen, Romans. They were Greeks serving in the Roman Army. 

Dioscorides' De Materia Medica was probably the most influential herbal ever written. It contained information on over 600 plants used for medicinal purposes and those uses he described were the basis of most herbalism that was practiced up until the 17th Century. Honestly you could probably make the argument that information in it has been being used by herbalists up until the present day.

The most important principle of early medical advice was moderation in all things; however other principles put forth by these early physicians still shape herbalism today. Urinalysis was used by the Ancient Greeks, although then it was done primarily by using the senses; including taste. During this time, there also developed an energetic diagnostic system based on humors and temperaments that many herbalists still refer to today. I will discuss this more completely at another time The Doctrine of Signatures which, explained very briefly, states that the shape of an herb and how it that is similar to body parts determines how it is to be used first appeared in Greek Medicine, as well.

The Dark Ages or Early Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire things were fairly quiet in Europe. Medical “schools” started appearing in the 9th century in Eastern locales such as Persia and the Arab empire. Their practices were largely based on previous Greek and Roman medicine. Benedictine monasteries and nunneries were the primary source of Western European herbal knowledge and care during the Early Middle Ages. They were famous for their “physick” gardens in which they grew most of the herbs they used in their practices. Walafrid Strabo (808-849 CE) wrote a Latin verse Hortulus that described such a garden. But they were really only copying and passing along the Greco-Roman manuscripts. Very little new knowledge was really being accumulated by these monks and nuns, at this time. The lineage of the Physicians of Myddvai can be traced back to Wales in 800 C.E.

Bald's Leechbook was compiled under King Alfred's reign recorded by the scribe Cild in about 900–950 CE.

This was also a time that saw the flourishing of folk-herbalism. Irish peasants wise in the knowledge of plants became herb-doctors. Wise women and midwives were providing a great deal of care to the folk in their village and would pass along charms to help with healing. I've included a thesis about Medieval Women's role in Medicine on the DVD. Stories of Irish leeches carrying a bag—called a lés [lace]—full of medical preparations stem back to stories in the Ulster cycle written around this time. I am actually going to write a separate bit about Irish medicinal history because it is so wildly different than the rest of Europe and is more pertinent to my persona.

The High Middle Ages. 1000-1300 C.E.

The High Middle Ages saw an upswing in the publishing of new herbals. The Persian physician, Avicenna, wrote his herbal treatise, The Cannon of Medicine, around 1025 AD. St Thomas Hospital in England was established in 1107.

The Anglo Saxon Herbarius Apuleii ( Herbal of Apuleius) based on earlier Greek works was written sometime shortly before the Battle of Hastings detailed a much smaller number of herbs than the Greek Herbals ( only 61) but it describes their uses and where to find them which leads one to believe that some wild crafting of plants occurring at the time. Another Anglo Saxon Herbal compiled in the late tenth or early eleventh century was Lacnunga which meant Remedies. It is in the book Leechdoms, Wortcunners and Starcraft of Early England .  The eleventh century also marked the beginning of the Irish Medical “Leechdoms”; families who passed their knowledge down to each generation.

The Late Middle Age 1300- 1500

The Late Middle Ages began with the Great Famine and the Bubonic Plague. The Greek Medicinal theories began to fall out of favor with the people because they failed miserably at controlling the Plague and didn't touch the syphilis epidemic that arose at the same time.

You will read about Four Thieves Vinegar from this time period. There are as many stories as there are formulas, but it is basically understood that using some sort of combination of herbs and vinegar, medicinally,  kept these looters from succumbing to the plague.

The Red Book of Hergest written just after 1382 contains herbal knowledge attributed to the Physicians of Myddvai.   The leechbook, The Book of the O'Lees written in 1443, partly in Latin and partly in Irish detailed that family’s method of treating the common diseases of the time.

The  Early Renaissance

Paracelsus (1493-1541) Botany and medicine were one and the same until the 17th Century. Paracelsus introduction of stronger more toxic chemicals to the healing profession marked the beginning of the decline in the use of purely plant materials as medicine. . While he worked primarily with plants, he was the first to introduce chemicals as cures. For example mercury, despite its toxic side-effects, was the cure for syphilis until 1947 when penicillin took over.

John Gerard gets a lot of press for his The Herball or General Historie of Plants published in 1597, but it has been pretty much proven at this point that the herbal was basically plagiarized. The illustrations were from a German botanical guide and the herbal information pretty much came from Rembert Dodoen’s herbal Cruydeboeck published in 1554.

John Parkinson (1567–1650) an apothecary for the King of England, wrote his gardening book Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris in 1629. His giant herbal the Theatrum Botanicum published in 1640 included over 3000 herbs.

Nicholas Culpeper published The English Physician Enlarged in 1652 and included in it an English translation of Galen's Art of Physick. Culpeper's Complete Herbal published the next year was unique in that it brought astrology into the picture. I have a copy of Culpeper's  Galen translation but the English is period and difficult to follow if you aren't familiar with it. My personal  version of Culpeper's Complete Herbal and English Physician is a facsimile of a book which was modernized and published in 1826 and a little more reasonable to get through.

Women Herbalists in European History

Some women were even able to attain renown as physicians. In the eleventh century, the medical school in Salerno, Italy, allowed women to train as physicians and to teach at the school. Trota of Salerno  was one such woman and during her time at Salerno she wrote at least part of, Passionibus Mulierum Curandorum (The Diseases of Women) which you may hear referred to as Trotula Major.

In the 12th century a Benedictine nun, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 –1179), wrote an herbal called Causes and Cures. Hildegard is probably the more famous of historic female herbalists.  

As the witch hunts progressed, it became less-and-less safe for  women folk herbalists to practice openly, however depending on their location and status women were occasional able to practice. Lady Grace Mildmay born in 1552 was member of the landed gentry and a female practitioner.