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  puzzle out which of  my concoctions are "period" and which are more modern.  

I took two  of the more ubiquitous preparations in modern 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:

Queen of Hungary's Waters

Source- The Saturday magazine Volume 18 -1841

While the preparation above is undoubtedly "period", it should be pointed out that the period preparation  in no way resembles the acetum that the mundane herbalist Rosemary Gladstar has popularized in modern herbal publications.

The original formula is a fairly typical rosemary "water" preparation which are mentioned in Bankes Herbal published in 1525 and making it requires distillation of an alcohol preparation.

Some scholars question if distillation would have been known in Hungary at that time, but as the alembic was most likely  invented by some member of the Jabirian Corpus.  Jabir is the Arab alchemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi   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 call it has come to be known as Irish whiskey, however the  the first preparations were  used medicinally by the monks who produced them.  

Four Thieves Vinegar
Source : Pharmacologia Vol. II -1825   John Ayrton Paris

The story behind this preparation is outlined in the excerpt above   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 a medicinal oxymel. I would offer the conjecture that "sekanjabin" is simply the Persian word for a medicinal oxymel which at some point  (probably not pre-1600)  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 treatise 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
2 cups mint

The process is simple.  Bring the water and the honey to a boil and boil for  about ten -fifteen minutes, skimming  the foam off the top.   Then you pour  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 Plant Use in Today’s Encampments

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

Culinary Herbs

I will be writing more on the period use of culinary herbs and should probably pull some blog posts over from my mundane blog.  For this post, I will mention that bundles of herbs hanging around your campsite are attractive and useful. 

Just pinch a bit off when you need it. 

Strewing Herbs 

Strewing Herbs were commonly tossed about to sweeten the air in a room and ward off pests. Herbs were scattered around on the floor and crushed by people walking on them or shoved in mattresses where people crushed them as they slept on them.

The point here is that simply having the herb sitting around in  pots or bowls isn't going to release enough scent to be useful as a repellent unless you add essential oils.  In my home,  I put them under  rugs and between our mattresses and box springs.  You  might even find them lying around on the floors in the 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. Hanging bags of herbs near your garb may very well ward off moths and other insects that could damage your clothing. 

Unlike  potpourri, you don’t  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., as fixatives.  These substances have a habit of absorbing orders thus detracting from their usefulness as repellents.


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

I  mist “sweet waters” 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.

I find this to be an excellent use for fall trimmings. I have experimented with fresh and dried and 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 dried out holiday tree kicking around in January, give this a try. 

Making a distillate for household use doesn’t require a still. This is loosely based on the process described in The Medieval 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.
Bring to a boil and then simmer over low heat The steam from the boiling herbs will collect on the underside of the inverted lid and run into the upright bowl.

When the water in the pot boils down and most of it is collected in the larger bowl, remove from heat and let it cool

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 grow mugwort and wormwood 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 “ 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 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.