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.   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 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.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 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 “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.   

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