A Medieval Medicine Chest and A Garden of Herbs

A Medicine Chest

When I created my entry materials for the Tournament of the Golden Swan, a persona development challenge for female personas held in the Shire of Appledore, I used this chest as a background for displaying simple waters and salves that I had researched and prepared. I also used it to concoct a posset (warm ‘tea’) for ‘ague’ on the spot, and showed how the process of examining the patient and treating the ailment might have been performed. (My persona for that event was a Lay Sister working as an infirmarer in an early 15th century Monastery.)

The medicine chest and its contents

Tools of the Healer’s Art

In this medicine chest, I assembled items used for diagnosis, concocting remedies, and treatment of ill or injured patients. The items are based on descriptions and images primarily from 14th and 15th century sources. Other items I keep in the chest are a ‘pocket reference’ that fans out to show a urine chart, wound man, and zodiac charts, and a bottle with a spout for administering medications to a bedridden patient. (There would also be a pan for seething herbs and a kettle for boiling water, broth, or milk, not shown).

Various herbs in bottles and boxes, salves and oils in pots and jars
Tools for making medicines

Making medicines calls for mortars for grinding, a copper bowl with a ring on the side for mixing, and a posset cup (lidded cup for warm liquids) for administering liquid remedies.

A jordan for examining urine
(fol. 91v), De proprietatibus rerum (BNF Fr. 22534), first quarter of the 15th century

The jordan was a precious tool for the infirmarer. It was made of clear glass with a rounded bottom. The shape and clarity made it possible to view the urine sample for color, odour, presence of blood, and to see if there were particulates in the urine by looking through the curved bottom.

A shallow white china bowl and a sharp pointed implement.
A fleam (bloodletting blade made for me by Master Grendal) and white ceramic bowl for catching and examining blood

A bowl for catching blood during a blood-letting should be white or light-colored. This made it easier for the infirmarer to clearly see how much blood had been let even in candlelight or rushlight.

A drawing depicting cupping. (Brit. Lib. Sloane 6, fol. 177v), English, 15th century.

Some Examples of Remedy

For all of the following remedies, I have used examples from A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century by Warren R. Dawson.

The recipes below are presented for research purposes, and are not intended for human use.

For Ague, a plaster and an internal remedy

Recipe # 200

Take whit horehown a goode quantitee and growndswylly a lasse quantitee and seth hem with watr and fresshe bores gresse and after temper hem wele togedir and make a pleystr and lay about the brest J i on nigt it doth away moch and makyth hyme to kest out moch corrupcion

( Take white horehound a good quantity, and groundsel a less quantity, and seethe them with water and fresh boar’s grease. And afterwards temper them well together and make a plaster and lay about the breast; and in one night, it doth away much, and maketh him cast out much corruption [phlegm])

The Remedy:

Horehound (marrubium vulgare) – used today for chest complaints as well, has a VERY nasty taste.

Groundsel (senecio vulgaris) – is a restricted herb in modern herbalism as there is some question of its safety if used internally, though still appears in ‘traditional’ plaster remedies

Boar’s grease – pig fat, but as I commented in my paper, I do not like the texture of animal fats, and would make for a really messy plaster. I find they go rancid really quickly, too.

Recipe # 197

Take a garlike hede and rost it at the fire then take away the pyllynge and ete it with goode purid hony

(Roast garlic with honey – yum)

Recipe # 202

A lectuary for cough and for the fever in the stomake J hedeach Take the juse of horehowne and of fethirfoyle of centory and of horsmynt of betayne rote and ffenell and boile al thies togedir with some powdre of pepir and loke thow haue lich moch off the joycis and of clarified hony as moch as of all th and seith it till it be somewhat harde and eur stir it ffast neur havyinge to grete a fyre and when it colde kep it in boxis and ete ther of

(An electuary for cough and fever in the stomach, and headache. Take the juice of horehound and of feverfew, of centaury and of horsemint, of betony root and of fennel; boil all these together with some powder of pepper, and look that thou hast equally much of the juices, and of clarified honey as much as all those; and seethe it till it be somewhat hard, and ever stir it fast, never having too great a fire. When it is cold, keep it in boxes and eat thereof.)

The Remedy:

Horehound(marrubium vulgare) – used today for chest complaints as well, has a VERY nasty taste.

Feverfew (tanacetum parthenium) – still used today for headaches

Centaury (erythraea centaurum) – stomach remedy, also used as a drink flavouring in Europe (I think it tastes quite foul)

Horsemint = bee balm (monarda punctata) – I know it mostly for treatment for rheumatism, but it is also a diaphoretic. It is quite pleasant.

Betony (stachys officinalis) – used as both stomach and lung remedy in modern herbalism, particularly for asthma and bronchitis. I have never tasted it, but it smells quite pleasant.

Fennel (foeniculum vulgare) – not sure, but I think the seeds are meant here, though the roots were used too. In modern use it is a carminative and breath freshener. I like fennel, but I know not everyone does.

Pepper (Piper nigra) – use enough of it and it’ll clear your sinuses…

Clarified honey – to turn the mix into lozenges, but also I think to make the mess palatable, as some of the herbs are pretty nasty.

Seethe it til it be somewhat hard (reduce it into a soft candy stage, it is to be stored in a box when cold) I have done this with sugar, to make lozenges, and it would be trickier with honey, but the principle is the same. I would use a double boiler, but that is not, as far as I know, a thing in the 15th century. The pills should be rolled in powdered mallow or flour to keep from sticking together when stored.

The recipe does not state it, but one assumes the boiled herbs would be minced (pounded) or strained out before being reduced with the honey to make the pills or lozenges

A diagram of wounds. https://medievalartresearch.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/31333806172_4c82f814f2_b.jpg?w=343&h=497
The wound man was used to show the various types of wounds that could occur, and keys for treatment

Remedy for a Festering Wound:

Recipe # 686

An oth enoyn to wound. Take erb Jonh erb robt bugill pigle mylfoil plantayn auence of all this erbs tak the juse wex and pitch and a littell grese make this enoyn to all kyles and to all woundes

(Another ointment for wounds. Take herb-john, herb-Robert, bugle, pigle, milfoil, plantain, avens. Of all these herbs take the juice, wax and pitch and a little grease. Make this ointment for all [boils/abscesses] and for all wounds.

The Remedy:

Herb john = St John’s wort (hypericum perforatum) Often used in skin remedies (and known for treatment of certain types of depression) in modern herbalism.

Herb robert (geranium robertianum) – Stinky Bob is a common nickname, though I don’t think it smells as bad as some. Not recommended for internal use, but still in some ‘traditional’ remedies.

Bugle(ajuga reptans) This herb seems to have been quite commonly used historically (It appears in a lot of remedies I have looked at) but is not as common in modern use. I have never seen it used myself, nor used it. It is a pretty looking plant, but it is a weed, considered invasive (bugleweed) in some areas. I noodled around in my resources, and it seems it is used for all manner of wounds, and particularly for staunching bleeding.

Pigle = stitchwort (stellaria holostea) Another common mediaeval herb that has fallen out of use, but with a name like stitchwort it is easy to see why it is commonly used on new and old wounds.

Milfoil = yarrow (achillea millefolium) Common throughout history and into modern practice for use in cleansing wounds, controlling bleeding (and for numerous complaints of the chest).

Plantain (plantago major) – Very common weed, used as far back as I have been able to research. It has styptich, antimicrobial and soothing properties, among its long laundry list of uses. Very good for cuts scrapes and burns.

Avens = oats (avena sativa) – a soothing balm and good base for a poultice for drawing (leaching pus).

Honestly,  if there were no other allopathic option, this one might work. It sounds like it would be quite efficacious. I am tempted to try making this one to see what it comes out like (and to check out the herbs I know less about), though I am not sure I would want to let a wound fester to try it. I am not that brave for science…

Recipe # 668

All manr of floures J erbs that bene cold shuld be leyd in oyle of olyues J thrin shuld rype iiij days or v and then thow shalt boyle heme J set hem agayn the sune

(All manner of herbs that be cold should be laid in oil of olive, and therein should mature four days or five, and then thou shalt boil them, and set in the sun.)

The Remedy

Herbs that are cold refers to the humoural system of classification, anything that is cold, as opposed to hot (wet or dry) would be used due to a festering wound being considered hot and requiring balancing with something cold.

Heating and / or soaking herbs in oil to extract the ‘essences’ is common. It would then be strained and used as is, or mixed with honey, grease, or wax to thicken it into a salve. This is a practice still done today (olive or almond oil used to extract from herbs, the oil then strained and mixed with beeswax or glycerin)

Three examples of my own salves: comfrey & lavender, calendula marigold, and balm of gilead (poplar buds boiled in oil)

A Bonus: For Dogbite

Recipe # 128

Ffor bytynge of an hownd rost garlyke onyons of ech lich moch and stamp hem wr hony J make enoyntment throf J lay on the bytynge J a pleystr of sothen malews ther vpon

(For biting of a dog. Roast garlic and onions, of each equally much, and stamp them with honey; and make an ointment thereof, and lay on the bite, and a plaster of boiled mallows thereupon.

Unpasteurized honey is known to be somewhat antibacterial, as are garlic and onion, but I have to say onion on a wound really smarts…


An Herbal Garden at Crown Tourney

For Crown Tourney held in the Barony of Lions Gate/Shire of Lionsdale a number of years ago, I put together an educational herb garden display in front of The Abbey.

Make a Display Garden in a Few Hours

To make the garden in the few hours of setup available, I built four open wood frames of the same size. These were arranged in the corners of a quadrangle with a pedestal in the middle, to evoke the shape of a medieval garden.

The frames were covered with black landscape cloth that was stapled to the frames at the height of the tops of the plant pots. I arranged the potted plants underneath holes cut in the cloth, then covered the taut landscape cloth with a thin layer of soil. This made it look as though the plots were full of dirt, without having to deal with two or three cubic meters of soil. This plan was much easier to transport, assemble, and disassemble.

The Herb Garden at May Crown Tourney

In the frames, I arranged medicinal herb plants: mallow (althea off.), foxglove (digitalis), rosemary (Rosmarinus off.), guelder rose (viburnum opulus), St/ Johns wort (hypericum perforatum), tansy (tanacetum vulgare), and several other medicinal plants.

During the entire event, the garden served as an information display of herb plants and what many medieval herbs look like when growing. I also did a short lecture on Mediaeval gardens, and one on Mediaeval Medicine.

Works Consulted

Arikha, Noga, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, Harper CollinsPub., Toronto, 2008

Balch, James F. & Phyllis A., Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 2nd Ed., Avery Publishing Group, New York, 1997

Balch, Phyllis A., Prescription for Herbal Healing, Avery Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 2002

Bartram, Thomas, Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, Constable & Robinson Ltd., London, 1998

Blumgarten, A. S., Textbook of Materia Medica, 5th Ed., The MacMillan Company, New York, 1931

Chevallier, Andrew, The Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants, Dorling Kindersley Publishing, London, 1996

Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, Wordsworth Editions, Ltd., Hertfordshire, 1995

Dawson, Warren R., A Leechbook: or, Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century, Royal Society of Literature, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1934

De Gex, Jenny, ed., A Mediaeval Herbal, Pavilion Books Ltd., London, 1995

Garcia-Ballester, Luis, & R. French, J. Arrizabalaga, A. Cunningham, eds.,

Practical Medicine from Salerno to the Black Death, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, Barcelona & Welcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Cambridge, 1994

Grieve, Mrs. M., A Modern Herbal vols. I & II, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1971 reprint of original 1931 publication.

Hather, J.G., Archaeological Parenchyma, Archetype Publications Ltd., London, 2000

Hoffmann, David, Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, Healing Arts Press, Vermont, 2003

Hunt, Tony, Anglo-Norman Medicine, Vols I & II, D.S. Brewer Pub.,Cambridge, 1994

Jones, Peter Murray, Mediaeval Medical Miniatures, The British Library & University of Texas Press, Austin, 1984

Kealey, Edward J., Mediaeval Medicus: A Social History of Anglo-Norman Medicine, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1991

Majno, Guido, The Healing Hand, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1975

Mills, S., & K. Bone, Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy, Churchill Livingstone, London UK & Toronto, 2001

Mowrey, Daniel B., The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine, Cormorant Books, Keats Publishing Inc., Connecticut, 1986

Ody, Penelope, The Complete Medicinal Herbal, DK Publishing, New York, 1993

Pollington, Stephen, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore, and Healing, Anglo-Saxon Books, Norfolk, UK, 2000

Rawcliffe, Carole, Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England, Sandpiper Books Ltd., London, 1999

Rotblatt, Dr. M., & Dr. I. Ziment, Evidenced Based Herbal Medicine, Hanley & Belfus Inc., Philadelphia, 2002

Taylor, Christopher, The Archaeology of Gardens, Shire Publications Ltd., Aylesbury UK, 1988

Van Arsdall, Anne, Mediaeval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine, Routledge, London, 2002

Physician’s Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, Medical Economics Company, New Jersey, 1998

An ill man in bed, with a doctor examaning a urine flask, Froissart’s Chronicles (Brit. Lib. Harley 4379, fol. 125v), c. 1470-1472

17 Replies to “A Medieval Medicine Chest and A Garden of Herbs”

  1. Thank you for sharing your works! I am very intrigued by medieval medicines and tools; having the original recipe and the likely use of each ingredient makes it very easy to follow.
    I must admit I am extremely impressed with the portable garden set up; I don’t believe I made it over to look at it, and I wish I had!

    1. Thank You so much your Majesty! I am glad you liked my projects, and I hope I can do another garden that you will be able to see 😉
      Tanikh

  2. Wonderful display! Well written and organized. Thank you for including the modern scientific name for the plants.
    Love your Display Garden!!! Hurray for plants. I am so inspired now to do something similar for veggies at an upcoming event. Fantastic <3

    1. I am glad you liked it! The biggest thing for me is correct ID of plants, so scientific names for the win ;P
      Inspiring others gives me joy! I am glad you were inspired by my project.
      I can only do a plant display on my side of the border, but perhaps if we work together we could set one up in future on your side 😉 That would be fun!
      Tanikh

  3. Very, very nice. I very much enjoyed the entire(!) presentation. You did a nice job explaining the tools of the trade and the hows and whys of using them.

  4. Outstanding, Sister! I also assembled an herbal chest for Golden Swan, though mine was much simpler. I missed May Crown that year and your garden — WHAT an inspiring project!

    1. Thank You 😉 I find gardening research to be mostly a matter of patience ;P The display was a nod to that.
      And I am sad I missed your entry at Swan too ;( I love to see people doing medical stuff 😉

  5. Excellent presentation. Your commentary and explanations were clear and engaging. I saw, admired and coveted your garden at Crown. Made things clear and accessible. Sorry to have missed your classes, I would have enjoyed the immersion time.
    Keep up the good work, I look forward to seeing more from you in the future!

    Aryana Silknfyre, Laurel, AnTir

    1. Thank You so much, glad you enjoyed it!
      I will definitely teach the classes again, in fact I am working on updating my herbal one and adapting the lecture/demo for a zoom presentation (Hopefully for the Grand Ithra).

  6. Very interesting! I’d love to see pictures of you making some of these! Very cool.

    1. Yes, a good idea 😉 I thought of that but by the time I signed up to do this I didn’t have time (It takes about a week to set the oils, then a day or so to put the salves together – next time I make some I will definitely photo-doc the process!

  7. Thank you for sharing this! I love that you have instructions on “Make a Display Garden in a Few Hours”. That is so on my list to do with the family this summer. 🙂
    Thank you. 🙂
    Baronessa Chiara Francesca

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two × five =