There was a wide variety of medieval herbs grown in England and throughout Europe. In the 11th-15th centuries, herbs were far more important to people than they are to those who live in the modern world today. The reason was because herbs were not just used for their flavour in medieval cooking but people believed they held great value for medicinal purposes.
Herbs In Medieval Cooking
A typical, medieval English peasant family would have used herbs extensively in cooking as they were easy and inexpensive to cultivate. The typical diet of the family would have been quite bland in taste (pottage, a little meat or dried fish) and adding herbs made it more palatable and appealing. Also they could not afford to buy imported spices to improve the flavour of their food. Spices were the privilege of the medieval rich.
Although rich nobles and wealthy merchants preferred spices in their food, they also enjoyed the more flavoursome medieval herbs such as anise (aniseed) in certain dishes. Anise was particularly popular in fish recipes and was sometimes also used in chicken dishes.
The most popular herbs at the time such as sage, parsley, mint and dill are still used in recipes today. You will find them in all kinds of dishes from meat, fish and fowl dishes to general salads.
Here is a list of herbs commonly grown in medieval times and used in that period’s cooking:
Herbs In Medicine
Herbs were used a great deal in medieval times for the treatment of a of ailments. Some such as anise (aniseed), borage and chamomile were grown both for their taste in cooking and for their medicinal properties. Other medieval herbs such as mugwort (pictured below) and musk mallow were grown only for their medicinal properties. Mugwort is a plant with pungent smelling leaves which was used to make a foot ointment and often to help ease ‘ladies problems’. Musk mallow was believed to have good anti-inflammatory properties. Here are some of the most common medieval herbs and their medicinal uses in 12th century England:
anise – to combat flatulence
angelica – to aid digestion
betony – to alleviate migraine
borage – for respiratory and stomach ailments
catnip – to alleviate respiratory tract inflammation
chamomile – to combat headaches
common vetch – to supress appetite (seeds only)
coriander – to combat fever
dittany – for digestive ailments, poultices
feverfew – to stop migraines
flax – to stimulate appetite
hemlock – anaesthetic/painkiller
lavender – a disinfectant and insect repellant
lesser periwinkle – to relieve inflammation
mint – for stomach problems
mugwort – for problems with feet
musk mallow – an anti-inflammatory herb
rosemary – under the pillow to ward off nightmares
st john’s wort – to ease bruises, burns & depression
thyme – to fumigate rooms against infection