...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Medieval Gardens, Part II: medieval healing

In my last post, I demonstrated how you can build a medieval garden for your characters with the help of the book, Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean. Today, I’d like to share another useful function of this book.

In addition to wanting a garden for my heroine to enjoy in Loyalty’s Web, I also wanted her to have some healing skills. Not the “mystical” kind, but the “practical” kind. And for that, I needed to know something about the healing abilities of plants that were available in the Middle Ages.

Medieval English Gardens proved a treasure trove of such information for me. The two most pertinent sections for my research on this subject were chapters 5 & 6: “Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower”, and “The Herb Garden”. Each chapter contains sub-chapters, as follows:

Within: “Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower” are the sub-chapters: “Useful Flowers”; “Useful and Pretty Flowers”; “Beautiful, Flower Garden Flowers, and Flower Gardens”; and “Medieval Roses and Rose Gardens”. The last two sub-chapters are more useful for assistance in garden descriptions (as per my previous post) than for information on the healing properties of medieval plants, but the first two sub-chapters were extremely useful for my “healing heroine".

Within: “The Herb Garden” are the sub-chapters: “Infirmary Garden Herbs”; “Herb Garden Herbs”; “Kitchen Garden Herbs”; and “Backyard Herbs.”

Let me share with you a few examples of the kinds of information contained within each sub-chapter, and the method I used to transform these chapters into a permanent “quick research” resource for me.

This was where a red pencil or highlighter, and a pencil or pen came in extremely handy. The paragraphs are pretty much broken down by flower or herb, which makes it easy to mark each flower or herb individually.

For example, beginning on p 140, under “Useful Flowers”, I red-lined the flower “southernwood”, along with its description and uses. Then, in pen, I wrote the word “southernwood” in the margin, underlined it, and underneath that wrote: “uses”, under which I wrote the words “fever; wounds; pot-pourris”.

The next paragraph (on p 141) dealt with the wormwood plant. So I redlined “wormwood”, together with some pertinent information about it within the paragraph, then in the margin, I penned “wormwood” (underlined), and underneath again wrote: “uses”, then listed “flea repellant; expel poisons; constipation; stomachache.”

I followed this pattern with the following paragraphs on “mugwort”; “tansy”; “marigold”; and so on, throughout the above mentioned chapters (“Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower” and “The Herb Garden”).

Yes, this process can be somewhat time consuming, but it also the kind of task that can be done a little at a time…during commercials when watching TV, while waiting in a doctor’s office, while waiting to pick up a child from an activity…a few minutes here, and few minutes there, and before you know it, you have the quick research guide I referred to above.

Now that I had these chapters thus marked, when I found my hero with a knife wound in his arm and my heroine with a need to help heal it, all I had to do was flip through the margins of the chapters for plants that were used for healing wounds. I was very quickly able to whittle down my list to: southernwood; milfoil/yarrow; primrose; plantain/waybread; comfrey; burnet and orpine; and tutsan.

In the paragraphs I’d marked with red pencil, I could then look from the word in the margin to a more full description (in parentheses below) of how the flower or herb was used to heal wounds:

Southernwood (soothes wounds)
Milfoil/Yarrow: (staunched bleeding)
Primrose (leaves rubbed into wounds to relieve soreness)
Plantain/Waybread (ingredients in ointments to cure wounds)
Comfrey (power to heal wounds and stop bleeding)
Burnet and Orpine (wound soothers)
Tutsan (antiseptic for open flesh wounds)

My heroine ultimately settled on the following:

She gathered up a handful of fresh green leaves from a bowl and turned to lay them on the Earl's arm, squeezing them first so that the juice ran into his wound. The wine had dulled the fiery pain to a bearable throb, but even that discomfort began to subside, as the flesh around the wound grew numb…. [Some dialogue ensues…]

She removed the leaves she had spread on his arm and replaced them with a different kind, gathered from another bowl. "Plantain," she explained, crushing them between her fingers as she had done before. "It will slow the bleeding, and then we will spread on the comfrey poultice to help in healing."

She followed through with this prescription and finished by binding up his arm with several strips of linen, which Flora handed her from the tray.

"There. Your arm should remain numb for several hours. The pain may return after that, but you may send to the kitchen for more leaves if it becomes too uncomfortable. Mind they be of the tutsan plant and fresh enough to squeeze as you saw me do. If the bleeding resumes, it is plantain you must ask for. The bandages should be changed frequently for the next day or two, each time reapplying the poultice. I will see that some be kept in readiness for you."

I am certain there are other equally useful books for learning about medieval flowers and herbs, but I am confining myself in these blogs only to books and resources that I have actually used myself, and Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, was my major resource in the writing of my novel, Loyalty’s Web, as well as in writing its sequel, which I hope to publish sometime in 2008. However useful other books may be, Medieval English Gardens is a true treasure, and is well worth the search for a copy of your own.

(See previous post for suggestions for locating copies of Medieval English Gardens.)

Reminder: My drawing for a FREE copy of Medieval Wordbook is still open. For details, see post on Research Book Drawing.

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