A Middle English Herbal

Worcester Cathedral Library’s manuscripts can be full of surprises, and they are not always the most elegant or carefully preserved parts! Here is an example that has been badly damaged by damp sometime during its seven hundred year history:

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

This page appears at the very end of the manuscript catalogued as F.157. The top and bottom have been badly damaged but fortunately the middle section is still legible, and proves to be a list of plants written in both Latin and Middle English. The manuscript describes it as Nomina herbarum cum exposicione earum which may be translated as ‘the names of plants and an explanation of them.’

Almost all the rest of the manuscript is a series of 240 Latin sermons written and perhaps once delivered by Clement of Hertford, a thirteenth-century Rector of the parish of Chaddesley – all very sober and plainly copied. But as sometimes happens in the life of a manuscript, other items are bound in with it. Manuscripts were very expensive to produce, and expected to last a long time. It was natural to add other items of interest even if they were not always entirely appropriate!

A closer look shows that the undamaged parts are quite clear and easy to read. The Latin names are underlined and begin with a letter that has been filled in with red. A punctuation mark called a punctus follows, a dot below and a tick above, acting rather like a modern colon. The equivalents that follow are in Middle English, the language that was spoken and written for some centuries after the Norman Conquest, often showing unusual and idiosyncratic spellings.

 

Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The table below transcribes the Latin and Middle English text, adding modern English equivalents and brief explanatory notes.

 

 

It appears to be a list of plants that are useful as food, as flavouring or as herbal medicines. The Middle English dile (Latin anetum) is known today as dill, having survived as a flavouring for food and as a herbal remedy for digestive disorders, colicky babies and even colds and coughs.

An interesting example of a medieval food plant is Alexandria, translated as stammerch. More modern names for it are horse parsley, and Alexanders. The flowers, seeds, roots and leaves are all edible and said to taste something between celery and parsnip. The plant can grow on the edges of woodlands or in meadows and could well have been part of a monastic garden.

Crocus appears in the list with the translation safran. The spice saffron does indeed come from a variety of crocus with the scientific name Crocus sativus. Saffron is described today as the world’s most expensive spice. In medieval times it was important both as a spice and as a medicinal plant that was grown in Europe, notably in Spain and France, and even in southern England, as attested in the place name Saffron Walden. It was perhaps another item used mostly to flavour the Abbot’s dishes.

Latin Papaver and Middle English popi (poppy) also have places in the list. The strong effects of the white poppy were known in medieval Europe, mainly through the work of Arabic writers, but the red poppy was also used as a food and a herbal medicine. The flower petals and the seeds were thought to have a weak anaesthetic effect, and were used as painkillers and sedatives. They were considered effective against coughs and throat irritations and were used in combination with other plants featured in the list, notably Malva or hockelef (mallow) and Anazoma or veltwort (mullein).

Latin Galla was an important plant for monasteries. It has no Middle English equivalent but a Latin description that is just about readable: Pomum quod in quercu nascitur which means ‘a fruit produced on an oak tree’ This does not mean an acorn, but an oak gall or oak apple, a growth produced by a species of wasp larva, that was an essential ingredient of the inks used in the production of manuscripts.

These Latin names appeared long before the scientific classification of plants as used today. Nonetheless it is noticeable how several of these original names feature in the modern system: Middle English dile (dill) is Anetum in Latin and Anethum graveolens in the Linnean system. Similarly mallow is Malve in medieval Latin, and has the scientific name Malva sylvestris.

This list of plants is of interest to scholars of Middle English as well as to historians and students of herbal remedies. A transcription of the list appeared in the Worcester Cathedral Library 1906 Catalogue of Manuscripts and this is cited in the electronic Middle English Dictionary. (References to both these important documents are given at the end of the blog.) Some of the Middle English words used in the list seem to be the only surviving examples.

Thus the Latin Acerus is translated as glegel. The Dictionary describes it as ‘a type of iris’. Latin Agroma is translated as sordine, and here the Dictionary can only come up with ‘a plant of some kind’. Latin Gorge becomes Middle English salchele. This word does resemble the Latin salix so the plant may be a type of willow.

We may soon return to this list in a future Blog. It seems possible that it is related to another medieval plant list included in the Glossary of the late Anglo-Saxon scholar Aelfric, with a copy also held in the Cathedral Library archives. Further work is needed before a conclusion can be reached!

 

Tim O’Mara

 

Catalogue of Manuscripts preserved in the Chapter Library of Worcester Cathedral, by John Kestell Floyer and Sidney Graves Hamilton, published by Worcestershire Historical Society, Oxford, in 1906.

Middle English Dictionary edited by Kurath, Hans, Robert E. Lewis, and Sherman McAllister Kuhn, University of Michigan 2010. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/&gt;.

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