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A London Herbal

June 17, 2020
by Margaret Willes

Margaret Willes introduces her new book The Domestic Herbal, Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century published by the Bodleian Library on 26th June
Artemisia vulgaris

London grew rapidly from the late fifteen-hundreds, becoming the largest city in western Europe by the end of the next century. The possession of a garden was a luxury for the few, so markets were a vital source of fruit and vegetables for the table, along with herbs for seasoning and remedies.

The number of doctors in London in relation to the population was tiny, no more than a hundred were licensed by the Royal College of Physicians in the seventeenth century. Their treatments were not only expensive but sometimes drastic, based on purgative drugs and bloodletting. One woman summed up this situation in trenchant terms, ‘Kitchen physic I believe is more proper than the Doctor’s filthy physic.’ Housewives usually had charge of the health of their families and needed to know what herbs they required for a range of ailments.

Two herbals in particular offered a comprehensive survey. John Gerard, a barber surgeon, compiled his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes that was publishedin 1597. This provided not only information about the medicinal properties of herbs, fruit, vegetables and flowers, but also descriptions of their cultivation, often based on his own experience in his garden in Holborn. His book is huge, with over eighteen hundred woodcuts and so expensive that copies were passed down through generations just like the family bible.

Five years later came The English Physitian, a herbal by the radical apothecary, Nicholas Culpeper, who had his garden in Spitalfields. The subtitle, An Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of this Nation indicates his interest in the influence of the planets on medicine. His book had no illustrations because he wanted it priced at a few pence so that it could be widely available.

The seventeenth century saw women beginning to write their own household manuals. One was Mary Doggett’s, compiled at the very end of the century and now held in the British Library. She was the first wife of Thomas, theatre manager of Drury Lane Theatre and fondly remembered today for the annual  Doggett Coat & Badge race for Thames watermen. Mary’s book includes a wide range of recipes for cooking, distilling and brewing, for medicines, and care of the house.

Unlike many women of her time, Mary Doggett could read and write. Margaret Pepys, mother of the diarist Samuel, was a laundry maid who may well not have had her letters. But her son refers to Margaret sending out her maid to buy herbs from the market in Cheapside to cure his mouth ulcer. No doubt she learnt this remedy from her mother. Pepys does not specify the herbs but an early eighteenth-century recipe for mouth ulcers recommends rue, red sage, brambles and the leaves of ivy and honeysuckle added to vinegar and honey.

Garden Rue
Ruta Hortensis

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing seventeenth-century London households was the threat of bubonic plague. Brought by black rats on ships, it affected ports and spread to country villages as fleas were transferred to their brown cousins. There had been many visitations but the most devastating reached London in December 1664, known as the Great Plague.

The herb believed to be most efficacious against the plague was rue, known as the herb of grace because a bunch was added to holy water for exorcisms. John Gerard recommended mashing the leaves with the kernel of walnuts and figs as an antidote. A recipe ‘most esteemed of in the last Great Visitation’ was included in a printed cookery book seven years after the Great Plague. It took rue and sage and mixed them in wine with spices and a pennyworth of Mithridate. This last ingredient is named after Mithridates, ruler of Pontus in the first century BC, who was obsessed with the fear of being poisoned and had a remedy made up from no less than fifty-five herbs and spices. Apothecaries sold Mithridate, sometimes under the name Venetian Treacle.

The other most-feared disease was smallpox. While the plague proved most deadly for poorer people, living in close quarters, smallpox was no respecter of status, swooping upon the highest in the land. Several members of the royal family died from the disease, including Queen Mary in 1694 aged only thirty-two. Recipes for treating smallpox are rare, but one seventeenth century remedy, Lady Allen’s Water, used a range of herbs and flowers from the garden. Among these were powerful medicinal plants, such as henbane with painkilling properties, which was added to liquorice and white wine, and distilled.

Glycyrrhiza glabra

Smallpox left physical scars, particularly cruel when one of the most important signs of beauty was to have a fair, smooth face. One recipe advised that as the scabs of smallpox began to dry out, they should be treated with salves. John Gerard considered oil of figs to be particularly good, while rosewater was often added to bacon fat and applied. Many recipes called for rosewater. Damask roses were recommended because their stronger scent made them ‘fitter for meate and medicine’ according to Gerard. To make rosewater required such a very large amount of petals that country gardens often had beds set aside especially for the cultivation of roses. When Elizabeth I ‘persuaded’ the Bishop of Ely to give up his palace and garden in Holborn to her dancing partner favourite, Sir Christopher Hatton, he demanded that he should receive twenty bushels of rose petals each year. These surely would have been destined for the episcopal stillroom to make up into a water. One recommendation to Londoners was that they should purchase rose petals when there was a glut. Mary Doggett may have done this, although her recipe book includes a note that she purchased rose water for the goodly sum of £2 from her apothecary.

Damask rose
Rosa damascena

Mary used the rosewater in several of her recipes for keeping the house fragrant. One unusual idea was for aromatic beads, taking scented gums and rose water, and mixing them with the buds of Damask roses. These were coloured with lamp black, the soot collected from oil lamps, rolled in the hand with jasmine oil, and given a gloss before they were made into bracelets.

Housewives made up ‘sweet bags’ with flowers and herbs dried, powdered and distilled. Added to this mixture were aromatic gums expensively acquired from apothecaries or grocers, so it had to be long lasting. Unlike our potpourris, which are displayed in open bowls, the mixture would be kept in bags tightly sealed to retain the scent. One herb often used was sweet marjoram, which also featured in nosegays, carried to mask the smells of unwashed crowds, and against the plague.

Keeping houses sweet and clean presented a challenge. Floors were strewn with rushes acquired from barges that brought them to Thameside wharves. Added to these were sweet smelling herbs, such as bay and rosemary, which could be purchased from street vendors, as illustrated in Cries of London. The custom of strewing gradually declined with the century and instead straw matting was laid on floors. Marcus Laroon’s Cries of London of 1687 includes a pedlar offering door mats and strips of matting for the bedroom.

Seller of straw mats by Marcellus Laroon

A century earlier, a Dutch visitor remarked on how much the English appreciate flowers for their homes. Lemnius Levinus in his diary noted ‘altho’ we do trimme up our parlours with green boughes, fresh herbes or vine leaves scented … yet no nation does it more decently, more trimmely, nor more sightly than they do in England’. At Christmas evergreen shrubs and branches were brought in to decorate the house, a tradition that endures.

Hylotelephium telephium

There was also a floral tradition at the opposite part of the year, to celebrate the festival of St John the Baptist on 24th June. John Stow in his chronicles of London described how every door was garlanded with birch, fennel, orpine and lilies. Orpine, a sedum, has the alternative names of ‘livelong’ because of its lasting qualities, and ‘midsummer men’ because of its connections with the summer festival. Another herb connected with midsummer was mugwort, which Culpeper attributed to Venus, hastening delivery in childbirth. Along with St John’s Wort, the herb was burnt on St John’s Eve to purify communities, probably one of a series of examples of how a pagan practice was adopted by the Church.

St John’s Wort
Hypericum perforatum

Woodcuts from Gerard’s Herbal © Bodleian Library

You may like to read these other stories by Margaret Willes

A Brief Account of East End Garden History

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Catherine Halloran permalink
    June 17, 2020

    Thank you. This was a fascinating post. I miss the old Culpepper shops.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 17, 2020

    Very interesting as I have recently got into the books of CJ Sansom which are set in the time of Henry VIII. One of the main characters is an ex monk kicked out during the dissolution of the monasteries who has set himself up as an apothecary in London, and so there is a lot about his various unguents and cures. He also has to nurse one character back to health who has been nearly killed by a so called Physician who had prescribed purging and blood letting…eek!

    All this with the background of plague, small pox and people being burnt at the stake by the likes of Thomas Cromwell and Bishop Bonner… and we think we live I difficult times!

  3. June 17, 2020

    I’m looking forward to reading this book – sounds fascinating.

  4. June 17, 2020

    Reminds me that a cousin published a lovely facsimile of Crispin de Pass’ herbal ‘Hortus floridus’ of 1614 in the 1930s, so I went to look for it and it’s vanished …

  5. June 17, 2020

    Lovely Paintings of Herbs. I Really Enjoyed Them!!????????

  6. June 18, 2020

    Interesting that the first herb mentioned in the time of Covid is a remedy against Covid in Madagascar. Controversed of course as are any herbal remedies in emerging countries but Artemisia has been used successfully as an anti-malarial in the past and some anti-malarial have been used with a high degree of success to fight the new disease.

  7. Jonathan van Halbert permalink
    June 19, 2020

    As a child I found Herbs and thier books fascinating. I am fortunate in having an early 18th Century Edition. on this subject .. I do not need to visit the British Library. In order write such a book. I am not sure of the Benefits of recycling this ancient knowledge unless it is wholly accurate and attributed..

  8. Suzy permalink
    July 4, 2020

    Ahhh Margaret. Thoroughly enjoyed this read. I’ve become happily obsessed and absorbed in hedgerow apothecary and foraging during lockdown. I want to learn more and took my first class (via Zoom) this morning with the delightful Nat Mady of Hackney Herbal. Your blog here was a really nice accoutrement to today’s learning. Thank you! ?????
    PS. I made Meadowsweet cordial this week. I think our hunter gathering ancestors must turn in their graves at the knowledge we’ve lost over the centuries of natural remedies.

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