|photo by ana traina|
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Herbal Smarts (wort or wyrt = herb + cunning = intelligence or skill)
(In Old English, a garden is a wyrtgeard , mugwort (artemisia vulgaris) is mucgwyrt, medowsweet is medowyrt, and any healing herb - which means most of them - is læcewyrt , a leech wort)
THE OLDEST surviving medical book in England is also the oldest herbal, for of course herbs were medicine in the middle ages. This is the Leech Book of Bald, ( læce in Old English means healer) compiled in Ælfred's time or very shortly thereafter by a monk named Bald, and penned, in its surviving copy, between 924 and 946 by a scribe (almost certainly also a monk) named Cild. It gives recipes for herbal remedies using vervain, mugwort, plaintain, periwinkle (vinca minor), wood betony, violets, yarrow, and many other herbs still in medical use today. Among its formulations are some sent to King Ælfred by Elias, Patriarch of Jerusalem, to treat constipation, disorders of the spleen, and other maladies.
Anglo-Saxon medical practices were truly holistic, and sought to heal both body and spirit. A great deal of period herbalism concerns itself with charms and amulets to protect against evil influences, and even straightforward medical problems, say a slice from a seax or plough blade, were treated with a combination of practical and magical means. Wounds were often sung into to speed healing, and the afflicted (or their agents, if they were too ill to do so) ordered to perform certain magical rites - such as walking in a Moon-lit field - as part of the cure.
Some of the most illuminating relics from the age are the twelve metrical Charms or poems written down, in Old English, in tenth and eleventh century manuscripts. The titles of each Charm are telling: For Unfruitful Land, The Nine Herbs Charm, Against A Dwarf, For a Sudden Stitch, For Loss of Cattle, For Delayed Birth, For the Water-Elf Disease( my favorite), For a Swarm of Bees, For Theft of Cattle, For Loss of Cattle, A Journey Charm, and Against a Wen (wart).
Here is a list of just a few wort herbs:
Sneezewort, taste hot and spicy, causes the saliva to flow.
Soapwort, used as a cleansing herb.
Pennywort, the leaves look like pennies.
Woundwort, used to heal wounds made with iron.
Motherwort, also known as “womb plant,’ used in difficult childbirth.
If a man beareth with him one twig of his wort,
he will not be terrified with any awe, nore will a wild beast hurt him;
or any evil near him.
~The Herbarium of Apuleius Plantonicus~