Seventeenth Century Herbs

For some reason I wrote this blog post in the form of a conversation. With myself. I think I may have been on my own for too long.

I was on Cramond Island last week and it was covered with Lady’s Bedstraw (a common UK native with dark green leaves and spikes of yellow flowers), I couldn’t resist picking a large handful and it’s been drying in my kitchen ever since, right next to the Lavender and Rosemary.

But why, Kate?

These were all commonly used seventeenth century herbs and even though I’m on furlough, I just can’t quite let go of work. For those of you that aren’t aware I work in a seventeenth century merchant’s house owned by the National Trust for Scotland and including things like period-appropriate herbs is a real talking point. Also, it makes my kitchen smell nice in the meantime.

But what were they used for?

Hang on whilst I get my Culpeper

That sounds painful

Nicholas Culpeper (1615-64) wrote a book called the Complete Herbal (1653) in which he sought to catalogue the medicinal properties of different plants. In doing so he challenged the traditional mystique of medicine of the period and laid the foundations for the systematic categorisation and use of pharmaceuticals as treatments. It was an influential text in its time and remained so throughout the following century both in the UK and the US. At best he was a man ahead of his time, for instance he recorded the use of foxglove to treat heart conditions, the botanical foundation to the widely used modern drug, digitalis. At worst it is astrological nonsense with a heavy dose of humour theory. This was a system of medicine that divided the body into four humours – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Health was associated with an equilibrium of humours and an imbalance of certain humours caused either warm or cold diseases.

You surely can’t have an original copy?

How much do you think I get paid? Just know it’s not really enough to live on in central Edinburgh, let alone buy nearly 400-year old books. You can buy a complete copy of the text second hand on Amazon or Ebay for a few quid. Mine has the excellent disclaimer on the back that the “medical advice must be taken with a pinch of salt”. There are also digital copies available for free online.

Anyway, here are some extracts:

Lady’s Bedstraw
“…is good to break kidney stone, provoke urine, stay inwards bleedings, and to heal inwards wounds: the herb or flower bruised, and put up the nostrils, stays their bleeding likewise…the ointment do help burnings with fire or scalding with water: the same also, or the decoction of the herb and flower, is good to bathe the feet of travellers and footmen, whose long running causes weariness and stiffness in the their sinews and joints”

[This entry took me ages to find – for some reason it’s listed under B rather than L – even though ‘Ladies’ Mantle’ and ‘Ladies’ Smock’ are both under L. Culpeper, your alphabetising leaves something to be desired]

“Lavender is of special use for pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling sickness, the drowsy or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings. It strengthens the stomach, and frees the liver and spleen from obstructions, provokes women’s menses…but it is not safe to use when the body is replete with blood and humours, because of the hot and subtile spirits wherewith it is possessed.”

“It is a herb of as great use with us as any whatsoever, not only for physical, but civil purposes. The physical use of it is very much both for inward and outward diseases, for, by the warming and comforting heat thereof, it helps all cold diseases, both of the head, stomach, liver, and belly…It helps the pains of the gums and teeth, by rheum falling into them, by putrefaction, causing an evil smell from them, or a stinking breath.”

These herbs had domestic uses as well, Lady’s Bedstraw, for instance, takes its name from the inclusion of its dried flowers in the stuffing of straw mattresses (possibly because of its flea-repellent properties). It was also used for dying fabric. Additionally, all three were used as strewing herbs.

And where, precisely, were they strewn?

The floor

Yes, and?

Mostly just the floor. Herbs such as these were laid on the floor along with reeds, rushes or straw to form a sort of rudimentary, yet fragrant, carpet, which would be changed periodically. Nice-smelling herbs were chosen, but also ones with insect repelling properties (we still use lavender to repel moths today). This was common practice in both rich and poor houses of the 17th century (and earlier) and even among royalty – Charles II created the official role of Royal Herb Strewer in 1660.

What about cooking?

Some of them were used for that too, Rosemary, of course, and Lady’s Bedstraw was used as a rennet substitute in cheese-making, but we’ll talk more about this (and the appearance of spices) in another post.

Cheeky plug there. I’m bored with herbs, can we go for a walk please?

Yes, fine, but only after we’ve been shopping

I don’t want to go shopping

Tough, unless you want to live on 3 broken carrots and some sad cheese for the next week.


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