Herbal Waters to Perfume Feasts

I have been meaning to translate some interesting excerpts from the (probably) eleventh-century de viribus herbarum for a while. Most of what I am translating pertains to what we would call cosmetics, wellness, and lifestyle medicine, though there are also a remarkable number of aphrodisiacs. Here is the first bit:

Bugloss, 1532, courtesy of wikimedia commons

1137 Its decoction (of bugloss) is said to produce joyful gatherings if sprinkled among the guests.

Vervain, 1532, courtesy of wikimedia commons

1878 Its decoction (of vervain), made in wine, makes happy guests if sprinkled among a gathering like bugloss described above.

I knew that stone and earth floors were covered with straw or rushes for social gatherings and that it was customary to use fresh coverings mixed with fragrant herbs when possible for honoured guests. This was not the disgustingly unhygienic habit it is sometimes cast as, and the scent of fresh grass or hay can be pleasant. I had not been aware that herbal decoctions were also used to enhance the dining experience.

Personally, I would choose neither bugloss nor vervain as my favopurite dining room air freshener, but the expectation that they would raise the spirits of the guests must have helped with the placebo effect. It certainly calls for a revision of the entrenched view that medieval interiors were stinky, smoky places where smells were something to be suffered rather than enjoyed.

The Macer Floridus or de viribus herbarum is a herbal in the form of a didactic poem that was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in all of Europe, and especially in Germany. It was most likely written in the eleventh century by Odo of Meung, but this is somewhat uncertain and the early version could date from as early as the ninth century. Its final form of 77 chapters certainly existed by 1100. We know certainly that it was not authored by the classical Roman writer Aemilius Macer to whom early editors ascribed it.

The Macer is a relatively brief treatment of the pharmaceutical properties of various plants, drawing on various classical and medieval sources. It does not contain culinary recipes, but some remarks in it are nonetheless interesting from that perspective. I am relying on the scholarly edition of 1834 and a German translation by Johannes Gottfried Mayer and Konrad Goehl that is still in print.

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