Guest Author - Helen B. Wharton
People have used plants to improve their lives since before there were any written records. Plants provided food, medicine, pleasant scents and pretty flowers to look at.
During the Middle Ages most people were familiar with the plants and herbs that were indigenous to the area in which they lived. At this same time, the study of herbs and their uses already had a long history in China, India and the Middle East.
With the return of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, herbs and spices previously unavailable and unknown in Europe were introduced. The demand for exotic herbs and spices grew and was, arguably, one of the driving forces in the exploration of the world and the spread of culture that was so much a part of the Renaissance.
I would like to take a look at some herbs that were common during the Renaissance, and their uses.
Fumitories, or incense, are herbs and resins that are burned to scent the air. This might have been done merely to make a room or house more pleasant, consider there were no antiperspirants, dry cleaners or washing machines! A more important use, however, of fumitories was medicinal. These herbs were burned not only to clear the air in a sick room, but were also believed to protect from, or ward off the effect of disease. People believed that "ill humors" carried in the air were a cause of illness like the Plague. Some herbs that were either burned alone, or mixed with resins and oils to make incense, were roses, rosemary, lavender, cloves, cinnamon and sandalwood.
Strewing herbs were strewn, or spread, on the floor of earth, wood or stone; to mask the odors in a room. Picture a banquet hall filled with knights or guards, family and household staff as well as dogs and sometimes other animals and you can see the value of strewing herbs. Some of these herbs including pennyroyal and tansey were also strewn on the floor to keep down the vermin and fleas.
These herbs were used not only to keep clothing and linens smelling pleasant and fresh but also to repel moths and other insects. Clothes were not worn once and then laundered, they were brushed, aired and then put away in chests with herbs such as lavebder, pennyroyal, wormwood, camphor, mint and rue. There were no "man made" fabrics, only natural fibers such as silk and wool so insect repellants were of vital importance.
Soaps, hair wash, fragranced water and salves were made for personal use, by women, for their families with flowers and herbs providing a pleasing smell. Some examples that are still used to this day are rosewater, lavender water, jasmine, marjoram and citrus.