Anglo-Saxon Herbs

 Anglo-Saxon Herbs

Hlædfdig Arastorm, Lady of Stormgard


The Anglo-Saxons used herbs for cooking, for dyeing, and as we use medicines today, – both herbs that they grew in gardens, and those collected in the wild. It appears that there were probably people who knew what and how to collect herbs who provided them to those who didn’t have the time to do so, but that most herbs used were gathered by the people using them. Just as in the modern world, we take care of simple problems with over the counter medicines, a woman was expected to know how to cook, and how to take care of the bulk of the ailments in her family. On the other hand, when something came up that didn’t happen often, such as setting a broken bone, or helping during birth, the family would probably go to the person in town with the most experience – even if the experience was what we’d consider veterinary.  A midwife (which means “with woman”) would probably be someone who’d had more children, then been called to attend other women. There were doctors, but these were usually only for the rich, and they studied ancient texts, spoke Latin, knew astrological influences and philosophy, and prescribed more prestigious treatments. Then as now, both upbringing and personality (and economy) would dictate whether someone would prefer to consult with someone with experience or with prestige.


Most of what we know is from collections that were written down once literacy became more widespread. (While it’s quite a bit of work to prepare parchment and ink and hand write a leechbook- how much more so would it be to put the same number of words carved into wood? Makes memorizing seem o bit more practical doesn’t it?) Our ancestors hoped for what we hope for when they found old manuscripts- information they didn’t have. Many of these herbals contain glosses or translations, and it’s clear that they often weren’t too sure what it was they were translating. Part of this was because some of their herbals were written in the Mediterranean about plants they had never seen. Parts are because of the innate nature of herbs to have different effects in different situations, which confused the issue. (And don’t get me started about herbals where the illustrations are copied and recopied until one can’t recognize the plant from it’s picture!)

Another problem for those of us trying to figure out what herbs the Anglo-Saxons used and how is that there was no universal classification- that didn’t come in until the 17th century. There are dozens of herbs known as All Heal or Self Heal, or bone wort, or itch wort. Sometimes we have to guess what the herb was from where it grows and what it does- that, at least, hasn’t changed over the last centuries.


Another thing that may confuse some people is that what the Anglo-Saxons consider herbs were many things that we would consider food or trees. I’ve separated them that way in the lists below. Also, while I’d like to have the Latin name for all the herbs so that you can be sure what you should be using,  I got most of these from Pollington- and frankly, picked the ones I thought most likely to be found and used by modern folk. If you are using some of these- do make sure you check them against modern herbals to make sure that they are considered safe for use by modern herbalists. Some of the herbs are obviously not native to England, but were imported with enough frequency that they appeared in early herbals, so I included them. Those are mostly marked with asterisks. Question marks indicate the ones where the translators were not sure about which herb is meant.


When it comes to Anglo-Saxon cooking, there is a great deal of conjecture, and also the usual SCA problem of taste differences. We know what they had available, but how did they use it? The Romans were fond of a sauce made of rotten fish-heads- used it much as we would use worcestershire sauce. I am not thrilled with the taste of mixing fruit and fish. Cinnamon and other spices appear to have sometimes been used because of their anti-bacterial properties, but how often could less wealthy get hold of such spices? (They appear frequently in wills as early as the 7th century- if kept that carefully, how often were they actually eaten?) It can be assumed that some folk preferred the flavor of sage, and some preferred dill, and their family cooking would reflect this. One recent find is of a ship in the Thames dated by dendrochronology to the 9th century that was full of hops. This was centuries before hops was supposed to have been used to make beer rather than ale, but no other explaination explains why such a large cargo would have been being transported than that it was valuable- and as a beer ingredient is it’s primary purpose. Then there’s the question of how much was used. It wasn’t until Fanny Farmer in the 19th century that recipes included precise measurements. Most period recipes are simply lists of what was included in a dish, and it was expected that the cook would know how to use the ingredients. One was expected to know how to make bread, to put roots and meats into a pot and cook them into a soup or stew, or to season whatever meat one had. I would look at these lists as “possible” lists, and not assume that every Anglo-Saxon had all of these available all the time.


Dyeing was done personally, by housewifes, and professionally in commercial context- in both cases, using both common “collectable” herbs as well as ones purchased for special colors. As with cooking and medicine, there is not much direct evidence about what herbs were used except when, as in weld and woad, they became a viable commercial product. For personal use we do best to compare the list of what herbs we knew were locally available and modern lists of herbs for dyeing.

Finally, I would recommend SCA herbalists to remember that lists like these are meant as a starting point. If your persona is a woman from the fens, you will know well the uses of Willow bark, which you might not if you were from the hills or downs. I think we can safely say that women probably saved their onion skins for dying, as they would save their wood ash for soap making- unless, of course, they came from an area where they burned peat. One must always look upon their persona wholistically.


Herb list

Aconite          Thung

Adderwort  (snakeweed, goosegrass, bistort)

Athelfarthingwort (stichwort or chickweed)

Atterlothe          (betony? cockspur grass)

Balm                   meadow wort

Balm                   mint          bee wort

Bay                   auberg laurel berries *

Beewort          (sweet flag)

Betony          (bishopswort, wound wort)

Bishopwort (watermint, marshmallow, vervain, soapwort)

Blackthorn  slahthorn

boarfern         polypody

Bonewort-          heartsease, violet centaury, comphrey

bramble-          raspberry blackberry

Burdock          clate

Campion-          corncockle leechwort laecewyrt

Caraway          cymin

Catmint          nepte

Centaury          feverwort

Camomile-         Maythe

Chervil          (cearfille)

Cinnamon          suthernrind ? *

Cinquefoil- fifleafe

Clover          claefre

Coltsfoot          Clite

Columbine          berbebe

Comfrey          galluc all apple

Coriander          celendre

Cuckoo Sorrel          geaces sure

Daisy          daeges ege

Dandelion    aegwert

Dill                   dyle

Dock                   ompre

Dog Rose          wudurose (sweet briar?)

Earthnavel          eorthnafala asparagus?

Eyebright          eawyrt

Feltwort          felterre mullien

Fencress          watercress

Fennel          finol

Fengreek          well cress

Fern                   Fearb

Ferfew          feferfugie smearwort

Flax                   linwyrt

Fleabane          theorwyrt elecampine/ gorse

Foxglove          foxesglofa thron apple, sunflower, not likely foxglove

Gardenmeint unminte spearmint

ginger          gingifre *

Glovewort          glofwyrt lily of the valley

Gooseberry thefethorn hawthorn

Goosegrass clate  burdock

gorse          gorst Furze

Heather          haeth

Hemlock          hymlic

Hemp          haenap

Henbane          helene

Hilwort          hylwyrt- pennyroyal

hindberry          hinbrer raspberry

Homewort          hamwyrt houseleek

Hop                   hymele

Horehound hune black horehound

Horseheal          horselene elecampane

horsemint          wild mint

Horsetail          aequiseia

Houseleek          sinfulle

Hyacinth          berien

Hyssop          isopo

Ironhard          isenhearde black centasury vervain

Ivy                   Iuem ufe

Knotgrass          unfortraedde

Ladies Mantle          lionsfoot leonfot

Lovage          lufestice

Lungwort          lungenwyrt black hellebore

Lupin          ealhtre

Madder          maedre

Mallow          hocleaf

Marigold          sigilhweorfa

Marjoram          organe wild thyme

Marsh Mallow          merscmergylle bishopwort Mallow

Maythe          maegetha chamomile

Meadowwort          medewyrt madder or balm

Mint                   minte (othremintan, horseminte, tunminte- gardenmint)

Mistletoe          mistel

Motherwort modorwyer mugwort

Mugwoer          mycgwyrt roman wormwood

Mullein          Feltwort felterre

Nettle          stithe

Nightshade solsece

Oxlip          oxanslyppe primrose

Pansy          bonewort viola tricolor, heartease

Parsley          petresilige wood parsley

Pennyroyal pollegie

Pepper          piper *

Periwinkle          vinca peruinca

Plantain          waybread wegbreaede

Poppy          popig

Primrose          cusloppe cowslip

Purslane          porclaca

Quickbeam cwicbeam

Raven’s Foot hraemnes fot figwort or pilewort cinqfoil

Reed                   hreod

Rose                   rose

Rosemary          bothen

Rue                   rude

Saffron          croh

Sage                   saluie

St Johnswort corion  hypericon

Savory          saturege

Spearwort  sperewyrt elecampine, gladden, darf elder?

Speedwell          hleomoc brookline

Sweet Violet          uiola puprpurea

Tansy          helde

Teasel          Wolfscomb wulfs camb

Thistle          thistle

Thunderwort Thunorwyrt houseleek

Thung          thung- generic poisonous plant

Thyme-          organe wild thyme

Valerian          valeriane all heal

Vervain          berbene  (columbine?)

Waterdock eadocce waterlily

Waybread          wegbreaede plantain or dock

Wenwort          wenwyrt lesser celandine

Whin                   Gorse

Wild Oat          selfaete

Wild Rye          Bennet

Woad          wad

Wolfsbane Thung, aconite

Wood Sorrel geaces sura cockoo sorrel

Wood          Sourapple wudusuraeppel

Woodruff          wuduroue

Wormwood wermod

Yarrow          gearwe

Herbs that are usually considered food

Apple-          aeppel

Artichoke          healsyrt

Asparagus          eorthnafala

Barley          beren

Bean           bean (broad bean, chickpea

Beet                   bete

Cabbage          cawel

Capers          springwyrt springwort

Carrot-         more

Crabapple          wergelu

Cress          stane

Cropleek          garlic?, leek

Cucumber          hwerhwerte

Garlic          garleac

grape          winberie

Holleek          holleac  shallot or scallion

Leek,          broad bradeleac

Mulberry          morbeam

Mushroom          swamm (feldswam- wild mushroom metteswam- edible mushroom)

Onion          hwit leac

Parsnip          feldmora (vs wild carrot)

pea                   pie

Radish          raedic

Rape                   (brassica napus) naep or Tunaep turnip

Rye                   ryge

Strawberry streawberge

Turnip          naep

Watercress fencress

Wheat          hwaeten

Whortleberry haethbergeann

Wild Celery merece




Trees used as herbs

Ash                   aesc

Aspen          aeps

Beech          beacenan

Birch          beorc

Dwarf Elder ellyn

Elm                   elm

Hawthorn          theofethorn

Hazel          haesel

Holly          holen

Nut tree hnutbeam hazel or walnut

Oak                   ac

Plum tree          plum treow

Thorn          thorn

Willow          seales




Leechcraft: Early English Charms Plantlore and Healing

Stephen Pollingron 2000

This includes Balds Third Leechbook, the Old English Hebarium and the Lacnunga

Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, Processing and Consumption Ann Hagan 1992

2d Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, Production and Distribution Ann Hagan 1995

Plants and People in Ancient Scotland Camilla & James Dickson 2000

Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants

Today’s Herbal Health Louise Tenney  1997


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