| Medieval * York |
“Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto?" ("Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?") – Martin Luther
Barley Hall’s marketing department has done its job well. So well, that a large medieval town house hiding in a tiny back-alley snickleway can’t truthfully be called a hidden gem anymore. Everyone knows Barley Hall. Especially as there’s now a massive glass wall down the side of the house which lets passers-by peer into the Great Hall without needing to buy a ticket. The hall’s exhibit shows you what life was like in the Medieval era and it must be said that it’s a bit of a cultural maze: one minute you’re eyeing up the plastic food on the banquet table and the next you’re accosted by Merlin the wizard. The gift shop is also full of witch and wizard gifts. So it’s all slightly odd, but very interesting.
Linking the themes of normality and magic is a tiny garden, easily missed before you head upstairs. Within the garden are plants and flowers that explain how Medieval cultures interacted with nature, and how these interactions formed their understandings of science, religion, medicine, and magic.
Flora and fauna were a huge part of these historic communities. Flowers and herbs were the foundations for miracles, spells, and potions in the days when science was defined through experimentation with nature. The herbs were crushed into pastes, tied into sachets, and sprinkled into food. They were used to cure every ailment known to man - from ‘itching in the seat’ to ‘botches on the face’, sweet-smelling herbs and strong tasting resins were there to help. From the poorest household to the grandest manor, and especially in Medieval monasteries, the herb garden was crucial to survive.
Although our idea of science seems entirely separate from the belief in magical healing properties of nature, this is mostly due to a cultural distain for ‘alternative remedies’. Many plants have actual chemical properties that have been necessary for our modern medicine. From Quinine (cures malaria) to Aspirin (cures literally everything), nature has been there helping us along.
Nonetheless, most of time the properties attributed to these herbal remedies changed depending on what the culture needed. Teasel would sometimes cure fever, chamomile headaches, rosemary would ward off nightmares, thyme would prevent infection, and anise might stop flatulence. But a few years later, or a few towns away, and they would be used for something entirely different. The name of the herb Sage was even taken from the latin Salvere (to save), showing just how vital the dictionary of history thought it was – and yet it has never been clear what exactly it would save someone from.
Understanding the cultural and medicinal associations for these plants traces how societies define health and how they have used the living beings around them to make sense of these ideas. Our science owes a lot to the experimentation of Medieval alchemy, but each of the ‘natural’ treatments were shaped by the cultural concerns of the day and marketed as such: these natural medicinal cures can do wonderful things but, as history shows, they are often merely magic.
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