On a recent trip to England, I discovered a marvellous book: Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica (Chatto & Windus, London, 1996).
This is not a dry encyclopaedia of plant descriptions but rather a wonderful social history of human relationships with the plant world and of the changing symbolic and utilitarian meanings of plants. Most of the stories relate to living memory, but there is also a great deal of plant lore that hints at earlier understandings. There is also an enormous body of very useful information on when particular species were introduced to the British Isles.
Mabey makes use of contributions from many thousands of members of the public, as well as his own research. Among other concepts, this book documents how intensely local, personal and important plants are as a part of the autobiographies of modern Britons. Plant lore is not a thing of the past, as the following example demonstrates.
Concerning Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), Mabey provides us with the sort of information that we might expect: that it was ‘once planted by houses as a protection against witches…’ (p. 203), but he also provides us with rather more surprising modern detail. In the Isle of Man, it would seem, crosses made from rowan twigs and bound with wool ‘taken from the hedge. If the wool is from the native Loaghtyn sheep, so much the better.’ are still put up above the lintels of houses on May Eve, when it is also considered a good thing to have primroses in the house. (pp 203-4).
But this book also contains many little gems relevant to early medieval Britain. Dyers greenweed (Genista tinctoria), despite the name, produces a yellow dye, not green. Mabey explains that in the area around Kendal, the wool was first dyed yellow with dyers greenweed, then mordanted with alum, before being dipped in a vat of woad to produce ‘Kendal Green’. Now alum does not occur naturally in Britain and in medieval times it was imported from Italy. However, Mabey tells us of an early medieval alternative. Remains of dyers greenweed were found in the Viking levels in York together with residues of clubmoss (Diphasium complanatum). The moss is native to Scandinavia, not Britain, and can be used as a mordant in place of alum.
To take another example, field maple (Acer campestre), not to be confused with the introduced sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), is an ancient native British tree. The wood was much favoured by medieval wood-carvers and both the harp found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the harp excavated from the Saxon barrow at Taplow were made of maple (p. 264).
But the story that really set me thinking was about rush lights. These were made from the soft rush (Juncus effusus) and feature in many a nineteenth-century novel as the light source of the poor. Mabey reminds us that Gilbert White wrote about rush lights in his Natural History of Selborne (1789) and so did William Cobbett in his Cottage Economy (1822). But how far back in time were rush lights used? 17th century? 16th century? Does anybody out there know? Was this an early medieval light source as an alternative to the (always expensive) wax candle?
As might be expected, this book is full of information on traditional herbal remedies, but I was interested to see that Mabey conducts his own assessment of the efficacy of herbal remedies, based partly on the number of his contributors who vouch for the cures. Four plants, he found, stand out as being particularly efficacious: Celandine, Comfrey, Dandelion and Feverfew.
In a way, these are just ‘the usual suspects’, but I note that only dandelion is cited as effective for its traditional use as a diuretic (common names revolve around the wet-the-bed, piss-the-bed theme). Feverfew, it would appear, is effective in helping to reduce the frequency of migraines, rather than in reducing fever. Comfrey poultices are good for bruises and sprains, despite the common names revolving around the theme of ‘bone-knit’. While celandine is definitely not good for eye problems, whatever the Romans and subsequent Anglo-Saxon herbals may have said, but the juice is widely claimed to be efficacious in removing warts.
All in all, this book provides a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in conjuring up the feel of the natural world in the past and I would highly recommend it to all historical novelists, as well as to social and environmental historians.