The History of Rosemary Magic, Marriage, Medicine and Mutton. Part 3 – Medicine

Rosemary and Medicine
It’s only recently that medicine and magic have been truly separated – in earlier times the two were indistinguishable. For example, the 14th century work – On the Virtues of Rosemary – describes how powdered Rosemary flowers can cure a snakebite (medicine) while placing its branches above a door will prevent snakes from entering the building (magic).
For the Roman author, Pliny the Elder (AD 23 –79), Rosemary was something of a cure-all and he recommended it for, among other things: failing eyesight, liver problems, respiratory troubles, jaundice, gout, and the healing of wounds – Rosemary does have genuine antiseptic properties.
His Greek contemporary, the physician, pharmacologist and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides, wrote in De Materia Medica of Rosemary’s ‘warming faculty’.
Around 1000 AD, an earlier Roman herbal from the 5th century – De herbarum virtutibus – was translated into Anglo Saxon. Rosemary is included as a medicinal plant without any hint of magic – blended with lard it could treat fresh wounds while its juice would soothe toothache and itch. This inclusion is particularly interesting as Rosemary is not known to have been grown in England before 1338 when cuttings were sent by Jeanne of Valois to the wife of Edward III (see Part 1 of this blog) and planted in the garden of the old palace of Westminster.
Rosemary features in most – possibly all – subsequent English herbals, including Blanckes’ Herbal (c. 1525), the first to be printed in England:
“Boyle the leves in whyte wyne and wasshe thy face therwith and thou shalt have a fayre face.”
He also suggests that a simple Rosemary tea is
“For much worth against all evils of the body”.
And that:
“If thy legs be blown with the gout, boil the leaves (rosemary) in water and then take the leaves and bind them in a linen cloth about thy legs, and it shall do much good.”
Gervase Markham wrote in his English Housewife (1615):
“Rosemary water: the face washed therein both morning and night causeth a fair and clear contenance…when one maketh a bath of this decoction, it is called the bath of life , the same drunk comforteth the heart, the brain, and the whole body, and cleanseth away the spots of the face; it maketh a man look young.”
England’s most famous herbalist – Nicholas Culpepper – was equally impressed by Rosemary. In his Pharmacopeia Londoniensis (1653) he wrote:
“Rosemary) water is an admirable cure-all remedy of all kinds of cold, loss of memory, headache, coma. It receives and preserves natural heat, restores body function and capabilities, even at late age. There are not that many remedies producing that many good effects.”
The demand for Rosemary had risen exponentially half a century earlier when the plague struck London. By the end of 1603, 38,000 Londoners were dead and the price of Rosemary (believed to be both a cure for and defense against the disease) had rocketed from one shilling for an armful of branches to six shillings for a handful – roughly the same price as you’d have paid for half a dozen fat pigs.
Mrs. Beeton in her Household Management offers a cure for one of medicine’s holy grails – the balding head:
“Mix together equal quantities of olive-oil and spirit of rosemary; a few drops of oil of nutmeg, rub the roots of the hair every night with a little of this liniment, and the growth of it will very soon be sensible.”
However, the most enduring use for Rosemary was Hungary Water – a mixture or distillation of fresh Rosemary tops and spirits of wine, formulated in the late 14th century on the instruction (it is said) of the Queen of Hungary to treat gout, rheumatism and paralyzed limbs. It was both drunk and applied to the skin and soon became popular across Europe both as a medicine and as a fragrance. Its latter use surviving even after Eau de Cologne had been invented in 1709 – Napoleon is recorded as having got through 162 bottles of Rosemary water during the first three months of 1806.
While we can laugh at all this quackery, when it comes to Rosemary our ancestors were at least on the right track as the herb does contain a plethora of biologically active compounds that remain useful in modern medicine.