The Brassicaceae, or mustard family, contains many vegetables with a long history in the European diet. Cabbage, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower are all forms of a single polymorphic species, Brassica oleracea. Above from right to left: Collard is the closest available approximation to the colewort, the primitive cultivated cabbage of the Middle Ages. The tight, heading cabbages we know today were developed from the colewort. Sea kale (Crambe maritima), which was gathered from the wild, belongs to a separate genus within the Brassica family. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.
Cabbages and kales have been eaten, improved, and eaten some more for centuries. The medieval cabbage, or colewort, (see the first image for the etymology of “colewort”) was one of the mainstays of the medieval diet, at least for those ordinary mortals outside courtly circles, whose more refined cuisine has been preserved in cookbooks—such as the famous Forme of Cury—of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The greens were cooked and eaten alone, or were included in pottage—sometimes spelled “potage”—a kind of thick soup or porridge made from vegetables boiled with grain. (For a recipe for “Caboches in Pottage,” visit the Gode Cookery website.) It was not necessary to harvest the whole plant; leaves could be plucked from the stem and used as needed; coleworts remained viable well into the winter months.
Bitter and unpalatable in its wild form, cabbage was brought under cultivation in antiquity. In addition to their place in ancient and medieval nutrition, cabbages and kales were valued medicinal plants. Cabbage was said to sharpen the sight, relieve palsy, ease gout, and cleanse ulcers. (For an article on the recent recovery of pills made from common vegetables such as carrots and cabbage from a Roman shipwreck, visit the website of The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.) The Greek tradition that the cabbage was inimical to the grapevine and provided an antidote for drunkenness also survived into the Middle Ages.
Vegetables have changed far more since the Middle Ages than the medicinal plants or wildflowers grown here at The Cloisters, and it is more difficult for us to represent them accurately. The brassicas have changed the most. Our large, tight-heading cabbages do not much resemble the small loose-leaved medieval colewort. Dr. Sylvia Landsberg, an authority on English medieval gardens, relies on American collards as well as non-curly kale in her recreation of a kitchen garden typical of a yeoman’s homestead circa 1500 at Bayleaf in Sussex. We, too, use American collards to stand in for the medieval cabbage in the pottage bed in Bonnefont garden. As Dr. Landsberg rightly says, it is better to approximate the medieval type than to omit so important a plant from a re-creation of a medieval kitchen garden. (See the first image for more about the relationship of collards to coleworts.) A close relative of the cultivated colewort, the beautiful Crambe maritima, or sea kale, is grown in a nearby bed of culinary plants.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.