Wood betony (Stachys officinalis) enjoyed a considerable reputation in antiquity and the Middle Ages as both a medicinal and a magical herb, and was believed to have many virtues. Photograph by Nathan Heavers.
In the mountains and woods, in the meadows and depths of the valleys—
Almost everywhere, far and wide, grows the precious abundance
Of betony. Yet I have it too in my garden, and there
It learns a softer way of life in the tended soil.
So great is the honor this genus has won for its name
That if my Muse wished to add to it she would find herself
Defeated at last, overwhelmed; and soon she would see
She could add nothing more to the value it has already.
Perhaps you pick it to use it green, perhaps
To dry and store away for the sluggish winter.
Do you like to drink it from cloudy goblets? Or do you
Prefer to enjoy what it gives after long and careful
Refining? Whatever your fancy, the wonderful powers
Which this herb has will supply all your needs.
—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.
Both the magical and the medicinal aspects of betony’s reputation were established in antiquity and maintained throughout the Middle Ages. In the first century A.D., Pliny the Elder claimed that “vettonica” was more highly valued than any other healing plant, and that betony’s fame is so great that the home in which it is planted is believed to be safe from all dangers (Historia Naturalis, Book XXV.84). In Pliny’s subsequent discussion of a wide variety of complaints and their treatment, betony is prescribed for a multitude of ills, including afflictions of the eyes, the heart, the lungs, the stomach and bowels, the kidneys, and the uterus. It is also recommended as efficacious in reducing the spleen, stimulating the appetite, treating paralysis and epilepsy, reducing fever and violent chills, healing carbuncles, curing jaundice, and lightening a leaden complexion (Book XXVI, passim). The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus recapitulates the many medicinal virtues of betony, while adding that the herb has the power to reveal all that is malicious and deadly.
A treatise on the virtues of this panacea, De Herba Vettonica, which includes forty-seven prescriptions for the use of betony, was attributed to Antonius Musa, the personal physician of the Emperor Augustus, but scholars think it likely that the composition dates not to antiquity but to the early Middle Ages. This text was incorporated into a fifth-century collection of remedies, the Latin Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius, which was translated into Anglo-Saxon about the year 1000. The Old English Herbarium, as it is known, begins with the virtues of betony, which is good for both soul and body. Twenty-nine remedies employing the leaves or the root are listed, but the use of betony against nocturnal visitations and terrifying dreams and visions heads the list. Instructions for the proper gathering of the herb are also given in this initial remedy:
This plant is very wholesome and so you must gather it in the month of August without using a tool made of iron; and when you have gathered it, shake off the dirt so that none sticks to it and then dry very thoroughly in the shade. Then, together with its roots, make it into a powder, then use it and taste it when you need to.
—Old English Herbarium (1.1), translated by Anne Van Arsdall
(The Index of Medieval Medical Images in the collection of the UCLA Digital Library includes an image of a man gathering betony.)
Hildegard of Bingen considers “bathenia” to be particularly efficacious in countering love spells of a diabolic origin. She stipulates that the bewitched party, whether male or female, must seek out betony that has not yet been used for either a medicinal or a magical purpose:
When found, one leaf should be placed in each nostril, and one under the tongue. One leaf should be held in each hand, and one under each foot. The person should fix his eyes intently on the betony. He should do this until the leaves grow hot on his body. This should be repeated until he is better. . . . If it is winter and betony leaves are unavailable for the foresaid remedy, he should do the same thing with its root.
—Physica, CXXVIII, translated by Patricia Throop
(For more information on Hildegard of Bingen and Physica, see “Mutter Natur,” October 10, 2010.)
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translated by Priscilla Throop. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Pliny. Natural History, Vol. VII, Books XXIV–XXVII. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1956, reprinted 1966, revised 1980.
Van Arsdall, Anne. Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. London: Routledge, 2002.