The medieval vervain was identified with the “holy herb” known to the Greeks and Romans. Despite its unprepossessing appearance, common vervain is one of the great magico-medical plants of the Western tradition.
Many odde olde wives tales are written of Vervaine tending to witchcraft and sorcerie, which you may read elsewhere, for I am not willing to trouble your eares with supporting such trifles as honest eares abhorre to heare.
—John Gerard, The Herbal or Generall Historie of Plants, 1597
The great sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard scoffed at superstition, but he was well aware that the magico-medical reputation of vervain (Verbena officinalis) could be traced back to Greek and Roman antiquity. The first reference made by the Roman natural historian Pliny to verbenae, in the plural, clearly refers to a class of plants used in sacred ceremonies rather than to a botanical species, but Pliny later enlarges on the many marvelous uses of a specific plant known to the Romans as hiera botane (”sacred plant”), called verbenaca by the Latins:
With this the table of Jupiter is swept, and homes are cleansed and purified. There are two kinds of it; one has many leaves and is thought to be female, the other the male, has fewer leaves. Some authorities do not distinguish these two kinds . . . since both have the same properties. Both kinds are used by the people of Gaul in fortune-telling and in uttering prophecies, but the Magi especially make the maddest statements about the plant: that people who have been rubbed with it obtain their wishes, banish fevers, win friends, and cure all diseases without exception. . . . They say too that if a dining-couch is sprinkled with water in which this plant has been soaked the entertainment becomes merrier.
—Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Book XXV, 105–107
Pliny also mentions the special conditions under which vervain is to be gathered for these magical purposes. In a later chapter, he discusses a number of purely medical applications, and notes the use of vervain in cases of stone, gout, dropsy, epilepsy, ulcers, and fever, although the latter prescription includes a magical element: the plant must be cut at the third joint for tertian fever (a fever that recurs every third day), and at the fourth for quartan fever. The great reputation of this “holy herb” as a cure-all and an amulet was undiminished throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, although the charms once used in its collection became Christian prayers, as in this example from an early seventeenth-century work condemning superstitious practices, quoted by Geoffrey Grigson in his compendium of British plant lore, The Englishman’s Flora:
Hallowed be thou, Vervein, as thou growest on the ground,
For in the mount of Calvary there was thou first found.
Thou healedst our Saviour Jesus Christ, and stanchedst his bleeding wound;
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, I take thee from the ground.
—John White, The Way to The True Church, 1608
Jerry Stannard, an authority on medieval medical botany, cites vervain as a prime example of a class of plants he designates as “magic-bearing” herbs. These are real plants that may have had medical or other ordinary applications, which were also believed to carry occult force if sought out at a particular time of day or year and invoked by means of charms or prayers. In those cases, a formulaic consecration of the plant would accompany its collection or its preparation for use as an amulet. (Vervain, like St. John’s wort, was particularly associated with midsummer’s eve and day; see “Midsomer Magick” (June 23, 2009).
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, vervain was strongly associated with sorcery and enchantment, although it was also said to “hinder witches of their will.” The association was preserved into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when vervain came to be identified with the Druids, probably on the strength of Pliny’s discussion of its use by the Gauls. Vervain’s reputation as a sacred herb is alive in twenty-first century Wicca and in popular culture; an apotropaic locket containing vervain features in The Vampire Diaries.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987
Pliny. Natural History, Vol. VII, Books XXIV–XXVII. Translated by W. H. S. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1956, reprinted 1966, revised 1980.
Stannard, Jerry. “Magiferous Plants and Magic in Medieval Medical Botany” (V, 33) in Herbs and Herbalism in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Eds. Katherine Stannard and Richard Kay. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.