In the later Middle Ages, the leaves, stems, and flowers of this aromatic member of the mint family were used to effect cures for many ills, and provide protection from both spiritual and bodily harm. Photograph by Nathan Heavers
Libanotis which the Romans call Rosmarinus & they which plait crowns use it: the shoots are slender, about which are leaves, small, thick, and somewhat long, thin, on the inside white, but on the outside green, of a strong scent. It hath a warming facultie . . .
—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book III: 89
It is an holy tree and with folk that hath been rightful and just gladly it groweth and thriveth. In growing it passeth not commonly in height the height of our Lord Jesu Christ while he walked as a man on earth, that is man’s height and half, as man is now; nor, after it is 33 years old, it growth not in height but waxeth in breadth and that but little. It never seareth all but if some of the aforesaid four weathers make it.
—Friar Henry Daniel, “little book of the virtues of rosemary,” ca. 1440
The two quotes above epitomize the ancient reputation of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) as a medicinal simple, and the hallowed status it came to enjoy in the later Middle Ages. Friar Henry Daniel’s famous treatise on rosemary includes medical prescriptions, horticultural advice, and sacred lore. In the introduction to the work, Daniel attributes the Latin original to a scholar of Salerno and tells us that he has rendered the “little book” into the vulgar tongue himself, word for word. He also tells us that the book was sent by the Countess of Hainault to her daughter Queen Phillipa (wife of Edward III) in the year 1338. [The reverse of the Wilton Dyptych (ca. 1395–1399, National Gallery of London) shows an enchained white hart, which was the personal emblem of Phillipa's grandson King Richard II, lying on a large rosemary, the emblem of his queen, Anne of Bohemia.]
Rosemary is not known to have grown in England before Queen Phillipa received the cuttings her mother sent along with the little book. John Harvey, a twentieth-century authority on English medieval gardens, surmised that these cuttings were entrusted to the care of Henry Daniel and first planted in the privy garden of the old palace of Westminster. Daniel warns that this Mediterranean herb must be protected in the English winter from black frost and from cold northern, eastern, and northeastern winds.
While rosemary’s introduction to England can be dated to the fourteenth century, it is not clear when it was first grown in northern Europe. Rosemary is listed in two of the three important ninth-century sources for Carolingian gardens: the Capitulare de Villis includes it as one of more than eighty other plants to be grown on the imperial estates, and a bed marked “rosmarino” appears in the small medicinal garden rendered on the St. Gall Plan, but it is not among the herbs named in the Hortulus as growing in Walahfrid Strabo’s little garden at Reichenau. (For more information on these Carolingian sources, see Medieval Gardens on the Continent.)
Although absent or uncommon on the Continent, this Mediterranean maritime plant may have been very familiar to the southern European compilers of Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius, a late classical production copied and transmitted by medieval monks. (The Bodleian Library’s collection includes an eleventh-century manuscript of the Pseudo-Apuleius from St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury that includes a depiction of rosemary: folio 21r; see image.) The Tractatus de herbis, a thirteenth-century Italian herbal in the collection of the British Library, includes a more naturalistic representation (folio 85v; see image).
The Old English Herbarium, an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Pseudo-Apuleius made about the year 1000, lists rosemary’s therapeutic properties, but that doesn’t mean that the plant was known and grown in tenth-century England. The book treats rosemary as an ordinary medicinal simple that could be pounded with lard to treat fresh wounds and whose juice was of value in treating toothache and itch. It makes no mention of the marvelous powers attributed to every part of the plant, but especially the flowers, in the later Middle Ages. Rosemary is not characterized as a “holy herb,” as Henry Daniel calls it, nor is it a powerful amulet against all manner of physical ills and spiritual dangers, as attested in the anonymous treatise On the Virtues of Rosemary. According to George R. Keiser, an authority on medieval medical and scientific texts, this popular work was probably compiled soon after Friar Daniel’s little book. It survives in many manuscripts in English, and in Latin versions which were widely circulated on the Continent. In this encomium to rosemary, the powdered flowers have not only the power to heal all manners of sickness, but to comfort and cheer the person who carries them and to make them beloved. Not only can rosemary cure snakebite, it can kill adders when placed in their holes, and a branch placed above the lintel can prevent snakes from entering a house.
By the sixteenth century, rosemary had become a common garden plant in England as well as Italy, as John Gerard attests. Once prescribed to warm the brain and strengthen the memory, the herb had become an emblem of remembrance, as proffered by Ophelia: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember” (Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V). The herbalist John Parkinson (1567–1650) notes not only that rosemary grew in every Englishwoman’s garden, but that it was commonly used as a token at both weddings and funerals. The seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick epitomizes the plant’s significance in a single couplet simply titled “The Rosemary Branch”:
Grow for two ends, it matters not at all,
Be’t for my bridal, or my buriall.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Harvey, John H. “Medieval Plantsmanship in England: The Culture of Rosemary.” Garden History, Vol. I, No. 1. September, 1972.
Keiser, George R. “Rosemary: Not Just for Remembrance.” in Health and Healing from the Medieval Garden, ed. Peter Dendle and Alain Touwaide. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2008.