From right to left: A small start of wild or creeping thyme, a native of Northern Europe, in a terra rossa pot; detail of a planting of common or garden thyme, indigenous to the Western Mediterranean, growing in a sunny bed under the parapet wall in Bonnefont cloister. Although these two plants are easily distinguished in the garden, it can be difficult to know which of several species of thyme is under discussion in ancient and medieval sources.
There are hundreds of species in the genus Thymus, and a large and confusing array of hybrids and cultivated forms. Ancient and medieval sources agree on the heating and drying properties of thyme, which is still greatly valued for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, but the species known in the European Middle Ages were not those of the ancients. The attempt to equate the plants discussed by Dioscorides in the De Materia Medica with more familiar species would occupy botanists well into the Renaissance.
Two medicinal thymes were known to antiquity. Dioscorides recommends a creeping thyme (probably Thymus sibthorpii) which he calls “Erpullos” or “serpyllum,” for ruptures, convulsion, inflammation of the liver, and as a headache cure when steeped in vinegar. He also notes that it is good for the bite of serpents, “being both dranke & applied.” (See an image of this species growing wild on Mt. Pelion in central Greece. For a map of its distribution, see the Thyme Plants of Southeastern Europe website.)
The “thumos” of Dioscorides, known to the Roman natural historian Pliny as “thymus,” was yet another species, Cretan or cone-headed thyme (Thymus capitata). Dioscorides describes it as a little shrub full of branches with narrow, little leaves and purple-headed flowers, so commonly found in rocky and barren places as to be “known by all.” He says it is good to drive out phlegm, expel worms, relieve asthma, dissolve blood clots, and take away warts, among other virtues. It is also good for the dull of sight, when eaten with meat, and is “good instead of sauce for the use in health.” A famous bee plant, the nectar from the flowers of cone-headed thyme was the source of the famous Hymettus honey. This species is an important culinary herb in Near and Middle Eastern cooking, as Thymus vulgaris is in Western cuisines.
Both common (Thymus vulgaris) and wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum) are grown here at The Cloisters, but neither of these two species has the provenance of other medicinal potherbs or “condimenta” that we’ve recently examined, such as tansy and rue. Thyme is not found in any of the three ninth-century sources that are the foundation of our medieval plant list. (For more information on these Carolingian sources, see Medieval Gardens on the Continent.)
A discussion of ‘Serpillum’ is included in the Old English Herbarium, an Anglo-Saxon medical text that dates to about the year 1000; wild thyme is recommended in two treatments for headache, and is included in an unguent for bad burns. (This vernacular work was based on a fifth-century Latin source, the so-called Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius. For a representation of thyme from an Italian manuscript of the Herbarium, about 1400, see the digital library of medieval medical images on the UCLA website.)
The twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen discusses two kinds of thyme in her great work on medicinal plants, the Physica. The first, which she calls “thymus,” may be our garden or common thyme, Thymus vulgaris. According to Hildegard, thyme is very warming and drying in its action; an ointment made with thyme can be applied to relieve afflictions as varied as leprosy, palsy, and lice. The herb itself should be combined with some of the earth in which it grows, and boiled as for a steam bath, or in a sauna: “The heat and dryness of this herb, heated with the dry earth, diminishes bad humors, unless it is not pleasing to God.” Old and rheumy eyes benefit from merely staring at thyme until the eyes water; this cleans and purifies them. In a separate chapter, Hildegard discusses a wild creeping thyme that she calls “quenula.” This is probably Thymus serpillum, a Northern European species. She considers the latter to be hot but not so drying in its action as ‘thymus.’ This wild thyme purifies unhealthy flesh when eaten with meat or in purees, and is an effective unguent for rough skin when pounded with lard.
The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus repeats all the medicinal virtues accorded to “thumos” by Dioscorides, but the plant under discussion has been identified in Frank Anderson’s commentary on German herbals through 1500 as Thymus serpyllum, the Northern European creeping thyme which is probably the “quenula” of Hildegard.
Although the thymes of the ancient herbalists were not the same species known to medieval authorities, the same medicinal properties were accorded to very similar plants. It seems that a stronger case can be made for the identification in medieval sources of wild thyme than for common or garden thyme. It can be very difficult to determine which of several closely related species is under discussion.
This uncertainty isn’t confined to historical investigations. Dr. Arthur O. Tucker, a botanist and an authority on the chemistry of aromatic herbs, says that the species usually offered in the nursery trade as T. serpyllum and said to be naturalized in the United States is not the Northern European creeping thyme of the Middle Ages, but rather Thymus pulegiodes or Thymus praecox var. arcticus, both of which resemble T. serpyllum very, very closely. See the U.S.D.A. Plant Database for distribution maps for these two species:
Thymus pulegiodes; Thymus praecox var. arcticus.
Thyme (which one?) has been recommended for pain in the head for many centuries; I’m tempted to repair to the garden and see if it works on taxonomically induced headache.
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.
Tucker, Arthur O., and Tom DeBaggio. The Big Book of Herbs: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Hildegard, and Priscilla Throop. Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1998.
Van Arsdall, Anne. Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. London: Routledge, 2002.