Archaeology South-East


ASE's Medieval Garden | 2 | Cuisine and Cures

2 December 2021

Lorna examines how the plants in her allotment fit into medieval cuisine – and some of the proposed medieval cures for a wide variety of ailments.

Cover image featuring an inset photo of Lorna on a dark blue/green background. Text reads ASE's Medieval Gardens: Cuisine and Cures


For this blog post we’ll be looking at what sort of plants people used to eat in the medieval period, and their additional medicinal applications as recorded in medieval literature.

Let’s start by looking at familiar plants that you may well have growing in your garden today – or perhaps will have for dinner tonight! Plants traditionally grown on allotments are usually edible and include herbs and vegetables.


Herbs are an important part of the medieval garden due to their multiple uses. Monastic gardens had areas for plants used both for the infirmary and for kitchen herbs.

As a cooking ingredient they were particularly important for flavouring medieval cuisine, which for most ordinary people was a type of stew called pottage, made mostly from vegetables. However, most of the interesting writings of the early medieval period which describe herbs centre around medicinal cures and curses!

There are 9 herbs planted in the example garden, all of which are described in medieval manuscripts and have been found on archaeological sites. These plants are lavender, hyssop, fennel, feverfew, sage, parsley, thyme, woodruff, and rosemary. We are going to focus on three of them, sage, fennel, and parsley and explore their use in early medieval medicine.


Sage, Salvia officinalis, is a Mediterranean plant, a perennial shrub and member of the mint family (Lamiaceae). It appears in culinary recipes from the 14th century onwards and in the modern day is used in many food items such as Lincolnshire sausages, cheese, and in stuffing along with onion for Christmas. Sage also appears in British folk lore in folk songs such as “Scarborough Fair.”

The word Sage is probably derived from the Latin word “salvia”. The Old English word is “saluie” and is found across all of the medical  manuscript works we have been looking at. This is probably from an expansion on works by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder who describes Sage as a diuretic and having local anaesthetic properties. In Bald’s Leechbook (Royal MS 12 D XVII fol.51r), sage is used in a drink for fever.

þiþ lencten adle wermod eofon þrote elehtre, pegbnæde, ribbe, cerfille, attorlade, feferfuge, alexandre, bisceopwyrt, lufestice, saluie, cassuc þyre to nence on þelfcum ealad do hahy pæter to y springwyrt.

---For fever work into a drink wormwood, everthroat, lupin, wayboard, ribwort, Chervil, attorlotte, feverfew, alexanders, bishopwort, lovage, sage and cassock into ale; then add holy water and springwort.

Bald’s Leechbook takes a lot of remedies from Pliny’s writings and the use of sage in this remedy reflects the Mediterranean influence. During the medieval period the climate was slightly cooler especially during the 12th and 13th centuries, so some these Mediterranean plants were grown in raised areas usually quite close to the buildings to protect them during the winters.

Another remedy, this time from the Old English Herbarium (Cotton MS Vitellius C III fol.51r) uses sage to combat itchiness.

þiþ icþan þas wyete þe man saluian nemneþ seoþ on þætere y mid þam pætre smyre þa yesceapu.

---For itching take this wort, which is named salvia or sage, seethe it in water and with the water smear on skin.

In this manuscript the plant is illustrated and was one of the easiest to identify as the plant looks like its modern equivalent.


Part of the carrot or celery family, which you can see by the signature tripinnate leaves, in the modern world Parsley is used as a garnish and commonly served with potatoes, fish and steak. Parsley is rich in antioxidants and used in lots of green sauces. This is very similar to its use in medieval cuisine.

In the Lacnunga the remedies specify parsley seed to be used in holy salve, herbal remedies and against evil. It is also illustrated in the old English herbal (Cotton MS Vitellius C III fol.56v). Strangely, the old English in the manuscript explains the old English name of the plant.

Þas wyrte man triannem y oþrum naman petrosehnum nemneþ y each y sume men þam gehce petenrihe hateþ.

---This wort is named triennis and by another name, and also some men call it by a name like that, parsley.


Another member of the carrot family, fennel is a 'marmite' herb as it has a strong smell and taste of anise. Highly nutritious with high fibre, vitamin C and Iron it is no wonder it appears in many remedies across the manuscripts. It is also found in archaeological evidence especially in the waterfront site in Southampton.

In Bald’s Leechbook (Royal MS 12 D XVII fol.12v), fennel is used in remedies for chest pain, foot ache, inflammation, poisoning, burns and against devil possession.

þiþ miclum eayece maniy man hæfþ micelne ece on his eayum. Wyrc him þonne grunde syelyean y bisceop wyrt y finol wyl þa wyrta ealle on wætre meoluc biþ yelre læt y seocan on þa eayan.

---For eye ache, work together groundsel, bishopwort, beewort, and fennel and boil together in water; milk is better.

In the Lacnunga fennel seed is specified in a ritual against elves and it is one of the plants in the nine-herb charm which uses German folklore and evokes Woden against evil.

We have described the uses of the herbs above in their written medical uses. But ordinary people would have used them in every day cooking to make the food they ate and the drinks they made taste better!


In earlier manuscripts, especially the Old English medical ones such as Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga, food stuffs are not used extensively. But in recipes written in Middle English certain vegetables are very common.

Certain vegetables do grow very well in the British climate including onions, cabbage, beans and peas and leeks. These plants were used because they were very starchy and gave the medieval diet the bulk of the nutrients needed. In a monastic setting these vegetables are staples particularly with the background of religious restrictions on certain foods such as meat and fish.

Described below are some familiar vegetables used today and the quirky recipes they appear in!


Onions and garlic make up the base of many dishes, and both grow well all year around in British climates. Onions can also be pickled and preserved making them perfect for when food is scarce. A recipe in a middle English cookery book gives an elaborate take on onion soup (Harleian MS 4016, 15th century, Middle/Early Modern English)

“Oyle soppes. Take a good quantite of onyons, and myce hem, noyt to smale, & seth hem in faire water, And take hem vppe; and then take a good quantite of stale ale, as .iij. galons, And there-to take a pynte of goode oyle that is fraied, and cast the onyons there-to, And lete al boyle togidre a grete wile; and caste there-to Saffron and salt, And þen put brede, in maner of brewes, and cast the licour there-on, and serue hit forth hote.

---Take a good quantity of onions, and mince them, not too small, and boil them in fair water, And take them up; and then take a good quantity of stale ale, as 3 gallons, And there-to take a pint of good oil that is fried, and cast the onions there-to, And let all boil together a great while; and cast there-to Saffron & salt, And then put bread, in manner of brews, and cast the liquid there-on, and serve it forth hot.


Garlic, much like onions, are bulbs and have a long history in both culinary uses and medical purposes. The word garlic comes from the old enlgish gar-læc which translates to spear-shaped leek. Garlic is used to flavour food as this recipe shows (Forme of Curye [Rylands MS 7] (England, 1390) Middle English)

Verde sauce. Take persel. mynte. garlek, a litul serpell & sauge a litul canel. ginger. peper. wyne. brede. vyneger and salt. grynd hit smal with safroun and messe hit forth.

---Green sauce. Take parsley, mint, garlic, a little sage, ginger, pepper, wine bread, vinegar and salt. Grind them together with a small bit of saffron and mash together.

Beans and Peas

Beans and Peas were very common crop in the middle ages. They were used both for food for the population as well as for animal food. They could be added to stews and pottage to add starch. The beans were a type of broad bean and the peas a type of garden pea. These are found in archaeological contexts. A recipe from Forme of Cury, AD1390, calls the beans “ground beans.”

For To Make Gronden Benes. Take benes and dry hem in a nost or in an Ovene and hulle hem wele and wyndewe out þe hulk and wayshe hem clene an do hem toseeþ in gode broth an ete hem with Bacon.

---For to make ground beans. Take beans and dry them in an oven. Hull them well and wash them clean. Then steep in good broth and eat them with bacon.


The herbs and vegetables that are found in the medical texts and in cookery books give us an insight into the types of plants that grew in a northern European climate. The types of vegetables are particularly telling as they can be stored and preserved for long winters as well as having more than one growing period across the year.

The herbs highlighted in this post also show a level of knowledge of the properties of plants for helping ailments and of course introducing stronger flavours to food.

If you have been inspired by the herbs and vegetables discussed here maybe you should give some medieval pottage a try?!

How to Make Beef and Vegetable Pottage

Taken from MS Harley 279, “Lange Wortys de chare” or Beef and Vegetable Pottage is a variation of the food most commonly eaten during the medieval period. Pottage is an everyman’s food and was eaten at everyday meals as well as on feast days. Mostly it was just made of vegetables but on occasions such as church festivals such as Easter and Christmas meat would be added.

The recipe was written down around 1430AD and the middle English reads like this:

Lange Wortys de chare. Take beeff and merybonys, and boyle yt in fayre water; than take fayre wortys and wassche hem clene in water, and parboyle hem in clene water; than take hem vp of the water after the fyrst boylyng, an cut the leuys a-to or a-thre, and caste hem in-to the beff, and boyle to gederys: than take a lof of whyte brede and grate yt, an caste it on the pot, an safron and salt, and let it boyle y-now, and serue forth.

---Beef and Vegetable Pottage. Take beef and marrow bone and boil in fair water. Then take fair herbs and vegetables and wash them clean in water, and part boil them in clean water; then take them up of the water after the first boil and cut the leaves and cast them into the beef and boil. Then take a loaf of white bread and grate it and cast it into the pot. Add saffron and salt and let it boil down then serve forth.

I was amazed at how similar this recipe is to a Beef Stew and Dumplings my mum makes! Obviously, there are variations, most notably the absence of breadcrumbs, replaced by the dumplings made with vegetable suet. When my grandmother made this recipe, she used the suet which came with the stewing steak.

Cooking up some ‘medieval’ plants in the kitchen!

This recipe is very filling and perfect for cold winter Saturday evenings. Serve with any vegetable of your choice and mashed potato (for our modern readers).


  • Stewing Steak
  • Onion
  • Carrot
  • Leeks
  • Celery
  • Beef Stock
  • Mixed Herbs
  • Pearl Barley


  1. Preheat Oven to 150 C.
  2. Cut the stewing steak into cubes. Chop onion, carrot, leeks, and celery.
  3. Rinse pearl barley.
  4. Add steak, onion, carrot, leeks, celery, pearl barley and mixed herbs into a casserole dish.
  5. Cover with beef stock.
  6. Cook for 3 hours at 150C.
  7. Make Dumplings. Ingredients- 6oz self-raising flour, 3oz suet, onion salt. Bring together with cold water in a bowl and shape by hand.
  8. Add to stew 40 minutes before serving time
  9. Turn dumplings 20 minutes before serving time.
  10.  Serve with potatoes and green vegetables.



Birbeck V. 2005., The Origins of Mid Saxon Southampton Excavations at the Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium 1998-2000. Wessex Archaeology.

Kenward H and Hall A. 1995., Biological Evidence from 16-22 Coppergate. York Archaeological Trust

Bald’s Leechbook http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_12_d_xvii_fs001ar
The Lacnunga http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=harley_ms_585_f001r
The Old English Herbal http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_vitellius_c_iii_f011r