So the passing days find us here again working in the physic garden, cutting back and clearing, gathering herbs together, making progress. Hypericum, seeded in different parts of the garden; Common Mallow, migrated from the original planting place, and now grouped together in the preferred spot; Solomon’s Seal, congested and in need of thinning out; Herb Robert and Chickweed, considered common weeds, have a place in this garden. As does Elecampane, of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny, according to Grieve, and Agrimony, known to the Anglo-Saxons as a vulnerary; all point to an older, more intense awareness of the immediate environment.
The ground we’ve been working today has become compacted over time, turning it over throws up Alexanders and Chicory roots; as with the other herbs, we’re learning to recognise different roots, to name them. There’s a toad population we have to watch out for too; one was nestling in the comfrey we had ‘cleared’. Moving it to the yew hedge wasn’t too much of a problem. And the comfrey patch has been dug over, again.
People wander through the garden, occasionally stop, chat, then leave to visit another part of the Priory, but most of the time we’re left alone. Today people want to talk, which is fine; nothing quite like nattering, in between gardening. We talk about the older medical knowledge these plants represent, how some of these practices are still with us, in the herbal mixtures, tonics, balms, bought from the chemist, or off the web, alongside the antibiotics we consume all too readily. Conversations circle around the same question, posed in different ways; where did this knowledge come from? One man thinks, ‘Maybe they knew something we’ve lost,’ while we talk about treating nettle stings with Dock leaves; shared knowledge, strands of a folk medicine that’s still alive.
Suggestive rather than productive, this garden speaks of a time when people were careful husbandmen [who] out of sheer necessity […] made the greatest possible use of the resources they had available to them; it follows that they had an intense familiarity with the plant and animal life around them. What Stephen Pollington is describing, in the context of medicinal knowledge in Anglo Saxon England, seems nothing but the echo of a memory now, filtered through images of the pastoral idyll; imagined geographies tapping into ever-present anxieties about the pace of change to the environment we inhabit.
This garden owes much to Gerard’s Herball. Although John Gerard was accused of plagiarism when he first published the Herball in 1597, sixty years after the dissolution of Michelham Priory, the book nevertheless proved extremely popular, and has endured. Eleanour Rohde, writing in the 1920s, acknowledges and forgives those criticisms, setting aside, Gerard’s possible duplicity in the never failing charm of the book, noting that it contains Gerard’s own observations as well as a good deal of contemporary folklore. For Rohde, that mixture of medicine and magic which informed Anglo Saxon medical practice, the belief in the efficacy of herbs used as amulets, survives in the Herball, although Gerard does sometimes doubt the efficacy of what he terms, Physick charms, relying instead on his religious faith to cure him of, a most grievous ague […] for these medicines and all other such things did me no good at all.
If Gerard is present in this garden, so are the vernacular traditions embodied in the folklore he drew on, echoes of those older practices to which Rohde and Pollington refer. And while it’s true that magic was a component part of all ancient and medieval medical practices, M. L. Cameron questions the extent to which it played the dominant role in Anglo Saxon medicine, suggesting that sound observation and experience also underpinned that practice. He analyses a remedy, taken from Bald’s Leechbook, a manuscript possibly compiled towards the end of the 9th century, intended to treat the microbial infection that cause styes: Staphylococcus aureus.
Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, both of equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand for nine days in the brass vessel, wring through with a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye: the best leechdom.
Cameron states that the remedy, contains four antibiotic agents, two of them (onion and garlic) especially active against staphylococci, bull’s gall destructive of bacteria generally and the fourth (copper salts) toxic to all cells. […] Applied to a stye, this medicine should have helped to destroy bacteria at the site of the infection and to have prevented the spread of infection to other sites. Nine days allowed the copper salts to form.
In 2015 Freya Harrison conducted an experiment that excited attention in the international press. Harrison, together with Christina Lee, a medieval scholar, and colleagues in the Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, at the University of Nottingham, and at the Texas Tech University, USA, reproduced the stye remedy. Substituting cow’s bile for bull’s gall, and glass bottles containing squares of brass sheet instead of the brass vessel specified, after nine days the solution was tested on fragments of skin infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The remedy successfully killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used against MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin fragments. Harrison, speaking at the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference in 2015, stated, ‘Our results highlight the untapped potential of pre-modern antibacterial remedies for yielding novel therapeutics.’
This isn’t isolated research, increased antibiotic resistance is an international problem, encouraging researchers to look at the potential of older traditional medicinal practices, and not just in relation to antibiotic resistance. Yung-Chi Cheng, professor of pharmacology at Yale School of Medicine is developing a new cancer treatment based on an ancient Chinese recipe.
The weather changes, clouds gather, we continue working, quietly now that people have wandered off to different parts of the Priory. We collect together Motherwort, Sweet Cicely, thin out Lemon Balm, clear a space for chickweed; someone walking through the garden comments, ‘Its like cultivating weeds, isn’t it?’ Pauses, ‘I like flowers.’ And then she’s gone before we can respond. These plants persist, they grow and spread, become a nuisance to the gardener, are consigned to the compost heap. They colonise roadside verges, field boundaries, are sprayed in an attempt to eradicate what is seen as untidy, a menace. Rampant, unruly, they disrupt the boundaries we draw between nature and culture; weeds, mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way. It’s curious that it took so long for us to realise that the species they most resemble is us.
Considered disruptive, in this herb garden, Chickweed, Dandelion and Daisy, Herb Robert, cultivated alongside Hypericum, Mallow, Sage and Thyme, suggest another way to engage with the ordinary and the everyday.
 Cockayne, O. Leechdom, Wortcunning, and Star Craft of Early England. Vol.II. p35. Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green. London 1865. In a footnote Cockayne suggests uncertainly that Allium oleraceum might be the cropleek known to Saxon leechs. He points out that wisps or styes are called wuns in Devon.