A cold day, and with rain a distinct possibility. We’ve finished the hurdles, separating planting areas in the physic garden; we’ve been weeding, transplanting, generally tidying. In this late winter light, the Stinking Hellebore are luminous; violets are flowering, the wild strawberry is just beginning to put out flowers.
Delicate, unassuming, a source of food and medicine, and an ancient plant. There is archaeobotanical evidence for the consumption of wild strawberry in the Mesolithic period (about 10,000 to 5000 BCE). Evidence too, from the Anglo Saxon period, whether wild, or cultivated in gardens and orchards […] the Saxons utilised a considerable range of fruit, including the strawberry. Faecal material from a dig in Beverley, Yorkshire, produced, walnut, hazel (Corylis Avellana), plum, strawberry (Fragaria vesca), as well as a range of other fruit.
Stephen Pollington argues that, for the Anglo Saxons, dependent on an intimate knowledge of their environment, requirements of specific activities such as dyeing, thatching, […] baking, tanning and so on, would have encouraged the development of cultivated plots. An essential part of that knowledge would be the medicinal uses of plants. Medical texts form a substantial part of what survives of the vernacular writing from this period; glossed remedies, short treatises, and four long works, three of which are unique manuscripts. Translated into modern English, in three volumes, by the Rev. Thomas Oswald Cockayne, in the nineteenth century, one of these books, The Leechbook of Bald includes this prescription for an eye salve:
Thus shall a man work an eye salve, take the nether part of strawberry plants and pepper, pound them well, put them on a cloth, bind them fast, lay them in sweetened wine, make somebody drop one drop into the eyes.
Medicinal value of strawberry
This wort which is named fraga (fragaria) and by another name strawberry, is produced in secret places and in clean ones, and also on downs.
For sore milt (spleen), take the juice of the same wort, which we named fragaria, honey; give to drink; it benefits wonderfully.
Juice of the same wort, mingled with honey, along with pepper benefits much when drunk, for oppression of the chest and sore inwards.
In the preface to the first volume, Cockayne indicates that these medical texts were intended for trained physicians, the frequent expression, “as the leech knows how,” shows that they received professional education.
Eleanor Rhode suggests this rich medical knowledge was abandoned after the Norman Conquest, but perhaps the reality was more complex, as society adjusted to the cultural shifts that took place from the eleventh century onwards. The Rev. John Earle, in English Plant Names from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century (1880), states that, early botany is inseparable from medicine […] rested mainly upon a knowledge of Herbs […]. This priority of herbal medicines has left its trace in the vocabulary of our language.
And the wild strawberry continued to flourish; at least as early as the fourteenth century wild plants were collected, and brought into gardens for cultivation. Strawberries were being sold; The London Lackpenny dating from the early fifteenth century, and attributed to John Lidgate, includes these lines;
Then unto London I dyde me hye,
Of all the land it bearyeth the pryse;
‘Gode pescode,’ one began to cry —
‘Strabery rype’, and ‘cherrys in the ryse’.
Gerard’s Herball informs this garden; in the choice of plants, and the descriptions of their medicinal uses. But an earlier, and perhaps more interesting figure, is William Turner. His major work, A New Herball (1551) is considered to mark the beginnings of the serious study of botany in England, post Conquest.
In an earlier, slimmer volume, The Names of Herbes (1548), there is a short entry; Fragraria is called in English a Strawbery […] Every man knoweth wel inough where strawberries grow. It would seem the plant was familiar enough, to make identification of habitat unnecessary. In the preface, he states that he had intended to publish his little boke in Latin, but on the advice of physicians delayed until, I had sene those places in Englande, wherein is most plentie of herbes, that I might in my herbal declare to the greate honoure of our countre what number of sovereine and strang herbes were in Englande. […] and because men should not thynke that I writue of it that I never saw. He published in English, not Latin as originally intended. Answering criticisms for writing in English, he asks, in A Newe Herball; How many surgianes and apothecaries are there in England which can understand Plini in Latin or Galen and Dioscoridies? saying that anyway, they rely on the old wives who gather herbs; on old and local knowledge. And a herbal, written in English, will benefit everyone concerned with medicine; is for the comon profit. His Protestantism shines through; his reasoning resonating with the production of the Old English manuscripts, begun under Alfred’s programme of translation, to make significant texts accessible in the vernacular.
Turner studied plants in their locality, writing from careful observation; proper identification being essential to the physicians and apothecaries who would use his herbal, and in this he echoed the desire to inform that characterises the Anglo Saxon Leech Books.
In A Newe Herball, under his entry for strawberry, he notes the rough stalk, and in the toppe of it grow whyte floures; the berries turning from green to red; the leaf indented, and always thre of them grow together,
[and some of] The Vertues of Strawberries.
Strawberies leaves taken in meate, helpeth thê that are diseased in the milt, and so doth also the juice dronke wyth hony. The same is good to be geven wyth peper for them that are short winded. Strawberryes quenche thirst, and are good for a cholerike stomack.
There are striking similarities between the medicinal use of strawberries in Turner’s Herball, written in the sixteenth century and their medicinal value in the Herbarium, dating to the tenth century.
And then there was a break in the clouds, a brief scattering of sunshine, before they closed again, the sky darkened and it started to rain, heavily.