This matula, or urine sample bottle, can be found in the Museum of London. Ancient civilisations including the Sumerians used urine to diagnose illness and by the medieval period it had evolved into a branch of medicine called uroscopy – or put another way doctors reckoned they could tell which of your four humours was out of balance simply by studying your urine. All they needed to do was look at the colour, the smell and, horror of horror, the taste of the medicine. They even had a handy chart to help them.
In 1426 an innkeeper in Kent was fined for putting a weed into the beer – hops. Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 was blamed on hops rather than the ineptitude of the government in at least one instance. The plant was perhaps looked on askance because it originated from the Low Countries. However, by 1597, John Gerard was advocating hops in beer as a remedy to keep the drinker healthy rather than merely as a thirst quencher.
In 1603 Parliament passed an act which forbade hop growers from adulterating their hop flowers with bits of stalk and leaves. By the seventeenth century there was no stopping the growth of hop farming. Indeed in 1710 another act was passed preventing the use of anything but hops.
Traditionally hop garlands and wreaths were hung up every year for good luck. Rather than adding them to beer in spring the new shoots can be eaten (I’ve not tried) – hence the name “poor man’s asparagus.” And of course, a pillow filled with dried hops will apparently send you to sleep. And having lulled you into a false sense of security now is probably a good time to mention that spring was a time for fasting and purging – putting a whole new meaning on the idea of spring cleaning. Hops were just one of the plants used to treat pests and parasites – yellow iris, red current leaves, wormwood and tansy were just a few of the ingredients added to the brew to give you a fresh start after the winter months.
I think I need to end on a more positive note! In 1406 John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Order of the Hop. He had just become the Count of Flanders and wanted his new subjects to feel appreciated. It was John who helped to popularise hops in Europe. Aside from hops John also commissioned many books, continuing the work of his parents. One of them – the Livre de Merveilles du Monde, contains some rather famous descriptions of journeys to exotic and strange places including Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China. However, the reason why its in this post is because as Celia Fisher explains that the frontispiece of the book depicts hops. The whole of the book is available to view online – just follow the link beneath the image at the start of this post.
Fisher, Celia. (2013) The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library
According to Gerard Solomn’s seal will mend a black eye within a coupe of days caused, and I quote, by “women wilfnulnes, in stumbling upon their haste husbands fists.” I make no comment other than to be grateful that Gerard’s humour would no longer be regarded as acceptable in any way shape or form. The roots of the plant will also help heal wounds and mend broken bones.
It took me years and years to find some Solomon’s seal of my own as wasn’t very popular in garden centres at that time. I assume because it grows in such profusion that those with the plant are more than happy to share it – the knack is to find a gardener with the aforementioned plant. Consequently I have been carefully to pot up some of the plant with each successive move I have made and there is always the concern that it won’t like it’s new home but it is currently spreading happily.
The plant is called Solomon’s seal after the marks on the root which are said according to folk lore to come from King Solomon’s seal when he first discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. Rather alarmingly the notes in my dictionary of plants inform me that the fumes that come from he brewed flowers were used to inspire painters and poets and keep evil spirits at bay. I shan’t be eating it anytime soon even if it a very useful medical plant, not least because my Alnwick Poison Garden guide observes that everything about the plant is toxic -it contains saponins and convallamarin demonstrating that medieval medicine really was a case of kill or cure.
Philips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants: in myth, legend, magic and lore. London: Robert Hale