Herbs of Eastern Europe

(known in Medieval and Renaissance periods)

General remarks:

The use of herbs and spices in Russia, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and parts of Germany during the medieval and Renaissance periods is well attested, but there is not a great deal of information translated into English on the subject. Herein I have tried to collect the information that exists in the books I have access to.

Many cultures of Eastern Europe experienced dramatic culture importation late in period: the Hungarian Turkish invasion, the Russian Mongol influence, and in Poland/Lithuania, the Italian influences of Bona Sforza. (In Poland, soup greens are still known as 'italian vegetables'.) Bohemians, Hungarians and Poles all had access to the famous health handbook by Platina, as well as Dioscorides De Materia Medica (which Zevin says was also known in Russia). Hungarians in particular have a wide variety of influences on their cuisine and accessibility of herbs/spices because of the waves of Pechneg, Cuman and other Asian migrants, as well as the original Magyar influences. The more westerly parts of eastern Europe were probably heavily influenced by their western neighbors; Russia was influenced by Constantinople and by the Byzantine Empire as a whole.  There is a theory that after the fall of Rome and before the re-opening of the Mediterranean spice/silk route, the trade caravans with their spices traveled through Russia, which might have made spices more available in Russia before 1300.

Though Russian healers like to claim a long-standing, continuously vital tradition of herbal healing, the author of the Domostroi strongly condemns the use of herbs in healing: ". . . any abomination detested by god . . .are included anyone who tries to defeat death with sorcery, herbs, roots, or grasses . . ."; from the sound of the Russian priest's denunciations, the Russian herbal healers of the 16th century probably had as hard a time of it as Western European herbal healers are supposed to have had. The anonymous author does mention 'beneficial herbs' to be used in brewing, but gives no details; only a few spices and the ever present hemp, hops and poppy seed show up in the Domostroi.

By the late 16th century, botanical gardens were well-established in Eastern Europe, especially in Germany, and botanical faculties were established at Universities. Publications such as Fuchs' Great Herbal and Falimirz's Herbarium tend to blur the line between what plants were used and which were merely curiousities studied on the academic level. Capsicum (hot pepper) is one example.

One special use of herbs that deserves mention in Eastern Europe is sweat/steam/vapor baths. Hildegarde of Bingen suggests a number of herbs to be used either in water baths or in vapor baths (in Germany). Mikkel Aaland's article on the Russian Bania quotes a period source that suggests herbs may have been used in Russian steam baths: Adamus Olearius, in his Persian Travel Tales of the early 1600s, says " The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder'd, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent."

Some Pre-Eighteenth-Century Eastern European Sources on Herb Use

(I have not been able to examine most of these sources personally. The ones I have seen are marked with a *)

Stefan Falimirz, O ziol/ach i o moczy gich (On herbs and their power), 1534; and Herbarz to Jest (Herbarium)
Leonard Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), aka Botany or  The Great Herbal 1542-1545
* Hildegarde of Bingen, Physica
Kuchmistrzostwo, the first cookbook published in Polish, 1532, mentioned by Dembinska; only a collection of loose pages survives from the single extant copy, and it is a translation of the Wagner pamphlet Kuchenmeisterei published in Nuremberg in 1485, also called the 'False Platina'.
Marcus Rumpolt. Ein new Kochbuch, printed in 1581. I've looked at the translations on the internet.*
Marcin Siennik, Lekarstwo Doswiadczone (Tried Medicines) 1564.
Jan Stanko, Antibolomenum 1472.
Szymon Syrennius, Zielnik (Herbal), 1613 ???
Szymon of L/owicz, De herbarum virituibus, 1532.
Marcin of Urzedow, Herbarz Polski (Polish Herbal), 1595 [note this was 22 years after he died]
Das Kuchbuch der Sabrina Welserin (The Cookbook of Sabrina Welserin), 1553 (Valoise Armstrong's translation *)

Some herbs

(this is by no means a comprehensive list. Nor did I have access to original documents. Please take this as a beginning, not an exhaustive, source.)

Alexanders (Polish: gier) Sold as 'Black Lovage'
Used for greens; it's a relative of angelica, lovage and smallage (wild celery). Weaver says, "Alexanders . . . looks very much like angelica, but the taste of the leaves resembles cubeb, a popular spice in the Middle Ages. Since alexanders is slightly bitter, it was often played against the sweetness of honey or used to counter the strong taste of 'black' recipes-- that is, recipes containing blood." p. 151.

Angelica (Archangelica angelica)
Knab: "According to archaeological diggings, angelica was known in Poland 2500 years ago. It was also found in old Polish monasteries of the 12th century and called the Herb of the Holy Ghost."
"According to Syrennius, 'the powder of this root will free the chest and lungs of fluid and also be of service to those heavy in childbearing; a syrup of the root boiled in wine or honey will draw out any poisons or venom.' He also suggested "In the event of a some kind of troublesome misfortune, gather the root with care during the descent of the lion's cub [Leo?] and hang it around your neck. It will drive away cares and cause a merry heart." p. 89
In Western Europe, angelica was widely used in preventives and remedies for the plague. It's a major ingredient in Benedictine, originally a medicinal cordial.
Angelica is also native to Russia.

Anise seed (Pimpinella anisum)
Apparently anise seed was added to the doubly-baked breads or rusks called binavice or biscotum which were called "soldier's bread" by Syrennius, who "noted that anise seed was normally added not so much for the flavor as for health reasons" (Dembinska, p. 115).
Knab says, "This herb was brought to Poland by the Benedictine monks and grown in the monastery gardens as well as the gardens of Kazimierz the Great [Casimir the Great] (1310-1370). Syreniusz noted not only that 'here in our more delightful gardens it begins to be send more frequently' but also that there were two types of anise, one was helpful for women, the other for men." p. 90
Zevin says that it was "one of the first herbs accepted by Russian herbalists from the southeastern herbal traditions." p. 29.
Anise is commonly used to combat stomach complaints, which accounts for its use in food and cordials.

Barberry (berberis vulgaris)
According to Zevin, a 16th century manuscript claims that barberry was used  in Russia to cure a disease that kept women from becoming pregnant.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
This plant was probably imported in the 16th century from Italy.
Knab says, "In the 16th century, Syrenius recalled that this plant 'is sown indoors in pots for a perfume.' It was supposed to 'remove a runny nose just from its fragrance' and 'help when one has trouble passing water and bring dreams to those who have trouble sleeping'."

Bay leaves
Bay leaves may have been used to flavor fermented drinks, i.e. beer; Dembinska mentioned: ". . . popular fermented drinks flavored with such aromatic plant ingredients as bay leaves, yew, sage, rue, blackthorn, and absinthe"

". . . Oskola, a drink fermented from the sap of birch trees favored for its high alcoholic content." (Dembinska, p. 79) Knab mentions that oskola was supposed to cleanse the blood and improve hair growth, and at some point a mixture of birch sap and alcohol was used as a hair rinse-- thought that may not be period. Lang also mentions fermented birch sap as a Hungarian drink from period.

Borage (Borago officinalis)
Knab: "In ancient times this plant was called miodnik (honey plant) to indicate its usefulness for attracting bees in the garden. Marcin of Urzedow (1595) wrote: 'Anyone who knows herbs, knows borage.' It was used in his time to cleanse the blood." p. 95. As in Western Europe, borage was probably also used in wine as a heart tonic and antidepressant; also in salads for its cucumbery taste.

Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Syrennius suggested the root, mashed, as a pain relieving poultice, also for mad dog bites, and as an ointment for burns. (Knab. p. 97) According to Zevin, "Historical evidence shows that burdock was used by the physician of Prince Alexander Nevsky, the famous Russian military leader who defeated the German crusaders in 1240."

Calamus, aka Sweet Flag (Acorus Calamus)
Now considered not safe to eat.
Dembinska says that it was used as a substitute for bay leaves. She says it came to Poland in the 13th century from central Asia. On the other hand, Knab says that it came in the 16th century. (I suppose it depends on whether you think it came with the Mongols or the Turks.)

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) aka Pot Marigold
Knab credits its presence in Poland 'from ancient times'. Syreniusz: "All the country folk know marigold..." Marcin of Urzedow: "Everyone knows that marigold is called wreath, which they use to weave wreathes." Knab, 136.
Syreniusz mentioned it as a remedy for excessive bile. It may also have been used in a salve for wounds, etc. Zevin suggests that Russian herbalists originally used calendula as suggested by Dioscorides. (p. 46)

Caraway (Carum carvi)
Knab mentions it as one of the herbs that 16th century Queen Bona Sforza was credited with introducing, but also says that "In the Middle Ages, caraway was a trade item found in parts of Belgium and Poland, however it was already being used as a spice from the time of the first Piasts. It was added to beet soup and all varieties of meats and baked goods, especially breads." p. 99.  Caraway seed was probably used in period Poland as it was in other countries, for stomach ailments.
Note: Knab says, "Caraway expels gas when mixed with anise, coriander and fennel" and this mixture makes an excellent cordial. Caraway was probably used in medicinal alcoholic cordials as soon as they were introduced.
According to Knab, one of the herbs to be harvested on St. John's day, June 24.

Celadine (Chelidonium majus)
Appears depicted in the Marian altarpiece at St. Mary's in Cracow by Wit Stwosz (1477-1533).
Zevin recounts a Russian folktale supposedly from the end of the 12th century where celadine cures a bad case of eczema. (p. 50)

Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)
Knab: "In the 15th century an oil was already being extracted from chamilie in Poland to serve as  medication. Herbalist Stefan Falimirz recommended that the juice of chamomile be mixed with vodka to heal the liver and increase urination. He also noted that 'the flower of chamomile causes headache and eye-strain to decrease. Wormwood and chamomile aid an easy delivery.'" Hildegarde of Bingen suggested it for 'pain in the intestines' and as a tonic for menstruating women, prepared as a porridge with water, oil/lard, and flour. She also suggested it mixed with butter as an ointment for a stitch in the side.
In western Europe chamomile was used for headaches and fevers.

Some sources say that chives originated in Eastern Europe, but my eastern Europe sources don't mention them!

Comfrey (Symphytum officinalae)
Hildegard of Bingen suggests eating it for wounds or ulcers (NOT RECOMMENDED!), but says that healthy people should not eat it, or those with internal ulcers. Knab implies that the tradition of using a poultice or salve of comfrey on broken body parts may date back to period.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Knab mentions it as one of the herbs that 16th century Queen Bona Sforza was credited with introducing, BUT then says that "Coriander was known in Poland during the time of the first Piasts (900 A.D.) In the Middle Ages it was valued both as a spice and as medication. Marcin of Urzedow wrote: 'Everyone knows of coriander: even children in diapers know of the sugared coriander'." p. 106. As in Western Europe it was probably used for stomach aches and gas. It may have been used in pickling during period. According to a Russian folktale recounted by Zevin, coriander did not reach Russia until imperial times, imported from the Mediterranean for stomach ailments.
Smith and Christian lend credence to the idea that coriander was imported later, possibly after the mid-16th century: "Pepper, ginger, and cloves were supplemented later by saffron and coriander." (p.9)

Cowslip (Primula veris)
According to Zevin, "Cowslip was also know among the early Slavic tribes to which many modern Russians can trace their ancestry."

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Appears depicted in the Marian alterpiece at St. Mary's in Cracow by Wit Stwosz (1477-1533).Knab says, "In the 16th century, the dandelion became a very versatile herb used in the removal of freckles and liver spots, fevers, contagious diseases, liver and stomach ailments and even the three-day malaria . . ." p 109. In Russia, legend associates its use as a tonic with the early Greek St. Panteleimon the Healer (Zevin).

16th century used for Pickling in Poland:
Mikolaj Reg: 'pickle cucumbers in salt, add some dill and sour cherry or oak leaves...' (Dembinska, p. 131)
Reg: "Having removed the outside leaves of some nice heads of cabbage, cut them in half and fit them neatly into a vat, spreading beet chards and dill between the layers" (Dembinska p. 124)
"popular with crayfish and with mushrooms, garlic, leeks and mustard-- Poles used both the seeds and the greens" (Dembinska, p. 122)
Syreniusz: "dill is useful not only as a medicine but also used at the table . . . the leaves are used in meats, soups, and vegetables . . . the seed is also added to pickling cabbage, salting meat, and added to sausages for stuffing." (Knab, p. 111-- apparently Syreniusz suggested using the whole plant from the roots up in pickling.)
"Marcin of Urzedow indicated that garden dill was 'very good for treating nightmares'." (Knab, p111).
Dill appears in Fuch's Great Herbal.

Dwarf Elder (Sambucus ebulus) and Black Elder (Sambucus nigra, aka elderberry) were found in the Biskupin prehistoric settlement, possibly used to dye blue. [Knab, p72]. Probably also used for food and elderflower fritters~
Elderberry, according to Knab, was one of the herbs to be cut on St. John's day, June 24. Syreniusz: "for bites from lizards, the boiled root should be drunk and the wound washed. For women, the juice of the berry will color the hair black." (Knab, p. 113). Zevin says that "In medieval times, elder wood was used to cure toothache, interrupt epileptic fits, remove poison from metal vessels and guarantee that the person who cultivated it would die in his or her own home." (p. 70)

Elecampane (Inula helenium) (Russian "ninepowers", Ukrainian "wonderful power" -- Zevin)
Zevin says, "Elecampane is one of the oldest herbs in the Russian tradition. . . Reference to this herb can be traced to the seventeenth century, when the court physician to Czar Michael Fedorovich prescribed this herb for the czar and his family. An herbal dated at 1672 states that 'The root of the Nine powers should be crushed and mixed with raw honey . . . and can be taken in the morning and the evening. It will calm down coughing and expel any thick phlegm inside the throat. The same root cooked in wine and sweetened with sugar is good, and when taken internally helps people breathe easier.' "(p. 72)

Fennel, Florence (Fennel bulb, sold in the US as Anise root or Fennel root)
"Szymon Syrennius mentioned Florence Fennel as well, and even included a recipe for pickling it in vinegar and salt so that the 'leaves and bulbs last all year around.' He further noted that fennel was used in making mead. We know from linguistic evidence, however, that fennel was a latecomer to the Polish kitchen garden since its name in Polish, koper wl/oski, literally 'Italian dill'" Dembinska 122
Knab: "In the Middle Ages, fennel was grown in the monastery gardens and on the estates of Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370). There were over 200 recipes for its use, including that of an aphrodisiac. . . Marcin of Urzedow wrote: 'fennel is known by everyone in Italy. They use it in baked cakes and bread.'" p. 114. Zevin claims that fennel was used in Russia before the importation of Greek herbals.

Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
Flaxseed oil was apparently used in Hungarian cuisine (Lang)
"Syreniusz recommended it for healing blotches and blemishes, herpes, scabs and even rough fingernails" (Knab, 114).

The use of garlic and onions in Eastern Europe in food was proverbial. Smith & Christian cite the 17th century Sir Thomas Smith on Russia: "Garlicke and Onions, must besauce many of my words, as then it did the most parte of their dishes," and go on, "Garlic was the Russian's third doctor (the first two were the bath and vodka)", which is probably postperiod but indicates health motivations as well as flavor preferences for using garlic.
Knab points out, "In his herbal, Syreniusz listed almost one hundred medicinal uses for garlic including: increasing urination, opening the veins of the liver and giving aid to asthmatics." p. 115. In later years, garlic hung over the door was an anti-witch/anti-misfortune charm: it's unclear whether this practice dates from period.
According to Struzková and Beranová, Bohemian practitioners used garlic as a preventative but warned against the dangers of eating it as well -- it seems to have been bad for hotblooded people but especially good for intestinal troubles.

Weaver uses this green in his recipes (in Food and Drink in Medieval Poland), and implies that it is one of the green pot-herbs used in Medieval Poland.

Dembinska: "the use of goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) instead of spinach to create green soups and sauces in the spring" p. 74.

Hemp (Cannabis sativa)
"Poppy and Hemp seeds were commonly pressed together to make a blended cooking oil" Dembinska, p. 123
Hempseed porridge/soup appears to have been served in monasteries, garrisons and to the poor; it's unclear whether the hempseed oil was extracted first (Dembinska, p 113-114). The Italian source Platina also gives a recipe for hempseed porridge. Hemp plants were also used for rope and sacking, we believe.
In Russia, say Smith and Christian, "Hemp and flax . . . were used in dishes with peas, for instance, or gave oil which was either an element in various dishes or the medium in which they were cooked." (p. 5) Hempseed is one of the dry goods mentioned in the Domostroi.

Hops (Humulus lupulus)
Hops, as a flavoring and preservative additive to beer, appear to have originated in Eastern Europe and traveled slowly west. Dembinska says, "Jan Dl/ugosz commented in his Opera Omnia of the 1470s that Poland's native drink was prepared from wheat, hops, and water" . Knab mentions it as one of the herbs that 16th century Queen Bona Sforza was credited with introducing,  but clearly it was in use before then. M. Polcyn says that hops, native to Poland, occur in archeological digs, but we must rely on evidence of illuminations showing beer making for proof that they were used. Hops for brewing are among the dry goods mentioned in the Domostroi.

Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
Horseradish was used in preserving tripe, says Weaver (p 187).
Knab says:

Cultivated in Poland since the 12th century, horseradish is one of its oldest condiments as well as its oldest medication. Even during the Jagiellonian Era (1384-1572) horseradish root was offered as the chief condiment in the servant halls. Marcin of Urzedow in his Polish Herbal in 1593 recalls: "Horseradish, a splendid herb in Poland, is practically like pepper."
Syreniusz suggested using it for "headaches -- grated and drunk with wine and for chilled stomachs and improving digestion." Others suggest the fresh leaves simply be applied to the forehead for headaches." Knab, p. 121.
Horseradish grated with beets, or cwikl/a is a traditional Polish condiment. It probably does not date to period.
Hildegarde of Bingen  says it is good to eat in March when the root is soft, but not good otherwise, though one can suck the juice and spit out the rest. A powder of dried horseradish (green?) and galingale she recommends for heart and lung pains.
Grated horseradish is served as a sauce for fish in Rumpolt's "Four Banquets for Kings of Hungary and Bohemia". Horseradish is also mentioned in some of the postperiod recipes in the Domostroi.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
"Marcin of Urzedow noted that 'hyssop is an excellent herb; scarce is the person who does not have it in his garden.' It appeared in Poland in the 16th century and was spread by the Benedictine and Cistercian monks who grew it in monastery gardens" Knab, p. 122. Probably used both as a cleansing medicine and in cooking. Hildegarde of Bingen suggests eating it cooked and pulverized to purge bad humors.

Yellow Flag Iris (Iris pseudacorus), found in 12th & 13th century Gdansk, used for dyeing yellow.  [Knab, p. 72]

Juniper berries (Juniperus communis)
Used in food in Poland, possibly also as a incense/fumitory and a charm against 'evil spirits'. (Knab) Zevin suggests it may have been used as a deodorizer and to smoke fish and meat in Russia; Knab suggests similar uses in Poland (neither give dates).

Knotgrass, Knotgrass (Polygonum aviculare)
Found in 12th & 13th century Gdansk, used for dyeing blue.  [Knab, p. 72] Smith and Christian say that it was eaten in Russia, but Zevin says it was not mentioned in herbals.

Ladies' Bedstraw (Gallium vera)
Found in the Biskupin settlement; dyes red (?) [Knab, p. 72]

Lavender (Lavendula sp.)
Lavender MAY have come to Poland with Bona Sforza, though its inclusion in Hungary Water argues against it. Weaver says, "Medieval Polish cooks did not use much wine in aspic-making; rather they relied on vinegar. Polish cooks could choose from a great number of flavored vinegars to take the place of the variety of wines then  available elsewhere in Europe. One of the favored vinegars for fish aspic was lavender vinegar. . ." p. 166.
Knab says:

"Lavender became very popular in Europe during the Middle Ages when it was used to treat a variety of ailments including arthritis, gout and broken limbs. Marcin of Urzedow stated: "Everyone knows of lavender because all the ladies grow it in their garden." His other comments ascertained that "the oil of lavender is good to rub beneath the nose."
Syreniusz recalled that it "removes chills from dampness, nausea and headache when a woman wears it beneath her cap." For headaches, a wine was mixed with lavender on its own or a mixture with sage, rosemary, marjoram, thyme and lavender, noting: "It warms a cold brain and weak stomach and decreases dizziness." Lavender wine was supposed to strengthen the heart and protect against nausea.
During the Middle Ages, a very popular item in Poland was called lavendogra, made from lavender and rosemary. Lavendogra was the Polish translation of  L'eau de la reine d'Hongrie, or Queen of Hungary water. In its time, lavendogra was lauded by Elizabeth, the sister of Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370) who at age 72 cured herself of rhematism using Hungary water . . . she generated a great deal of amazement by washing not only her face but her entire body in it and supposedly becoming younger looking every day." (Knab, p. 128)
The Queen of Hungary water story may be mythology, and/or the inclusion of lavender may be mythology.

Lemon Balm (Melissa Officinalis)
As advised by Pliny, Lemon balm was used to smear the inside of beehives. Marcin of Urzedow: "The bees find it a real delight. . . it is good to have this herb near bees." (Knab, p. 129)
Knab continues:

Syreniusz recommended lemon balm for headaches, heart and stomach ailments, mushroom poisoning as well as for rheumatism and asthma. Its other attributes included: "It gladdens the heart, works well for those sad and melancholy and warms the stomach." Taken at night, lemon balm was said to "remove from the body melancholy blood, nightmares and make one merry." (Knab, . 129)

Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria Majalis)
Appears depicted in the Marian altarpiece at St. Mary's in Cracow by Wit Stwosz (1477-1533). Knab says, "Sixteenth century herbals mention a wine made from the flowers used for epilepsy" (p. 131) and in Western Europe lily-of-the-valley water was used medicinally. Zevin implies that it was also used in Russia in period. LILY OF THE VALLEY IS POISONOUS: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME!

Lovage (Levisticum Officinale)
Knab says (though it's unclear whether this is really lovage or alexanders):

It is known that Kazimierz the Great (1333-1370) grew lovage in his garden. In this period, lovage was used as treatment against dog bites, snake and scorpion bites. It was also felt to be an aphrodisiac. Slavic girls wove it in their wedding wreathes or hid it in the folds of their wedding dresses or hair, believing that it would guarantee happiness throughout their married life. It was supposed to grant protection against witchcraft and bad weather, thought to be most effective during a full moon." p. 135.
Lovage-seed cordial may have been in used in period for digestive and women's tonic purposes. Lovage leaves were also used in cooking, probably in period as well.

Marjoram, sweet (Origanum majorana)
Sweet marjoram is used in Rumpolt's recipe for a marinade of veal. It may also have been used in Polish sausages and other foods.
Knab says, "Marjoram was brought to Poland in the 16th Century . . and became extremely popular both in the kitchen and stillroom. Syreniusz recalls that it was 'sown and planted on windows in various pots." p. 135. Zevin describes its use in Russia as a deodorizer, a practice that might be period.

Marsh tea (Ledum palustre)
a stronger, European relative of the Canadian 'Labrador Tea'
Dembinska says: "One other feature of old Polish beer-making that set it apart from other nationalities was the use of poraj or "marsh tea" (Ledum palustre, called Labrador tea in North America) to heighten the beer's inebriating qualities. The leaves were prepared as a tea which was mixed with hops. This preparation was then strained until clear. Finally yeast ws added and the mixture was combined with barley and wheat. This resulted in a fermented brew called 'thick beer' which was also used as a starter for sourdough bread. The inebriating effect was due in part, however, to a poisonous compound in the plant called andromedotoxin, which is quite harmful if consumed in large quantities. In smaller amounts, it may have acted on microbes in the body and thereby offered perceived therapeutic benefits." p 79
Now often considered dangerous for internal use. The Canadian cultivar is used by naturopaths to treat soreness and wounds.

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
According to Russian legend, the use of marshmallow for cough can be dated back to the Mongol invasion.  (Zevin, p.26) Marshmallow may have been used in medieval poland but Knab does not give a date.

Meadowsweet/Queen of the Meadow (Filipendula ulmaria)
Zevin relates a folk tale about meadowsweet being used by a Russian knight to overcome fear.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Over the years since the middle ages, many superstitions have collected around mugwort. In Poland, it may have been used in St. John's Eve celebrations as wreathes, protective hangings, or even woven belts. It appears in Syreniusz.
Hildegarde of Bingen suggest cooked mugwort puree (NOT RECOMMENDED) as a dish to help ailing intestines or combat having eaten something that disagreed with one; she also suggests a paste of mugwort and honey for abscesses.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Marcin Siennik (16th c.): "Spirytus with the flowers of this plant protects against spells and dispels evil spirits." Syrennius suggested it for diarrhea, four day fever, toothache, wars, burns, and sore feet. Also, "Syreniusz also believed that the oil obtained from the flowers of mullein 'works miracles for the hair' and that a decoction from the flowers colors it golden.". Knab, p. 140. Mullein is also used in period dyeing

Mustard (Brassica nigra)
The best kind of mustard, say all the period sources, is the black mustard.
Dembinska says that mustard was used to season meat, and "Mustard was the most popular Polish condiment for flavoring meat sauces, although Poles appear to have preferred their mustard seeds whole, a texture similar to some of the coarse-grained or 'rustic' mustards made in France and German today." Dembinska, p. 73.
"Mustard seeds appear in the royal accounts on a daily basis..." Dembinska, p. 122. Knab also points out that they occur in the expense accounts of King Jagiello.
Mustard was also used in preparing poached herring (with onions). Dembinska p. 101

Myrtle (myrtus communis)
Knab says that it first appeared in Poland during the 16th c. reign of Queen Bona Sforza. It came to be associated with maidens and with weddings.

Nettle (Uritica dioica)
Nettle cloth, says Knab, was used in Poland from the 12th century onward; nettle cloth clothes "were worn to frighten away demons." Syrenniusz (via Knab) mentions nettle cooked with snails, and Lang mentions the same dish in Hungary. Syrenniusz suggested it for gas and stomach cleansing. Smith & Christian also cite nettle, along with sorrel, goose-foot and ground-elder as plants that were probably harvested and consumed locally in Russia (p.10)
Zevin notes ". . . during the seventeenth century physician's primary interest in nettle centered around the treatment of wounds. One Russian herbal of that period (known simply as The Herbal Book), describes the use of nettle: 'we chew raw nettle, mash it and apply it to fresh wounds, and so we clean and heal the wounds.' For old, infected wounds, the practitioner was advised to crush both the nettle leaves and seeds, and add salt: 'Apply to old infected wounds and they will get the dead tissue out and heal the wounds.'" (p. 106)

Nigella, aka Black Cumin (Nigella Sativa)
Weaver says sesame seeds and nigella were used to coat loaves of hashmeat served at the Polish court.
Knab: "Marcin of Urzedow recalls: 'People are very familiar with black cumin because they eat bread with it and it is very tasty and healthy.' Drunk with wine at night, Syrenius claimed cumin [is this black or regular cumin?] 'decreases phlegm from the lungs and increases milk in a mother's breast'." p. 107.

Oregano/Wild marjoram (I)
Knab: "During the Middle ages in Poland, oregan was believed to protect against illness and witchcraft, used to treat poisonous bites, decrease sex drive, erotomania and hysteria" p. 145. (These uses are all in line with the most widely known herbal, that of Dioscorides) Oregano is a wool dye and may have been used as such in period.

Parsley (Petroselinum sativum)
Dembinska says that parsley was often used to season meat (p. 73) and says it was the most popular potherb (p. 121): "It was more common in Poland than in Western Europe, and its known curative properties for helping digestion and 'cleansing the blood' guaranteed it a prominent position in many dishes of the period. It was also eaten to kill the odor of onions which lingered on medieval Poles after every large meal. From greens during the spring and summer to roots during the fall and winter, there was not a season when parsley was absent from the daily menu. It is interesting, too, that parsley was not viewed simply as an herb, but as a green vegetable to be eaten boiled. It was also used to color green sauces and to enhance or modify their flavors."
Knab says that in the 16th century it was "being grown both in the garden and in pots on windowsills." p. 146.
Zevin says, "The Greeks brought parsley to Russia between the tenth and eleventh centuries. Petroselenium soon became a common houseplant, especially among people residing near the Black Sea. By the twelfth century, parsley was well known in other parts of Russia . . . Although like the Greeks the Russians always valued parsley as an ornamental plant, they used it medicinally from the beginning. The herbal Refreshing Windtown, published in 1672, states that with petrosila herb [parsley] 'stones ran out of the bladder and kidneys, take out weakness of the liver, bellies sometimes make.'" (p.111)

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Peppermint was apparently used in Poland for the same medicinal purposes as in the rest of the world:
Syreniusz: "Drunk in red wine it will stop the hiccups, vomiting and coughing fits and also warm the stomach" also leaves could be applied for insect stings and headaches. (Knab, p. 147.)
Zevin erroneously dates the introduction of Peppermint to Europe to the 18th century, suggesting that it was not known in Russia.

Appears depicted in the Marian altarpiece at St. Mary's in Cracow by Wit Stwosz (1477-1533). May have been used to treat skin problems and for blood cleansing in period Poland. According to Zevin, "Centuries ago, plantaine was especially prized by travelers in Russia . . . the serfs believed that this healing herb was a gift from God to travelers. . . and many would pray while spreading plantain seeds along the roadsides to help future travellers" (p. 118) presumably for use as compresses for cuts, wounds and stings.

"poppy seeds, which were a source of cooking oil during fasting days (when animal lard could not be used), as well as an ingredient in cakes... Poppy seeds also appear frequently in culinary references, but especially during Lent. The seeds offered a way on abstinence days to give complex flavor to food that would otherwise contain meat products." Dembinska, p. 122-123. Mass purchases of poppy seeds for Easter pancakes appear in royal accounts (ibid, p. 117) Poppyseed is one of the dry goods mentioned in the Domostroi, often as fillings for baked goods.

Rose (Rosa sp.)
Knab cites the Pharmacopea Cracoviensis 1683 as authority that Rosa gallica and Rosa centifolia were grown in Poland. Wild Roses (Rosa canina) and rose hips were also used: "Marcin Siennik, in his herbal [1564], suggests using the flowers of the wild rose to make a pillow that is soothing and induces sleep. Syreniusz suggested using rose hips for bloody coughs, bloody emesis and diarrhea." Knab, p. 153.
Zevin notes: "In medieval times, the fruit of this flower [i.e., rose hips] was highly esteemed for its pleasant acidic taste. It was used to make preserves and sauces in Germany, while the Russians fermented the hips and made them into wine." (p. 124)

Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis)
Rosemary, a tender perennial, may have been known in Poland & Hungary during late medieval times. Both Queen of Hungary water and Lavendogra traditionally include Rosemary, and it was associated with weddings, used in wreaths and other decorations.

Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Rue, in Poland, was apparently associated with virtuous maidens and weddings. It's unclear whether these associations go back to the medieval/Renaissance period. Hildegarde of Bingen prescribed it for those of a melancholy humor.

Sage (Salvia Officinalis)
Knab says that sage was brought to Poland in the 16th century, and that "three sage leaves ingested in the morning were thought to protect one the whole day 'against the plague and pestilential airs.'" (p. 157) It was probably used to treat throat ailments as a drink or gargle.

Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Zevin: "Traces of this herb have also been found in archaeological digs in territories where early Slavic tribes once thrived . . . During the Middle Ages, Shepherd's purse was used by peasants living throughout Russia and much of Europe primarily to stop bleeding." (p. 132) Knab says, "Considered a garden weed, shepherd's purse is a very old herbal plant in Polish folk medicine and used frequently during childbirth" to stop bleeding (p. 160)

Savory, Summer (Satureia hortensis)
Dembinska speaks of an herb, used flavor a sauerbraten dish originally imported from Hungary, called 'csombor'. This is  savory (Sauteria hortensis, summer savory; though winter savory might also be indicated, based on the taste described): "Csombor is an herb with a taste that resembles mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris). It may be replicated by grinding together equal parts tarragon, dill seed, and caraway seed." While the taste of savory doesn't really resemble mugwort, it is similar to the mixture she mentions.
Marcin of Urzedow: "savory is a common herb and much eaten in Poland" (Knab, p. 160). It was supposedly good for improving digestion and awakening valor.
Weaver suggests that czombor (savory) vinegar may have been used in Sabrina Welserin's Hungarian style fish dish.

Smallage/Wild Celery
Smallage was known throughout medieval Europe. Weaver uses it in his recipes, implying that it is period for Poland. Lovage or celery leaves can be used in place of fresh celery. There is some debate as to whether celery seed was used in period anywhere.

Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)
Marcin of Urzedow noted its soaplike qualities and Syrenniusz suggested it as a diuretic, liver tonic and cough treatment. (Knab, p. 162) Zevin also mentions the use of Rupturewort, Herniaria glabra, for soapy lather for washing wool, 'centuries ago'.

Soup greens:
"water" barszcz or Niedzwidzia l/apa
dziki szczaw (buckler-leaved sorrel Rumex scutatus)
Lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album)
locyga (nipplewort Lapsana communis)

St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Found at the digs in Biskupin,this herb was associated with the festivities of St. John's eve. Knab says, "During the Middle Ages and later, there were may beliefs and superstitions about St. John's Wort, including that it cured 99 illnesses and was helpful against magic and evil forces . . . By the 16th century, it was used as a diuretic and for healing wounds, burns and ulcers. The fresh flowers were soaked in spirytus and applied to new wounds as well as old one refusing to heal." p. 159. Zevin mentions "This herb was so popular in early Russia that Czar Michael I [1596-1645] issued a special order that no less than one hundred pounds of this herb be collected each year to be delivered to the court" either for healing properties or to protect from dangerous forest animals, perhaps (p. 137)

Thyme (Thymus sp.)
Knab says thyme came to Poland with Bona Sforza. However, Zevin says, "In addition to its use as a folk remedy, the leaves were added to sacrificial holy fires by Slavic tribes before the advent of Christianity. They considered the aromatic smoke a sign that the sacrifice was accepted by the gods, " going on to say that after Russia's conversion to Christianity, thyme was/is used to decorate icons of the Virgin Mary, and it was known as "our lady's herb". (p.140)

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Zevin cites a folk legend about Panteleimon the Healer, who supposedly brought valerian root to the people to treat a wide variety of diseases. Is the legend period? We don' know.

Violets (viola odorata)
Appear depicted in the Marian alterpiece at St. Mary's in Cracow by Wit Stwosz (1477-1533).

Wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) aka absinthe
Hildegarde of Bingen called this "the principle remedy for all ailments". Syreniusz said that it "warms a cold stomach, and awakens the appetite" (Knab, p. 173). Supposedly it was used in Russia "to heal wounds and cleanse the blood" (Knab). Knab also says that medieval Poles used it in ink to protect books from vermin, and in the linens to drive away fleas and other insects.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
This famous medieval wound herb was apparently also used in Poland, grown in monastery gardens. Knab:
"Marcin of Urzedow suggested poultices of yarrow for inflamed and pus filled wounds. Syreniusz suggested its use for internal bleeding, diarrhea and pain in the intestines. He suggested that the herb is good boiled in wine and taken for 'colic and biting in the stomach. Mashed and applied cot the body it will stop nosebleeds and decrease tooth pain if the root is chewed.' (p. 175)
Zevin says, "Old herbals document its medicinal use in Russia as far back as the fourteenth century, though it was probably used before that time" (p.149).


Expensive imported spices were a prestigious gift. A spice mixture was used sometimes to preserve meat (Dembinska recounts a story where "gunpowder" (saltpeter?) and spice mixture was used to preserve auroch meat presented by the King of Poland to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1417.)

Agnus Castus (chaste tree seed)
Dembinska suggests this may have been imported to Poland from Cyprus: "The pepper was added to monastic dishes to suppress venery or sexual desire" (p. 42)

Cinnamon may have been used in preparing baked herring (Dembinska, p. 101) as well as in other spiced dishes. It's mentioned in the Domostroi's postperiod watermelon rind recipe.

Used in flavoring 'comfits and pastilles'. It was probably as popular a spice in Eastern Europe as elsewhere.
Weaver uses this in his recipes, implying that it was used in Poland.
Smith and Christian confirm the use of cloves in Russia. The Domostroi mentions using cloves to spice mead (p. 155) and in the postperiod recipe for preserved watermelon rind

Cubebs appear to have been used in medieval Polish cooking, according to Dembinska & Weaver.

Cumin (Kumel) (?)
Queen Bona Sforza is credited with introducing this into Poland in the 16th century, but Weaver uses it in his recipes, suggesting that it MAY have been known there earlier. Hildegard of Bingen thought it was good for those who were healthy or congested, but not others. She recommends "One who wishes to eat cooked or dry cheese without ill consequences should place cumin on it," and also recommends it for nausea.

The ? Edition of the Domostroi mentions gifts of 'incense and frankincense' to the church, but this specificity may be a translator's shorthand.

Dembinska suggests that both sorts of galingale may have been imported to Poland through the Cypriot connection (p. 42)

Nuremberg and Torin gingerbread were well known; whether these variations contained ginger is not known.
Smith and Christian confirm the use of ginger in Russia. It's also mentioned in Rumpolt's "Four Banquets for Kings of Hungary and Bohemia" and in the postperiod recipes in the Domostroi, such as pickled watermelon rind.

Dembinska suggests that this resin may have been imported to Poland and 'carried in the pocket as prevention against bubonic plague' (p 42)

Weaver uses this in his recipes, implying that it was used in Poland. It's mentioned in Rumpolt's "Four Banquets for Kings of Hungary and Bohemia",  and in the Domostroi's postperiod watermelon rind recipe.
Mace is the outer covering of the nutmeg grain.

Adamus Olearius, in his early 17th century account of the Russian steam bath, mentions nutmeg as part of a snack brought to bathers: "As soon as she comes in, she presents you with some Radish and Salt; and if you be a particular friend, the Mistress of the House, or her Daughter, brings you a composition of Wine and Beer, with some crub'd bread, Limon Slices, Sugar and grated Nutmeg." (Aaland)
The Domostroi mentions using nutmeg to spice mead (p. 155) and in the postperiod recipe for preserved watermelon rind.

Dembinska says that pepper was often used to season meat (p. 73)
"Black pepper was the most important spice . . . with surges of popularity for such related peppers as cubeb (Piper cubeba), Indian long pepper (Piper longum), and West African Guinea pepper or pepper of Benin (Piper guineense). . . Indeed, the West African Guinea pepper is mentioned several times during the 1390s in the register of royal treasurer Henryk of Rogow, but like nutmeg, mace and cloves it was used primarily in connection with the flavoring of comfits and pastilles." Dembinska p. 74-75.
Smith and Christian confirm the use of pepper in Russia.
Pepper is mentioned in the "Four Banquets of the Kings of Hungary and Bohemia" and in the postperiod recipes in the Domostroi; the Domostroi also mentions peppermills as kitchen equipment.

Dembinska says that saffron was often used to season meat (p. 73) Saffron wafers were specifically mentioned in Polish royal accounts (ibid, p. 117). Saffron is mentioned in the postperiod recipes in the Domostroi.

Sesame seeds
Weaver says sesame seeds and nigella were used to coat loaves of hashmeat served at the Polish court.
Smith and Christian suggest that saffron may have been imported only after the mid-16th century in Russia, but this seems unlikely.


Aaland, Mikkel. "The Russian Bania: History of the Great Russian Bath", http://www.cyberbohemia.com/Pages/russianbaniahistory.htm. Accessed August 7, 2001

Bowe, Patrick. Gardens in Central Europe (M. T. Train, 1992) Though most of the gardens in this volume are NOT period, there are some good illustrations of a monastery garden and some general background on the development of landscape in Central Europe.

Dembinska, Maria, rev. and adapted by William Woys Weaver. Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past.  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999). This is an excellent overview of Polish
foodways between 1350 and 1500, but the included recipes are re-creations, not redactions. Furthermore, it is an adaptation of a translation of Ms. Dembinska's PhD thesis,originally published in 1963 as Kosumpcja Zywonsiowa w Polsce Sredniowiecznej (Food consumption in Medieval Poland). Using a translation by Magdalena Thomas, Weaver edited and adapted the text, and included a number of recipes that he and Dembinska had worked on re-creating from mentions in records and known recipes from non-Slavic sources. Unfortunately, many of the notes and charts were removed and the notes for the recipes do not give sufficient source data.

The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the time of Ivan the Terrible. Edited and Translated by Carolyn Johnston Pouncy. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994). This is one of the few primary sources available, a manual on running a household written by an anonymous cleric for his son. This translation includes both pre- and post-1600 sections of the manuscript. Some of the translations, especially for food, err on the side of modern understandability rather than accuracy. Chapters from the 'Long Version' are from between 1600 and 1650.

Leonard Fuchs, De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, (Notable Commentaries on the History of Plants), aka Botany or  The Great Herbal 1542-1545, illustrations online at http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/fuchs/

Hildegarde of  Bingen. Hildegard von Bingen's Physica: the complete English translation of her classic work on Health and Healing. Trans. from the Latin by Patricia Throop. (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1998). It's unclear how widely Hildegarde's prescriptions were used or how they fit into the mainstream of medieval medicine, but they give some idea of usage.

Knab, Sophie Hodorowicz. Polish Herbs, Flowers & Folk Medicine. (NY: Hippocrene Books, 1995) Primarily 19th century, has medieval references and use references; concentrates on medicine but includes gardening material also.

Lang, George. George Lang's Cuisine of Hungary. (New York, Random House, 1994). Lang is regrettably vague about spices but includes an interesting sidelight about the possible cultivation of paprika (capsicum or hot pepper) before 1600.

Polcyn, M."Archaeobotanical Evidence for Food Plants in the Poland of the Piasts (10th-13th Centuries AD)", Biological Journal of Scotland, vol 46, no 4, p 533-537. This gives a list of the foodstuffs found in archaeological digs in Gniezno.

Rumpolt, M. "Four Banquets of the Kings of Hungary and Bohemia" from Ein New Kochbuch, translated by M. Grasse: http://clem.mscd.edu/~grasse/GK_ASkings1.htm
Smith,  R.E.F.  and David Christian. Bread and Salt: A social and economic history of food and drink in Russia.
(NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984). The first two chapters in this cover the time period before 1600 (and up
to 1650).

Szafer, Wladyslaw. Concise history of botany in Cracow against the background of six centuries of the Jagiellonian University. (Warsaw, Scientific Publications Foreign Cooperation Center of the Central Institute for Scientific, Technical and Economic Information,1969)

Das Kuchbuch der Sabrina Welserin (The Cookbook of Sabrina Welserin), translated by Valoise Armstrong's translation, webbed by Cariadoc of the Bow (David D. Friedman) http://www.best.com/~ddfr//Medieval/Cookbooks/Sabrina_Welserin.html

Struzková, D. and M. Beranová, "The medicinal and culinary use of the cabbage, onion, garlic and leek in the Bohemian Region during the 15th and 16th centuries". In press.

Zemanek, A. "Herbals and other Botanical Works of the Polish Renaissance: Present State and Prospects for Research,"

Biological Journal of Scotland, vol 46, no 4, p 637-643.

Zevin,  Igor Vilevich; with Nathaniel Altman and Lilia Vasilevna Zevin. A Russian Herbal: Traditional Remedies for Health and Healing. (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts, 1997). Primarily modern with occasional medieval references; concentrates on medicine.

This is the handout for a class in the Society for Creative Anachronism, taught by Jadwiga Zajaczkowa/Jennifer Heise.
copyright 2001, Jennifer Heise. For permission to reprint, email jenne.heise@gmail.com
Permission is explicitly granted for limited reproduction as a printed handout for classes in schools, herb society meetings, or classes or guild meetings in the Society for Creative Anachronism (except to corporate officers and board members of the SCA, Inc.), as long as I am notified and credited and the entire handout is used. Jadwiga's Herb site: http://www.gallowglass.org/jadwiga/herbs/herbs.html