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Claire Schmidt - Review of Michael Brown, Medieval Plants and their Uses

Claire Schmidt - Review of Michael Brown, Medieval Plants and their Uses

A Medieval saint and flowers

Michael Brown’s Medieval Plants and their Uses is Brown’s third book exploring historical human-plant relationships in Great Britain. It is written for a general audience with an interest in growing, wild-harvesting, and utilizing plants traditionally found in the British Isles. While academic medievalists and folklorists might quibble over attestation and citations, plant enthusiasts will appreciate the author’s photography and the book’s attractiveness.

The best thing about this book is the beautiful pictures. Brown has taken his own photographs, which reveal his knowledge of and love for plants and what you can do with them. The pictures show plants growing, plants dried, but also plants in-use—from a butcher’s broom to mustard balls, to a rosary made of rose petals—and plants in art (silphium on column in Libya and reproductions of illuminated manuscripts). Brown’s experience is clear from pictures of his demonstrations of products like willow whistle, pig bladder-capped finger pots, to hand-staining woad balls. The pictures alone made the book an excellent gift.

The book is broken into fifteen chapters, beginning with an introduction and ending with plant lists and charts that provide a breakdown of species, historical names, and uses. Chapters 2-4 are each devoted to a category of food plants—vegetables, fruit and nuts, and grains. Each of these chapters begins with an overview, and each references seminal texts from which information is drawn. Then, the chapters move through plant families, using photographs to aid in identification and to illustrate specific features that may differ from current usage of these plants. These chapters include offset recipes for the plants under discussion. The recipes are in modern English but are not written in modern cook-book style, and often titles suggest that they are taken from a historical source. Each chapter includes a few reproductions of medieval manuscript illustrations taken from the open-source Wellcome Collection ( These chapters focus on the ways that the practices of medieval gardeners, farmers, and cooks in their usage of these plants differed from twenty-first-century practices, but they also point out things that medieval and current practices have in common.

Having given an overview of food plant use, Brown, in chapter 5, turns to plants and medicine, beginning with an explanation of the genre of herbals, then taking up medical theory beginning with classical European origins in Hippocrates and Galen, and finally looking at diagnosis through astrology, before at last giving us recipes and descriptions of cures ( in the form of syrups, ointments, and so forth). Brown shifts to “Symbolism and Superstition” in chapter 6, a chapter that deals heavily in belief, often Christian, discussing legends, charms, songs, belief narratives, and hagiography. Chapter 7, titled “Magical and Mysterious,” leans away from Christian belief toward vernacular and quotidian beliefs that often overlap with medical and social practice as well as with good and bad luck, spirits, and fortune. As with all chapters in this book, sources here are wide-ranging, from medieval manuscripts of Pliny to Shakespeare and to scripture.

Chapter 8, “Love, Seduction, and Beauty,” focuses on social uses for plants, beginning with skin (and dental) care, then turns to love potions and aphrodisiacs, and at last to impotence and chastity. Chapter 9, “Childbirth, Babies, and Nursemaids,” follows logically, as Brown connects plants to desirable (or undesirable) conditions related to conception, abortion, safe delivery, milk production, and safe infant sleep. Chapter 10, “Clothing, Laundry, and Other Household Tips,” is a catch-all that describes medieval household plant use that doesn’t involve applying plants to the human body (aside from linen clothing). Chapter 11 focuses on plants as coloring agents, beginning with sumptuary laws before moving to specific shades and the plants that create them. This chapter is more descriptive than prescriptive, and it contains only two recipes a modern user might follow.

Chapter 12 moves to animal care, from poisons to medicines, and chapter 13 focuses specifically on plant harvest and preservation, emphasizing the relationship between pragmatism and belief. This chapter, as others, contains historical recipes, in this case for aqua vitae and rosewater. Chapter 14 is a final catch-all chapter, cheerfully titled “Fun Things to Do,” which for Brown includes making floral chaplets as well as musical instruments of rye, teasel, and willow.

Without explicitly stating it, Brown’s focus and approach is entirely British and reflects his background and career in the United Kingdom as a gardener and designer with a post-graduate degree in Garden History. References to medieval plant use outside England, particularly manuscripts with connections to the medieval and pre-medieval Arab world, is always in relation to historical English practice.

Cooks will find the recipes unevenly usable. Some include specific ratios or other measurements, while others do not. Some recipes are very clear about time, temperature, or texture, while others assume a degree of prior knowledge that will be difficult for the modern cook. There is an odd degree of typographical error in the recipes compared to the rest of the text. Historians or literary scholars might want to use these recipes to add a sensory dimension to classroom study, but the omission of information about the source and process of translation and/or standardization of English makes that difficult to do in an authoritative, substantive way.

Medievalists would likely prefer more attention to which recipe or quote comes from which manuscript, to see a greater number of manuscripts consulted and more consistency in captioning of historical reproductions, as well as more in-text references. But Medieval Plants and their Uses is not written for scholars—it is written for an audience whose primary interest is growing and using plants rather than working with primary source materials and archives. Similarly, folklorists would likely prefer more nuance in description of belief and in attribution of information. Scholars with an eye toward cultural studies would likely quibble with the way the book supports the popularly held attitude that “medieval” equals British, and at a stretch, European, as if the period was a phenomenon only experienced in Western Europe. Tourists would probably like more information about where they can see such things as a replica hut and other objects featured in the book’s in-situ photographs.

Brown’s voice is evident throughout the manuscript; he is often tongue-in-cheek, and it is clear he wants his readers to appreciate both the strangeness and familiarity of his medieval forebears, evident in such details as advice about mandrakes and planting houseleeks on a roof to prevent lightning strikes.


[Review length: 1066 words • Review posted on February 19, 2024]