Monday, 19 January 2015

Medieval Plants: Research Difficulties

Ok, I spent several hours going through numerous sources on the first 3 plants on my list.  I discovered a few things.  

First, plants go by many names and translators don’t always use the same name, or the latin name. I found this quote which sums up the problem nicely:

“Controversy exists concerning the exact identification of some plants that are mentioned in medieval literature and depicted in medieval art.  It is often extremely difficult to identify plants from the names given them by medieval writers, while plants in works of art are not always rendered with botanical accuracy.” (Bayard, 55)

So, for example, an alternate name for Yarrow is Woundwort.  Hildegard von Bingen has sections for both Yarrow (garwa) and Woundwort (wuntwurtz) in the Physica, showing that Woundwort may also  be used for a different plant entirely.  I'll therefore have to exercise caution when attributing information to a plant from a source that doesn't use the latin name.
I also discovered that it’s useful to go online and find out the alternate names for plants before go ing through all my physical books, so I don’t have to go through them multiple times.

Second, most of my sources don’t differentiate between periods regarding when plants were used for what.  In other words, it’s difficult for me to say that a particular plant was used for x in the middle ages.  I knew that a lot of classical lore would have been preserved, as well as a lot of pre-medieval local lore, I didn’t expect that there would be little differentiation in my sources with regards to when certain practices may have stopped (beyond the obvious ‘modern age’, as we’ve learned more about the efficacy of plants and can synthesize the beneficial elements).  

Third, the secondary sources that reference the middle ages specifically are pretty light on the details, meaning I’ll probably have to do more research online than I anticipated.  Having said that, I came across some great sites that will help me flesh out my posts.

So these aren’t going to be as focused as I’d intended.  I'm going to try posting one a month and take things from there.

Bayard, Tania. Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.

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