Horticultural ideas

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, October 23, 2008 , , ,

Browsing through the November edition (November? Where has the year gone to?) of History Today Tory Historian came across an article by Trea Martyn, who teaches history of gardening and has just published a book called “Elizabeth in the Garden”.

At the heart of the book is the horticultural rivalry for Queen Elizabeth’s favour between William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, whose chief gardener was the great herbalist John Gerard (c.1545 – 1612) and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Gerard supervised Burleigh’s main garden in Theobalds Palace in Hertfordshire against which Leicester pitted his Italianate garden at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire where he held a 19-day festivity for the Queen in 1575.

This is what Ms Martyn says about the great Queen herself:

Elizabeth inherited her interest in herbalism from her father, who had his own collection of herbal potions. She was fiercely opposed to physic (more akin to what we would now call conventional medicine), refusing to take it even when close to death. This gave her something in common with her people, most of whom relied on herbal remedies, if only because English physicians charged the highest fees in Europe.
A few interesting points in that. Firstly, the reference to Henry VIII’s herbal potions is intriguing though one must remember that a great deal of all medicine was based on that in the sixteenth century with many theories about humours abounding. Indeed, further down Ms Martyn explains that the arguments between physicians and poor women who sold those potions were usually about money – the physicians wanted a monopoly.

Which brings one to the most entertaining point: English physicians charged the highest fee in Europe. Was that for the same herbal potions or for bleeding patients or for providing them with leeches? In the end, it all comes down to money rather than medical arguments.

Tory Historian possesses a number of old cookery books, alas mostly in reprinted or edited versions and they all have sections for all kinds of herbal and other potions and remedies. One of the most interesting “illnesses” is not really that but something called “green sickness” from which girls and young women suffered, especially towards the end of winter. The remedy was a drink laced with iron filings, created within the household, not bothering any physician. In other words, anaemia in young women and teenage girls was a widely recognized phenomenon and the remedy for it was also known.


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