Book Review: Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden

Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden: An Illustrated Companion To Medieval Plants And Their Uses, by Rob Talbot & Robin Whiteman

A book like this is pretty clear about who it appeals to. Are one of the following true about you: Do you like seeing beautiful pictures of plants, or have an interest in gardening and traditional medicine? Are you a fan of Medieval history, and enjoy reading extended quotations from the herbal dictionaries that were extant during the Middle Ages, their advice ranging from seemingly sound to obviously bogus? Are you a fan of the Cadfael series, and enjoy reading quotations from the books Ellis Peters wrote about her 12th century monk detective? If you answered yes to any of these questions, congratulations, this is probably a book you will enjoy. It is 200 pages long (but the pages are somewhat larger than usual for the books I read), full of elegant text and pretty pictures, well-organized, and serves well both in revealing the state of medical knowledge and gossip in the Middle Ages as well as providing evidence that the Middle Ages were not quite as credulous an age as is commonly believed.

In terms of its organization and structure, this book is patterned very well. On the larger scale, the book begins with a dedication to Ellis Peters, the pseudonym of Edith Pargeter, the woman who wrote the Brother Cadfael series of mysteries. It then discusses the monastic garden of the Middle Ages and its origin in the late Roman villa, before looking at Cadfael’s rule over the herbal garden as a brother in the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury without an official title and his role as an herbalist and healer, something that many may miss if they simply read the Cadfael series looking for murder mysteries. About 3/4 of the book is taken up with a detailed alphabetical list of the medieval plants and herbs that are mentioned in the Cadfael series (of which there are many), followed by a short list of additional notable medieval plants and herbs that the series does not mention, also in alphabetical order with short notes, closed by a plug for the Shrewsbury Quest, which sounds like a place I need to make a pilgrimage to, and then a bibliography after that. Each of the entries in the main body of the book has its own consistent pattern of organization as well. First there is the name, in English along with the Latin species name and its other nicknames. After this comes the listing of the books the plant is named in, comments or quotations about how the plant is mentioned in the Brother Cadfael novels, its “ruling planet” according to bogus astrology current in the Middle Ages, and then a longer discussion of its medicinal, culinary, and miscellaneous uses. Occasionally this text is supported by gorgeous photos of the plant in question.

A book like this has several uses. For one, it is genuinely informative about the medieval use of plants, ranging from fairly ordinary food and clothing crops to more exotic medicinal uses and herbal supplements to diet. A lot of these unusual plants would be good to use for salads, as I am a fairly notable salad eater who has a high tolerance for quirky but tasty plants, as long as I’m not allergic to them. It should be noted that the book strongly discourages the use for these herbs and plants for medicinal purposes without professional guidance, which seems pretty reasonable in light of the fact that many of the herbs discussed here are poisonous, some highly so, which ought not to surprise any reader of this book given that some of them were used to bring about death in the Cadfael series itself. It is also of interest, although not necessarily happy interest, to see that a great many of the herbs were touted for their uses to stir up love, to serve as a poultice for gout or wounds, or to get rid of freckles, something people in the Middle Ages appeared to care a lot about, besides serving as cold medicines. The book also notes differences between medieval varieties of a plant and modern equivalents (as is the case with lettuce) as well as cases where a plant’s older use has been superseded with knowledge of more efficacious plants, as in the case of quinine from Peruvian bark for certain anti-malerial medicines. This is an entertaining and thought provoking work that ought to encourage its readers to appreciate the Cadfael series on a different layer, and also appreciate the wisdom and discretion of ancient and Medieval herbalists more, which is a good thing, I think, on balance.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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