Medicinal Herbs in Wales - Sarah Woodbury

Medicinal Herbs in Wales

Most plants and herbs used as medicines can cause harm when taken in excess or used inappropriately (see Medieval Poisons), but a whole host of plants were employed for medicinal purposes during the Dark and Middle Ages in Wales.

“Medical activity in Wales has a long history:  although no primary sources now exist it seems likely that at the time of Hippocrates, around 430 BC, the laws of Dynwal Moelmud acknowledged and protected the art of medicine in Wales.  It is possible to ascertain with greater certainty the contribution to medicine made in the tenth century by the Welsh King, Hywel Dda (c. 890 – 950AD) when he drew up the code of laws which were to be used in Wales until the time of Edward I.  The physician was an important member of the household: his remuneration was clearly described but he also had considerable responsibilities:

‘…he is to administer medicine gratuitously to all within the palace, and to the chief of the household; and he is to have nothing from them but their bloody clothes … he is never to leave the palace, but with the King’s permission’.”

In particular, the Myddfai, a rural area in eastern Carmarthenshire with rugged mountains, fertile dales, rivers and steep wooded valleys which has become famous for its physicians.  “One of the earliest of these was Rhiwallon of Myddfai, physician to Rhys Gryg, Lord of Dinefwr and Llandovery in the thirteenth century, under whose patronage Rhiwallon made a collection of medicinal remedies. These are remarkable for the care which was taken to write down the quantities and methods of preparation involved for each treatment and because they form the earliest written records of plant remedies in Wales. These are to be found in the Red Book of Hergest.”

As an example, with fevers:  “The mugwort, madder, meadow sweet, milfoil, hemp, red cabbage, and the tutsan, all these seven herbs enter into the composition of the medicine required.  Whosoever obtains them all, will not languish long from a wounded lung, or need fear for his life. Any of the following herbs may be added thereto, butcher’s broom, agrimony, tutsan, dwarf elder, amphibious persicaria, centaury, round birth wort, field scabious, pepper mint, daisy, knap weed, roots of the red nettle, crake berry, St. John’s wort, privet, wood betony, the roots of the yellow goat’s beard, heath, water avens, woodruff, leaves of the earth nut, agrimony, wormwood, the bastard balm, small burdock, and the orpine.”

Some common medicinal herbs from 1000 years ago are:

Agrimony:  “Agrimony stops bleeding of all sorts . . . It helps relieve pain too, and has a long tradition as a wound herb as well as for treating liver, digestive and urinary tract problems.”

Calendula (pot marigold):  “Calendula has a long history of use as a wound-healing and skin-soothing botanical. This lovely marigoldlike flower (although called pot marigold, it is not a true marigold) is considered a vulnerary agent, a substance that promotes healing. Calendula also has anti-inflammatory and weak antimicrobial activity. It is most often used topically for lacerations, abrasions, and skin infections; less commonly, it is used internally to heal inflamed and infected mucous membranes.”

Comfrey:  “Comfrey’s old name of knitbone refers to its strong healing action for broken bones. It will also knit flesh together, speeding the healing of wounds. Applied as a poultice or ointment, it can be used to treat bruises, dislocations and sprains.”

Moss:  S. cymbifolium has been used for centuries to dress wounds and aid healing.  “A Gaelic Chronicle of 1014 relates that the wounded in the battle of Clontarf ‘stuffed their wounds with moss,’ and the Highlanders after Flodden stanched their bleeding wounds by filling them with bog moss and soft grass.”

St. John’s Wort:  “St. John’s wort has been intensively researched. It contains hypericin, the source of its antidepressive action. It also contains antiviral compounds and immune-boosting chemicals, known as flavonoids, that explain its action against viral, bacterial, and fungal infections.”

Violet:  “Their use in medicine dates back 2500 years.  In fact, some herbalists feel that the health benefits of the violet (Viola odorata) are such as to make its physical beauty of secondary importance.  Medicinally, is an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, diaphoretic, diuretic, emollient, expectorant, laxative, and may also be anti-tumor.”

Willowherb:  “The small-flowered willowherbs are a specific remedy for prostate problems, including benign prostate hyperplasia (BHP). Plants in this informal group help shrink the tissues, arrest cell proliferation and normalise urinary function.  Small-flowered willowherbs are also effective for a wide range of bladder and urinary problems, for women as well as men, with the astringent and diuretic action serving to tone and detoxify the urinary tract.”

4 Replies to “Medicinal Herbs in Wales”

  1. I have been trying to find reliable information about old remedies. I look forward to digging through the Red Book mentioned here. Thanks loads.

  2. So fascinating, isn’t it? I was just reading a book in which a woman traveling to Bali was treated for a urinary infection with their traditional herbal remedies–and was fully recovered in 2 hours, so never had to take the 2 weeks of antibiotics Western medicine would have prescribed!

    1. You wonder how many other instances of this there might be out there . . . where we take pharmeceuticals because we no longer have the natural options.

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