Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Charm of Nine Herbs

  • Down the Rabbithole

    I have been down several rabbit holes since I last posted. Many of them are to do with the updated translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs I’ve been working on in a random fashion for a while. I have been pondering words like ‘poison’, ‘venom’, ‘plague’, ‘in-flying infection’. I’ve been thinking about ‘elf-shot’ and the notion that tooth-ache is caused by worms gnawing at decayed teeth. I’ve been wondering what it was like to try to heal people when you didn’t know much beyond the basics of anatomy, and didn’t have access to microscopes.

    I discovered historical records of a ‘yellow plague’ that ravaged this area in the 5th and 6th century, killing at least one local king, which led me to wonder about the other colourful diseases mentioned in the text. Epidemics, food poisoning and diseases caused by polluted water must have been common – are the words ‘plague’, ‘poison’ and ‘venom’ just the best guess for the causes of illness too small to see without the naked eye?

    I’m also querying my identification of atterlothe – I went for ‘burdock’ for what seemed to be good reasons – it is an alterative, native and well-known, exists in more than one species (because the only other use of the word refers to the ‘smaller’ atterlothe being used with betony for coughs) and generally fits the bill. But on the other hand, there is another Old English name for burdock – ‘clate‘, and down the rabbit hole I went. I looked at speedwell, which was indeed used with betony for coughs, self-heal (no mention in Old English texts), bistort, cockspur grass, Viper’s bugloss, which Culpeper says was used as a substitute for speedwell, and now I’m eyeing up cinquefoil and vervain (I would love it to be vervain!). The trouble is that Old English scholars tend to be poor at botany, and botanists tend to blank Old English. And both are a bit rubbish about monasteries. But that is another rabbit hole, and yes, I did go down it!

    I’m following up Kapka Kassabova’s excellent book Elixir, and some poetry following my venture into Irish last year. Obviously you’ll know Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, but can I recommend Doireann Ní Ghríofa? Brilliant!

    I have now deleted my Mailchimp account, following their decision to scrape all newsletters for AI content, and I’m in the process of building a new letter at Buttondown, which seems to be free of all such shenanigans. I kept a list of all my contacts, and when the first issue is ready I will email everyone ONCE to invite you to sign up. I won’t harass anyone after that, and I will delete the address of anyone who doesn’t, so there will be no spam.

    Ceasing Never has taken a back seat as we try to sort out some accommodation problems for a family member, and I’m knee deep in judging the William Bonar Competition. Also Celtic Connections is coming up, and I have a significant birthday fairly soon. But in February I hope to add some new essays and reflections – please feel free to comment or add to the discussions.

  • Hocus Pocus

    This isn’t really a post about magic, it’s about the power of poetry, as an art form that depends almost exclusively on a hyper-aware use of language, for good or ill. Hocus pocus sounds like a magic formula these days – like abracadabra. According to wikipedia, abracadabra does indeed appear to have been used as a magical incantation to ward off diseases, and was used seriously during the Great Plague by people who wrote it on their houses to ward off the illness. Hocus pocus, however, was no such thing. It was a deliberate and demeaning distortion of the words of consecration in the old Latin Mass – hoc est enim corpus in order to trivialise Catholic culture. These things happen – Gary Snyder says somewhere that if you really want a fight, you mock the other person’s diet preferences or religion, and I’m sure there are places where the mockery was reciprocated in full.

    Occasionally, though, you have to look behind the mockery to see what’s really there. When I came to Scotland, the Scottish cringe was in full effect, and there was a lot of contempt for the ‘tartan and shortbread heedrum hodrum‘ packaged for tourists nonsense that passed for Scottish culture. The real Scotland wasn’t like that, oh no, it was up to date and industrial, urban and intellectual, and let’s not have any of that kitsch peasant nostalgia here thank you very much. At that time,I thought heedrum hodrum was a bit like the ‘wack-foll-the-diddle’ of English folk music, and didn’t pay it much attention. I was very much into folk music and dancing, though I didn’t have much time for the archaism and affectations of the Country Dance societies, and it didn’t worry me. But lately I’ve been looking into canntaireachd and It was illuminating.

    Canntaireachd is a verbalisation of pipe tunes, to be used when teaching a student new music. You sang it until you’d learned it, then got the fingering right on the chanter, and then you learned to play it on the pipes. Far from being random vocalisation, it is an elaborately coded highly technical language. Pipers would say it is more effective than staff notation, as it is written to convey not only pitch and rhythm, but dynamics and intensity, and I’m glad to say it’s still being taught. You can hear an example of it in Martin Bennett’s Chanter, given a surprising twist on his Grit album. Using heedrum hodrum as a way to describe Highland culture reveals an anti-minority prejudice that isn’t dying out as fast as I would wish.

    Another example of this is in the translation of the Old English herb attorlaðe, which comes up in the Charm of Nine Herbs. It’s commonly translated with a phrase like ‘poison-hater’ – I used the phrase ‘venom defier’. Cute, no? Couthy and rustic and old fashioned, and appropriate for all that superstitious magic stuff they had in the Dark Ages. Suppose I used the technical term ‘febrifuge’ – that sounds a bit more serious and knolwedgeable, wouldn’t you think? It’s certainly the term used in textbooks, and it means it deals with fever. Febrifuge is literally the Latin for attorlaðe, which, when you use the high status language for university trained doctors with degrees suddenly sounds as reliable as paracetamol.

    People are becoming more literate in the ways visual imagery can be used to manipulate a culture, but for real magic and misdirection, there’s nothing like the wizardry of language.

  • Good Country Doctoring

    While I’ve been doing the research for the revised version of The Charm of Nine Herbs, I’ve been coming across some interesting anomalies. Sometimes it seems as if academics and enthusiasts are talking about medicine as if it was one practice, when it appears that in the past there were two entirely separate philosophies about health and healing. This comes up when we read about the ‘wise woman’ theory about the persecution of witches, or the role of the church in medicine, or the very muddled attitudes of scholars to the medical practices of the past.

    The first I’ve called ‘good country doctoring’. The phrase came up in a biography of the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, who lived in Kentucky from 1941 until his death in 1968. He had a complicated medical history, made more complicated by the prejudice of the monastery (which Merton mostly endorsed) against expensive specialist medical services, relying instead on the local practitioners. This is the traditional nursing care we all practice and take for granted – paracetamol for a headache or a high temperature, Vick rubbed on the chest for a cough, dock leaves on a nettle sting and so on. Before the rise of professional doctors, this was all most people had, and they would rely on the knowledge and expertise (which could be extensive) of family and neighbours to provide what was needed. Stitching up wounds, complicated surgery or delivering babies might have needed more, but was still often dealt with in the community. Knowledge was traditional and adapted to the locality and the lifestyle of patients, and probably every woman and most men knew enough to get by. Some would clearly have been better than others – more patient, more observant, more interested perhaps, and though some might have a local reputation for being good nurses or midwives, there were very little reliance on professionals at this level. A lot of the ‘wise woman’ traditional herbal knowledge is of this sort, and is now covered by the study of ethnobotany.

    The second part is really where the text books start. For the most part, sick people who were carefully nursed, then as now, either got well or died, but when there would be something new, or complicated or more critical than average, you had to deal with specialists. These might be either learned people ‘doctors’ or people with a particular gift, whom I am going to call ‘healers’ because I want to avoid getting into discussions about witches and shamans and things which are more precise than I want to be.

    Learned people had access to books and authorities like Galen, or medical schools like the one at Salerno. In the early Middle Ages these were mostly in monasteries, and monks would share their learning as part of their duties of hospitality to strangers and care for the poor. One consequence of this was that monks were constantly being distracted from the monastic life by the demands of wealthy patrons, and St Bernard of Clairvaux in particular was very clear that this should not happen. Stephen Pollington asserts in his book Leechcraft that he forbade them to engage in medicine at all, but this is not the case. As well as the detriment to the life of the monastery, Bernard was concerned that his monks should not have a more privileged life than the poor communities around them. Some of the remedies recommended by these authorities were exotic and expensive, and Bernard says that monks should restrict their treatments to ‘green herbs such as the poor have’.

    Dorothy Hartley in Food in England writes of a priest dealing with ‘diabolic posession’ by diagnosing ‘self neglect, starvation and feebleness’, and recommending good food, rest and a hot night-time drink. She says ‘ One does notice that the simpler the household, the simpler the medical usage. It is in later more complicated communities that we get the fantastically complicated remedies; and the more wealthy the patient, the more likely he is to die of his expensive treatment.‘ (p230).

    I have written in my essay By the Book (you can find a link to it on the non-fiction page) about later developments in knowledge of herbs and understanding of medicine, but this two tier treatment survived into the Victorian age. In Jane Eyre Jane is treated by an ‘apothecary’ while the Reeds consult a ‘surgeon’. And it still survives in the USA, where people who cannot afford the usual medical bills may turn to herbalists whose remedies are cheaper.

    But the ‘magical’ or spiritual element of healing hasn’t gone away either. In a fascinating book called Ireland’s Hidden Medicine by Rosarie Kingston, the Irish tradition of the person ‘with a cure’ is discussed. It’s quite a specific thing, a gift, and it isn’t usually rewarded with money. Other cultures have more developed traditions of rituals or magical powers. These cures aren’t something you can learn, and they often imply contact with ‘powers’ or supernatural agencies. Healers can appear within religious traditions and be accepted by them, or alongside them and be mistrusted. There may be an overlap between the herbal nursing knowledge and magical practice, depending on the culture, or the two processes might be quite separate, even antagonistic.

    My problem, disentangling the academic from the practical in my understanding of The Charm of Nine Herbs, is to decide what sort of healing we are looking at. Clearly, the eclectic mix of references to Woden and quotations from the Bible implies that the compiler of the document thought he was writing medical notes rather than theology. He was gathering up anything he thought might be useful, regardless of its source. But he has a much wider understanding of the healing process than we have and that is an interesting thought.

    I am also interested in applying the difference between the ‘learned’ and the ‘gifted’ to poetry, and seeing how this wider understanding of ‘healing’ can work there too.

  • Putting Out Roots

    a fence, some leylandii saplings a hill looking towards a belt of conifers

    Okay, it doesn’t all look like this. We are in a newbuild housing estate, with construction only just coming to an end, and it’s as suburban as you can imagine. But go along the path at the side of the house, follow it round, and you come to this. I imagine that when those leylandii get going you won’t even see the farmland, but there’s a path up to a ruined castle, a burn, and some very interesting haggard plants between the corporate landscaping.


    First you are called/ oldest of herbs – mugwort, according to the Charm of Nine Herbs. It is growing freely on a wild patch of land between the houses. On one side of the path is scorched earth, as if someone has put weed-killer, and might add lawned spaces, but just now there is mugwort, chickweed, nettle and all sorts of good things.

    Kate Unwin of The Moon and the Furrow suggested that the disputed atterlathe which I mentioned here, might be this plant, which I found growing against our fence:

    a clump of bistort in flower

    It is called bistort. I’m not quite convinced about the identification – bistort has another Old Englsh name naeddrewort, but it is possible that it was known by several names in different parts of England, or that there were several plants called naeddrewort, or simply that Old English scholars aren’t that great at botany. Bistort does have the anti-inflammatory and alterative properties ascribed to atterlathe, and it is a common herb, very plentiful – and on my back doorstep.

    The birds in the Place of the Fire are very different – plenty of crows, jackdaws and magpies, lots of starlings, but very few sparrows. I did hear a wren in the haggard on our second day, but although there are plenty of berries, both birds and bees seem to be much scarcer than they were in Stirling. The shape of the garden is more or less fixed, but I will have to do something to make the planting more wildlife-friendly.

    We are almost settled here now, after a fortnight. We have unpacked almost half the boxes, and bought kitchen storage and work-spaces. We are going to build a lot more bookshelves next, which will create a library, and a quiet space for chilling out when all the family is together (I am thinking of Tolkein’s Hall of Fire in Rivendell now). Two of our grandchildren have visited several times, and the other is coming to stay for half-term tomorrow. The Place of the Fire seems to be more open to the wind than the Territory of Rain, but it hasn’t been short of a shower or two since we got here. It is slightly milder and I am just about getting used to the East-West orientation, which means the sun comes up looking directly into my new office.

    New poetry has not yet happened here, though I have done some editing and participated in an online reading at Gloucester Poetry Festival. It was enormous fun, though the great Facebook meltdown (and related online disruption) meant we had a very small audience.

    Sadly, the great poet (and all-round wonderful person) William Bonar died recently. I was lucky to have the opportunity to go to his funeral last Friday and pay tribute to him, to his gifts as a poet, to his generosity to other writers and to his enormous contribution to the Glasgow poetry group, St Mungo’s Mirrorball. He will be much missed.

    It will be a week or two before posts on this blog get back to normal, but ideas are beginning to trickle in, especially round the climate conference next month. I look forward to making you more acquainted with the Place of the Fire over the next few months!

  • 50 Years Ago

    Robert MacFarlane was talking on Twitter this week about herbals, and asked if anyone had one or used one, so I said I had made one and then I thought it might be interesting to show you mine.

    three pages of a herbal
    my herbal

    I suppose it is fifty years ago, give or take, since I created my first herbal. You can see that There have been a few changes over that period – the smaller, faded and discoloured pages are the first ones – we didn’t have A5 paper in those days, and my handwriting has developed some since then. It isn’t in the original binder, either – that succumbed to hard wear several years ago, and I now have a very robust one from Staples.

    My drawing skills haven’t though! That little yellow picture of peppermint was cut from an original paper bag of Ricola cough candy – which I still buy – and the little picture of salad burnet on the bottom page was laboriously traced and coloured, but bears very little resemblace to the real thing. These days I rely on photos, which are quicker and give me much better results.

     herb bed with pinks, lavender violets roses and southernwood

    I’m still adding to it, as I learn more about the place plants have in our lives. I have used it to cook from, make medicinal teas, skin balms, pot pourris and more recently, to dye from.

    bottles of tarragon and chive flower vinegar, jar of mint sauce

    I used it for the Half a Hundred Herbs posts, the Haggards poems, and for the background for my translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs, and I’m using it now as material for the ‘inspired by herbs’ newsletters. That’s not bad, for fifty years!

  • Containment

    Charm for taking a Swarm of Bees

    For containment. Take earth, and place it

    Under your right foot, and say

    I subdue this under my feet, I claim it,

    look, the power of earth is against all others,

    against malice, against forgetfulness,

    and against the multiple charms of other people.’

    Then throw it over the ground

    where they swarm, and say:

    Sit ye down, battle-wifie, down on the earth.

    Never fly away free to the wood.

    You must think of my holdings

    as a man thinks of his allotted place, his native land.’

    From the Corpus Christi College MS41, p182

    honey bee on michaelmas daisy

    A bit more subtle than ‘Bagsie this!’, no? I’ve been a bit distracted by a book called Leechcraft, by Stephen Pollington, so I haven’t done much translating recently. It is full of erudite scholarship, and makes me think I should look in more depth at my translation of The Charm of Nine Herbs. In particular, my guess that ‘atterlothe’ is burdock, looks very suspect. But my impression that scholars don’t talk to people who have practical knowledge of the herbal tradition does seem to stand up – they assume that all the conversations are between reader and page, whereas in a practical hands-on discipline, people read, and compare and discuss and experiment, and the dialogue is much more between the book and the lived experience.

  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – The Methods

    Mugwort, plantain which lives facing the sun, lambscress, burdock,chamomile, nettle, crab apple thyme and fennel

    • a salve for keeping thus: chop the leaves finely and mix with the apple pulp and a salve base.
    • a plaster or fomentation – make a paste of water and ash, and mix the fennel with oil and beaten egg. You can use a salve before and after.
    • Sing this charm three times over the herbs before you work them, and also over the apple. Sing it over the patient, (both mouth and ears) and over the wound each time you apply the salve.

    This part involves more than average guesswork, as the text seems more than a little garbled. You will note that it is prose and not poetry for what it’s worth, and also that this bit substitutes lambscress for houseleek. Perhaps this is a substitution the scribe made because houseleek was less available locally, but the word is ‘lombescyrse’, so this is not just a best guess. The word for crabapple is different too, ‘wudusuræppel’ rather than ‘wergulu’, so the prose addition may have been made in a different part of the country from the poetry. This may explain the Odin and Christian references too – we are looking at an amalgamated text.

    I am interested in the singing. In later monastic practice, time was measured in the length of time it takes to say prayers, and it may be that singing the charm was the same sort of thing. But in the light of the religious references, perhaps we can guess that to the Saxons, just as physical healing was also a redemptive act, and not just a metaphor for salvation, spiritual healing brought genuine comfort and strength, and was not just a placebo.

  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – the Indications

    Now these nine herbs * prevail against nine demons,

    against nine poisons * and nine epidemics,

    against the red plague * against the foul plague,

    against the white plague * against the blue plague,

    against the yellow plague * against the green plague,

    against the brown plague * against the lingering plague,

    against the harm of serpents * against the harm of water,

    against the harm of piercing * against the harm of scratching,

    against the harm of of cold * against the harm of of infection.

    Whether any ill comes * airborne from the east

    or anything comes * from the north

    or anything from the west * against the people,

    Christ is the remedy * like no other.

    I know a unique * flowing river

    and the nine serpents * may not come near it.

    All its plants * are medicinal,

    the waters are calm * both salt and fresh,

    and with them * I heal you from evil.

    I tried to identify the nine plagues by analogy and even looked up the four humours to see if there was any relevance, but without much success. It is hard to second-guess the short-hand other cultures may be using as a mnemonic. Alice Oswald had some interesting things to say about the use of colour in ancient texts – it was as much about emotional resonances and visual effects as about pigments, so that the Greek ‘wine-dark sea’ isn’t purple as much as swelling, and ‘grey’ isn’t that mix of black and white we know, but something reflective and shimmering ( I couldn’t help thinking of Tolkien’s elf-cloaks). So perhaps red isn’t simply like the rash of scarlet fever, but inflammation, and yellow isn’t simply jaundice – and so on.

    I’ve noticed the Odin references in other places, but this passage, just to even things out, contains a reference to the book of Ezechiel 47:12, which deals with the river flowing from a renewed Jerusalem. In Christian times, this was taken as a metaphor for baptism, but I don’t think our scribe was thinking of merely spiritual healing here. This is a medical text, as we’ll see next time when we reach the methods of using the herbs. We are looking at a world-view where religion is a practical, embodied science. I can’t imagine what Anglo-Saxons would think of ours!


  • The Charm of Nine Herbs 8 and 9 Thyme and Fennel

    Two for the price of one this time.



    Thyme and fennel, * all-powerful both
    The Lord wisely * shaped these herbs
    Holy in heaven * where he hung
    Established and sent them * into the seven kingdoms
    To heal the rich * and the poor alike
    They will stand against pain, * they will combat the plague
    Fight against three * and against thirty
    Against the devil * and the terror
    against the wiles * of evil creatures.

    There is some argument that the eighth herb should be chervil rather than thyme, but I am not convinced. Chervil is negligible medicinally, whereas thyme is seen as very powerful to this day. Fennel is used as a digestive herb, soothing cramps, and easing the liver. Historically it has always been associated especially with fish, counteracting the oiliness of salmon, and perhaps mellowing the tang of salted cod or herring. It was used against witchcraft, and said to improve eyesight.

    Thyme is still used as a decongestant – thymol is an ingredient of all those chest rubs for coughs and colds – and a disinfectant. Recent research suggested that it is even effective against MRSA and clostridium difficile, but I have not heard the outcome. Interestingly, however, I discovered that at one time it was used for stress, for nightmares, and against ‘phrensie and lethargy’ – an Elizabethan phrase, I imagine, for bipolar disorder.

    The rest of the charm consists of instructions for the administration of the herbs. These are pretty difficult, some of them magical incantations and/or Christian prayers, some of them practical. I will be posting them next week.




  • The Charm of Nine Herbs 7 Crab apple

    I live in a village which keeps the last remnants of ancient monastic orchards, and we still have a lot of fruit trees. When I first came here, ‘plundering’  was a regular amusement for boys from across the river, and you would find dropped apples on the bridge wherever some irate gardener had chased them. In the last year or two, a local group has planted a community orchard, and it is nice to think we are continuing an old tradition.

    This is the plant * called crab apple

    A seal sent this * over the sea-waves

    for the healing * of alien infections.

    These nine prevail * against the nine plagues.

    A worm came creeping * a man slaughtered it.

    Then Woden took * nine herbs of wonder.

    He cut the adder * into nine pieces

    apple and illness * fought it out

    so that illness would never * abide in his house.

    Nine herbs for the nine plagues, and at last a bit of genuine magic and paganism. Two lines later, however, we are back into the Christian references. It all reminds me of the man in the saga who was a Christian but invoked Thor during thunderstorms and in times of stress.

    Too sour for munching from the tree, crab-apples have been used for cider and vinegar, and in jelly. The vinegar is often used as an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of arthritis and gout, and a gargle with cider vinegar will often help a sore throat. Apples are also comforting to upset stomachs, strengthening the liver and digestion. They were often mixed with spices to add to the effect, and for a while their scent was believed to dispel infections.


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