A Medieval Poem on Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis)



Wood Betony is an herb that deserves more attention. A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), it was an incredibly popular medicine in medieval Europe. I frequently run into passages about betony in medieval sources. And though the herb might not be the potent cure-all that these old texts describe, I believe that betony has numerous virtues for us to rediscover.

In that spirit, I share here a Middle English text that, as far as I can tell, has not been edited since 1911, when it was originally published in Anglia (a popular journal about English philology). I don’t believe it’s ever been translated into modern English. The entire poem covers a number of herbs, but I’ve only reproduced the betony section here. The usual caveats apply as with all ancient and medieval texts: take this advice with a grain of salt, for beliefs about medicine and disease in earlier eras were far different from our present understanding. That said, I do think that this particular text has aged well (not a single recipe involving mercury!) and might provide some interesting notes for those already familiar with wood betony, or for those interested in learning more about it. (For those of you who read Middle English, a warning: this is not a stellar example of late poetry in terms of rhyme and meter.)

I’m happy to discuss this or any other medieval texts or traditions; feel free to comment below or contact me. Please do not reproduce this translation without acknowledgment.


[Medieval text source: Robert Max Garrett, “Middle English Rimed Medical Treatise.” Anglia 34 (1911): 163-193. My minor amendments to punctuation. All errors mine.]

Modern English

Here begins the Virtues of the Herbs
I intend to tell of betony
And then of other herbs that I discover;
But first I’ll begin with betony,
Which bears many virtues.
Doctors say betony is worthy:
It keeps soul and body pure.
And whoever carries it
Will ward off the devil.
It should, in all respects, be gathered
In August before the sun rises.
And whosoever drinks betony and has
A stone, it shall pass out the urine.
Betony, boiled and drunk with honey,
Is effective against all dropsy [edema].
A plaster made of betony
Is good to lay at times […? unclear]
Betony infusion mixed with pure rose water
Can strengthen the hearing of the ear.
Also powdered betony mixed with honey
Is good for violent blood.
With regards to incessant coughing
It comforts the breast and stomach.
The leaves, softened[?] with salt,
Are good for fresh head wounds.
Also betony, whether drunk or eaten,
Will drain [humoral] fluid from the eyes.
To tell the truth, betony is also
Good for swellings of the eyes.
And if it is boiled and prepared with
Rue [Ruta spp], it clears dim vision.
And moreover, betony truthfully
Dispels poison from a man’s body.
Betony boiled in pure wine
Purges the stomach and spleen.
[Take] four leaves of betony
And three spoonfuls of red wine
And twenty-seven grains of pepper,
Ground evenly all together,
And skillfully make a drink from it.
Mix infusions of betony and plantain together
With hot water and make [a drink],
As master Hippocrates clearly states:
It relieves the intermittent [quotidian] fever.
If you wish relief from vomiting,
Make yourself a powder of betony root
And drink it in clean, lukewarm water:
It shall expel filth [typically “bowels,” “pus”].
Four leaves of betony drunk with wine
Purge phlegm/mucus well.
The seed of betony, taken over time,
Is good for all manner of poisons/toxins.
Powdered betony mixed with wine, I
Believe, cleanses a woman’s uterus.
And whoever takes a bean’s weight
Of betony powder, prepared well,
And eats it very soon after supper,
It will comfort the stomach and digestion.
Whosoever wishes to harm a snake,
Fashion a garland of green betony
And circle it ’round about [the snake];
He shall never cross it alive,
Except that he injure himself with his tail
Or tear himself with his teeth.
No better herb may be found
Anywhere in all this world
For the stomach than betony and mint,
And also for back pain and aches.
A betony plaster, truth to tell,
Is good to lay on the temples;
It eases the misery of headaches
And engenders brightness in the eyes.
Should it happen that someone old or young
Has recently lost hearing,
Place betony juice in the ear:
It will restore hearing quickly.
And if someone has a toothache,
Take betony boiled in wine –
Keep it in the mouth evening and morning,
And it shall drive away the pain.
Whosoever, due to hardship or suffering,
Consumes alcohol at all hours,
I suggest he fast and take betony;
He shall not be drunk [by] that same day.
It is fundamental for [curing] all manner of ills
As long as it may be found on earth.

Middle English

Hic incipient virtutes herbarum
To tell of betaine I haue gret mynde
And sithen of other herbes als I fynde.
But furst at betayne I will be gynne.
Þat many vertues beres wt inne.
Betayne says þese leches be dene.
Soule ⁊ body it kepes clene.
And qwo so on hym will it bere
Fro the fende it will hym were.
In þe monthe of August on alle wise
It schal be gadered or þe sone rise.
And qwo so drynkes betayne ⁊ hase þe stone
By his vrenne it shall out gone.
Betayne bulyd and drunkyn wt hony
Is gode agayne all dropcy.
A plaister made of betayne
Is gode to lay be sith e of e. [sic]
Iuse of betayne wt water of rose clere
Con forthes well þe heryng of ere.
And al so þe pouder of bvetayne is gode
Melled wt hony for violent blode.
Agayn þe host wt outen lacke
It conforteth well þe brest ⁊ þe stomake.
The leues of betayne wt salt made nesche
Is gode for woundes in hede fre[s]che.
And also betayne drunkyn or eten
The materying off eyen it will letyn.
And also betayne þe soith tyll sayne
Is gode for the bolnyng of þe eyn twayn.
And if it wt rew be sodden ⁊ dith
It dos a way þe merknes of syth.
And ȝet dos betayne sekirly
He wastes þe venum in mannes body.
Betayne sothen in wyne clene
Purges þe stomake ⁊ þe splene.
Fowre lyues of betayne fyne
And thre sponefull of rede wyne
And greynes of pepere xx ti ⁊ seuyn
Alle to gedere grounden ewen,
And make a drynke þer of clenelyke
Betayne ⁊ plantayne to geder þu take
Þe Iuse wt hote water menge ⁊ make
Als sais maister Ipocras opynlyke.
It couers þe feuere cotidyann nobellyke.
If þu of vomate will haue bote
Make þe a pouder of betayne rote
And drynke yt wt leuke water clene.
It schall delyuere of filthe be dene.
Four leues of betayne drunkyn wt wyn
Purges þe glet wel and fyn.
The seid of betayne takyn in tyme
Is gode for all manere of venyme.
The poudir of betayne wt wynn I wene
Makes a wommannes matrice clene.
And qwo so takes a bene wyght
Of poudir of betayne well ditht
And ete it sone after þe soper ryfe
It conforthes þi stomake ⁊ vertues gestife.
Qwo so will do a serpent tene
Make he a garland of betayne grene
And make a serkile rounde aboute,
And he schal neuere on lyue come oute,
But he schal wt [h]is tayle hyme schende,
Or wt [h]is teithe hym self rende.
Beter gres may none be founde
In all this worlde a pon þe grounde
Then betayne ⁊ mynte ere for þe stomake.
And also for pyne and warke in bake.
A plaister of betayne for soith till say
Is gode on þe thonewanges for to lay;
Of hed werke it brynges a way þe biternesse
And castes to þe eyen gret brythnesse.
If it be falle tille holde or ȝynge
Newely till lese his heryng,
Iuse of betayne in his ere be layn;
It brynges his herynge sone agayn.
And if a man haue þe toith ake
Betayne sothen in wyn he take;
Kepe it in his mouth euen ⁊ morwe.
And it schal dryuenn a way hys sorwe.
Quo so for trauell or gret swynke
Vses erly or late to drynke
Fastande he vse betayne I say.
He schal nouȝt be drunke þt ilke day.
For alle manere of euelys he is þe grounde,
The whiles he may in erthe be founde.