This year I’ve grown sweet basil from seed for the first time. I only wanted a few plants, so this morning, after thinning out my seedlings a couple of weeks ago, I potted up my six basil babes to grow them on to adulthood.
Sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum. My first go at growing basil from seed. Headed for home-made pesto later in the year.
Photo: © Christopher Monk 2020
I wasn’t sure if sweet basil was grown in medieval British gardens; it’s far too tender to survive the winter but I wondered if it was grown from seed during the spring and summer. I knew of the edible wild basil that is native to these shores, which I’m going to be growing in my own garden very soon, but sweet basil?
Wild basil, Clinopodium vulgare, native to Britain.
Photo: © Daniel D. McClosky 2017. Licensed via Wikimedia Commons; click on image for license information.
Well basil is listed in the Middle English Dictionary: there are two quotations given, one from c.1450 and one from about 1500, spelt basyl and basyle respectively. The first of these was in a bit of poetry in praise of a lady – so not real evidence of basil being grown here; the second appears to be from a herb list quoted in Alicia Amherst’s A History of Gardening in England, published in 1895, and without checking the manuscript to which she apparently alludes (not something I feel up to on a sunny Sunday afternoon), for all I know this is just a list of all known herbs, whether native or not to Britain.
So, I thought I’d check my trusty Leechcraft by Stephen Pollington, an indispensible work about plantlore in early medieval (Anglo-Saxon) England. Sweet basil, Pollington explains, is mentioned in the Old English Herbarium, a translation of a Latin compendium of texts written by various late-Antique authors, and which survives in four manuscripts, including a marvellous illustrated version dating to the first quarter of the eleventh century.
In this work it goes by the name of nædderwyrt (‘adderwort’) in Old English and, according to the medieval scribe, basilisca in Latin.
This plant which one calls ‘basilisca’ and by another name ‘adderwort‘ is produced in those places where that adder is which is called by the same name, basilisk. Truly it is not of [just] one kind, but of three kinds: … olocryseis… stillatus… singuineus…; this plant basilisca has all these kinds, then if anyone has these plants with him, then none of this kind of adder can harm him.Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore, and Healing (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000), p. 343.
The text continues to explain that there are three types of adder that basil protects the user from, and since we are also told that these three adders are higly destructive: the first ‘blows away and sets fire to whatever it sees’; the second, whatever it looks upon ‘shrinks away and disappears’; and the third, ‘whatever it sees or touches melts away so that nothing remains except the bones’; then it seems like everyone should be running down to their garden centre right now to avail themselves of this protection.
Do not wander the woods on your daily lockdown excursion wihout a punnet of basil in your pocket, I say. Asda sell it for 75p, I believe.
More seriously, and getting back to the question of whether sweet basil was actually grown or even used in medieval Britain, I’m afraid it’s not quite possible to say. This Old English text is simply a translation of a Latin text from the fourth century that itself borrows from the likes of Pliny and Discorides. So, hardly an English text, culturally speaking.
That said, there is evidence that the Old English Herbarium was actually more than just a list of plants, as Pollington explains:
The Herbarium may have influenced English medical thought and theory, and there is some evidence for this text having been used as a practical working manual – for example, the fact that the Old English text has its own table of contents in which the chapter number, plant and ailments are mentioned.Pollington, Leechcraft, p. 70.
The evidence is tantalising really. But I shall nevertheless grow on my baby sweet basils into vigorous adults, and as I then whizz them in my food processor with pine nuts and pecorino cheese, I will no doubt recall that in consuming my pesto I will be fortified against any nasty basilisk lurking in my neighbourhood.
Sweet basil saves you from the nasty snakes! Nædderwyrt, basilisca. From the Old English Herbarium. London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius C.iii, folio 57r. © British Library Board. By permission. Click on image to go to source.