What kind of parsley was used in medieval English cuisine?
Today, parsley is nigh on ubiquitous. If we’re not growing it in our gardens, we’re growing it in squishy supermarket punnets on our kitchen windowsills. Or, may the culinary gods forgive us, we’ve got bunches of it languishing in our fridge salad draws!
When being good, we may chop up a few leaves of parsley to add a bit of pungency to a steaming homemade soup or, more adventurously, grind some into an authentic falafel mixture. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a culinary existence without parsley.
The parsley we use today is typically a variety of common parsley, Petroselinum crispum – Italian flat leaf and curly parsleys are the most popular varieties. But is this the same parsley that was used in medieval cookery and appears in medieval English recipes, such as this one?
Take persel, sauge, garlek, chybollus, oynouns, leke, borage, myntes, porrettes, fennel, and towne cressis, rewe, rosmarye, purslary, laue & waische hem clene, pyke hem, pluk hem small wiþ þyne honde & myng hem wel wiþ rawe oyle, lay on vyneger & salt & serue hem forth.
Take parsley, sage, garlic, spring onions, onions, leek, borage, mints, baby leeks, fennel, and garden cress, rue, rosemary, purslane; rinse and wash clean, pick through them, pluck them small with your hand, and mix them well with raw oil, pour on vinegar and salt and serve them forth.
Text and translation © Christopher Monk 2020
Salat is one of 14 recipes in Forme of Cury which name parsley as an ingredient. It was used both to flavour dishes and as a green food colourant in some recipes.
Here’s some common parsley growing in my garden. Would this have been used in the Salat recipe?
What the Dictionary says
The Middle English Dictionary lists for perseli (i.e. parsley):
(a) One of several plants belonging to the parsley family; esp. the common or garden parsley (Petroselinum crispum); (b) wilde ~, one of several uncultivated plants allied to common parsley; Alexanders or horse parsley (Smyrnium olusatrum)https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED33078/track?counter=1&search_id=4479914
The Dictionary then provides numerous quotations to show where common or garden parsley is referred to and three to where wild parsley is referred to. However, this is problematic, particularly with regard to common parsley.
All the quotations, including one from Forme of Cury, the cookery book of Richard II, pre-date the time period for when common parsley, Petroselinum crispum, is thought to have been introduced to England.
Note what several sources say about when common parsley arrived in England:
Linnaeus [Swedish botanist, 1707-1778] stated its wild habitat to be Sardinia, whence it was brought to England and apparently first cultivated in Britain in 1548; […] Since its introduction into these islands in the 16th century it has completely naturalized in various parts of England and Scotland, on old walls and rocks.C. Agyare, T. Appiah, Y. D. Boakye, J. A. Apenteng, ‘Petroselinum crispum: a Review’, in Medicinal Spices and Vegetables from Africa: Therapeutic Potential against Metabolic, Inflammatory, Infectious and Sytemic Diseases, ed. Victor Kuete (Academic Press, 2017), pp. 527-47; quotation from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/parsley
Booth* states that parsley was introduced into England in 1548 from Sardinia. […] The plant is now naturalized in some parts of England and Scotland.Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, ed. by U. P. Hedrick (1919; re-published by Dover Publications, 1972), pp. 146-7. Dr Edward Lewis Sturtevant (1842-98) was a distinguished agronomist and botonist; his work was first published in 1919 from his notes. *W. B. Booth, whom Sturtevant is citing, was a contributor to The Treasury of Botany, first published in 1870.
Parsley was known in England around 1548 […]. During the sixteenth century parsley was naturalized in England.D. J. Charles, ‘Parsley’, in Handbook of Herbs and Spices (Second Edition), vol. 1 (Woodhead Publishing, 2012), pp. 430-51
So it seems that the seventeenth-century botanist Linnaeus claims a sixteenth-century arrival for common or garden parsley in England. And, moreover, the great nineteenth-century botonist Edward Lewis Sturtevant, along with current scholars, all seem happy enough to perpetuate this as factual, or at least not contradict it.
Well, it has to be said, that when I first started looking at parsley in detail, there didn’t appear to be a great deal of solid evidence to counter Linnaeus’ claim; the evidence to me seemed as thin as a supermarket parsley stalk. But…
Don’t the medieval cookery recipes prove that common parsley was in England earlier than the 16th century?
Hopefully, by now, you’re thinking something like: if the Middle English texts refer to common parsley, then it must have been around before Linnaeus said it arrived. Linnaeus got it wrong, surely?
Well, in order to answer this, another question has to be asked first: when perseli ‘parsley’ is mentioned in Middle English texts – such as in the recipe, above – can we be sure that wild parsley wasn’t meant?
The evidence for wild parsley, Smyrnium olusatrum, being in England much earlier is pretty sound (I’ll discuss this in detail, below), and so this may seem like a distinct possibility.
A useful contemporary source
In order to bolster the evidence before us, let us take a look at a Latin medico-botanical glossary which was around at the time when Richard II’s cookery book was written (c.1390), or soon thereafter. Let us see if it gives us any insights into what the English meant by perseli, ‘parsley’.
First, in its entry for Petrosilinum domesticum, ‘domestic parsley’, the glossary states: ‘In French alisaundre, in English stanmerche.’
So, according to this entry, in Old French ‘domestic parsley’ is called alisaundre. The Old French-English Dictionary offers ‘alexanders, wild parsley’ as its definition for alisandre (a variant spelling). Alexanders is, even today, another name for wild parsley, Smyrnium olusatrum.
The English name given, stanmerche, derives from Old English, literally meaning ‘stone celery’, though my understanding is that this is not attested to anywhere in Old English texts, but rather petresilge or petorsilie are used, both based on the Latin name Petroselinum. (Incidentally, you may have noticed that the Latin name varies in its spelling throughout the medieval period.)
The Old French word alisandre is also found in the dialect of Anglo-Norman, the French spoken in post-Conquest England, and means the same thing, alexanders or wild parsley.
Alisandre also became a loan-word in Middle English. The mid-fifteenth-century herbal text, Agnus Castus, explains that, ‘Alexandrum is an herbe þat men clepe alysaundre or stanmarch’, ‘Alexandrum is a herb that men call alisandre or stanmarch.’
It seems from the foregoing that ‘domestic parsley’ and alexanders/wild parsley were one and the same; or, simply put, wild parsley was being domesticated in gardens.
Is this supported elsewhere in the contemporary botanical glossary? Well, things get complicated, if not confusing.
The entry just referred to goes on to direct the reader to take a look at the entry for Silonum. Let’s take a look at that now:
Silonum is defined as ‘the same as wild parsley’ (‘petrosilinum agreste idem’). So far, so good.
Then it states that ‘there is another, Macedonian parsley [‘petrosillinum macidonicum’] which is commonly called after Alexander, in French alisaundre, in English stanmarche’.
So we’ve found another name for alexanders, Macedonian parsley; and, somewhat confusingly, this entry is distinguishing wild parsley from alexanders. It’s not clear why.
Finally, it refers to ‘a third, common parsley (‘petrosillinum usuale’), garden or domestic (‘ortolanum uel domesticum’); in French and English, persile; simply put as petrosillinum for when ‘common’ is understood.’
This final definition thus points to Middle English persile ‘parsley’ as common parsley and strongly suggests it too was grown in gardens, was domesticated.
So what are we to make of all this? The two entries taken together imply that both wild parsley and common parsley were cultivated, were considered ‘domesticus’, back in the fourteenth century.
As a consequence, it is hard to take Linnaeus’ statement at face value. Since we have a medieval text telling us that ‘common parsley’ is called ‘persile’ in English, current scholars may well need to adjust their understanding and recognise that common parsley was already being grown in England at least 150 years before Linneaus thought it was.
What about wild parsley then? How long has that been around?
Just going back to the three parsley definition in the fourteenth-century botanical glossary, in which ‘wild’, ‘Macedonian, aka Alexanders’, and ‘common/garden’ parsleys are listed, I think we might deduce from this that parsley existed in late medieval England in three basic ways:
growing in the wild
cultivated in gardens from wild plants
and cultivated in gardens as common parsley (e.g. from imported and shared seeds).
Whether, to the fourteenth-century ‘botanist’, wild parsley and cultivated wild parsley were actually any different is probably a moot point. But it is fairly safe to say that two species existed, known today in Latin as Petroselinum crispum – the stuff we still grow and eat today – and Smyrnium olusatrum – the stuff we would need to forage for in the wild.
Evidence for wild parsley
A study was published in 2003 by biogeographer Roland E. Randall all about Smynium olustratum. What does he say about it in connection with England and the British Isles?
An introduced species fully naturalized in hedgerows, roadsides, railway embankments, waste places and cliffs, mainly near the sea. Inland sites are frequently associated with old dwellings or ruins, especially monasteries or castles, where it is probably a relic of kitchen gardens.R. E. Randall, ‘Smyrnium olusatrum L.’, Journal of Ecology 91 (April 2003), pp. 325-40, at p. 325.
Randall further explains that ‘the most common locations’ for inland colonies of wild parsley ‘are adjacent to old buildings’. One of these colonies is found in Cambridgeshire ‘at Overhall Grove, Knapwell on the earthworks of a manor house abandoned in the Middle Ages’ (p. 327).
So there is some habitat evidence suggestive of garden cultivation of wild parsley in elite medieval residences. Is there any other, perhaps more concrete evidence, for wild parsley during the medieval period? Randall gives the answer:
One early macrofossil record exists: as a fruit from the Roman site at Caerwent […]. Further archaeological evidence was revealed during excavations of a Mediaeval site (800-1500AD) at Milk Street, London, where M. Robinson […] identified S. olustratum.Randall, ‘Smynium olusatrum L.’, p. 336.
So there is some, though admittedly limited, archaeobotanical evidence pointing to wild parsley’s existence in a town bordering modern day England during the medieval period and, indeed, in England before this during the Roman occupation. Randall cites two other scholars, who state that ‘this species was favoured by the Romans’ but there is no further archaeological records establishing a medieval context (pp. 336-7).
How a parsley root recipe may help
One of Forme of Cury’s recipes, Compast, a compote of stewed vegetables and pears, requires ‘rote of persil’, ‘root of parsley’, as its first ingredient. Until looking at this subject in more detail, I had assumed this was referring to the slender, white, parsnip-like roots of a variety of parsley known as Hamburg or Dutch parsley.
A largely forgotten root vegetable, ecxept by ‘on trend’ restaurants and adventurous food historians, it seems it may not have been a variety available at the time of Richard II’s cookery book.
Sturtevant, the botanist, confidently states:
Hamburg parsley is grown for its roots, which are used as are parsnips. It seems to have been used in Germany in 1542, or earlier, but its use was indicated as of Holland origin even then in the name used, Dutch parsley. It did not reach England until long after.Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, p. 148.
If we take this to be the case (Sturtevant’s track record on dating hasn’t been so hot in this blog post), then we must consider whether the other two parsleys, wild and common, have edible roots.
The simple answer is that common parsley does not have a substantial root suitable for our Compast recipe, whereas wild parsley does have a large edible root. The latter, according to Randall, ‘is initially a deep, narrow tap-root (50-60cm). The upper part thickens early […] and may reach a diameter the size of a human wrist’. So just right for a vegetable to be chopped up in a kind of medieval chutney.
(Note: the root of common parsley, Petroselinum crispum, though not used as food, is sometimes used medicinally. For more information on uses of common parsley, including a warning on parsley’s toxicity in high concentrations such as in parsley oil, see the entry in the Plants For A Future database.)
With this in mind, it seems fair to say that wild parsley – likely cultivated as alisandre/ alexanders in royal gardens – was most probably being used by Richard II’s cooks for its roots, if not its leaves too.
I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at medieval parsley more closely. Feel free to offer below any comments or suggest any amendments.
In the meantime, here’s my translation of the full recipe of Compast (pictured above):
Take root of parsley, of parsnip, of radish, scrape them and wash them clean; take turnips and cabbages, peeled and chopped; take an earthenware pan with clean water and set it on the fire; cast all these things into it; and when they are boiled cast in pears and parboil them carefully; remove all these things and let it cool on a clean cloth; add salt to it; when it is cooled, in a vessel take vinegar and powder [of ginger] and saffron and add all these things to this and let them steep in it all night or all day; take together Greek wine and clarified honey; take Lombard mustard and currants, all whole, and grind powder of cinnamon, powder douce, whole anise and fennel seed; take all these things and put them together in an earthenware pot; and take from it whenever you wish and serve it forth.Translation © Christopher Monk 2020
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3 thoughts on “Wild about parsley?”
Nice article! Love these investigations.
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