More on Parsley

What do pre-Conquest documents show about the use of parsley in early medieval England?

One of the things I didn’t go into much detail about in my recent post Wild about parsley? was the use of parsley in medicine in early medieval England (more familiarly, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ period). So I thought I would just share a few extra notes from my research about both common (garden) parsley, Latin Petroselinum crispum (synonym, P. savitum) and wild parsley (also known as alexanders), Latin Smyrnium olusatrum.

Where is parsley mentioned in the Old English texts of early medieval England?

The Old English name for common parsley is petresilige or petorsilie (and other variants), anglicisations of the Latin name. Wild parsley is identifiable as alexandrie (and variant spellings). Both parsleys appear as an ingredient in quite a number of treatments recorded in the three main medical texts of early medieval England, namely, the Old English Herbarium, Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbooks, each of which survive in eleventh-century manuscripts, though are older than this in terms of when they were first written.

In the Old English Herbarium, the following information is given:

Petersile. petrosilinum

Ðas wyrte man triannem 7 oþrum naman petroselinum nemneþ 7 eac hy sume men þam gelice petersilie nateþ.

This plant one calls ‘triannem’ and by another name ‘petroselinum’ and also some men name it similarly ‘parsley’.

Old English Herbarium, 129, text and translation taken from Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantflore, and Healing (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2000), pp. 340-1.

The text continues to show how parsley could be used against an adder’s bite. The instruction is given to use ‘the very fine dust of this plant’ in wine as a drink and for ‘the pounded plant’ to be placed against the wound. Parsley ‘pounded’ was also to be placed against painful sinews.

What you will notice, here, is that the plant appears to be dried in at least the first of these three instructions, and arguably in the second two also. More about dried parsley later.

Wild parsley may be mentioned in the Old English Herbarium but only by a Latin name, olisatra/olisatrum. This was used for bladder pain and the inability to urinate: see Leechcraft, p. 95, Alexandria and pp. 334-5.

Both Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbooks help us understand that the two parsleys were treated distinctly, since they are mentioned together in certain recipes. In the former, ‘alehsandrie, petresilige’ are listed for a holy salve (Leechcraft, pp. 196-7); and in the latter the seeds of both plants are crushed up with other seeds and added to ‘strong, clear ale’ as ‘a good powder-drink for the yellow sickness’ and other ailments, including ‘insanity’ (Leechcraft, pp. 382-3).

One interesting recipe in Lacnunga, for ‘a good bone salve against headache and against disease of all limbs’, uses ‘alexandrian moran’, roots of alexanders (Leechcraft, pp. 190-1). In my previous post I explained that these were probably what was meant by ‘root of parsley’, used as a food ingredient in the fourteenth-century recipe known as Compast, a kind of chutney. It is interesting to note, then, that the same were listed in a medicinal context several centuries earlier.

Does the mention of these parsleys in pre-Conquest medical texts prove they were also grown at that time in England?

The thing about the three medieval vernacular medical texts is we have to put them into context. Stephen Pollington makes the pertinent point that ‘the early English were aware of, and conversant with, non-native traditions’ (Leechcraft, p. 67). So we can’t just assume the medical recipes are unequivocally English.

Indeed, it is fair to say that, to varying degrees, these Old English texts were influenced by ‘classical’ traditions; and it has even been argued that this body of work is more about ‘pure copying’ of such than about actual working documents used in England. But this doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny, as Pollington has argued persuasively (see his chapter 3).

Broadly speaking, and condensing his argument considerably, it is a reasonable claim that these texts were not simply or solely a case of writers copying known ‘classical’ herbal remedies from outside of England.

Not only are there marginal notes and other jottings found on the English manuscripts which suggests that ‘several users referred to the existing texts with some frequency’ (Leechcraft, pp. 67-8), but, often, the focus is on English names for the plants, not classical names (Leechcraft, chapter 4). Why give or identify English plant names if you don’t want them to be used locally in England?

And, personally, when I read of the use of ‘good clear ale, or Welsh ale’ to make the basis of a ‘good inflammation drink’, in book III of Bald’s Leechbooks, it was clear to me that the cultural context for this cure, at least, lay in mainland Britain, not the Mediterranean or ‘classical’ world.

Dried herbs

‘Petersilie’, parsley, Old English Herbarium. Image credit for this and duplicate image at the top of the post: London, British Library, Cotton MS Vitellius C.iii, f. 56v. © British Library Board. Please click on the image to go to the source.

Though it is possible that our parsleys, or other non-native plants, were cultivated in herb gardens known to have existed in monastic communities from the seventh century onwards in England (Leechcraft, p. 75), they didn’t need to be grown in England for them to be used. Imported dried parsleys were quite likely.

Indeed, when we read through the methods for preparing remedies using the two parsleys, it is clear that dried parsley or parsley seeds were being used in at least some of them. Terms like ‘dust’ and ‘powder’, for example, point to this. And where it is not made clear that dried parsley was called for, the description doesn’t specify fresh leaves either.

Supporting the idea of dried parsley being the form used in England at this time, Pollington points out that the illustrations accompanying the Old English Herbarium, including that of parsley (see above), are thought to represent plants in their dried state (Leechcraft, p. 68).

Moreover, there is historical evidence for ‘ecclesiastical and commercial exchange’ during the period, demonstrating that ‘a great many non-native materials were available in Anglo-Saxon England to those with the right contacts’. Indeed, there are records of dried spices being sent to Abbess Cuniburg (c. 740) and herbal derivatives to King Alfred (Leechcraft, p. 68).


What might we conclude then when we consider the use of common and wild parsley in pre-Conquest England?

First, it seems reasonable to state that they were both used for medicine in the early medieval, or Anglo-Saxon, period; though there is no mention of parsley in any Old English text I know of being used in a culinary context. Mind you, there are no Old English cookery books, so that may explain that!

And second, we can’t establish that either of the parsleys were grown in English gardens of the period, in order to provide the ingredient for medical remedies, though it remains a possibility.

It may well be, then, that the introduction and domestication, or cultivation, of both wild and common parsleys occured in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, as was hinted at, though not explictly stated, in my previous post. I’m more than happy, however, to entertain suggestions or evidence that point to an earlier introduction.

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Published by Christopher Monk

Dr Christopher Monk is creating Modern Medieval Cuisine

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