“As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls,
not only because my bees love it but because
it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship.”
– St. Thomas More
Family: Lamiaceae (the mint family)
Genus: Rosmarinus (rosemary)
Species: officinalis (“of the storeroom” in a monastery, where medicines were kept)
Rosemary is a woody evergreen bush native to the Mediterranean and an ancient memory aid so well known that it became a symbol of remembrance over the centuries. It had “practical uses” such as when ancient Greek students wearing sprigs of rosemary on their ears or putting a wreath of it around their head went into exams with them, to the more symbolic use of laying sprigs of rosemary across a coffin or tombstone to show you will remember the deceased. The latter continued well into the medieval period and beyond. It was prevalent as a symbol at weddings (put in the couples’ wine so they will remember their vows) and in romance generally with Shakespeare’s Ophelia explaining to Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray you love, remember.”
Rosemary likely takes its name from the Latin ros maris, meaning “dew of the sea.” This is in reference to the herb’s preference for growing along the seashore. It was carried from the Mediterranean by the ancient Roman troops and planted as a medicinal herb for their use as far away as England. The Spanish believed that another Mediterranean native took refuge beneath a large rosemary bush to shelter herself and her young son as they fled to Egypt to escape King Herod. In honor of this brave, young woman, they believed, the plant came to be known as Rose of Mary, which was eventually shortened to the modern name familiar to us today. A similar story says that its flowers were white until the Virgin Mary spread a blue cloak over the plant, which turned its flowers blue.
On a more superstitious level, during the Middle Ages, rosemary was thought to be capable of dispelling negativity. As such, it was tucked under pillows to thwart nightmares and visits from evil spirits. It was also burned in the house to keep the black plague from entering. Perhaps this association with protection is why rosemary is still common in incense used to cleanse sacred spaces. It was also used in the home as a symbol of family and for protection from disease, in addition to its pleasant scent.
Medicinally, rosemary has uses old and new. In one of the earliest herbals printed in England, Rycharde Banckes recommended that one take the leaves of rosemary and “boyle them in fayre water and drinke that water for it is much worthe against all manner of evils in the body.” Indeed, rosemary was once thought to be a cure for poor digestion, migraine, joint disorders, and muscle aches. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was reputedly cured of semi-paralysis when she sipped a concoction of rosemary to ease her paralytic joints (and in another version to restore her youthful appearance). Hence, this rosemary and wine combination came to be known as the Queen of Hungary Water and was later used externally to treat skin problems, gout, dandruff, and for the prevention of baldness.
Nicholas Culpepper’s “Pharmacopeia Londoniensis” published in 1653 said that rosemary water was “an admirable cure-all remedy of all kinds of cold, loss of memory, headache, coma. It receives and preserves natural heat, restores body function and capabilities, even at late age. There are not that many remedies producing that many good effects.”
Rosemary was also used as a preservative for meats and other foods. We know now this was due to rosemary’s high anti-oxidant activity, but in medieval times people knew to wrap meats in crushed rosemary and sage leaves. The freshness was preserved and the smell and taste remained pleasant. Rosemary was also used to control pests such as mosquitoes, fleas (which we now know as the carriers of the plague) and moths. The uses were many.
Today, rosemary has proven to have many medicinal properties. For one, the plant contains salicylic acid, the forerunner of aspirin. Indeed, rosemary was once thought to be a cure for poor digestion, migraine, joint disorders, and muscle aches. This may explain why massaging the its oil into joints effectively eases arthritic or rheumatic pain. It also contains antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities, and is used by modern herbalists to treat a variety of skin disorders, including dandruff. Rosemary is also being studied for potential anti-cancer effects and in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
What may be most amazing about rosemary is how much the people of the Middle Ages got right through the process of trial and error, coming up with uses moderns now must confirm. Indeed, French hospitals burned Juniper berries with rosemary to fight poor quality air and prevent infection–far from benighted ignorance in a “dark” age, rosemary and sage have vindicated the reputation of medieval people in many ways, leaving those who still slander the age as the ignorant ones.