“The desire of sage is to render man immortal”
– A late medieval treatise
Family: Lamiaceae (the mint family)
Genus: Salvia (sage)
Species: officinalis (“of the storeroom” in a monastery, where medicines were kept)
The name of Sage (its genus being salvia) is derived from the Latin word for salvation, a sure sign that it has been thought of as a beneficial herb for ages, indeed its species officinalis is derived from the name of the room in a monastery where the healing herbs were kept, and a number of herbs bear this species name, making clear their prominence which persisted for centuries.
Originating in the Mediterranean region and coming from the mint family, sage has been cultivated by mankind for millennia, and the ancient Greeks certainly knew of it, with Theophrastus and Dioscorides both writing about its benefits. Ancient Rome also certainly knew that sage had medicinal effects, and Pliny the Elder wrote of it on many occasions. Dioscorides was a military physician and Nero’s expert on herbalism, and he noted sage as one of the most appreciated and important herbs, using it as a decoction on wounds to stop bleeding, for ulcers, as a tea for sore throats and hoarseness, to help digest fatty foods and it had long been known as an aid in preserving meat.
The plant is normally a stunning grey-green, with a fragrance somewhere between the smell of pine and that of spearmint. While there are over 750 varieties of sage, there is no question that simple garden sage was of the highest culinary and medicinal importance throughout history. Southeastern Europe was always a predominant user of sage, and in the Middle Ages it was used to treat many maladies including fevers, liver disease, and epilepsy. In the form of a tea it was widely considered a pleasant and healthful beverage. One common belief from history (that has proven true in modern times) was that sage strengthened the memory, hence a “sage,” or a wise man, was one who had a long memory.
Around the 10th century, Arab physicians wrote that sage could even extend life to the point of immortality, a belief that stuck with the herb for the coming centuries. After the Crusades, with the mixing of cultural beliefs that resulted, the association between sage and immortality began showing up in Europe where the French referred to the herb as toute bonne, meaning “all’s well.” Every country’s herbals recommended sage: an Icelandic book from the year 1000 A.D., Hildegard of Bingen, Ayurvedic physicians, John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper. Folk healers in colonial America used sage to treat insomnia, epilepsy, measles, seasickness and intestinal worms. As late as the 1920s, American medical texts recommended sage tea as a gargle for a sore throat and recommended sage leaf poultices for sprains and swelling.
Sage oil from the plant has a unique property from all other healing herbs–it reduces perspiration, which has been proven true in modern times. Several studies have shown that sage cuts perspiration by as much as half with the maximum effect occurring 2 hours after taking it. This explains how it got a reputation for treating fevers, with their accompanying sweating.
Like rosemary, sage contains strong antioxidants, which can slow spoilage, supporting its longest use as a preservative for meats. Further, British researchers have confirmed that sage inhibits the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, which is important since it may be able to preserve the compound which helps prevent and treat Alzheimer’s Disease in the human body.
Sage is a tried-and-true digestive remedy. The volatile oils have a relaxing effect on the smooth muscle of the digestive tract. It relieves colic, gas, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, colitis, liver complaints, and worms, which were of course prevalent during the Middle Ages. Sage also acts as a tonic to the nervous system and has long been used to enhance strength and vitality. Studies published by a team of scientists in Kamakura Japan concluded that powdered sage or sage tea helps the heart by slowing the forming of blood clots, and is thus useful in the prevention and treatment of myocardial infarction and general coronary pain.
It is the tendency of many moderns to look down upon the poor people who had to survive the “Dark Ages” and its backward beliefs, and instead celebrate how much more sophisticated we are these days. Some basic study, though, would reveal that herbalism was in fact the beginnings of medicine, and that pharmaceutical corporations are looking for effective treatments with herbs to this very day. Those who would slander the Middle Ages would likely be much better off and more healthy if they were to plant some sage in their gardens and on a later evening, sip a bit of the herb that their ancestors treasured. (See also 1,000-year-old onion and garlic eye remedy kills MRSA, A 1,000-Year Old Antimicrobial Remedy with Antistaphylococcal Activity, Medieval Medical Books Could Hold The Recipe For New Antibiotics stating: “For a long time, medieval medicine has been dismissed as irrelevant. This time period is popularly referred to as the ‘Dark Ages,’ which erroneously suggests that it was unenlightened by science or reason. However, some medievalists and scientists are now looking back to history for clues to inform the search for new antibiotics.”).