Unit 12 Plants

Section 1

Enter the word ‘plant’ in the Modern English word search, and click on ‘A plant’. Notice that, although there is an Old English form plante, it’s not the most common word for a plant. Look at the heading on the seventh line down ‘Plant, herb, weed’, and see how frequently wyrt occurs in the following nouns (marked ‘n’ on the left-hand side). This is the word that was most commonly used in Old English to mean ‘plant’ or ‘herb’ (the latter is a plant useful to humans, as, for example, a food or a medicine). You may recognize wyrt in the modern form wort, occurring most often today as part of a plant-name, e.g. St John’s wort, ragwort and mugwort.

Q1. Return to the search menu, and select ‘Old English word search’. Under the heading ‘Wildcard’, click on ‘End-of-word’, and then enter wyrt in the search box. Scroll down the screen to see all the compound plant-names with –wyrt. How many are there? Now do the same sort of search for plante – how many are there? Answer Q1

Now click on ‘View this section’, and you’ll find a long alphabetical list of plant-names. Some of them you’ll easily recognize if you know the Modern English names, e.g. betonice (betony), centaurie (centaury), docce (dock) and wad (woad). The first two of these names are loan-words from Latin (betonica and centauria), hardly changed, but with an Old English ending.

Some of the Old English plant-names tell you something about the modern name. For example, the word daisy is just a collection of sounds to us – it isn’t clear why this plant should have this name. But look at the Old English origin of this word: dæges eage, meaning ‘eye of the day’. Immediately, our own word is explained.

Q2. Many of the Old English names are phrases like dæges eage or compound nouns consisting of more than one smaller word, e.g. ModE nightshade, night + shade. Although such words would not be hyphenated in Old English, we have put hyphens between the parts here so that you can see how they are constructed. Can you suggest literal translations for the following Old English plant-names: wæter-wyrt, feld-wyrt, seofon-leafe, wulfes camb? (If you don’t understand part of the Old English name, look it up separately. If you get no hits, try a wildcard search.)
IMPORTANT: Be sure to read the instructions at the top of the search page, about how to enter Anglo-Saxon letters like æ.
Answer Q2

Compound plant-names like seofonleafe can be helpful in identifying the plant so described, and some compound names can tell us how the Anglo-Saxons thought of the plants concerned, and what they used them for.

Q3a. Rather uncomplimentary names include hundes micge and cu-slyppe. Can you find out what these mean, and what the modern names are for these plants? (Remember the advice on searching given in Q2.) Some help: to find micge, you’ll have to look up the compound word cumicge, and for cuslyppe, look up slyppe and then use your imagination! Remember this is something that comes from a cow, and it’s not milk. Answer Q3a

Q3b. Some clues about the uses of certain plants by the Anglo-Saxons can be retrieved from names like the following: flea-wyrt, mearc-treow, leaþor-wyrt. Look up the separate elements of these names in the Old English word search (Exact), and see if you can suggest the uses of these plants. Answer Q3b

Plants were of major importance for the herbal medicines produced from them. The Anglo-Saxon physicians depended heavily on the plant-world for their remedies, and they’ve left us with several medical texts in Old English, some translated from Latin texts brought from southern Europe, but others original compilations in Old English. One of the manuscripts of a text called the Herbarium even contains paintings of the plants along with the list of remedies attributed to them. Several plant-names suggest that they were used for particular cures, e.g. banwyrt, literally ‘bone-plant’.

Q4. What parts of the body or medical problems do you think the following plants were used to treat: lifer-wyrt, fic-wyrt, lungen-wyrt, þeor-wyrt? (The hyphens are there to help you identify the elements, but should not be entered in the searches.)
Answer Q4

Now let’s turn to a group of plants which are often overlooked, namely trees. These plants played vital roles in various spheres of Anglo-Saxon life, such as the provision of building materials and fuel, as well as food and medical ingredients. As with many familiar-looking Old English words, treow is not as it seems.

Q5a. Enter treow in the Old English word search (Exact), and click on ‘View section’ for each of the entries you retrieve. Look at the highlighted word, and make a list of all the meanings which you would not use with ModE tree. Answer Q5a

Q5b. A lot of Old English tree-names refer to native British trees, e.g. æsc ‘ash’, elm ‘elm’ and iw ‘yew’. However, even the Anglo-Saxons had to have words for certain foreign trees too (and other plants). Enter palm in the Modern English word search. From the results, can you see a clue as to why the Anglo-Saxons would need such a word? Click on ‘A palm tree’ and scroll down to the highlighted entries. What is the Old English word for date (the fruit)? This is an example of one way in which Old English constructed words for new concepts. Answer Q5b

The plant world also includes less typical examples, like mosses and seaweeds. Enter ‘seaweed’ in the Modern English search, and select ‘Seaweed’. Provided you know that a modern dialectal word for seaweed is ware, you should instantly understand all the Old English words for this plant.

By now you can see how a lot of plant-names are constructed using compound terms which describe a plant’s appearance or something else which people think is typical of it. This can sometimes reveal how the minds of ordinary Old English speakers worked.

Q6a. Go to the Old English word search and choose a wildcard ‘Beginning-of-word’ search. Enter foxes (fox’s), and investigate the plant-name results. What plants do they denote? Speculate why such names were given. Answer Q6a

Q6b. For your last Modern English search, enter tulip and then potato. Why are there no results? Answer Q6b

Section 2

Plants played a major role in Anglo-Saxon life. The vast majority of Anglo-Saxons lived in the countryside, and were engaged in agriculture, but town-dwellers too were heavily dependent on plants for their food, medicine, buildings, heating, boundary-markers and various products like buckets, bowls and rope. It’s likely that only a small proportion of Old English plant-names has been recorded, as much larger numbers of folk (popular) names are known from later times. There’s also a considerable number of Old English plant-names whose meanings are uncertain. The Anglo-Saxon Plant-Name Survey (ASPNS) researched and published on plants and plant-names between 1999 and 2016. Annual reports include publications lists, and can be seen at http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/critical/research/fundedresearchprojects/anglo-saxonplant-namesurvey/

There are great difficulties in understanding early plant-names because they belong to a folk classification, not the present-day scientific botanical classification which aims to give a unique name to every species and sub-species. In a folk taxonomy (classification), a single species of plant could have several different names: an extreme example is the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea L.) for which 93 English-language folk-names have been recorded from the British Isles. At least 45 of them were used in Somerset alone. Although these have been collected from Modern English, it’s highly likely that comparable numbers existed in Old and Middle English. Some names would have been restricted to certain regions, and some to certain periods of time, i.e. some have died out. We’re accustomed to rather ‘fixed’ plant-names today, but they used to be much more variable.

Not only did some plants have several names, but some plant-names denoted several different plants. A generic name such as ‘wound-healer’ or ‘blue-blossom’ might be used in various parts of England, but in each area such a name might denote a different plant, because the description can be used of several species. This complex situation is very difficult to understand from only a small number of surviving records.

Much of our information about plants comes from the medical texts of Anglo-Saxon England, and from plant-names like banwyrt ‘bone-plant’. This name suggests that the plant was an ingredient in a drink given to someone with a broken bone, or in an ointment to be smoothed onto the place where the bone had broken. Some modern writers on Anglo-Saxon medicine have been scathing about the uselessness of ‘cures’ such as this, and have considered such medical techniques extremely primitive. However, archaeology shows that several excavated Anglo-Saxon skeletons had broken bones which had healed very well, long before the person had died, and we’re coming to realize that, in remedies like that of the ‘bone-plant’, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t expect a drink or an ointment to heal a broken bone. The bone would have been set and put in a splint to allow it to heal, but the drink may have been to deaden the pain, or the ointment to disinfect a place where the broken bone had caused a wound. In other words, our herbal texts describe only the role of plants in medicine, not the entire treatment.

Plants were an important food source (see Unit 10 Food and Drink), but were a part of people’s lives in many other ways too – this is sometimes difficult for us to imagine today. Anglo-Saxons lived in timber-built houses (unless they were important enough to have a stone-built house), they kept warm in winter by burning wood, they travelled in timber carts and boats, and they ate their food from wooden bowls. Plants also provided a textile, linen, which is made from the flax plant, and certain plants supplied the raw materials for making ropes, essential for a thousand purposes on land and at sea.

There is evidence from both linguistics and archaeobotany (the study of plant-remains from pre-contemporary contexts) that the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Scandinavians from places like York used dye-plants to colour their textiles. Words like mæddre ‘madder’ (a plant which gives a red dye) and wad ‘woad’ (which gives a blue dye) occur in texts and place-names, and archaeology produces actual evidence of dyeing activities, both in the form of textile fragments which are chemically analyzed for dye-traces, and in the form of dye-plant remains.

Many Old English plant-names have survived into modern times, but they were joined, and sometimes replaced by, names from Anglo-Norman after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The name dandelion, for example, derives from the French phrase dent de lion, ‘lion’s tooth’. In Modern English, names had to be found for a host of exotic plants which were introduced into Britain as ornamental garden plants and newly available foods, as well as for new plant-products such as certain herbal medicines and cosmetics. Although we have access to many more plant species and products today than in earlier times, modern town- and city-dwellers probably know far fewer plant-names than their medieval ancestors.

Section 3

Further reading

Bierbaumer, Peter. 1975-9. Der botanische Wortschatz des Altenglischen. 3 vols.
         Bern & Frankfurt-am-Main: Herbert & Peter Lang. (An annotated collection
         of Old English plant-names with attempts to identify them.)
Biggam, C. P. (ed.). 2003. From earth to art: the many aspects of the plant-world in
          Anglo-Saxon England
. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi.
Biggam, C. P. 1994. ‘Hæwenhnydele: an Anglo-Saxon medicinal plant’. Botanical
         Journal of Scotland
46, 617-622.
Biggam, C. P. 1996. ‘Saffron in Anglo-Saxon England’. Dyes in History and
14, 25-37.
Biggam, C. P. 2011. ‘The True Staff of Life: the Multiple Roles of Plants’. The Material Culture of Daily Living in the Anglo-Saxon World, eds Maren Clegg Hyer and Gale Owen-Crocker. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 23-48.
Biggam, C. P. (ed.). 2013. Magic and Medicine: Early Medieval Plant-Name Studies. Leeds Studies in English, new series, 44. Leeds: School of English, University of Leeds. [Includes ‘An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Plant-Name Studies’ by C. P. Biggam]
Cameron, M. L. 1993. Anglo-Saxon medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Cameron, M. L. 1992. ‘What plant was attorlothe (atorlaþe)?’ Parergon 10/2, 27-34.
Cockayne, Thomas O. (ed.). 1864-6. Leechdoms, wortcunning and starcraft of early
. 3 vols. London: Longman. (Reprinted by different publishers in
         1961, 1965 and 2001.)
D’Aronco, Maria A. and M. L. Cameron (eds). 1998. The Old English illustrated
         pharmacopoeia, British Library Cotton Vitellius C.iii
. Copenhagen:
         Rosenkilde & Bagger.
Grigson, Geoffrey. 1974. A dictionary of English plant names (and some products of
. London: Allen Lane.
Hooke, Della. 2010. Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell.
Hunt, Tony. 1989. Plant names of medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
         (These are Late Medieval plant-names.)
Morris, Carole A. 2000. Craft, industry and everyday life: wood and woodworking in
         Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval York
. Archaeology of York 17/13. York:
         Council for British Archaeology.
Tomlinson, Philippa. 1985. ‘Use of vegetative remains in the identification of dye
         plants from waterlogged 9th-10th century A.D. deposits at York’. Journal of
         Archaeological Science
12/4, 269-283.


Dictionary of Old English Plant-Names http://oldenglish-plantnames.org/

Lewes Priory Herb Garden http://www.lewespriory.org.uk/the-original-herb-garden/

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Anglo-Saxon house http://www.wealddown.co.uk/buildings/anglo-saxon-hall-house/ – shows the importance of trees and timber for Anglo-Saxon buildings. Includes a time-lapse video showing the construction of the house.

Ideas for essays or projects

1. Read about the Anglo-Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ at http://www.psumedievalgarden.com/sacred_saxon_herbs.html Then find out what the Old English name or names of each plant are by looking them up in TOE. If you have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, check the etymology of the names there. Finally, using at least one Mod. E. interpretation for each name, check for medicinal uses in Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (online at http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html). Bear in mind both that this is an early work, published in 1931, and that it contains traditional cures, many of which have a long history but which are not all evidenced from Anglo-Saxon sources.

2. How were plants used to mark boundaries in Anglo-Saxon England? Which plants were used for this purpose? Search on as many Modern English words as you can think of which are relevant to boundaries, and investigate and discuss the results.

3. Write an essay on the different types of uses of plants in Anglo-Saxon England, and the ways in which these uses are reflected in plant-names.