When I use a word . . . . The Lelamour HerbalBMJ 2023; 380 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p225 (Published 27 January 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;380:p225
- Jeffrey K Aronson
- Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
- Twitter @JKAronson
Herbs and herbals
“A plant of which the stem does not become woody and persistent (as in a shrub or a tree), but remains more or less soft and succulent, and dies down to the ground (or entirely) after flowering.” That is the first definition of the word “herb,” given in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).1 However, as the next definition in the OED makes clear, not all herbal remedies come from herbs: “specifically applied to plants of which the leaves, or stem and leaves, are used for food or medicine, or in some way for their scent or flavour.”
The word was Middle English, the first example of its use cited in the OED coming from the late 13th century, and at that time it was usually written “erbe.” A 14th century text, The Forme of Cury (i.e. The Method of Cooking), included a recipe for “erbolat,” a dish containing eggs with herbs:
“Take persel, myntes, sauerey, & sauge, tansey, veruayn, clarry, rewe, ditayn, fenel, southrenwode; hewe hem, & grinde hem smale. Medle hem vp with ayren. Do buttur in a trap, & do 󠇮þe fars þerto, & bake it, & messe forth.”2
In classical Latin the word was herba, meaning grass or a small plant or herb, whether used for food, as a medicine, or for magical purposes. However, in late Latin, and in the Romance languages derived from it, the initial aitch was not aspirated and so dropped out of the spelling. In Old French it was spelled “erbe,” and although in modern French the aitch has been restored—“herbe”—it is not pronounced. Usage in other Romance languages varies—in Spanish it is hierba and in Romanian iarbă, but in Italian it is erba and in Portuguese erva. Whether the aitch appeared in Middle English spellings of the word or not, as it did from the 15th century on, it was not generally pronounced until the 19th century. This accounts for the fact that “herb” is still pronounced “erb” in American English. As in several other cases of differences between British English and American English, it is the British who have changed, not the Americans. The latter retain the pronunciation that the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them to America in the early 17th century.
In medieval Latin, words for books on certain subjects were formed by taking the relevant noun and adding the suffix –ale to it. [In all cases pronounce the final e.] Add –ale to nomen, a name, and you get nominale, a name-book, manus plus –ale gives us manuale, a handbook or manual, missa plus –ale gives missale, a missal, and so on. Thus, herba plus –ale gives herbale, a herbal.
The word “herbal” is first attested in English in the early 16th century, but examples of herbals antedate that by a long way.
One of the earliest English herbals, containing descriptions of over 200 species, was compiled 650 years ago, in 1373, by John Lelamour, a schoolmaster. It later became known as the Lelamour Herbal.3 The manuscript of the Lelamour Herbal ends with an explicit, the general term for the closing words of a manuscript, in which we learn that Johannes Lelamour, schoolmaster of Herforde Est, though he was unworthy, in the year of our Lord 1373 turned the herbal of Macer the philosopher from Latin into English. “And if there be anything mis-said in the turning of the language, the wise reader and goodly understander he prays with all his heart the faults to amend.” [I have transliterated the 14th century English, retaining the words used.]
The Latin text that Lelamour translated was De viribus herbarum, a popular Latin poem in hexameters composed by “Macer Floridus,” a pseudonym for an 11th century French physician from Meung-sur-Loire, Odo Magdunensis. Macer in turn is thought to have relied on an earlier herbal called De herbis or Alexipharmaca, now lost, by a 1st century BCE Augustan poet, Aemilius Macer of Verona.4 Aemilius got his inspiration from the 2nd century BCE Greek physician and poet Nicander of Colophon, who wrote two relevant poems, still extant: Theriaca, dealing with venomous animals, and Alexipharmaca, dealing with poisons and alexipharmics, antidotes to poisons.5His source of information was the 3rd century BCE Egyptian physician, Apollodorus.6 None of this is unusual. Typically, authors of herbals, formularies, and pharmacopoeias copied the recipes of their predecessors.
However, the story of the compilation of the Herbal is more complicated than this simple explanation suggests. There is, for example, evidence that other sources contributed, and the time course over which the compilation occurred is not clear; indeed, it is certain that 1373 was not the year during which the whole corpus was amassed. Other important sources included an anonymous Middle English herbal called Agnus Castus, which described the uses of about 250 plants, and the provenance of several of the entries is unknown.
Lelamour in the Oxford English Dictionary
It is striking how often the Lelamour Herbal is cited in the OED—132 times in all. The OED is unclear about the actual date of the Herbal. Each citation is preceded by the date ?a1425, but with the parenthetic addition (?1373) and each citation is taken from a 1938 edition.7 This hesitation is justified, as with much Middle English,8 but I have assumed here that 1373 is the correct date.
Of all the words and phrases cited, just over half document the first recorded uses, assuming 1373 as the true date of compilation. If not all illustrate the very earliest uses, they are certainly early; some are not antedated even if the correct date is 1425 and two are hapax legomena. I have listed them in box 1 below. Many of them are the common names of plants, such as chickweed, costmary, dog fennel, germander, marigold, mullein, oak fern, heartwort, origanum, ox-tongue, papwort, pimpernel, primrose, red henbane, rosemary, swine's fennel, and swinecress.
However, there are also surprises, as, for example, the first recorded use of words such as hypochondrium, migraine, nephritic as a noun, paunch, and well known.
In some cases Lelamour used a word already in existence, but gave it a new meaning. Examples include nut, an Old English word that he used to refer specifically to nutmeg; pip, which in its original use referred to any of various respiratory diseases of birds, but which Lelamour used in the phrase “the pip,” probably referring to a disease of the mouth in humans; purge, originally a transitive verb but which Lelamour used intransitively; and receive, which Lelamour used to refer to the action of swallowing.
However, this uncertain dating gives another reason for the inclusion of so many citations from the Herbal, which is a go-to volume when a 15th century instance is required, even when earlier citations are available. In almost all the citations that fit that description, Lelamour’s is the only citation included that the lexicographers will have attributed to the 15th century.
The Lelamour Herbal does not seem to be particularly well known, outside of scholars in the field, compared with other herbals, such as those of Pedanius Dioscorides (1st century), Apuleius Platonicus (4th century), Rembert Dodoens (1554), John Gerard (1597), Gaspard Bauhin (1623), John Parkinson (1640), and William Salmon (1710). That may in part be because it is not illustrated. It is not mentioned, for example in Blunt and Raphael’s comprehensive survey of illustrated herbals.9
Even allowing for the inaccuracy of the assumption that the whole text was compiled in 1373, Lelamour’s lexicographical importance is clear. For example, although Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum is cited 338 times in the OED, it is cited in earliest quotations only 29 times (8.6%). The corresponding figures for Gerard’s well known Herball are 1230 and 215 (17%), and for Salmon’s Botanologia 51 and 2 (3.9%). Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal (1931) weighs in with no earliest citations out of 96 in all.
Publication of Lelamour’s original manuscript, held in the British Library, is long overdue. This year, the 650th anniversary of its own claimed compilation, offers a good opportunity.
Entries in the OED that credit Lelamour with the first use, assuming a date of 1373
● abortive: an aborted fetus; a stillborn child or animal
● airy: of or belonging to the air, esp. as distinguished from the earth, water, etc.; living or located in the air
● angerly: violently, savagely, fiercely
● astrologia: any of several medicinal herbs of the genus Aristolochia, formerly used to facilitate childbirth (also called birthwort)
● bollock stone: a testicle
● cake: a mass or portion of food, usually formed into a rounded, flattened shape, and frequently cooked on both sides
● cardiac: a medicinal plant (not identified; perhaps garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, hedge mustard, Sisymbrium officinale, or motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca)
● cardiaca and cardiacle: a disorder characterised by symptoms attributed to the heart, esp. palpitations [sic] and syncope
● chickweed: any of several, typically relatively broad-leaved, plants of the genus Stellaria (family Caryophyllaceae)
● cold: as a count noun: an instance of such disease
● costmary: a perennial aromatic herb, Tanacetum balsamita (family Asteraceae (Compositae)) ...
● dog fennel: originally: the stinking chamomile, Anthemis cotula (family Asteraceae (Compositae))
● engendure: the action of begetting or producing; procreation; production; creation. Also: offspring
● female: a female plant or flower
● germander: any of the plants constituting the genus Teucrium (family Lamiaceae (Labiatae))
● green sauce: a sauce of a green colour made from herbs, esp. sorrel, with vinegar and sugar, and eaten with meat
● hardbound: suffering from constipation
● hasty hastily; quickly, rapidly
● heartwort: a small, blue-flowered herbaceous plant, perhaps a kind of bugle (Ajuga species) or self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)
● hypochondrium: in a human or other vertebrate: either of the two regions of the upper abdomen located beneath the ribs on either side of the epigastrium
● knob: a small rounded lump, bump, or protuberance on the surface of something; a rounded or spherical projection at the end of an object
● langue de boeuf: any of various plants, chiefly of the family Boraginaceae, having rough, tongue-shaped leaves, as viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare, borage, Borago officinalis, and (esp. in later use) ox-tongue, Picris echiodes (now included in the family Asteraceae (Compositae))
● lesser: in the names of plants and animals distinguished by having a smaller size than another of the same name
● lock: to join (two or more things) by interlocking or by fitting of parts firmly together
● [to] make urine
● marigold: a plant of the genus Calendula (family Asteraceae (Compositae)) with golden or bright yellow flowers; esp. C. officinalis
● mater: the womb
● May-butter: unsalted butter preserved in the month of May and sometimes used medicinally
● migraine: a severe headache which characteristically affects only one side of the head and is typically preceded or accompanied by visual or other neurological disturbances and is associated with nausea and vomiting
● mise: a crumb, a breadcrumb
● morel: any of several kinds of nightshade with black or deep purple berries; esp. black nightshade, Solanum nigrum
● mullein [leaf]: any of various plants of the genus Verbascum (family Scrophulariaceae)
● nephritic: perhaps: a disease of the kidneys [and precedes other confirmed meanings]
● nose-holl: nostril
● nut: a nutmeg
● oak fern: any of several ferns often found on or among trees, walls, etc., including certain spleenworts; spec. (among herbalists) common polypody, Polypodium vulgare agg., which was supposed to be especially effective as a remedy when growing on the oak
● oat-malt: malt prepared from oats
● origanum: any of the perennial herbs and subshrubs constituting the Eurasian genus Origanum (family Lamiaceae (Labiatae)), esp. wild marjoram or oregano, O. vulgare
● osmund: the royal fern, Osmunda regalis; (also) any fern of the genus Osmunda. In early use also: any of several other ferns, esp. the male fern, Dryopteris filix-mas
● ox-tongue: any of several plants of the genus Picris (family Asteraceae (Compositae)), allied to the hawkweeds, which are covered with hooked bristles and have yellow flowers
● painter's oil: a pale, flammable drying oil used by artists, spec. linseed oil
● papwort: a medicinal herb, perhaps annual mercury, Mercurialis annua (family Euphorbiaceae)
● park leaves: the plant tutsan, Hypericum androsaemum (family Clusiaceae (Guttiferae)), a large-leaved shrubby species of St John's wort
● paunch: a large or protruding belly, usually that of a man
● pelleter of Spain: (a) white hellebore, Veratrum album, or black hellebore, Helleborus niger (rare); (b) pellitory of Spain, Anacyclus pyrethrum [and precedes other meanings of pelleter]
● petty morel: black nightshade, Solanum nigrum
● pimpernel: a small trailing plant, Anagallis arvensis (family Primulaceae), native to Europe but widely distributed elsewhere, which is often found as a weed of cornfields and waste ground and has smooth ovate leaves and usually bright scarlet, pink, blue, or white flowers which close in cloudy or rainy weather (hence its regional names poor man's weatherglass, shepherd's glass, etc.); spec. one with red flowers [and precedes other meanings of pimpernel]
● pip: chiefly humorous. Illness or malaise in humans. Usually with the
● podagry: gout [and related meanings]
● (by) even portion: in equal shares or amounts
● portulac: purslane, Portulaca oleracea; (also) a purslane plant
● primrose: an early-flowering European primula, Primula vulgaris, found in woods, hedges, etc
● privity: the genitals, the private parts
● puliol: either of two aromatic herbs of the family Lamiaceae (Labiatae), pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, and wild thyme, Thymus serpyllum
● purge: to act as a purgative; spec. to cause emptying of the bowels
● quick: (of a place or time): full of activity; busy
● quick: the highly sensitive area of a finger or toe covered by the nail plate
● rack: something which causes acute physical or mental suffering
● receive: to take in by the mouth; to swallow
● red henbane: (probably) a variety of henbane (genus Hyosycamus), with red seeds or flowers
● rising: a swelling or tumour; esp. a boil, an abscess
● Roman: derived or descended from Latin
● room: to clear (a bodily cavity) of obstruction or constriction
● root stem: any stem-like root or rootlike stem, as an aerial root, caudex, rhizome, etc
● rosemary: an evergreen aromatic shrub, Rosmarinus officinalis (family Lamiaceae (Labiatae))
● round aristolochia: round birthwort
● rubble: to crush to pieces, to smash; to destroy
● standelwelks and standenguss: any of several European orchids; esp. the early purple orchid, Orchis mascula
● subjugation: suffumkgation (the use of a medicine to produce a therapeutic effect by penetration of the body)
● swine's fennel: hog's fennel, Peucedanum officinale
● swinecrress: knotgrass, Polygonum aviculare (which is attractive to pigs as food)
● unremoved: not physically moved from a place or position; not taken away, lifted off, or displaced
● violent: of a poison, medicine, chemical reagent, etc.: having a powerful, drastic, or highly injurious effect; noxious, virulent
● well known: widely or generally known; (of a person) famous
● worthy: esp. of a medicine, treatment, etc.: effective, efficacious; potent
Competing interests: none declared.
Provenance and peer review: not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.