Silk and spices, pepper and peacocks

A while ago, in my post on fruit, I mentioned that the word ‘peach’ entered England in the Anglo-Saxon period, even if the fruit itself probably didn’t.  The word is ultimately derived from persicum malum, Persian apple, indicating that the fruit entered Europe via Iran.  This is the trouble with writing about Anglo-Saxon medical works based on Mediterranean originals.  If Anglo-Saxon manuscripts instruct the reader to use a plant or herb that grew in a southern European climate, does that indicate that the scribe copied what he or she received, without any expectation that a local audience would be able to use the remedies?  On the other hand, someone clearly went to the trouble not merely of copying out these texts, but also of translating them into English; and people at this time did travel and trade across the known world.

Fruits, spices, oils, silk – all of these things, originating in Asia or the Mediterranean world, are called upon in Anglo-Saxon medical books.  Which of them actually travelled to early medieval England, I will not say; but what we can be sure of is that the words spread, and the knowledge of them.  Which of these things were known to those who had access to books in English at this time?


Frankincense and myrrh

Some parts of the Bible were translated into English in the Anglo-Saxon era, so naturally words for the gifts of the Magi were required.

Roy1Axiv34v Magi
London, British Library Royal MS 1 A. xiv, f. 34v

… and they opened their treasuries and brought them gifts: that was gold and incense and myrrh …

While myrre had to be borrowed (from Latin, although the OED traces it back through Greek to the Semitic languages), the Old English word for incense is recels, a native English word related to the verb ‘to reek’.



Several spices which we are more used to finding in culinary contexts can be found in Anglo-Saxon medical remedies.  Pipor (pepper) appears several times, such as on this little recipe for a salve against wens, or cysts, copied at the end of a collection of Latin works.

CotDomAi55v Wen salve
London, British Library Cotton MS Domitian A. i, f. 55v

… these plants will do for a wen salve: helenium, garlic, chervil, radish, turnip, raven’s foot, honey, pepper.  Grind all the plants and wring through a cloth, and then wash in the honey …

According to a bilingual prose text known as The Marvels of the East, in the lands between Babylon and the Red Sea, and the city of Persia, there is an abundance of pepper, and a kind of snake with horns like a ram’s, which greatly desires these pepper plants.

TibBv1.79v Pepper snakes
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B. V/1, f. 79v


Cinnamon … and peacocks

According to the Dictionary of Old English Corpus, the Latin word cinnamomum occasionally appears as Latin words glossed with as cymen, or in one case suðerne rind (southern bark), although Bosworth and Toller translate the former as ‘cumin’.  And The Marvels of the East which tells us this interesting little fact about cinnamon:

Phoenix TibBv1.86v
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B. V/1, f. 086v

… in the same place there is another bird called the phoenix, which has combs on its head like a peacock, and it makes its nest of the most precious spice, which one calls cinnamon; and from his breath, after a thousand years, he kindles a fire, and then afterwards rises up young again from the ashes …

I had no idea that Old English had a word for ‘peacock’ (pawa); according to the Leechbook, a tenth-century collection of medical remedies, if someone is suffering from extreme hunger due to stomach inflammation, peacock flesh is to be avoided!



Ginger is mentioned a few times in the Old English Leechbook, in a remedy for hiccups which are caused by a chill:

Roy12Dxvii23r Cumin and ginger
London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, f. 23r

… one must cure it with warming things, such as pepper is … or a broth of mint or carrot or cymen or ginger …


Silk and silkworms

Made by silkworms which feed on mulberry trees, silk originated in China and for a long time was not produced in Europe.  However, it was known of there, and there was a word for it, seolc or seoluc, in Old English.  In the Leechbook, it is recommended for use in an operation for a cleft lip:

Roy12Dxvii21r Silk
London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, f. 21r

… cut with a knife, sew up tightly with silk, then smear with the salve within and without, before the silk rots …

In some glossaries (which I found using the Old English Corpus), the word bombyx is translated as seolcwyrm (silkworm).


Oil of balsam

A few passages in the Bible speak of a substance whose name is translated into modern English as ‘Balm of Gilead’ or balsam.  For example, Joseph (he of the Technicolor Dreamcoat) is sold by his brothers to some international balm merchants, as we can see in this ninth-century French manuscript:

Har2805.15r Balm of Gilead
London, British Library Harley MS 2805, f. 15r

… they saw Ishmaelite travellers coming from Gilead, and their camels carrying spices and resin and myrrh into Egypt … (Genesis 37:25)

The copy of The Marvels of the East in Tiberius B. V/1 depicts balsam trees thus:

TibBv1.83r Balsam trees
London, British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B/1, f. 83r

… of the balsam trees the most precious oil is born …

And in the Leechbook, the reader is told to use this most precious oil for making the sign of the cross on someone:

Roy12Dxvii105r Balsam
London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, f. 105r

… this is anointing with balsam, against all the illnesses which are in a human body …

Whatever it was that did and didn’t cross land and sea in the early Middle Ages, we can at least be sure that knowledge travelled.  News of spices and silks was not only copied into manuscripts which reached distant lands, but also translated into the native languages of those lands.


Works used:

Bosworth-Toller Dictionary of Old English

Oswald Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, Rolls Series 35:1-3 (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1965), vols. 2 and 3.

Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus

Oxford English Dictionary


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Pawa. Nice.

    And my cat’s name translates to Persian apples…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.