What are Strewing Herbs?

A history and uses of strewing herbs, yesterday and today. Strewing herbs have been around since the medieval/early Renaissance period and in early times freshened the areas of people living in close quarters.

| December 1991/January 1992

  • Strewing herbs have been around since the medieval/early Renaissance period.
    Strewing herbs have been around since the medieval/early Renaissance period.
    Photo By Fotolia/Team 5

  • Strewing herbs have been around since the medieval/early Renaissance period.

Learn the history and reasoning behind the cleansing capabilities of strewing herbs.

Imagine the scene: you have traveled all day on foot or by horse. It is centuries before hotels, but you know you will be lodging with the local baron. You arrive at dusk, share a rowdy, highly seasoned meal in the torch-lit main hall, and get ready for sleep. The preparations are simple: the trestle eating tables are broken down and stacked against the walls. You elbow your way to a position near the central fire, make a pillow of your baggage, wrap yourself in your cloak, and stretch out on the hard floor, which is thickly strewn with rushes. You share the hall with all the other guests, much of the baron’s household and family, and the household dogs. You are quite comfortable by the standards of the day, when beds are rare and separate sleeping rooms are virtually unheard of.

If your hosting family is blessed with a skilled chatelaine, the discomfort of stench and insect pests may be mitigated by the addition of strewing herbs—fragrant plants mixed with or strewn on top of the rushes that cover the floor. Herbs and scented plants had long been a part of households of all ranks, ranging from the wild herbs hanging to dry in a peasant’s cottage to the fragrant spices locked in a noble’s larder or the cartload of violets strewn in the great hall to celebrate a noble heir’s wedding. Dried rushes (Juncus effusus) were used as insulation and cushioning—a sort of botanical wall-to-wall-carpeting—over stone or dirt floors. A fresh top layer might be added for special occasions—sometimes perhaps the fragrant flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus—but even in well-to-do households, rushes were changed completely only twice a year. In the intervening months, they collected dropped food, spilled beverages, mud, fleas, and assorted unmentionables generated by people and animals of all ages. The result must have been literally breathtaking, and the antidote to such unintentional compost was strewing herbs, which were added as seasonally available. Vinegar might also be boiled or burned to “purify’’ the air.

By contrast, our own culture makes a virtual fetish of cleanliness. We like things to smell fresh, as so many high-powered advertisements remind us. We buy and use a terrific array of products to make our homes smell like pine forests, country gardens, citrus groves, herb gardens, harvest festivals, cedar groves, and the ocean (presumably at high tide). However, the use of strewing herbs instead of commercial scents can give much the same pleasure to our noses without synthetic or simulated ingredients.

A list of strewing herbs from the late medieval/early Renaissance period (roughly twelfth to sixteenth centuries) contains many that are familiar to us today: sage, tansy, violets, roses, mints, pennyroyal, winter savory, marjoram, hops, germander, sweet fennel, cowslips, lady’s-mantle, balm, basil, costmary, lavender, juniper, rosemary, chamomile, “daisies of all sorts’’, lavender cotton, and sweet woodruff.

Many traditional strewing herbs were valued primarily for their aromas; others also had cleansing or pest-repelling qualities, either raw or in various preparations. Herbs of the genus Mentha (mints), particularly pennyroyal, are flea and tick repellents. Cedar (Cedrus, Thuja, or Chamaecyparis spp.) shavings or branch tips remain popular as moth and flea repellents. Australian gum or eucalyptus leaves, pine needles, and sage have insecticidal properties. Scented geraniums, rosemary, basil, fir needles, and bay leaves are said to kill as well as repel insects. Juniper needles, chamomile, lavender, lemon peel, lemon balm, orange peel, oregano, thyme, and sweet woodruff are all insect repellents. Perhaps discovered by accident or trial and error are the disinfectant, antiseptic, or bactericidal properties of many medieval strewing herbs. Though less effective than when used in washes or infusions, the salient properties are found in the raw states of many plants.

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