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A guest post by LH Member Jane Young. 

Review: The Domestic Herbal Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century
by Margaret Willes


71odrpmARdLA meticulous study of the role and uses of herbs, fruit, vegetables and flowers during the seventeenth century. The extensive research covers medicine, cookery, brewing and distilling, laundry, personal hygiene and cosmetics, dyeing and weaving and even dressing a table and floristry, alongside the cultivation of these essential plants and botanicals.

Every aspect of domestic life is explored within this tour of the seventeenth century house, beautifully illustrated with exquisite plates from publications contemporary to the period. Many of these depict the numerous skills of the housewife which included the important task of growing and tending to the flora and fauna intrinsic to running the household in smaller homes or overseeing this task in large establishments. The well known Herbals from Gerard and Culpeper are featured with numerous recipes found in receipt and commonplace books. Explanations of how the grocery trade supplied prized exotic ingredients, the importance of market gardens and customs and traditions of the changing seasons interweave with accounts from botanists and diaries. The writing is captivating and engaging and will be a delight for anyone interested in the history of horticulture and botanicals, the evolution of the kitchen garden, methods of cookery and domestic households and interiors in the seventeenth century.

Chapters are arranged room by room describing in wonderful detail the myriad of applications for every aspect of maintaining the home be it large or small. The inclusion of a select Herbal of fifty herbs is a lovely addition.

33 Medicinal herbs pennyroyal tr Wellcome

A selection of what the Tudor physician, William Bullein, considered the most useful medicinal herbs.

Whilst the book rightly states it is not intended to provide medical advice or remedies for readers, it is interesting to note that there is nothing much new under the sun. The current trend towards natural and herbal solutions that are experiencing something of a renaissance in food supplements and cosmetics include many of the ingredients that were in common use during the period this research concentrates on. Modern gardening methods have also to some extent gone full circle in recognising the benefits of long forgotten plants which are being reintroduced to domestic gardens and allotments as companion planting for organic solutions to enrich soil, ward off predators and encourage wildlife. The artisan faction of the textile industry is returning to natural plant dyes which are now highly regarded and sold at a premium in a move away from using harmful chemicals amidst the debate over climate change. The amount of new publications on herbal remedies for everything from infusing alcohol, making herbal teas and aromatherapy preparations to toiletries and cleaning products are prolific. However, these new manuals all share the basis of practices established long ago as exemplified in this narrative.

The Domestic Herbal is a gem of a book to grace any bookshelf as a source of reference to seventeenth century domestic life as much as it will be at home in every academic library.


The Domestic Herbal: Plants for the Home in the Seventeenth Century (256 pp, hardcover, 60 colour illustrations) is published by the Bodlean Library on 26 June with a cover price of £25 and available on pre-order now.

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