The History of Mugwort


Gemyne ðu  mucgwyrt

hwæt  þu ameldodest

hwæt þu renadest

æt regenmelde

una þu hattest

yldost wyrta

ðu miht wið .iii.

7 wið xxx.

þu miht wið attre

7 wið  onflyge

þu miht wiþ þam laþan

ðe geondlond færð

– Lacnungna1

Medicinal Properties

Mugwort was a very important herb in the Anglo-Saxon period and arguably throughout history. One interesting use of the herb is the belief that by placing or tying a sprig of mugwort to the feet, it would relieve fatigue and allow the person to walk great distances. This knowledge of this use, reported by Pliny, dates as far back as the Roman period and appears to have been wildly spread.2 It appears again in Bald’s Leech Book, a 9th century compilation of remedies against sickness, and even in as recent times as 19th century France.3 Whether these later sources derived their knowledge through hearsay or direct access to the original latin documents is unclear, but either way it demonstrates a respect for at least this use of the herb that was long-lasting and widespread throughout Europe.

The herb was also considered to have powerful antifungal and antibacterial properties, an aspect that has been confirmed against certain bacteria in recent laboratory testings.4 It is listed above as the first of nine ingredients in a remedy against poison in an 11th century manuscript presenting rituals, potions and chants against a variety of ailments. It is interesting to note that here, as well as in Bald’s Leechbook, the use of the herb is combined, not only with medicine (i.e. as a direct remedy in the manner of modern treatments), but also with ritual. The chant in the Lacnungna was intended to be recited simultaneously with the production of the potion, and gives reference to the god Woden. In Bald’s Leechbook the user is instructed ‘when he will take it before sunrise let him say these words first: “I take thee artemisia lest I be tired on the road.” Make the sign of the cross on it when you pull it up’.5 These two examples provide an insight that shows that, in the past, sickness, ailments and medicine was considered not only a physical ailment, but also a spiritual one, and that it is important to keep this in mind when studying ancient remedies.

Another important associationof the herb is with regards to women’s health. The name itself, mugwort, sometimes refered to as motherwort is a direct indication of this. Marina Heilmeyer also notes that the Latin genus for mugwort, artemisia, is linked with the goddess Artemis, a deity strongly inclined toward women.6 It is reported in the Trotula, a medieval text concerning women’s health, to be able to help regulate menstruation if cooked in wine and then drunk, or when cooked in water with a mixture of other ingredients. A small bag filled with carded wool should be dipped in this water and placed on the woman’s stomach, or, in another mixture, drunk with water whilst in the bath. It is also reported to ease certain problems in childbirth.7

Mugwort as food

Although mugwort appears to be most widely known for its medicinal purposes, it could also be used as an ingredient in food. It has a bitter and was often used for the flavouring of meats. The leaves themselves can also be drunk as a tea, or as an alternative in beer production before the use of hops. Stephen Harrod Bulner, in his book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, provides a recipe for the production of mugwort ale.8

Mugwort Appearance

Mugwort leaves can grow up to 10cm long and are green on the top and white with fine hairs underneath. The stems are purple and grow to approximately 3 feet in height. In August, the plant blossoms with brown/yellow flowers that grow in clusters.

The plant itself is highly durable and can survive in a wide variety of conditions including roadsides and wastelands.

1Lacnunga, 60.

2Pliny the Elder, The Natural History XXVI. 150

3Cameron, Malcom, Anglo-Saxon Medicine (Cambridge University Press: 2009), p154

4Buhner, Stephen Harrod, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation (Brewers Publications: 1998), p380.

5Grendon, Felx, “The Anglo-Saxon Charms” in the Journal of Ameican Folklore (Vol. XXII. – April,-June, 1909), p191

6Heilmeyer, Marina Ancient Herbs (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007), p68

7Green, Monica H. trans., The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (The Middle Age Series) (Univesity of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p67-8

8Harrod, p380