Tuesday, 14 August 2012

As You Wort

                        The other day’s mention of beer put me in mind of the word ‘wort’. The liquid that makes beer, before it ferments, is called ‘wort’ – it’s the mash, the liquor or the brew – the stuff that the action of the yeast will turn into beer. In the past, Blackburn had three separate breweries in the town centre and the smell of fermenting wort regularly wafted over the town – maybe it’s no surprise that at one time Blackburn had more pubs per head of population than anywhere else in Britain. But ‘wort’ has other meanings too, one of which is ‘herb’ – it’s an old Anglo-Saxon word, coming from Germanic roots, variously spelled wort, wurt, wyrt or woort, and has associations with the word ‘root’. 

Cockayne - Leechdoms Wortcunning and Starcraft 1864

I’ve mentioned before that herbalism, the medicinal use of plants, was called in Anglo-Saxon times ‘wort-cunning’, and ‘cunning’ simply meant ‘knowledge’ – it has links in the word ‘ken’, now largely Northern English and Scots, as in the song, ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ i.e. ‘Do you know John Peel’. Wort fell out of use during the seventeenth century, although it remains in the names of many plants, as in Colewort and Liverwort. Another, which has come to the fore recently, is St John’s Wort. 

St John's Wort

St John’s Wort has many attributes that link it with St John the Baptist – the black spots are said to be the trail of blood spot that were left after his decapitation, the tiny perforations or oil-glands in the leaves are the tears that were shed for him, and the reddish sap is the blood itself. Tradition has it that the plant flowers first on St John’s Eve, the day before his feast day on June 24th, one of the few saints’ days that celebrated the birth, rather than the death, of a saint. St John was Christ’s older cousin, born six months before him at around midsummer’s day. The botanical name of the plant Hypericum Perforatum comes from the Greek hyper = ‘above’ and eikon = ‘picture’ as the plant was placed above icons, or pictures of saints, on St John’s Day to ward of evil – for maximum protection, the herb was to be picked before sunrise, with dew still on it; and perforatum refers to the oil glands, resembling windows, in the leaves. 

St John's Wort - leaf

The practice of placing herbs above pictures, windows and doors reaches back at least to the ancient Babylonians – a cuneiform tablet from Babylon has the following charm: -
“Fleabane on the lintel of the door I have hung,
St. John's wort, caper, and wheatears
On the latch I have hung;
With a halter as a roving ass
Thy body I restrain;
O evil Spirit, get thee hence.
Depart, O evil Demon.”
Herbal uses of the plant include a variety of decoctions and ointments for use on bruises and wounds to speed healing, powders to be taken in broths for internal bleeding, and as a tincture taken in ‘spirits of wine’ (brandy) as a cure for ‘melancholy and madness’ – according to Culpepper. 

St John's Wort from Blackwell A Curious Herbal Vol 1 1737

In recent times, St John’s Wort has been used as an anti-depressant, very often self-diagnosed and self-medicated, which is a dangerous practice in any case, particularly as research has shown that there is no benefit to be gained from the herb in the treatment of depression, and which should always be dealt with by qualified medical practitioners, but another use of St John’s Wort was as an abortifacient (to bring on abortion) and it may also affect the effectiveness of female contraceptive pills. Herbalism may have a place, but please be sure to research whatever it is you may plan on taking and, if in any doubt, ask your doctor first.

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