The Mystique of Scottish Herbology in the 11th-Century
By DK Marley
I must admit when I first thought about the research behind this topic for my novel “The Fire of Winter, I was not very keen on the subject. After all, my husband has always told me I do not have a green thumb, so for good reason I dreaded this topic and I thought this was just another avenue of looking up plants for the various atmospheric scenery I needed for the novel.
I did not expect to become so utterly fascinated with each little flower and herb, and what each might do to your body and mind, but I did!
I did hear (and after reading her books) that Diana Gabaldon did quite a bit of research as well when writing Outlander since Claire is a nurse and with her modern knowledge of plant-life and lore, she was able to use this in her trip to the past. I read her books as part of my research just to see how she wove that knowledge into the story-line. After that, I was hooked with the research and had to remind myself I had a story to write myself.
There is a certain mystique to herbology of 11th-century Scotland. The secrets of dwale. The dangerous flying ointment made from mandrake and belladonna. The various flowers and berries used to flavour mead and wine. Here is just a little of what I learned:
Dwale – From a early medieval manuscript: “How to make a drink that men call dwale to make a man sleep whilst men cut him: take three spoonfuls of the gall [bile] of a barrow swine [boar] for a man, and for a woman of a gilt [sow], three spoonfuls of hemlock juice, three spoonfuls of wild neep [bryony], three spoonfuls of lettuce, three spoonfuls of pape [opium], three spoonfuls of henbane, and three spoonfuls of eysyl [vinegar], and mix them all together and boil them a little and put them in a glass vessel well stopped and put thereof three spoonfuls into a potel of good wine and mix it well together. When it is needed, let him that shall be cut sit against a good fire and make him drink thereof until he fall asleep and then you may safely cut him, and when you have done your cure and will have him awake, take vinegar and salt and wash well his temples and his cheekbones and he shall awake immediately.”
Flying Ointment – a hallucinogenic ointment used by men and women in the Medieval period in the practice of witchcraft, known as witches’ flying ointment, green ointment, magic salve, or lycanthropic ointment. Typical ingredients include: belladonna, henbane bell, jimson weed, black henbane, mandrake, hemlock, and wolfsbane; most of which contain atropine, hyoscyamine, and/or scopolamine. Scopolamine can cause psychotropic effects when absorbed transdermally. (Can you even imagine thinking it was all right to ingest any of those listed above?)
The hallucinations are frequently dominated by the erotic moment...in those days, in order to experience these sensations, young and old women would rub their bodies with the 'witches' salve'. The witches confess that...they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other places.... “In rifling the closet of the lady [Alice Kyteler], they found a pipe of oyntement, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin, when and in what manner she listed.” (The passage from the trial for witchcraft in Ireland of Hiberno-Norman noblewoman Alice Kyteler in 1324 quoted above is, while not explicit, certainly open to interpretations both drug-related and sexual.)
(Honestly, I never knew this was where the origin of witches riding on broom sticks originated!! Yikes!!)
Spicing Mead and Wine (Yum!!) - so many variations, but here are just a few: elderberry (elderflower), yarrow, mint, meadowsweet, dandelion, blaeberry, - and even some of the dangerous herbs mentioned above were used as additives.
Needless to say, the medieval culture of Scotland and England had their share of using herbs in good and bad ways, thus I wanted my characters in my novel “The Fire of Winter” to have the same struggles as we do in modern day.
I wanted very much to portray the witches in Shakespeare’s play as real women with their own secrets and past seeking to get by in a very trying time for women. The transition from pagan beliefs of old into the Celtic Church was not an easy one, some of the primitive traditions lingered, such as the use of herbs to cure various sicknesses, as well as spells, love potions, and more. Once I learned more about the uses of various plants and herbs, it was an easy choice to make the witches into women skilled in the herb lore, rather than the supernatural crones of the play. Everything about this fit well into their characterization, however, what I did not expect is what this effect would have on my main character.
For me, this was a case of not knowing that my character was about to traverse this path as I began to write. I mean, Gruah (Lady Macbeth) has a bit of knowledge of herbs from her mother, a Pictish Princess, as well as the knowledge she acquired during her stay with the weird sisters and their mother early on in the story, but when she started delving into her daily doses of dwale and belladonna, well, I was taken by surprise. I even sat for a few days and contemplated if I wanted her to go that route. After my musing, I realized that she must go down that terrible path to show how much she desired to escape from her past, even at the cost of drug abuse.
People do this all time, unfortunately, and I feel this is part of what makes Gruah so relatable to modern-day. She is ambitious, passionate, with terrible secrets in her past that she wants to escape from but falls prey to her own need for power. This is no excuse at all for her actions, the same as a person today who travels that path must suffer the consequences of their choice. Gruah paid the price in the end, again in a way I did not see coming until the words flowed out from my tapping fingers on my keyboard.
To find out more about Medieval Herbology, click HERE!
To find out more about Medieval Herbology, click HERE!
The Fire of Winter
By DK Marley
“...a woman's story at a winter's fire...”
(Macbeth, Act III, Scene IV)
She is known as Lady Macbeth. What leads her down the path of murder? What secrets fire her destiny?
Gruah, the granddaughter of King Cìnéad III of the Royal Clan Alpin, marries two men in less than six months, one she loves and one she hates; one in secret, the other arranged by the High King of Scotland. At the age of eighteen, she lays her palm upon the ancient stone of Scone and sees her destiny as Queen of Scotland, and she vows to do whatever necessary to see her true love, Macbeth macFindlaech, beside her on the throne. Amid the fiery times and heated onslaughts from Denmark and England, as the rule of Scotland hangs in the balance, Gruah seeks to win the throne and bring revenge upon the monsters of her childhood, no matter the cost or amount of blood tainting her own hands; yet, an unexpected meeting with the King called the Confessor causes her to question her bloody path and doubt her once blazing pagan faith. Will she find redemption or has the blood of her past fire-branded her soul?
“Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, The Fire of Winter is a tale not to be missed by lovers of Shakespeare, lovers of history, or lovers of the written word.”
Riana Everly, Author of Teaching Eliza and Through a Different Lens
Pick up your copy of
The Fire of Winter
D. K. Marley is a historical fiction writer specializing in Shakespearean themes. Her grandmother, an English Literature teacher, gave her a volume of Shakespeare’s plays when she was eleven, inspiring DK to delve further into the rich Elizabethan language. Eleven years ago she began the research leading to the publication of her first novel “Blood and Ink,” an epic tale of lost dreams, spurned love, jealousy and deception in Tudor England as the two men, William Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe, fight for one name and the famous works now known as the Shakespeare Folio. She is an avid Shakespearean / Marlowan, a member of the Marlowe Society, the Shakespeare Fellowship and a signer of the Declaration of Intent for the Shakespeare Authorship Debate. She has traveled to England three times for intensive research and debate workshops and is a graduate of the intense training workshop “The Writer’s Retreat Workshop” founded by Gary Provost and hosted by Jason Sitzes. She lives in Georgia with her husband and a Scottish Terriers named Maggie and Buster.