Wyrtlār: Mint

 

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Mint is a genus of flowering perennial plants from the family Lamiaceae which possess fragrant, jagged leaves and a rich, aromatic flavour. There is some disagreement as to the number of different mint varieties, with anywhere between 13-24 species being recognized in the field of plant taxonomy [1][2]. This discrepancy is the result of both natural hybridization and hybridization by man for culinary and medicinal purposes. The stems of the mint plant are square in shape and rhizomatous – meaning they are able to send creeping rootstocks horizontally in order to proliferate and spread.

Mint derives its name from Old English, minte, which, in turn, comes from Proto-Germanic *minta. It is highly likely that the Germanic term was borrowed from Latin menta by way of ancient Greek μίνθη (mínthē), or another, unknown Mediterranean language[3]. Mint also appears as mi-ta on the Mycenaean Linear B tablets [4].

In terms of Anglo-Saxon medicinal usage, mint appears three times in the Lacnunga Manuscript and twice in the Herbarium. In Lacnunga 15, brookmint and unnamed “other mints” [5] are used alongside a plethora of other herbs, flowers and grains to create what the author refers to as grene sealf (green salve) – a salve for which we are never provided with an intended application.

In Lacnunga 34, mint, fern-mint and “the third kind of mint which blossoms white,”[6] are boiled in water with pennyroyal (also in the mint family) and leek and applied to the scalp to alleviate headaches. This usage is reasonable when we consider the analgesic qualities of mint and the fact that peppermint oil is still used today to treat migraines and headaches [7]. Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) also possess practical applications as an anti-inflammatory agent, where they are often used topically or ingested as a treatment for hemorrhoids [8][9]

In Lacnunga 154, “mint which grows by the river” [10] is employed to ease inflammation and is mixed with malt-ale, iris, feverfew, garlic, radish, the inner part of elder bark, cress, nettle and pepper and drunk after 9 nights and a period of fasting. The duration of “9 nights” is of particular interest here and is suggestive of a remedy which may predate Christianity, with multiples of 3 being of marked religious significance to pre-Christian, Germanic peoples. 

In Herbarium 92, horsemint (mentastrus) is mixed with strong wine and poured into the ear to alleviate earache and pain caused by wyrmas (worms) [11]. It’s uncertain whether the wyrmas referenced in this particular remedy refers to a type of inner-ear parasite or something more otherworldly in nature – though Pollington’s translation suggests the former. In the second usage attached to Herbarium 92, the author suggests horsemint can be ingested to remedy dry skin, which makes sense considering the anti-inflammatory properties of mint and its use in modern restorative creams and lotions [12][13]

In Herbarium 122, mint is mixed with sulphur and vinegar and smeared upon the body with a feather to ease the pain associated with ringworm and “a pimply body” [14]. Once again, this remedy makes sense from a modern perspective, as mint essential oil is both antifungal and antimicrobial and is often incorporated into antifungal soaps for the treatment of ringworm, jock itch, yeast infections, athlete’s foot and nail fungus [15]. In the second part of 122, mint is used to heal wounds and scars of the head – a usage which also finds some modern, corroborative evidence in scar treatments which utilize mint as a main ingredient [16][17].

Mint was well-known in Greek medicine and the Greek physician, Dioscorides, writes about several varietals in his De Materia Medica.

His first entry deals with a plant he calls Susumbrion, which is likely a reference to mentha aquatica, better known as water mint. Dioscorides tells us this plant grows in untilled soil and can be used to help pass urinary stones, stop hiccups and when laid on the temples, can be used to treat headaches [18].  He also claims mint can be used to treat the stings of bees and wasps – a treatment which recalls its modern usage as a topical itch reliever. 

Dioscorides’ second reference to mint comes in the form of something he calls Eduosmos Emeros. This entry could be referring to white mint, peppermint, spearmint, common mint, or whorled mint, according to Obaldeston and is suggested for use in a variety of applications. Dioscorides says Eduosmos Emeros has warming and astringent qualities and as such, can be consumed with vinegar to kill roundworms, staunch blood flow and increase sexual desire. He also lists a variety of other uses, many of which are associated with pain relief and inflammation.

 

“Two or three little sprigs (taken in a drink with the juice of a sour pomegranate) soothe
Applied with polenta it dissolves suppurations. Applied
to the forehead it eases headaches. It soothes the swelling
and extension of the breasts, and with salt it is a poultice
for dog bites. The juice with honey and water helps
earache. Applied to women before sexual intercourse, it
causes inconception. Rubbed on, it makes a rough tongue
smooth. It keeps milk from curdling if the leaves are
steeped in it. Finally, it is good for the stomach and fit for
sauce. It is also called mentha; the Romans call it menta,
some, nepeta, the Egyptians, tis, others call it pherthumer-
thrumonthu, perxo, or macetho.
hiccups, vomiting, and bile.” [19]

 

Dioscorides’ third entry is called Eduosmos Agrios and is likely a reference to wild mint or horsemint, though we are provided little in terms of applications outside of it being “more poisonous to smell, and less suitable for use in health” than other members of the mint family[20].

The final entry found in De Materia Medica refers to something called Kalaminthe, which is almost certainly calamint or catmint.  Taken as a drink, Dioscorides claims kalaminthe can help those bitten by snakes, help the passage of urine and treat hernias, convulsions, asthma, griping, bile and chills. We also see more typical utilization to treat roundworm, lessen the appearance of scars and bruises, kill parasites of the ear and remove dry, “morbid” skin [21]. Dioscorides also suggests kalaminthe can be scattered underfoot to chase away snakes, an employment which finds little support in modern gardening forums and publications, with cinnamon, clove, lemongrass and garlic being much more popular repellents [22].

Mint was used in ancient Egypt as well, appearing as a remedy in several medical papyri. 

In the Ebers Papyrus, dated to approximately 1500 BCE, peppermint is suggested for flatulence and as a digestive aid – a usage which seems to be supported by modern, medical science [23]

 

“A number of studies show that supplements containing a combination of enteric-coated peppermint oil and caraway oil may help reduce indigestion symptoms. This formula is thought to relax the stomach muscles, as well as help food pass through the stomach more quickly.

In a study published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2000, 96 people prone to indigestion were assigned to 28 days of treatment with either a placebo or a supplement containing a combination of enteric-coated peppermint oil and caraway oil.

At the end of the treatment period, those given enteric-coated peppermint oil and caraway oil showed a significantly greater improvement in several symptoms of indigestion (such as feelings of heaviness and fullness after eating).” [24]

 

The Ebers Papyrus also advises peppermint be mixed with flour, incense, wood of wa, waneb plant, a stag’s horn, sycamore seeds, mason’s plaster, seeds of zart and water to create a curative paste for headaches [25], buttressing later Anglo-Saxon and Greek prescriptions for headache and migraine pain relief. 

In the Hearst Papyrus, dated to approximately 2000BCE, peppermint is recommended as a treatment for an ailment -possibly rhinitis- where it’s applied directly to the nose. In prescription 171, peppermint is mixed with wine and is used to treat what might be edema of the legs. After the mint and wine mixture is consumed, some sort of bloodletting is required, though the physician doesn’t provide much in terms of specificity [26]. Mint is still used to treat edema today, though most modern references deal with topical creams for livestock – particularly cattle [27]

Jumping ahead a few millennia, we see much of what was written by Egyptian, Greek and early English physicians survived in Nicholas Culpeper’s famous work, the Complete Herbal, written in 1652CE. Unlike the Egyptian papyri, or Anglo-Saxon Leechdoms, Culpeper’s work provides us with fairly in-depth information pertaining to the appearance and growth habits of particular plants. 

Regarding calamint or mountain-mint, Culpeper claims it is a “herb of Mercury” and good for afflictions of the brain [28]. He also echoes earlier physicians, claiming the plant can be used to stimulate urination in patients – a usage which finds modern, scientific backing when we consider the diuretic properties of mint [29]. Culpeper’s remedy for parasitic worms – particularly worms of the ear- recalls the passage from Herbarium 92, where wine and mint are mixed together and poured into the affected ear. Here too we see mint being used to ward against snakes, which harkens back to Dioscorides’ entry on kalaminthe

In his next entry, Culpeper deals with spearmint, which he refers to alternatively as “heartmint”. Here, the plant is labelled a “herb of Venus,” which is followed by a direct reference to Dioscorides’ assertion that mint possesses healing, binding and drying qualities. In fact, much of this entry borrows directly from Dioscorides’ work, though there are some additions that seem to have been gleaned elsewhere. Treatments for a sore and itchy scalp, pain of the ears, venomous bites, headache, indigestion and wind are all covered, as well as prescriptions for bad breath and soreness of the gums and palate. Horse or wild mint are then touched upon, the benefits of which are listed thusly:

 

“The virtues of the Wild or Horse Mint, such as grow in ditches (whose description I purposely omitted, in regard they are well known) are serviceable to dissolve wind in the stomach, to help the cholic, and those that are short-winded, and are an especial remedy for those that have veneral dreams and pollutions in the night, being outwardly applied. The juice dropped into the ears eases the pains of them, and destroys the worms that breed therein. They are good against the venomous biting of serpents. The juice laid on warm, helps the king’s evil, or kernels in the throat. The decoction or distilled water helps a stinking breath, proceeding from corruption of the teeth, and snuffed up the nose, purges the head. Pliny saith, that eating of the leaves hath been found by experience to cure the leprosy, applying some of them to the face, and to help the scurf or dandriff of the head used with vinegar. They are extremely bad for wounded people; and they say a wounded man that eats Mint, his wound will never be cured, and that is a long day.” [30]

 

The final mint entry, outside of a fairly lengthy excerpt on pennyroyal, deals with “nep,” or catmint. This plant too is a “herb of Venus,” and seems to have been used primarily to treat barrenness, issues concerning menstruation and the pains associated with childbirth and pregnancy. Oddly, Culpeper claims “nep” can be burned and the smoke sat upon to alleviate the previously mentioned afflictions, though he also presents topical application and ingestion as alternatives. 

 

“Nep is generally used for women to procure their courses, being taken inwardly or outwardly, either alone, or with other convenient herbs in a decoction to bathe them, or sit over the hot fumes thereof; and by the frequent use thereof, it takes away barrenness, and the wind, and pains of the mother.” [31]

 

Much of this particular description matches earlier ones, where mint is employed for scabs of the scalp, dryness of the skin, trapped wind, cramps of the belly, as well as for use against piles and general bodily pain. 

Now that we’ve explored mint’s medicinal uses in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, Egyptian medical papyri and in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, we can clearly observe a continuum and commonality in application. Due to menthol’s innate analgesic qualities, mint can be employed for use against headaches, migraines and general pain and swelling. This also extends to use as a digestive aid, as mint has been shown to relax the muscles in the stomach, which allows food and wind to pass more easily. We have also seen mint being employed topically to treat dry, itchy skin, insect and animal bites and lessen the appearance of scars, bruises and scabs – particularly on the scalp and face. Due to its antimicrobial and antifungal properties, mint has been employed for millennia to treat fungal infections, such as ringworm and to treat parasites, such as roundworm. Mint is also a diuretic and as such, can be used to stimulate urination and possibly even treat against hypertension.

In conclusion, mints are incredibly versatile, delicious, exceedingly easy-to-grow plants that have been used for aeons both culinarily and medicinally. Just be aware that once you’ve planted them in your garden, they are prolific and have the potential to be invasive and muscle-out other, less-hardy plants.

 

“Se lǣca þe sceal sāre wunda wel, gehǣlan hē mōt habban gōde sealfe þǣrtō”
(the Leech who has to make a good cure of painful wounds, must have good salve for the purpose)

Sources


[1] http://www.plantsoftheworldonline.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:30016176-2
[2]Jiranan Bunsawat, Natalina E. Elliott, Kate L. Hertweck, Elizabeth Sproles and Lawrence A. Alice. Phylogenetics of Mentha (Lamiaceae): Evidence from Chloroplast DNA Sequences
[3] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mint#English
[4] http://www.palaeolexicon.com/
[5] Stephen Pollington. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Pp. 184-185
[6] Stephen Pollington. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Pp. 190-191
[7] https://www.healthline.com/health/migraine/peppermint-oil-for-migraines
[8]https://hemhealing.com/2013/02/adding-leeks-to-your-diet-can-prevent-hemorrhoidscid20130215heg1/
[9] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1876382015300305
[10] Stephen Pollington. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Pp. 228- 229
[11] Stephen Pollington. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Pp. 326- 327
[12] https://www.rewardme.in/beauty/skin-and-body/mint-face-packs-that-help-your-skin-in-summer
[13] https://theidleman.com/blogs/grooming/how-peppermint-oil-is-beneficial-to-your-skin
[14] Stephen Pollington. Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing. Pp. 338- 339
[15] https://www.verywellhealth.com/best-toenail-fungus-treatments-4174023
[16] https://www.naturesaid.ca/how-to-naturally-treat-and-minimize-scars/
[17]https://www.lifealth.com/lifestyle/beauty/mint-acne-reduce-acne-scars-mint-av/82632/
[18] Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston
[19] Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston. 3-41
[20] Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston. 3-42
[21] Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica. Translated and edited by Tess Anne Osbaldeston. 3-43
[22] https://www.pests.org/best-plants-that-naturally-repel-snakes/
[23] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/peppermint-tea
[24] https://www.verywellhealth.com/benefits-of-enteric-coated-peppermint-oil-88630
[25] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323633.php
[26]https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.63883/2015.63883.The-Old-Egyption-Medical-Papyri_djvu.txt
[27]http://www.thebullvine.com/news/genex-offers-udder-edema-lotion-and-spray-to-soothe-cows-udders/
[28] The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpeper
[29] https://www.livestrong.com/article/548146-is-peppermint-a-diuretic/
[30] http://www.bibliomania.com/2/1/66/113/frameset.html
[31] The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpeper

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