Hildegard of Bingen wrote: to “purge a fever and bad conditions of filth” from a person, “harbaum twigs and leaves can be cooked in water, adding rue, and more sage than rue, and more fennel than sage. This should be strained through a cloth and drunk.”87 Research has shown that rue has no direct fever reducing properties. However, fennel is a favorable herb for bringing temperatures down.88
Wounds and open sores Rue was used for treating open sores, both infected and not. An ache for a “wound that is green or new” was to “take the flower of rue and the juice of smallage and the white of an egg, and apply it to the place.”89
For veins cut after a bloodletting, it was advised to “Seethe rue in water and anoint therewith the arm.”90
Rue was prescribed for aiding in stopping bleeding. A remedy for “them that spew blood. Take
smallage, rue, mint, and boil them well in goat’s milk, and drink it.” 91
To make a powder “for dead flesh and proud flesh in a wound, and for under-bruised nails, take
allea (garlic), two parts, and rue the third part. And wash these herbs, and afterwards stamp them well in a mortar; and put a good quantity of quicklime, and mingle together, and dry it well; And when they be dry, make powder of these. And when thou layest this powder on the sore, parting the evil flesh from the good, without any disease (discomfort).” 92
Many recipes for ointments existed during the 15th and 16th centuries. “A good salve for a wound. Take gelt’s grease, honey, oil of nuts; and put thereto oil of green buds of chess-apple with all the juice and the seed, and juice of rue and way-bread; and seethe well all the juices together, and make salve well thereof, and put it in boxes.”93 Another “ointment for wounds; take a handful of savin, and a handful of sage, and a handful of rue, (and) a handful of tansey. Stamp them well together, and boil them well in oil of olive; and take wax and fresh swine’s grease, and powder of mastic, and so make thine ointment thereof.”94
An ointment made from “the juice with Oil of Roses, ecruse, and a little vinegar, and anointed, cures St Anthony's fire, and all running sores in the head.”95
For the imposthume (pus filled absess)” take March radish, rue, wormwood, centuary, and savin and stamp them. (And take them) fasting before the hands be washed, and though shalt be whole.” 96 A fifteenth century Leechbook suggests mixing rue and sage in water for a fever or imposthumes.97 A recipe for a “wound that stinketh” was to “take the black mint and the juice of rue, and take of each equally much” applying it to the wound.” 98
The only reference located relating to modern day use of rue concerned a Cherokee remedy of a poultice used for gangrene.99
Gout A Leechbook cure for gout (a swelling of the joints due to a build up of crystals) was to mix grease from a badger, swine, hare, cat, dog, capon and sheep, along with suet of a deer, “and melt them in a pan; and take the juice of herb-robert, morel, bismalve, and comfrey, and daisy, and rue, plantain, and maidenhair, matfelon (knapweed), and dragance, of each equally much juice; and fry them in a pan with the aforesaid greases, and keep it well, for the best ointment for gouts this is.”100
Another remedy for gout was “take southernwood, wormwood and rue, of each a handful, and seethe them on an easy fire in a new dry pot of oil of olive, and a quart of good Malmsey or Tyre (a sweet wine) till the wine be wasted. And then strain it through a fair cloth, and anoint the sore therewith. And beware thou come not near the fire, but rather warm the ointment.”101
The same book also told of taking “a man’s urine and hold it in a vessel eight days or more till it be rotted; and then seethe it to its half measure, and filter it through a cloth; and after take as much of rue and as much of juice of red nettle, and put all together; and take a handful of cumin and a quantity of virgin wax, and a quantity of barrow’s grease, and seethe it well together, and wring it through a cloth; and after, take as much of rue, (and) anoint therewith the sore.”102
Hildegard of Bingen advised, for “one who has both soft flesh and a limb troubled by gout, from excessive drinking, should take parsley and four times as much rue, and fry this in a small dish with olive oil or…goat tallow. He should tie these warm herbs on the place where it hurts, and it will be better.”103
In South America, Rue is often used to make an ointment to relieve the pain of gout.104 Rue (with its anti-inflammatory properties) helps to aid in relieving the pain of gout. What about the other ingredients in many of the remedies listed above? Nettle aids in increasing the excretion of uric acid. 250 mg. of nettle taken orally is advised along with warm nettle baths. Comfrey and daisy are still used in Chinese medicine in compresses for the treatment of gout. 105 Cramping A remedy for cramp from the Leechbook was to “stamp rue and mix it with fresh butter, and keep it in a vessel nine days well covered; and then boil it and skim it well; and then put thereto, while is hot, powdered incense and stir it well; and make ointment to anoint therewith.”106
An herbal remedy made by a company called Herbal Treatments being used today for muscle cramps contains rue, black cobash, nettle, mugwort, celery, juniper and valerian.107
For lost speech, “Take rue and garlic, and stamp them together, and temper them with vinegar or with aysell, and strain them through a cloth, and put it in his mouth.”108
take pepper and pellitory of Spain and rue, of each an ounce; rocksalt, two drachms, and make a
powder.”109 This recipe was also given using two ounces of sage in place of rock salt.” 110
For the opposite problem, the Leechbook suggested for those who talk in their sleep, “take the
crops of rue and of vervain, of each equally much, and stamp them in a mortar, and temper them with
vinegar, and give the sick to drink last when he goeth to bed. And let him use this medicine nine days,
and within the tenth day, he shall be whole.”111
Not surprisingly, none of the herbs and compounds mentioned above have been proven to aid in any disorders related to lost speech.
To cure the dropsies (swelling due to water retention), Dawson’s Leechbook advised seething rue with figs for quite a while and having the patient drink the mixture. Another recipe from the same book was to “take rue, sage and as much as of both of them of watercress, and boil them in good white wine; and then clean and put it in a vessel well covered, and drink therefore first and last, and that will drive it (the disease) down.”112
Rue, being an inflammatory herb, would aid in reducing swelling and the diuretic properties of the herb work to rid the body of excess water.
A Leechbook recipe for hiccoughing was to “take sage, rue, cumin, and pepper, of each equally much, and seethe them together, and eat a spoonful of clarified honey at morn and eve.”113 Sage has been found to help alleviate hiccups, however rue has not.
“For him that cannot hold his water, take wood-sage, a handful of parsley, rue, and gromwell; stamp them with goat’s milk or wine.” 114 No information has come to light suggest that rue has any value in treating bladder problems.
General household –
Rue was also used for basic household uses due to the ability of the plant to repel insects. The strong, bitter taste and smell kept fleas and other insects that carried disease out of the home and other buildings. Rue was also used in cooking and is an ingredient in several cookbooks of the Middle Ages along with being an ingredient in several green dye recipes.
Fleas – Rue is mentioned in Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Points of good Husbandry” as a deterrent to fleas. "While wormwood hath seed, get a bundle or twain, to save against March, to make flea to refrain: Where chamber is sweept, and wormwood is strown, no flea, for his life, dare abide to be known. What savour is best, if physic be true, for places infected, than wormwood and rue?”115
A manuscript by Johannes Alcherius titled Experimenta De Coloribus (written in 1398 and edited in 1411) gives the following remedy for ridding the hair of vermin. "Ut lendines et pediculi cadant de capite.--Unge caput succo rute". Translated into English, this reads “To make maggots and lice fall from your head.--Annoint your head with juice of rue”116
Rue was thought to protect against plague, and people also rubbed their floors with fresh rue to repel fleas.117
Today, rural Europeans use rue to improve the health of livestock and to rid the animals of fleas.118 Rue juice and oil is used worldwide as an effective natural insect repellent. Occasionally, rue leaves are bruised and rubbed directly onto the skin to keep insects away. However, it should be used sparingly as it can cause skin irritation if used in large quantities. 119
Experiments were conducted in my house using 12 different medieval herbs as natural insect repellents. Rue was found to be a successful repellent, being one of the 10 herbs that fended off all of the insects present.
Plague – During the Great Plague of London in 1665, around 7,000 people died each week. In this plague, as in others that swept Europe, herbs were not only used in never-ending combinations and applications to cure the already infected but also to ward off disease. A red cross was painted on the doors of homes where a plague death had occurred, providing a warning to the wary and a signal to the unscrupulous of a prime place to loot or gather. Among the latter was a band of thieves, who, fortified by drafts of an herbal vinegar where rue was a primary ingredient now referred to as “The Four Thieves Vinegar”, stole from corpses. In the vinegar was 1-1/2 ounces each of rue, sage, mint, wormwood, and rosemary; 2 ounces of lavender flowers; 1/2 oz. of camphor; and 1/4 oz. each of cinnamon, cloves, garlic, and Calamus aromaticus.120
In order to combat the dangerous odors that people thought were the carrier of illness. Fumigants of rue and rosemary were used to rid the air of these odors and stop the spread of plague and other diseases. For example, rue was strewn about law courts in parts of Great Britain as a preventive against diseases carried by criminals. It was the custom for judges sitting at assizes to have sprigs of rosemary or rue placed on the bench to ward against the pestilential infection brought to court by the prisoners who had a good chance of having goal fever.121
Rue was one of the herbs carried in nosegays by the rich as protection from evil and the plague.122 The Leechbook advised taking “the juice of rue and anoint thy body therewith” to repel the pestilence.123
As a deterrent to the pestilence, “take dragance, tormentil, pimpernel, tansey, sprignel, betony, five leaved grass, burnet, scabious, reeds, fumitory, of each a handful; St. John’s wort, dittany, columbine, dog-fennel, watermint, aristolochia, longa, feverfew, rue, great cloves, matfelon (knapweed), centuary, rosemary, elecampagne, philipendula (dropwort), of each a handful; water-lily, plantain, liverwort, stitchwort, dandelion, morsus-ciaboli, milfoil, roses, borage, bugloss, endive, sowthistle, of each a handful. Then distill a water of all these herbs, or else keep the substance of all these herbs and dry them to powder, and when time is, use them with sugar as it please you.” 124
Despite their best efforts, people who tried herbs to ward off the plague still came down with the illness. Gerard’s Herbal recommended that “The leaves of Rue eaten with the kernels of Walnuts or figs stamped together and made into a masse or paste, is good against all evill aires, the pestilence or plague, resists poison and all venome.”125
The Leechbook listed “A medicine for the pestilence. Take five crops of rue if it be a man, and if it be a woman leave out rue, for rue is a restorative to a woman and wasting for a man.”126
Rue is a natural insecticide, which would aid in repelling the fleas that (as we know now) carried the plague. Rue would have aided in keeping the virus carrying insects away, which, in turn, would have lessened the chances of contracting the illness. However, once bitten by the fleas, rue would not have been a factor in patient recovery.
Gardens – Rue, being a natural insect repellent and pesticide, was grown in gardens to discourage pests.127
In the 9th century, (as mentioned earlier) the emperor Charlemagne sent a list to the royal stewards, instructing them to plant over 74 specific plants in the imperial gardens. Rue was on that list.
Rue is used as a natural pesticide today, planted among other bushes such as roses or raspberry plants to keep away insects and small animals. In some parts of the world, rue is used as an insect repellent for both humans and animals. Some evidence suggests it may act as a natural herbicide against some other undesirable plants, as well.128 Food Rue was in many recipes from the 15th and 16th centuries. Cookbooks such as the Forme of Cury (compiled in 1390 but still in use in the 15th and 16th centuries. See footnote #129), Liber cure Cocorum (1430) and an Andalusian cookbook (compiled in the 13th century but still in use 300 years later) all contained recipes that used rue. Rue is a strong tasting herb that gave a slightly bitter flavor to food. Both the leaves and the berries were used in cooking and they were thought to be an antidote to any poisons that might have been put into the food.129
Form of Cury contained a recipe for Erbolates. “Take parsel, myntes, sauerey, & sauge, tansy, veruayn, clarry, rewe, ditayn, fenel, southrenwode, hewe hem & grinde them smale, medle them up with Ayrenn. Do butter in a trape. & do the fars therto. & bake it & messe it forth.” 130
Another Form of Cury recipe for “Salat” told to “Take persel, sawge, grene garlec, chibolles, oynouns, leek, borage, myntes, porrettes, fennel, and toun cressis, rew, rosemarye, purslarye: laue and waische hem clene. Pike hem. Pluk hem small wi* *yn honde, and myng hem wel with rawe oile; lay on vyneger and salt, and serue it forth.
Translated into modern language, it read “Take parsley, sage, green garlic, chibols, onions, leek, borage, mints, scallions, fennel, town cress, rue, rosemary, purslane. Wash them clean and pick them from the stalks. Tear them up small with your hands, and mix them with raw oil. Add vinegar and salt, and serve forth.” 131
A recipe for Chekyns in Cawdel from Liber Cure Cocorum read “ In broth þou boyle þy chekyns gode; Take 3olkes of eyren, Syr, for þo rode, Alye hom up with brothe forsayde; Take powder gynger, abrayde, And sugur, and rew, and safron clere, And salt, and set hit over þo fyre; With owtyn boylyng messe hit forthe þenne; Þy chekyns hole take, I þe kenne, Of þay be brokyn, on dysshe hom lay, Helde hom þe sewe, as I þe say.”
A modern translation for Chickens in Caudle reads “In broth you boil your chickens good; Take yolks of eggs, Sir, for the Rood, Mix them up with broth aforesaid; Take ginger powder, pounded And sugar, and rue and saffron clear. And salt, and set it over the fire. Without boiling serve it forth then; Your whole chickens take, I teach you, If they are broken, on [a] dish them lay, Pour the broth [over] them, as I say [to] you.”132A recipe for a dish mentioned in an Andalusian cookbook translated read “Gives strength to the sick and those weakened by lengthy disease, and benefits those of a bilious disposition. Take meat of a plump calf shoulder, chest, neck, entrails and stomach and its fat and bone marrow, and put it in a new pot with a little salt, coriander, cumin, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, some onion, a little rue-leaf, celery leaves, and mint and citron and lemon leaves, and oil. Cover it with strong vinegar without water and cook until the meat softens and falls apart; then moisten with its fat a tharid of the of leavened bread, which shall have been made with fine white flour. This is said to be an excellent dish.”133A second recipe from the same cookbook was the Dish Sinâbi. It was written to “Take the meat of a plump sheep and cut it up small. Put it in a clean pot with salt, onion juice, pepper, coriander, a little rue-leaf, oil and a spoonful of strong vinegar; put it on a moderate fire and cook until it is done, then get a little grated heart of leavened white bread, and mix with two eggs and two spoonfuls of well-made prepared mustard. Cover the contents of the pot with it and put it on the hearthstone, leaving it until it thickens and the fat rises. It might be covered with blanched, pounded almonds, in place of breadcrumbs.134
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved rue oil for use as a flavoring agent. As a relative of the citrus fruits, rue oil has a flavor similar to the bitter oil in orange or lemon rinds. Fresh rue leaves are sometimes added to mixed salads, used in making pickles, or put into cooked dishes for a bitter taste. In Italy, rue is used to flavor grappa.135
Caution should be taken in ingesting rue as it does have serious side effects. While small amounts of rue can be helpful, large amounts can be fatal. Overdoses of rue can cause nightmares, sensitivity to light, delirium, depression, dizziness, fainting, spasms, tremors, stomach pain, vomiting, liver and kidney damage and even death. Most health professionals recommend ingesting no more than 15 to 30 grains or ½ dram.136
Dyes Common Rue, Syrian rue and wild rue were all used in dye recipes of the 15th and 16th centuries. The whole plant was used for dyeing including the roots and the seeds, depending on the recipe.137
The Plicthio del Arte de Tentori, written in Venice in 1548 lists rue as being both an olive dye (with alum mordant) and brown (with iron mordant).138 Rue was used in the Middle Ages to dye gray-green with alum mordant.139 Using pale green earth pigments as a substrate for fugitive dyes made from the juice of rue, parsley or columbine made brighter green colorants.140 The seeds can be used to dye yellow (with alum) or red (after oxidizing the extracted color).141
The Paduan Manuscript "De Colori in Generale" (Dated sometime between 1580 and the early 1600's) gives the following recipe for green dye.142
“Si vis coloratissimum et pulcherrimum viridem facere.--Accipe herbam rute, vel petroxellii, recentem, et ex ipsa trahe siccum, cum quo misce viride eris, et tere super lapide, postea pone in conchilla, et adde de forti aceto aliquantulum, quod sit coloratum cum croco; et etiam absque croco potest fieri, et distempera ut liquidum sicut ad scribendum, et operare de ipso.”
Tranlated into English, it reads: “If you wish to make a very deep and beautiful green, take the herb rue, or parsley, when fresh, and extract the juice from it, and with this juice mix verdigris, and grind it upon a stone. then put it into a shell, adding to it a little strong vinegar coloured with saffron, and it will do even without the saffron. make it liquid as if for writing, and use it.”143
Another recipe from the same manuscript was "Verde vivo si fa con biaca, verderame, o gialdo santo, overo suco di ruta"
Translated it reads "Bright green is made with white lead, verderame, or gialdo santo, or the juice of rue"144
Dye recipes containing rue are still used today with good results. Rue contains tannins which are widely used in dyeing fibers because of its ability to act as a mordant, making it possible for natural dyes to stay attached to natural fibers.145
Rue was used as an additive to holy water and priests used the branches to sprinkle the holy water. Due to this practice, rue earned the name “herb of grace or “herb o’grace”. Rue was used symbolically, because to rue means to be sorry, and the water of grace brings penitence with it.146 In Hamlet, Ophelia says “There's rue for you, and here's some for me! We may call it `herb of grace' o' Sundays.”147 I could find no evidence that rue is still involved in religious ceremonies in any of the major religions today.
Monks grew rue in the gardens of the monasteries because they believed it kept them safe.148
Because rue was associated with and was a symbol for sorrow and repentance, the phrase “You’ll rue the day” came from the custom of throwing rue in one’s enemies face to curse them. 149 Essentially, what the person throwing rue was insinuating is that the person rue was being thrown at would regret what they had done.
This phrase is still in use today and has the same connotation.
Rue was referred to in literature of the 15th and 16th centuries. Writers such as Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) and Drayton (1563 - 1631) mentioned rue in many of their now famous works.
Shakespeare refers to rue in Richard III:
"Here in this place
I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace;
Rue, even for ruth, shall shortly here be seen,
In the remembrance of a weeping queen." 150 Shakespeare mentions rue in the tragedy Hamlet (written 1600-01) and spoken by Ophelia:
that's for remembrance.
Pray you, love, remember.
And there's pansies, that's for thoughts.
There's fennel for you, and columbines.
There's rue for you, and here's some for me.
We may call it herb of grace o' Sundays.
Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.
There's a daisy. I would give you some violets,
but they withered all when my father died.
They say he made a good end.”151 The following is a quotation from Drayton:
“Then sprinkles she the juice of rue,
With nine drops of the midnight dew
From lunarie (moonwort) distilling.” 152
Emotional Significances Hildegard of Bingen prescribed rue for those with “melancholy humor”. She wrote, “A person who is melancholic will be better when he eats rue after a meal.”153
Hildegard of Bingen wrote that “When eaten rue checks the excessive passion in a person’s blood.”154
Rue is used today to for its calming and sedative abilities. It is used as a successful medicine in patients that become hysterical. The herb helps treats mental distress when the patient sucks on tiny pieces of leaves. Rue soaked in a bath is valuable as well for its calming effects.155
Rue was thought to help ward off witches, the plague, bad luck, spells, and werewolves and to give the wearer special powers. On the other hand, it had the contradictory reputation as being a plant that brings bad luck. 156
Hildegard of Bingen had some words about rue's powers to fight evil magic. "If someone, through magic or by evil words, is rendered insane, take the earth which is around the roots of the plum tree and warm it vigorously in the fire, until it burns a little bit. When it has burned a bit in the fire, place rue and a little less pennyroyal on it. Let the earth absorb their sap and odor. After the person has eaten, place this with the herbs, on his head, naked stomach, and naked sides, and tie it with a cloth. Put him to bed and cover him with clothing so that he might sweat a bit with that earth. Do this for three or five days, and he will be better. For when the ancient serpent hears magic and evil words, he takes them up and sets traps for the one for whom they were said, unless God stops them.”157
In England, bunches of Rue were hung up in windows, particularly those facing east. It was believed they would protect the household from the plague (infected air was believed to blow in from
It was believed that a person was to eat rue if tempted by lust.159
Rue was used in love rituals. A wreath would be made of Rue, Willow and Cranesbill. A maiden walked backwards towards a tree carrying the wreath and tossed it. The number of tosses it took for the wreath to land on a branch was the number of years she would remain single.160
Rue was worn for luck, as protection against witchcraft, and to render a werewolf powerless.161.
A person was to bathe in rue if they had a spell cast upon them. Rue was sometimes called witchbane because people carried bunch of the plant to keep off witches.162
Not only was rue helpful in repelling witches; it was also useful in seeing them, even when they're disguised as ordinary people. By virtue of a rue amulet around the neck, they were able to see into the heart of an evil person.163
Italians made amulets called "cimaruta" from tin or silver made to resemble the tops of rue. The tip of each branch was decorated with fertility symbols: phalli, horns, solar disks, crescent moons, fish, and keys. A cimaruta protected the wearer from the evil eye.164 Today, rue is used in some Hispanic cultures ritual spiritual cleansings and is worn in amulets to keep evil spirits away.165 On the other hand…….
It was believed that witches used the plant for its hallucinogenic properties166 and that if a child touched rue when it first went into the garden, he or she would have a sad life. Rue has been proven to have hallucinogenic properties, and inhaling rue powder in large amounts can be a dangerous practice.167
Conclusion – I found medieval medical remedies containing rue used for 19 different areas of healing. Of those 19 areas, 14 have documented use in modern day. Many of the varied uses today claim to have high measures of success.
The medieval person may not have known WHY plants such as rue worked to make their eyes feel better, ease a stomach-ache or dye linen but they knew it worked. In fact, populations have been using rue for over a thousand years before the middle ages. Pliny mentions the advantages of using rue as an abortifacient and he lived 2000 years ago
What impressed me the most were the varied areas of use that rue had (and now has) during the 15th and 16th centuries. Rue contains several very different chemicals that aid in different areas such as medicinal, pest repellent, cooking and dyeing. In a less physical sense, it had religious, literary, emotional and magical significance.
130 Pegge, recipe # XX.VIII.XII (although the original book was compiled in 1390, writings in the copy that I read has notations in it from the years 1521 to 1625 leading me to believe that the Forme of Cury was used in the 15th and 16th centuries.)