Their stories resonate through the centuries and connect you with your forebears, who were struggling then, at least as much as you now, to make sense of the world and to defend against sickness and old age.
"Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it."--Proverbs 15:17
In ancient Egypt, they were used as magic and as embalments. By the 1st century AD, Dioscorides had begun cataloguing them in De Materia Medica.
In medieval England, herbs were plentiful, thanks to Roman imports, and "wort" was their generic name--as in "mugwort." As the Dark Ages deepened, however, the delicate specimens brought by the Romans withered away in most gardens and were only preserved in a few monasteries, where they became overlayed with heavy Christian symbolism. How were these herbs put to use? Mugwort, elder, dandelion, and ivy were used by the monastic cellarer to flavor ale. Scholars used the dye plants for ink to illuminate manuscripts. Fraterers and the guest house master needed the sweet ones to counteract the fetid household smells--sprinkling them on floors, deodorizing clothes and carpets, burning them in fireplaces. In the refectory, pot herbs were used to disinfect and flavor rancid meat--an alarming thought--and to spice limited diets and aid in digestion. The almoner needed herbs as medicines for the sick and dying. And the chamberlain used them freely to repel insects and rodents. All in all, more use than most moderns ever thought about.
By the 15th century, the English couldn't live without thinking and writing about them. Witness the following tomes: The Feate of Gardening (1440) by Mayster John Gardener. A Newe Herball (1551) by Dr. William Turner, Dean of Wells and the Father of English Botany. In 1597, John Gerard, gardener to the Lord High Treasurer, published an herbal based on the work of Flemish botanist Remvert Dodeons. John Parkinson was prolific, publishing Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris in 1629 and An Universal and Complete Herbal in 1640. Nicholas Culpeper's The English Physician in 1652 pretty much cemented all the English knew about the medical uses of herbs.
Their names are legion--their uses heavenly--and universal. Reaching back to Biblical times, spices (or in Hebrew besamim) were among the ingredients of the incense used in the Temple in Jerusalem--and they were inhaled after meals, which is likely the basis of smelling spices at the end of the Jewish Sabbath--later interpreted as a fortification of the body after the departure of the "additional soul" enjoyed on the Sabbath. Thus spice boxes became part of Jewish ritual art. (In the Middle Ages, Jews played a part in the enormously lucrative spice trade between Asia and Europe and several Jewish Antwerp families founded rich firms at the beginning of the 16th century based on this trade.)
It was the gastronomic need for them that sent Romans from Arsinoe in Egypt around Arabia, dotting along the Persian coast, to reach Barbaricum, India, and its covetted pepper and spices. By the time Roman sailor Hippalus discovered a direct monsoon route from Aden to India in 45 AD, the Romans were well on their way to bankrupting their empire to acquire these luxury items.
It was also this lust for spices that sent Columbus to the New World in 1492--and Vasco da Gama around Africa to reach Calicut, India, in 1498.
Why such a fuss? Certainly to disguise the taste of bland and rotting food in those days before refrigeration. But, more, for their supposed medical properties, for their romance, and--so what else is new?--to stimulate sexual appetites.
As Carson Ritchie writes in Food in Civilization, "Thanks to the teachings of Arab medicine, Europeans now believed that spieces were a panacea, able to promote longevity and ward off infection. Plague doctors walked through the pest-riden streets of Europe holding to their noses a 'pomander,' or dried orange studded with cloves. After a hard day's battle, Charles the Bold of Burgundy would order enough bodies to be cleared from the battlefield to let him sit down and drink a cup of the hot spiced wine as a restorative. Spices could also increase virility--or so it was believed by the Arabs. During his travels in the East in 1500, Ludovico de Varthema, a Portuguese commercial spy, had been told that Arab women gave their lovers pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and spices as an aphrodisiac."
In any case, here's an inventory of the excess of spices found in the kitchen of 14th century Jeanne d'Evreux, widow of Charles the Fair of France: "3 bales of almonds, 6 pounds of pepper, 13 and 1/2 pounds of cinnamon, 23 and 1/2 pounds of ginger, 5 pounds of cardamom, 3 and 1/2 pounds of cloves, 1 and 1/2 pounds of saffron, 1/4 pound of long pepper, 3/8 pound of mace, 1/8 pound of powdered cinnamon, 5 pounds of cumin, and 20 pounds of sugar in 4 sugar loaves.
- Allspice (Pimenta dioica)
- Anise (Pimpinella anisum): the licorice-tasting seeds of a plant that originated in the area of Greece and the Mideast. See also Star anise
- Cardomom (Elettaria cardomomum)
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
- Cloves (Eugenia caryophyllata)
- Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
- Filé powder (crushed and dried sassafras leaves)
- Galangal (Alpinia galanga)
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
- Mace (Myristica fragrans)
- Mustard (Brassica nigra, Brassica alba, and Brassica juncea)
- Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
- Paprika (Capsicum annuum)
- Peppercorns (Piper nigrum)
- Saffron (Crocus sativus)
- Shichimi, a Japanese 7-spice mix that includes hot peppers, mustard, sansho (prickly ash berries), black sesame, poppy seeds, citrus peel, and (eek!) marijuana seeds (non active, however).
- Star anise (Illicum verum): the unripe fruit of a plant that grew first in the area of China and Southeast Asia
- Turmeric (Curcuma domestica; Curcuma longa)