During the Middle Ages, the town of Scarborough in Yorkshire, England, featured an annual fair that attracted merchants from all over the country as well as the continent. An array of fabrics, dyes, skins, pots and foods vied for customers’ attention.
And then there were the herbs. There would have been a large assortment, but surely parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme would have been among them. After all, Simon and Garfunkel told us so, in the lyrics of Scarborough Fair, the memorable ballad featured on the soundtrack of the movie The Graduate:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.
While Simon and Garfunkel catapulted the song to fame, various versions of the melody and lyrics can be traced to the 17th century.
Some historians claim that these specific herbs were mentioned both because of their medicinal properties and the mystical belief at the time that herbs had the ability to influence emotions. Parsley, for example, was thought to remove bitter feelings in the same way it eliminated bad odours. Chewing fresh parsley was a long-standing antidote to bad breath. The botanical name of sage, Salvia officinalis, derives from the Latin “salvere,” meaning “to be saved” and pays homage to the Roman belief that the herb was a key to longevity. In the Middle Ages, sage was one of the components of a concoction known as Four Thieves Vinegar, which claimed to offer protection against the plague. It didn’t.
Rosemary was also part of that potion, but historically the herb is better known for its supposed memory-enhancing effect. In ancient Greece, so the story goes, students would hang rosemary around their neck to improve memory and concentration. That might have worked, had they also prepared for their exams while sniffing rosemary. Modern studies have shown that recall is improved when subjects are exposed to the same smell during a test as during the learning process. The strong, lingering scent of rosemary may well have been responsible for its inclusion in medieval wedding bouquets as a symbol reminding lovers of their vows. Thyme also has a long-lasting and pleasing scent, which was thought to ward off melancholy. The ancient Greeks placed some in their baths.
There was also a more practical reason for sale of these herbs. Microbial contamination of food was a scourge at the time, and many herbs and spices are known to contain compounds with antimicrobial activity. Thyme oil, for example, is being explored today for its antibacterial effect, particularly against Listeria monocytogenes. On top of being effective against bacteria, thyme oil can be labelled as a “natural preservative,” a strong selling point. Thymol, the major active ingredient, also has potent antioxidant properties and can prevent fat from becoming rancid. Rosemary extract also contains the antioxidants carnosic acid and carnosol, and has been approved for use in meats, baked goods, oils and fish-oil supplements. Curry might well have developed as a popular flavouring because of the antibacterial effects of turmeric, coriander and nutmeg.
Vendors at Scarborough Fair would surely have been hawking more than just parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. There would have been mugwort to ease labour pains, burdock and savory to help pass flatulence, cottonweed for headaches — and in the words of Nicholas Culpeper, the prime authority on herbalism at the time, foxglove to “purge the body both upwards and downward of tough phlegm and clammy humours and to open obstructions of the liver and the spleen.” Culpeper was a botanist, herbalist physician and astrologer who forged a system of treatments that mixed reasonable use of herbs with nonsensical “medical astrology.”
There was also belief in the Doctrine of Signatures, which maintained that nature had provided humans with clues about the treatment of disease. Plants or herbs that resembled parts of the human body were to be used to treat ailments of that part of the body. Lungwort, for example, would help with disorders of the lung, bloodroot with diseases of the blood and beans with kidney problems. Indeed, the history of herbal medicine is characterized by a curious blend of science and nonsense — not so different from today. Just consider oil of oregano with its claims to treat sore throats, lice, colds, acne, infections, parasites, yeasts, diabetes, allergies or whatever else one fancies.
No less an authority than Dr. Oz devoted a segment of his show to explaining how carvacrol, the “super ingredient” in oil of oregano, destroys nasty bacteria and boosts the immune system. There was even a neat demo, in which a vile-looking model of a bacterium was encased in what looked like a glass bubble. Dr. Oz attacked the bubble, which played the role of the bacteria’s protective layer, with a kitchen knife. The attack wasn’t exactly a challenge to the famed Psycho scene and was not successful. Then Mrs. Oz stepped in with a kettle of hot water, which played the role carvacrol, and poured it over the bubble. It immediately cracked and her knife-wielding hubby now easily burst through and punctured the bacterium, deflating it like a balloon. A really neat demo. I think they must have cooled the glass first to make it crack so easily. They get points for that one. Of course, the point is way over-hyped. There is some cursory laboratory evidence of oil of oregano having an antibacterial effect. When bacteria are bathed in the oil, they perish. Mind you, they also perish if bathed in a salt solution, alcohol, lemon juice or a variety of soft drinks. It isn’t hard to kill bacteria in a petri dish. But the body is not a large petri dish.
There is no evidence that a dose of oil of oregano is absorbed into the bloodstream to an extent where it may have an antibacterial effect. What about its claimed “immune-boosting” property? Here the evidence comes from nursing pigs. If they are given oil of oregano, they produce somewhat more white blood cells in their milk. Hardly something to oink about. What we have here are a few studies that suggest an effect in the lab or in animals which is then over-interpreted by marketers. Perhaps just like the over-interpretation of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Maybe those particular words just had the right cadence and rhyme to fit the song.