Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy
Andrew K. Yang
Linnaeus of eighteenth-century
medieval botanical texts come principally from Theophrastus, Pliny, Isidore,
Nicolaus of Damascus, and Dioscorides, followed to the point where they were
considered “sources of information preferable to the plants” themselves (Benson 524). Theophrastus,
a pupil of Aristotle, catalogued in his collective treatises the anatomical
differences between plants. He does
not, however, necessarily name all his entries (Geldhill
6). Pliny and
Inconsistencies in OE and ME texts
Because medieval scholars took Classical authors as both primary and authoritative resources, the inconsistencies of their texts inevitably translated into their material. An OE Herbarium, dating from around the end of the tenth century, takes its material from Pliny and other “Latin compilations which date from the fourth and fifth centuries” (OEH i). The variety of regions from which the sources took their information, however, results in unstable terminology (OEH lxxix). A single plant might have multiple names that sounded distinctively unalike, such as glofwyrt and hundestunge for lingua bubula (WTM 384). Conversely a single name might be used to refer to more than one plant, such as halswyrt for the Latin narcissus, sinfitus albus, or auris leporis (WTM 384). Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum, again a compilation including Pliny, similarly describes plants “indigenous to areas for which little reliable information then existed” (Actes 192). Wudulectric, for example, refers to a form of lettuce not distinctly English, but possibly imported (WTM 384). Such confusion, however, comes partly from Bartholomaeus’ aim to not create an organized taxonomy, but support the Bible as a source for botanical knowledge. The Harley Vocabulary, a trilingual text for plant names dating between 1230 and 1260, has several problems in its registry: plant names appear twice, Latin and vernacular names mix freely, foreign words are both borrowed and transliterated, and different spellings of words at times are indistinct from actual different words (MEM 137-38). Albertus Magnus, in De vegetabilibus of the late thirteenth century, finally describes plants as they fit in “a broad, philosophical sense” of the natural world, functioning on use, and their effects on the human spirit and body, as opposed to their nomenclature (AMS 356, 366). In all these works, information remains apocryphal because neither they nor their sources had ever been checked for even basic inconsistencies in naming and taxonomy.
Attempts to synthesize and understand OE and ME plant names, however, have met with some success in the field of linguistics. Researchers such as Hans Sauer, Julian Norri, and Maria D’Aronco have revealed, in some of the very texts mentioned above, several patterns highlighting important aspects of medieval everyday life in relation to their plants.
Etymologically, plants have either: native names, loan-words for names, combinations of both, or imitations of foreign words. These borrowed words were of Latin or (more frequently) French origin; in some cases, their occurrence in herbariums even predated their common use in ME (MEM 143). In OE, borrowings were mostly from Latin, either purely integrated or retaining their Latin aspect but having “OE inflexional endings” (A-S Eng 25). In both forms, more commonly used plants also tended to use simplex terms – terms that “cannot be broken down into smaller units,” such as ash (MEM 161). Complex terms, in contrast, generally had morphological units that compounded to a single meaning for the entire name (WTM 397).
Morphologically, then, plants often involved compounds of multiple sorts, including: noun/noun (garlic = gar “spear” + lec “leek”), genitive noun / noun (foxes gloue), adjective/noun (wilde popi), numeral/noun (seofonleafe), noun+ing / noun (smeringwyrt) and others (MEM 145-46, WTM 394). Such referents, based on “characteristics of the plant,” imply that medieval scholars indeed had more “direct knowledge of the plants” than previously thought (A-S Eng 31). Yet there also occurred “blocked morphemes,” which have no known etymology (-rofe of wudurofe), and “secondary motivation,” where words were reinterpreted and thus rewritten with more familiar elements (WTM 396). The tan of mistletan, notes Sauer, “originally meant ‘twig,’ but it was later associated with tan [as OE] toe,” to form mistletoe (WTM 396).
Finally, in semantics, researchers learned that some of these plants are compounded where one element describes the other, as in blakeberie for “a berry which is black” (MEM 149). Others are described by the animals that eat them, or animals they resemble, or saints they refer to (MEM 174). Other plants are named for their healing purposes, ie: blodwurt, which “stops blood” (MEM 151). Despite these varying characteristics, however, some plants still had multiple names, collectively using more than one of these morphological features. “Garlic,” for example, has listings in Hunt’s book on medieval plant names that range from simple garlec, to the geographical anglice garlek, to the religious seynt Mari gerleke (Hunt 17).
Linguistic studies, therefore, reveal how medieval culture valued its plants particularly for medicinal or everyday use. How familiar plants appeared influenced the degree to which their names were borrowed and mutated, and the degree to which their names revealed their physical characteristics or attributes. Although these trends far from resemble the clarity of modern-day catalogues in botany, they prove at least some empirical thought in medieval natural philosophy. They prove that the ancients, though uncritically revered by scholars, were not always uncritical authorities in light of everyday practice and speech.
and Suggestions for Further
Linguistic (examining the morphological and etymological aspects of plant names):
Bierbaumer, Peter. Der
botanische Wortschatz des Altenglischen 1-3. Grazer Beitrage zur englischen Philologie 1-3.
D’Aronco, Maria Amalia. “The botanical lexicon of the Old English
Herbarium.” From Anglo-Saxon
Earle, John. English Plant Names from
the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century.
Kitson, Peter. “Two Old English Plant-Names and Related Matters.” From English Studies. 69 (1988). 97-112.
Norri, Julian. “On the Origins of Plant Names in Fifteenth-Century
English.” From Middle English Miscellany (MEM): From vocabulary to linguistic
variation. Jack Fisiak, ed.
Sauer, Hans. “English Plant Names in the Thirteenth Century: The Trilingual
Harley Vocabulary.” From Middle English Miscellany (MEM):
From vocabulary to linguistic variation.
Jack Fisiak, ed.
Sauer, Hans. “Towards a Linguistic Description and Classification of the OE
Plant Names.” From Words, Texts and Manuscripts (WTM): Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture Presented
to Helmut Gneuss on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday. Michael Korhammer, ed.
Wallner, Bjorn. “Plant Names in the Middle English Guy de Chauliac.” Studia Neophilologica. 64:1 (1992). 35-44.
· A discussion of differences in plant terminology between two Middle English manuscript renditions of Guy de Chauliac's Chirurgia Magna (Great Surgery)
Botanical (emphasizing historical problems with taxonomy):
Benson, Lyman. Plant
Classification, 2nd ed.
Cockayne, Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of
Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest, vols.
Gledhill, D. The
Names of Plants, 2nd ed.
Griggs, Barbara. New Green Pharmacy: The Story of Western
Hunt, Tony. Plant
Names of Medieval
The Laud Herbal Glossary. J. Richard Stracke, ed.
Magnus, Albertus. The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of
the Virtues of Herbs, Stones, and Certain Beasts Also A Book of the Marvels of
the World. Michael R. Best and
Frank H. Brightman, eds.
The Old English Herbarium (OEH) and
Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Hubert
Jan de Vriend, ed.
Stannard, Jerry. “Albertus
Magnus and Medieval Herbalism.” Albertus Magnus and the Sciences:
Commemorative Essays, 1980 (AMS). James A. Weisheipl, ed.
Stannard, Jerry. “The Botany
“Identification of the Plants Described by Albertus Magnus, De
vegetabilibus, lib. VI.” From Res Publica Litterarum (RPL)
“Bartholomaeus Anglicus and Thirteenth Century Botanical
Nomenclature.” From Actes du XIIe Congrès international d’histoire des Sciences, Paris
(Actes) 8. (1968).