Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy


Andrew K. Yang


Copyright 2005




Before Carolus Linnaeus of eighteenth-century Sweden, botanical classification, especially throughout the Middle Ages, suffered from apocryphal sources and inconsistent terminology.  Different texts mixed names and plants, borrowing from different languages to form an excessive range of unrelated synonyms.  Most confusingly, however, they would source uncritically from Classical texts; Medieval scribes not only translated some of the ancients’ own errors, but in some cases even aggravated them.  As a result, the best methods for understanding the nature of plant names in Old and Middle English comes not from taxonomical research, but linguistic research.  Several key figures in recent years have managed to isolate etymological, semantic, and morphological trends in multiple catalogues and descriptions of plants.



Classical sources


Sources for 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 Damascus, in Naturalis Historia and Liber de plantis, respectively, borrow heavily from Aristotle and Theophrastus without much critical addition themselves (Benson 524).  Pliny’s work attempts only to amass and synthesize the work of all the authors known before him, resulting in “a very heterogeneous mixture of fact and fiction” (OEH i).  Damascus borrows so heavily from “Aristotelian writings no longer extant,” his Liber de plantis itself was only until recently attributed to Aristotle (RPL 281).  All these writers, while credited for the vast amounts of information they recorded, nevertheless did so with little innovation, little accuracy, and therefore little practical use to readers.  Scholars today still find them difficult to interpret.



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.



Linguistic trends


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.

Bibliography and Suggestions for Further Reading



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.  Bern / Frankfurt: 1975-79.


D’Aronco, Maria Amalia.  “The botanical lexicon of the Old English Herbarium.”  From Anglo-Saxon England (A-S Eng).  17 (1988).  15-33.

  • A detailed attempt through etymological and semantic analysis to argue the partial originality of medieval botany.


Earle, John.  English Plant Names from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century.  Oxford: Clarendon.  1880.

  • Includes several excerpts of herbals from several centuries; the introduction covers half the book and discusses the etymology of plant names from several approaches.


Kitson, Peter.  “Two Old English Plant-Names and Related Matters.”  From English Studies.  69 (1988).  97-112.

  • Contains a very detailed analysis of a medieval gloss in a Latin text, arguing that gloss’ identity as an OE plant name.


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.  Poznan: Motivex.  1996.  159-181.

  • Like Sauer, describes several plant names surveyed from four late ME remedy-books


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.  Poznan: Motivex.  1996.  135-58.

  • An excellent analysis of etymological, morphological, and semantic methods of categorization in the Harley Vocabulary.


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.  Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.  1992.


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.  Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company.  1979. 


Cockayne, Oswald.  Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest, vols. 1-3.  Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press.  1864-66.

  • Contains reprints from the Herbarium and other primary texts.


Gledhill, D.  The Names of Plants, 2nd ed.  Cambridge: 1989.


Griggs, Barbara.  New Green Pharmacy: The Story of Western Herbal Medicine.  London: Vermillion.  1997.

  • The second chapter, “Medicine in Transition,” provides some historical accounts of herbals and their usages.


Hunt, Tony.  Plant Names of Medieval England.  Cambridge: 1989.

  • An important work revealing the large number of synonyms for plants, organized by their modern-day binomial nomenclature; also admitting quite openly where such classification remains speculative.


The Laud Herbal Glossary.  J. Richard Stracke, ed.  Amsterdam: Rodopi N.V.  1974.

  • A primary text reprinting a trilingual document from twelfth-century England.


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.  Oxford: 1973.


The Old English Herbarium (OEH) and Medicina de Quadrupedibus.  Hubert Jan de Vriend, ed.  Toronto: Oxford.  1984.


Stannard, Jerry.  “Albertus Magnus and Medieval Herbalism.”  Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, 1980 (AMS).  James A. Weisheipl, ed.  Toronto: 1980.


Stannard, Jerry.  “The Botany of St. Albert the Great.”  Albertus Magnus, Doctor Universalis, 1280 / 1980.  Gerbert Meyer, ed.  Mainz: 1980.


Stannard, Jerry.  “Identification of the Plants Described by Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus, lib. VI.”  From Res Publica Litterarum (RPL) 2.  Lawrence, KS: 1979.


Stannard, Jerry.  “Bartholomaeus Anglicus and Thirteenth Century Botanical Nomenclature.”  From Actes du XIIe Congrès international d’histoire des Sciences, Paris (Actes) 8.  (1968).  Paris: 1971.

  • The four articles mentioned above are now included in a compilation of Stannard’s: Pristina Medicamenta: Ancient and Medieval Medical Botany.  Brookfield SA: Ashgate.  1999.  These articles themselves provide useful information on Albertus Magnus and medieval botanical taxonomy overall.