Ale making in medieval and Renaissance England depended upon a number of herbal flavorings, especially before hops became the predominant taste. While doing a bit of research for another project, I came upon many mentions of Costmary, hence today’s post.
An aleing herb (and a medicinal one, too), Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita, also Chrysanthemum balsamita), a cousin to Tansy, appears in the literature in the 16th century, mentioned in Green’s Universal Herbal (1532). Markham in The Countrie Farmer (1616) refers specifically to Costmary’s use in ale making. (Gerard  and Culpepper  wrote of an herb called maudlin (Magdalene), which might have been similar to Costmary.) (See below for more comments on literary mentions.)
“Costmary” comes from a Latin word, costus (which refers to an Oriental plant, as Costmary wound up in Europe from Asia). During the Middle Ages, people associated Costmary associated with the Virgin Mary. The French name for the plant, Herbe Sainte-Marie, reflects this practice. Other names include Alecost, Balsamita, Balsam Herb, Bible Leaf, Costmarie, Mace, and Balsamita.
The flavor of costmary resembles that of mint and lemon. The Wassail bowl often contained Costmary.
Several nineteenth-century works mention Costmary, and in very interesting contexts.
According to Anglo-Saxon Leechcraft : an historical sketch of early English medicine : lecture memoranda, American Medical Association, Atlantic City, 1912 , Costmary also helped people suffering from mental disorders. Note that the herb was added to ale for effectiveness:
For a lunatic ; costmary, goutweed, lupin, betony, attorlothe, cropleek. field gentian, hove, fennel ; let masses be sung over, let it be wrought of foreign ale and of holy water ; let him drink this thick for nine mornings, at every one fresh, and no other liquid that is thick and still, and let him give alms, and earnestly pray God for his mercies.
And in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men [no women???] General Readers, etc. (fifth series, volume 12, July – December 1870, London), John K. Jackson of the Museum, Kew, said this of Costmary, giving references at the end of his explanation:
” HALE-COAST ” OR ” HALE-CAUST ” (5 th S. xi. 468.) The herb is alecost, or, as written by Cotgrave, alecoast. It was also called costmary, balsamine, or balsam herb (Balsamita vulgaris). In French it was known as costamer, cost, coq, sauge romaine (Cotgrave). Alecost occurs in all the old herbals. Its medicinal virtues may be read in extenso in Culpepper’s English Physitian Enlarged, ed. 1671, p. 75. Culpepper speaks there of alecost as a very frequent and familiar herb in the gardens of his time, and he continues, ” It is an especial friend and help to evil, weak, and cold livers.” As to the etymology, the second element may be connected with costus, an Eastern shrub of noted aromatic properties, with which it somehow came to be confounded, though, of course, widely distinct, the balsam of which shrub Horace mentions in a familiar quotation from his Odes as Achceminium costum. The Oriental spice root was known in England in 1440, for we find in the Promptorium, ” Cooste, herbe : Costus, cujus radix dicitur costum,” on which Mr. Way notes that “of the various virtues of coste, which is the root of an Indian plant, the early writers on drugs give long details.” As to the ale portion of alecost, Skinner says, ” quia forte cerevisise immissa gratum ipsi saorem odoremque conciliat, et est sane jucundissimi odoris planta.” And so in Johnson’s edition of Gerard, bk. ii. ch. ccviii. (cited by Nares), ” Costmarie is put into ale to steep, as also into barrels and stands, amongst those herbs wherewith they do make sage ale.”
© 2009 C. Bertelsen