Healing and Ruling in Medieval England’s Wetlands

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This is the eighth post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren

Being neither water nor land, but the merging of the two, wetlands were interpreted as liminal spaces and physical borderlands in mediaeval Europe. As such, they were burdened with complex and at times conflicting political, social, and cultural meanings. Medieval scholars interpreted wetlands as potentially dangerous sites, inhabited by evil forces and deviant humans whose corruption and decay discharged ‘bad air’ (also called miasmas) that poisoned and infected living beings, while also considering that they could house saints, martyrs and mythical heroes. Amid these debates, wetlands remained part of everyday life, providing an abundance of food in the shape of flora and fauna to those who knew how to access their resources.  

In this blog post, we examine the changing and complex meanings of wetlands by focusing on the inhabited wetlands of Romeny Marsh in the southeast of England. Romney Marsh’s wetlands are uniquely well documented by archaeologists, geologists, and historians as well as being one of the biggest and earliest European areas reclaimed from the sea. Our post tracks the history of the marshes from the Early Middle Ages onwards, as they transitioned from sites of medicinal resources to parcels of land infused with sociopolitical power. 

By looking at the mediaeval manuscript known as the Cotton Vitellius, we can shed a light on how the Romney Marsh served as a site of medicinal resources. Cotton Vitellius, a 11th century manuscript, contains the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius and the Medicina De Quadrupedibus – both well-known early mediaeval works on the various poisonous and medicinal attributes of plants and animals. It is important to note that the manuscript itself would have only been accessible to scholars residing in monasteries, churches, and wealthy households. However, knowledge of the medicinal properties of local plants and animals, along with the ability to turn them into healing remedies, was part of the everyday lives of surgeons, barbers, priests, and other caregivers. In fact, medicinal knowledge – based on theories from ancient authors and written down in manuscripts like the Cotton Vitellius – was heavily influenced by local medicinal practices. Given that some scholars suggest that the production of the Cotton Vitellius was associated with the monasteries in Rochester or in Canterbury, both near Romney Marsh, it is likely that local knowledge about the various medicinal properties of plants growing in the Marsh was included into the manuscript. We can thus use the Cotton Vitellius to see how the inhabitants of the Romney Marsh perceived and used their environment for medicinal purposes. 

Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’ from the Cotton Vitellius. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

One plant that appears in a few of the manuscript’s medicinal remedies is Althea officinalis, or, as it is commonly known, the marsh mallow. The Cotton Vitellius states, for example, that for gout one should “take this wort [plant], pound it with old lard, lay it to the sore; by the third day it will heal it.” Marsh mallow, as the name suggests, grows primarily in wet, marshy environments. Also mentioned is the Mentha pulegium, known as the mosquito plant, which was believed to cure sores in the stomach, bladder, and heart in addition to relieve itching. Furthermore, the mosquito plant was used against tertian, a variation of the disease we now call malaria, which is marked by episodes of fever every third day – hence the name. The mosquito plant is often found in damp areas or in seasonally submerged pastures. Another medicinal plant is clofthing (Ranunculus sceleratus), which is produced in damp and watery places and helps against wounds, sores, swellings and warts.

The marsh mallow, the mosquito plant, the clofthing are only three examples of medicinal plants listed in the Cotton Vitelliu that grow in wet and damp environments, much like the Romney Marsh. Those living around the Marsh, seeking remedies and relief for their ailments, would have looked to and used the surrounding marshlands as a site of medicinal resource. 

However, it was Kings, through their divine rights, who had primary jurisdiction and control over wetlands and throughout the High Middle Ages. Monarchs like Aethelwulf of Kent (?-858) and Edmund I (920-946) awarded marshlands to ecclesiastical authorities and loyal landowners. Religious authorities asserted their influence over their newly acquired lands by establishing religious communities and building churches and monasteries. They legitimised these efforts by creating and reinforcing images and tales that depicted wetlands as barbaric, supernatural and uninhabitable marshes that needed to be converted. The foundation story of the Crowland Abbey in the Fens of Eastern England, for example, recounts the life of saint Guthlac (674-714). 

Living on the island of Crowland surrounded by marshes, Guthlac withstood the ferocious demons who “carried him through the wildest parts of the fen, and dragged him through the dense thickets of brambles, tearing his limbs and all his body.” After his death, the cult of Guthlac led to the establishment of Crowland Abbey in 971, which expanded religious influence over the region. The story of Guthlac’s trial and subsequent victory over the supernatural forces of the swamp demonstrates how religious authorities displayed wetlands and used these images to ‘integrate’ these areas into Christian communities and landscapes. 

Fairfield Church in Romney Marsh. Photo courtesy of Stephen Nunney.

For elite landowners, prestige and displays of power played an important role in their efforts to cultivate wetlands. By draining these areas, they were able to free up new land, which they could subsequently rent out to subjects and farmers, increasing their wealth, dominance and power. Furthermore, by infringing upon wetlands and thus ‘creating’ new fertile lands worldly leaders demonstrated their ability to control the environment, which translated into more status and authority. In this way, wetlands were an important political tool for those who claimed to rule them.

Local communities were also active in draining projects. Around the High Middle Ages, the people living around the Romney Marsh were mostly fishermen. Many worked at the port of New Romney, ​an important coastal town and one of England’s Cinque Ports. These ports held great economic and geographic significance within the English Channel. During the 11th and 12th centuries, the population around the Marsh increased. The scarcity of available land to meet the increased food demands pushed people – often those with fewer economic means – to seek opportunities elsewhere. The prospect of economic gain and improved social standing encouraged migration into the Romney Marsh, where people drained the land, built homes and developed new societies. It was in fact this group that was the most active in draining projects. They accomplished this independently, but more often under the employment of landlords or ecclesiastical authorities.

Wetlands house a great variety of animal and plant species, and draining infringes on their delicate ecosystems. As kings, clerical authorities, and the Marsh’s inhabitants to drain the wetlands, flora was cleared, fauna was displaced, and new watercourses redesigned the landscape. Furthermore, built elements such as dykes that prevented flooding diminished the inflow of fertile soil which in turn limited the possibility for various plants and animals to grow and live. Plants used for medicinal purposes, such as the marsh mallow, the mosquito plant and the clofthing, that thrived in wet, damp, and moist environments – although maybe still available for the persistent user looking for them near creeks or little puddles – would have largely disappeared from the landscape.

Postcard map of Romney Marsh and surrounding district, drawn by M F Peck. Photo courtesy of Alwyn Ladell.


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Feature Image: St Clements and Romney Marsh Sheep, photo by Brian Fuller.
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Claudia Moreira Calzadilla and Nina Witteman

Claudia Moreira Calzadilla and Nina Witteman are both enrolled in the Europe 1000 – 1800 master’s program at the University of Leiden. Nina, with a focus on cultural and social history, explored the taboo on cannibalism in the late medieval Low Countries in her bachelor's thesis. She now delves into the medieval cultural perception of insects and vermin. Claudia completed her history bachelor's with a paper on socio-politically active British elite women and their influence, patronage, and writing in the eighteenth century. Both are currently part of the Research Traineeship Program 'Draining the Swamp: Wetlands, Insects, and Landscape Transformation in Europe, 1300-1600,' under the guidance of Dr. Claire Weeda and Dr. Johannes Müller.

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