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In Praise of Sage

By Emma Laws, Cathedral Librarian

Sage is delicious with butternut squash and goes well with pork and chicken. You may even have tried sage leaves lightly fried in batter. But is sage good for us?

Ancient Greek and Roman physicians considered sage a ‘sacred herb’ and were convinced of its power to enhance memory and brain function as well as to treat wounds, ulcers, headaches, sore throats and various diseases of the stomach, liver and gall bladder.  The ancient Egyptians used it as a remedy for infertility. In the 17th century, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) remarked on its use for soothing sore throats and painful joints while John Gerard (c.1545-1612), the great English herbalist, described it as “good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory”.

John Hill (1714?-1775), an apothecary and keen amateur botanist, decided to put this ancient knowledge to the test using sage grown in his garden in Bayswater. He published his findings in The virtues of sage, in lengthening human life (1763) and concluded that sage can “preserve the faculties and memory… and make the lamp of life, so long as nature lets it burn, burn brightly”. 

Hill is believed to have been born in Peterborough and he recalls a story from the cathedral of his home city as evidence of the power of sage in prolonging life:

“In the cathedral church of Peterborough, on the left-hand as one enters the great isle [sic], is a picture and monumental inscription of a man who once was sexton of the place… who… was considered by more than one generation, as a living miracle. There is a great reason to attribute this also to Sage: for I remember to have seen at that place… a spot of ground near the church-yard, where there was at that time left against an old south-wall of stone, the remainder of a broad oak bench;… on this ‘tis said he slept away almost the whole day, during the latter years of his life. By it there were then, and perhaps are still, some antient tufts of sage… which… he used, I imagine, to make his drink.”

I can’t say I find this story especially convincing but for centuries people have infused sage in their tea, added it to cheese or eaten it with bread and butter. Today, sage is still thought to improve memory and brain function and to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Whatever the “mighty praises that have been written of sage”, perhaps the “cheerfulness and ease” that Hill detected in those that consumed it was really just the result of a well-cooked delicious meal shared with good company.