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  • Adrian J. Boas

On How Knights got a Good Night's Sleep


Artemisia Arborescens at Montfort, photograph by Natv Dudai

A large variety of herbs grow around Montfort Castle. After a day working in the undergrowth one's hands retain the smell of sage, rue and bay for many hours. On the slopes of Nahal Kziv below the castle, and in greater mass upstream to the east, the herb Artemisia (in Arabic Shibah or Shajarat Maryam, Miriam's Tree شجرة مريم ) grows in abundance. The grey foliage of Artemisia gives a distinctive appearance to one of the hills to the east of the castle, and has given it its name - Shaqif Abu Shiban (Mountain of the Father of Shibah). Known in English as Tree Wormwood, it is cousin to the more agreeably named Old Man, Lad's-Love or Southernwood. This "hoar-green feathery" garden herb was made famous in a poem by Edward Thomas - I cannot like the scent,/Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,/With no meaning, than this bitter one.


The variety of this herb found at Montfort is Artemisia arborescens. A more famous, perhaps notorious relative is Artemisia absinthium (Grand Wormwood), used in the distilling of Absinthe, the pale green, highly alcoholic beverage that was so popular among the bohemian population of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Paris, and subject of the painting L'Absinthe by Edgar Degas. Absinthe became somewhat exaggeratedly regarded as a dangerously addictive, psychoactive drug and hallucinogen, though it was probably the high alcohol content - 55-75%, rather than the trace amounts of the chemical compound thujone in the Artemisia, that was behind some of the positive (and less-positive) directions modern art has taken. In recent years, Absinthe has made something of a comeback.


Some botanists have suggested that this variety of Artemisia is not a native component of the Mediterranean maquis (woodlands consisting mainly of oak, bay, mastic, arbutus and various herbs) but rather, appears to have been introduced to the Holy Land from its native regions, mainly in the western Mediterranean.* The name "Crusaders' Herb" given to Southernwood in Europe may suggest how it arrived in the Levant, brought here by crusaders as a medicinal herb in order to prevent plague and as a cure for insomnia and snakebite. In support of such a possible origin is the fact that it appears to be prevalent around or near Frankish castles, including Montfort and Château Pèlerin ('Atlit). If this is the case, the two centuries of Frankish rule may have left something other than mere stones and memories. Here perhaps, is a more substantial claim than the old one of the blond haired and blue eyed children in local rural populations, for an actual living residue of the Franks, surviving today in the Middle Eastern countryside.




* For a recent study of this herb see Nativ Dudai and Zohar Amar, "Tree Wormwood (Artemisia arborescens) at Montfort Castle", in Adrian J. Boas and Rabei G. Khamisy (eds.) Montfort. History, Early Research and Recent Studies (Brill), 2017, pp. 258-65.

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