Lemon-Balm Oxymel

In my continuing quest to (not actually) deliver a perfect lemon to the vicereines of Østgarðr (see also, and also), I cast around for a reasonably-simple period-esque project and found the inspiration right at my doorstep, in the bounty of my sidewalk garden.

Lemon balm is a citrus-scented member of the mint family, which grows in profusion in the bevy of containers that are home to my tiny greenspace — in fact, it grows so aggressively that I need to cut it back frequently to keep it from crowding out the other showier plants, and it was while I was trimming it that I realized I could put it to a productive use.

I know that mint is frequently used as a flavoring in sekanjabin, a sweet-and-sour syrup widely consumed as a beverage within the SCA with Persian origins and with precedents found across much of the ancient and medieval world, and it seemed reasonable to me that lemon balm might be used in the same way. Indeed, since oxymel (as sekanjabin-style syrups are called in some cultures) is often considered medicinal, and lemon balm was considered a medicinal plant, the combination seemed natural. (Lemon balm’s soothing effects are not just a medieval fantasy, but have been confirmed by modern studies.)


I headed to my desk to do some online research, consulting a range of standard documents as well as prior work in this area by Aneleda Falconbridge, Giata Magdalena Alberti, Thomasina Coke, and Cariadoc of the Bow; I am grateful to each of these individuals for paving the way.

Although flavored oxymels are known to be period, and I was able to find modern recipes and preparations of lemon-balm oxymel, my casual investigation didn’t turn up any period recipes for exactly what I had in mind — indeed, even Master Cariadoc was unable to find a period recipe for the ubiquitous mint sekanjabin, relying instead on a thirteenth-century Andalusian source that includes only vinegar and sugar — but I decided to forge on undaunted.

(There is extensive documentation for a medieval lemon-balm beverage preparation in the form of Carmelite water, but that calls for wine as the carrier rather than a syrup, and the site at which I was to make this presentation had made clear that absolutely no alcohol was allowed in any form, so I filed this away as an idea for another time.)

For the base proportions of the oxymel, I followed the advice of Bald’s Leechbook, an Anglo-Saxon medical text written circa 1040 CE. Because the British Library’s digital edition of the surviving manuscript was knocked offline by a cyber attack more than six months ago, I relied on a Victorian reprint which provides a transcription and translation:

Take of vinegar, one part; of honey, well cleansed, two parts; of water, the fourth part; then seethe down to the third or fourth part of the liquid, and skim the foam and the refuse off continually, until the mixture be fully sodden.

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, by Thomas Oswald Cockayne, 1864, page 287.

With this information under my belt, I set to work.


I harvested a couple dozen stalks of lemon balm from my garden, clipping the stems above a remaining leaf node to allow the plant to regrow.

Then I prepared my oxymel base, using three cups of raw honey, one and a half cups of apple cider vinegar, and one and a half cups of water. I added these to a tinned pot and gently brought them to a low simmer to begin reducing.

After some time had passed and the syrup had begun reducing in volume, I removed the main stems from the lemon balm, washed the leaves in a few changes of fresh water, and roughly chopped them to encourage the release of their oils, then added them to the pot.

Lastly I added a few subsidiary flavor notes in the form of a small amount of lime zest and a pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg, and allowed the entire concoction to simmer for a just little while longer, stopping when it had reduced in volume by half.

After tasting a sample (diluted with ice) to ensure it hadn’t all gone horribly wrong, I allowed it to cool and then passed it through a sieve, pressing the sodden leaves to extract their remaining elixir. Finally I transferred it in a glass bottle and corked it; then, uncertain as to whether the cork would hold, I waxed the top of the bottle for a bit of extra protection, and requested a descriptive label from the nearest scribe — thanks Alienor!

Typically sekanjabin or oxymel is diluted by about 1:8 in water to drink as a refreshing beverage, although the exact proportions are flexible and folks are encouraged to adjust the ratio to their taste. It can also be drunk warm, or the syrup can be added to other recipes or cocktails anywhere you’d like a sweet, tangy burst of flavor.


I presented this bottle to the vicereines at the Lions Learn Lessons schola, and although they seemed well pleased with the gift, as required by the structure of the shtick they decided that this was not quite what they had in mind, and sent me out to try again.

Here is my script for the presentation:

For the curious, below are the sources for the period descriptions of lemon balm’s medicinal uses mentioned above; although these phrases are widely repeated in modern writing about the herb as if they were direct quotes from historical documents, it’s surprisingly difficult to trace them to actual period sources and they are almost certainly paraphrases by later secondary sources.

  • “Sweetens the spirit”: commonly credited to Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, 70 CE, although not present in this translation.
  • “Makes the heart merry and joyful”: commonly credited to Ibn Sina, Canon of Medicine, 1025 CE; found in John Gerard, The Herbal, or General History of Plants, 1597 CE.
  • “[Cures] all complaints [of] a disordered state of the nervous system”: commonly credited to Paracelsus, early 1500s; found in Sophia Emma Magdalene Grieve, Modern Herbal, 1931 CE.

Museum Visit: Elaborately-Covered Books

For our April museum visit we headed to the Grolier Club, an exclusive club for antiquarian book dealers and collectors, for their exhibition “Judging a Book by Its Cover,” which includes a number of impressively-bound fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century volumes as well as more-recent items.

It was interesting to be reminded of the historical separation between printing and binding, with many books being printed and sold without covers, which their owners then paid to have added by other specialists. There were also numerous examples on display of books which had been repeatedly rebound — for example, to replace attractive but less-durable cloth covers with harder-wearing leather panels, or to combine several small books by different authors into a single larger volume.

A French book published in 1548, with covers made in Geneva.
A French manuscript from the 12th century, rebound in England in the 1830s, using cover panels from France circa 1500.
A French book printed in 1642, custom-bound for its owner with his arms after 1668.

Before leaving, we stopped by their smaller exhibit on hieroglyphics, which also included a couple of very early printed books.

A 1594 reprint of a French book on hieroglyphics first published in 1556.

Museum Visit: Money and Morality

Our February museum visit was a trip to the Morgan Library for an exhibition on the intersection of money, merchants, and morality in medieval Europe.

It was interesting seeing evidence of the tension caused as the post-Roman and early-medieval way of life was disrupted by the reintroduction of coinage, long-distance trade, and a market economy that set the stage for the modern world.

Continue reading Museum Visit: Money and Morality

Museum Visit: Springtime Gardens

Our April museum outing was a return to the Met Cloisters to view the gardens in spring bloom. Our party of eight was mostly locals from Appleholm, joined by one of our friends from the other side of the city.

Although there were the usual array of art and artifacts on display, as well as a special exhibit of household furnishings, the highlight of the trip for me was the outdoor spaces of the gardens and surrounding cloisters. The combination of inside and outside space, both enclosed and open, provides a wonderful sense of in-betweenness that we rarely encounter in the modern city.

Continue reading Museum Visit: Springtime Gardens

Museum Visit: Bronze Age Balkans

Today we visited the “Ritual and Memory” exhibit at the
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

Although I’ve been summarizing the exhibit as focusing on the “Bronze Age Balkans,” the artifacts on display covered a wider range of time, from the Copper Age through the Iron Age, and of space, from the Balkan mountains to the Carpathian mountains. Continue reading Museum Visit: Bronze Age Balkans

Museum Visit: Pattern Books

Alienor and I ventured out today to see the “Threads of Power” exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, exploring the development and social significance of lace, including examples of needle and bobbin lace from the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, courtesy of Switzerland’s Textilmuseum St. Gallen.

Although the fabric examples were impressive, the thing that particularly caught my attention were a few fifteenth- and sixteenth-century examples of “pattern books” — printed collections of designs to be used as source material by people working with fiber and fabric. Continue reading Museum Visit: Pattern Books

Samhain in Østgarðr

For Halloween this year, I composed a bit of doggerel entitled “The Ghastly Province, or Samhain in Østgarðr,” which owes an obvious debt to Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Lady Zahra de Andaluzia did a lovely job of laying it out for inclusion in the Provincial newsletter, and Lady Kunigunde Wedemann was kind enough to contribute an original illustration which tied into the theme; I thank them both for making my silliness look presentable, and for allowing me to share the results here.