History, I am fond of saying nowadays, belongs to the past.
No, I don’t mean that history reveals the events of the past, which it does, of course. I mean that it seems to me that history … a knowledge of things past … has itself been consigned to the limbo of forgotten things, to have itself become part of the past. Politicians seem not to have learned anything from the mistakes of their predecessors; accountants seem to have learned little from their past errors; and society at large seems to have forgotten all our yesterdays.
It is a good thing, I believe, to look back from time to time, to review one’s own actions, to learn from one’s own mistakes and, hopefully, to benefit from the experience of others. This is what should drive progress. And right now I am looking back at a time when children played with plants, specifically with ribwort plantain … Plantago lanceolata to give it its botanical name … better known to past generations of children as fechters, kemp or soldiers. Fechters? Soldiers? Kemp – from the one-time Borders verb ‘kemp’, meaning ‘to fight’? Yes, fechters, soldiers and kemp, for children of yesteryear used to play a game in which the flowering heads of ribwort plantain were made to attack one another, each trying to decapitate the other until every member of one side had been beheaded, the tattered ‘survivors’ being declared the winners. Ah what simple pleasures children used to enjoy!
And what simple fun it was, despite the extreme violence which underlay this game. Children could enjoy this unassuming game almost anywhere north of the Border, for fechters can be found throughout most of Scotland, albeit the plants are seldom put to any use, recreational or otherwise, nowadays. But Plantago lanceolata had many useful attributes, according to our ancestors. Locally known as snakeweed, Englishman’s foot and simply ribwort … among many other common names in England … ribwort plantain is native to much of Europe and Asia. It enjoyed a wide variety of medicinal applications, being used to treat urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhoea; pounded into a pulp, the plant was used as a compress in the treatment of wounds, swellings and sores; this pulp was also added to a variety of ointments; and it was used as an infusion and drunk as a sort of tea to treat respiratory infections like bronchitis, asthma, and emphysema.
But hold! In the volume of Collins Nature Guides entitled ‘Herbs and Healing Plants’, I read: “Ribwort Plantain – Uses: To treat coughs, colds and bronchial inflammation. Fresh leaves expel catarrh.” And what tips does author Dieter Podlech offer? Surprise, surprise, he advises: “For coughs and colds. Infuse 1-2 tablespoonsful in boiling water for 15 minutes. Drink 2-3 cups daily. Also on poultices, mixed with chamomile tea to treat wounds, insect stings and itchy rashes.” This was originally written, in German, in 1987 and first published in English translation in 1996; so our ancestors’ homely belief in the virtues of Plantago lanceolata is still respected by a contemporary herbalist.
Would Herr Podlech endorse another of our Scots’ forefathers’ beliefs, however? In the Shetland Isles in times long gone, Plantago lanceolata enjoyed another common name and a different role. ‘Johnsmass floor’ was picked at midsummer by star-crossed lovers, each of whom would place the florets under a flat stone nearby. If the living plant produced fresh flowers before the plucked examples withered, this was a good omen for the couple’s future in marriage. It may seem odd that flowers used by children for a warlike game were also used by lovers to predict a harmonious future: but they were; and who am I to argue with history?