By Colleen Kennedy
The violet (Viola odorata) is cited in several herbals and many recipe books as a particularly sweet scented, fragrant flower. Herbals, such as Culpeper’s, describe the violet as a “cold and moist” plant, with many medicinal qualities. It is used as a laxative, and as a treatment of syphilis and uterine complaints; it counterbalances choleric humors, is good for many lung ailments, eases headaches and sleeplessness, and is a general panacea.
Violets are also commonly used in recipes, either as “cakes of violet,” “candied violets,” “conserve of violets,” or “syrup of violets,” as flavoring for metheglins (meads), and to add aromatic qualities to vinegars and other recipes:
To Make Syrup of Flowers:
Take of Violet flowers fresh and pickt, a pound, clear water boiling one quart, shut them up close together in a new glazed pot a whole day, then press them hard out, and in two pound of the Liquor, dissolve four pound and three ounces of white Sugar, take away the scum, and so make it into a Syrup without boiling. (Woolley 6)
Any of Hannah Woolley’s recipe books are a good place to begin to study early modern recipes utilizing violet flowers. Violet’s pleasant odor is also the source of its medicinal powers and cause for its common domestic usage.
So, what does the violet smell like? English, alas, lacks a smell-vocabulary, and violet is repeatedly only listed as “sweet” or “fragrant.” Avery Gilbert considers the two distinct “voices” available to modern perfume makers: “Ingredient Voice” (the actual list of and proportions of ingredients) and “Imagery Voice” (“atmospherics, the drama of seduction, passion, and mystery”) (15). It is in that latter voice that we move closer to the more detailed early modern accounts of the aroma of violet.
For example, modern perfume blogger Normand Cardella, in his review of Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris, muses on the smell of violet: “So… what does a violet note smell like? Well… it’s powdery, a little sweet and decidedly sad. Musically, a violet note in perfume would be a minor chord.”
Likewise, for early modern writers, the violet is also a sad and musical aroma. Francis Bacon, in his essay “Of Gardens” (1625), links pleasurable odors and sounds (and much earlier than our modern perfumers): “And because the breath of flowers is far sweeter in the air (where it comes and goes like the warbling of music) than in the hand, therefore nothing is more fit for that delight than to know what be the flowers and plants that do best perfume the air”. Violet is his favorite perfumed flower: “that which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet”.
The violet’s “imagery voice” is most fully articulated in Duke Orsino’s opening lines of Twelfth Night:
“If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall.
O, it came so o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more.
‘Tis not so sweet as it was before.” (1.1.1-8)
Much of the language here that applies to music or love is equally applicable to the sensation of smelling violets, especially violet’s unique chemical compound and its effect on the sense of smell. As Diane Ackerman describes: “Violets contain ionine, which short-circuits our sense of smell. The flower continues to exude its fragrance, but we lose the ability to smell it. Wait a minute or two, and its smell will blare again. Then it will fade again, and so on.”
The discovery of its isomer ketones did not occur until the late nineteenth century, yet, its affects were all very real experiences for early modern writers, such as Shakespeare, who attempt to distil and capture the essence of violet in distinctly beautiful terms, with the violet “stealing and giving odours.”
The “dying fall” of Orsino’s sad tune is like the melancholy aspects of the violet, evoking impermanence, transience, and death. Even Orsino’s command to stop the music can also describe the anesthetic properties of ionine. As Orsino complains though, the scent, the song, the sensations, and so on is “not so sweet as it was before.”
Orsino’s very mind, in its melancholic state, is affected by sweet airs—whether sad songs or fragrant violets. As the early modern brain was believed to be acutely affected by odors, and the violet emits a particularly sweet and sad aroma, the botanist and herbalist John Gerard’s regard for the violet’s olfactive and affective properties should not be surprising:
[Violets] haue a great prerogative aboue others, not onely because the minde conceiveth a certaine pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous flours, but also for that very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace …And the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest: for they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely and honest… do bring to a liberall and gentle manly minde, the remembrance of honestie, comelinesse, and all kindes of vertues. (Chapter 312: “Of Violets” 849-850)
Gerard nicely summarizes the memorable, virtuous, affective, symbolic, and olfactive properties of the violet that we have been sniffing out in this brief essay.
References (in order of appearance)
Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009).
Hannah Woolley, The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery containing I. the art of preserving and candying fruits & flowers (London: Printed for B. Harris, and are to be sold at his shop, 1675).
Rebecca Laroche, with Steven Turner, “Robert Boyle, Hannah Woolley, and Syrup of Violets”, Notes and Queries 58 (2011): 390-91.
Avery Gilbert, What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008).
The Norton Shakespeare Based on The Oxford Edition, second edition, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Maus (New York, 2008).
Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
Rebecca Laroche, “Ophelia’s Plants and the Death of Violets”, in L. Bruckner and D. Brayton, eds. Ecocritical Shakespeare (Ashgate, 2011).
Jessica Kerr, Shakespeare’s Flowers (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1969).
Richard Palmer, “In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century”, Medicine and the Five Senses, eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
John Gerard, The Herball or Generall historie of plantes, 2nd ed. (London, 1633).