There’s a playful moment in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing that occurs after the darker elements of the play have been set in motion but while the tone is still comedic. Margaret is helping Hero prepare for her wedding, and Beatrice, feeling ill and out of sorts, reluctantly joins them. Hero and Margaret, who have been conspiring to make the marriage-averse Beatrice and Benedick fall in love, begin teasing Beatrice. In response to Beatrice’s declaration that she is “stuffed” and sick, Margaret recommends a dose of a well-known herb, Carduus benedictus (also known as blessed thistle or holy thistle):
MARGARET. Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus, and lay it to your heart: it is the only thing for a qualm.
HERO. There thou prick’st her with a thistle. (3.4.71-74)
Beatrice immediately picks up on the Benedick/benedictus pun and Hero’s naughty “prick’st” joke.
BEATRICE. Benedictus! why Benedictus? you have some moral in this Benedictus.
MARGARET: Moral! no, by my troth, I have no moral meaning; I meant, plain holy-thistle. You may think, perchance, that I think you are in love: nay, by’r lady, I am not such a fool to think what I list; nor I list not to think what I can; nor, indeed, I can not think, if I would think my heart out of thinking, that you are in love, or that you will be in love, or that you can be in love. (3.4.75-84)
(Unabashed Tangent: I love how this scene distills the mixture of giddiness, wit, and affection – with perhaps a touch of cruelty – that prompts friends to tease each other about their crushes. In modern terms, the scene reminds me of this meme.)
While the Benedick/benedictus pun would be hard for a modern audience to catch, it would have been much plainer to an Elizabethan audience, as Carduus benedictus was far better known and utilized. The herbalist John Gerard writes that blessed thistle (also known, rather delightfully, as “wilde bastard saffron”) was “diligently cherished in gardens in these Northern parts.“
Given the popularity of Carduus benedictus, it is no surprise that it should make an appearance as an ingredient in early modern recipe books. Even so, the properties attributed to it in Wellcome MS 6812, a medical recipe book compiled from 1575-1663, are prodigious, taking up an unusual seven pages of the manuscript. Here is a partial list of the wonders of this plant:
- If the herb is eaten or the herb’s powder or juice drunk: Good for headache and migraine. Sharpens memory and wit. Helps with sleep and hearing
- Juice of the herb laid on the eyes: “Quickens” the sight, relieves redness and itchiness
- Rubbed on a cloth with water: good for strengthening the teeth
- As a powder: good for staunching the flow of blood from the nose
- Cooked in wine: good for stomachache; also, “causeth an appetite to meat”
- Powder mixed with honey: helps void phlegm and “gross humours”
- Chewed: helps with “stink of the breath”
- Leaves boiled in water: “provoketh sweat”
- Powder (as preventative): prevents infection from pestilence; powder (after exposure): “expelleth the venome of the pestilence from the heart”
- Juice or powder of the herb: combined with covering with hot wool cloth for three hours, causes intense sweating that expels poison
- Herb boiled in wine: “dries agues”
- Herb juice with wine: eases aches of all kinds, shortness of breath and diseases of the lungs
- Herb boiled “in the urine of an healthfull man Child”: prevents dropsy and falling sickness
- Powder eaten or drunk: eases side stitches and trembling due to palsy, helps with colic
- Boiled or drunk with wine: breaks up “the stone”; when inhaled as a vapor, helps ease green sickness
- Juice or powder of the leaves: heals canker sores and “old rotten festered sores.” Bruised leaves help with carbuncles.
This exhaustive list of blessed thistle’s curative powers is echoed in Gerard’s Herbal, where Carduus benedictus begins to sound like a miracle drug (and is even considered beneficial for “the French disease”).
So while Margaret’s comment about Carduus benedictus is meant to prod Beatrice to confess her love for Benedick, it also invokes the powers of an unusually efficacious plant, a trusted remedy capable of curing any malady—except, happily in Messina and the world of the play, the scourge of lovesickness itself.