Category Archives: Ingredients

Cold Case I. Hidden Identities Between Printed and Manuscript Recipes

Sabrina Minuzzi

 The marginalia of printed books can sometimes reveal hidden worlds. Printed books themselves can be considered historical evidence, as I learned several years ago at university and as I have continued to discover in working more widely with these materials during the last two years. One of the salient features of my current research lies in looking for and interpreting the traces that readers have left on the books they used, and on 15th century books of medicine in particular.

Among the many incunabula kept in the Marciana Library in Venice (around 2,800 titles),  I once came across a mysterious weighty tome whose early-18th-century binding, in full shabby parchment, was not particularly attractive. But, even lying closed upon my reading table, its lack of beauty disclosed clues about its past. The limp binding suggested that it had been handled, comfortably, in frequent readings and the worn appearance of the cover made me think that the tome had been used as a reference book. Indeed the title-page confirmed this supposition.

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
The Marciana incunabulum Inc. 333 is a copy of one of the seven 15th-century editions of the Hortus sanitatis contained within the ISTC census. This one was published in Strassbourg in 1497, and it survives in 90 copies all around the world.

The Hortus (or Ortus) sanitatis, that is, The Garden of Health, is a sort of encyclopedic book of nature which describes the characteristics and medicinal uses of plants and more briefly of animals and minerals. We might really consider it a bestseller among the medical genres, if we take into account the frequency of its Latin editions and translations in the vernacular languages of early modern Europe.

But let us go back to our copy.

Unlike most copies, which feature rich leather bindings with blind tooled decorations on their plates – see, for instance, the Wien National Library exemplar – which seem suggest that these books were precious objects kept on bookshelves and which bear little evidence of their use, the Marciana Library copy is heavily annotated, mostly by one hand.

Almost all of the manuscript notes are recipes written in clumsy Latin.

What a gold-mine of recipes! Unfortunately, no ownership inscription or purchase note peeps out from the initial or the final pages. No claim of possession occurs either in the myriad passages of the printed text, which are densely annotated, or in the eight final pages, which are crammed with further recipes.

So I had to detect the profile of the annotator with my own bare forces.

The handwriting module is very small and looks as if it was gradually shrinking as the blank space available to the writer was decreasing. The hand looks to be Italian, from around the second half of the 16th century. While browsing the pages, among the overflow of recipes in barely-decipherable handwriting, I finally came across a few key sentences which hinted at the geographical origins of the writer. Thanks to a common early modern habit, in which readers translated the names of herbs to those which were more familiar to them locally, the anonymous author writes next to the Atriplex Hortensis ‘Vilani paduani trebese’ and ‘Schiavo Loboda’, which means ‘Paduan paesants call it Trebese’ and ‘in Slavic language Loboda’ (fol. d1r). Many folios later, next to the dandelion, a plant frequently found in temperate climates, the author comments ‘Nos Veneti dicimus lactexuol’ (‘We Venetians call it lactexuol’, fol. h1r) and alongside the description of the Morsus gallinae or Anagallus the author writes ‘quem nos dicimus pavarina’ (‘which we call pavarina, fol. s5r): all undeniable references to the Venetian area, confirmed by Giuseppe Boerio’s Dizionario del dialetto veneziano (Venice, 1829).

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Going through the many recipes I also detected, in the same hand, some rare Italian annotations, characterized by Venetian distortions and scriptio continua (writing with no space between words). Who was the annotator? What was his cultural horizon? He rarely uses symbols for quantities – which are always inscribed in the most common amounts (pounds, ounces etc.) – and almost never uses them for substances, except in the first few pages. For many entries on herbs the anonymous writer adds short notes about their properties, which he extracted from classical and Medieval authorities, such as Serapion of Alexandria, Plinius Secundus, Dioscorides, Mesue, Avicenna, and Magister Maurus Salernitanus (ca. 1160–1214). But sometimes he adds references to plants – drawings and explanations – that offer evidence that he read specific early modern books, such as those written by Jacobus Theodorus (1510-1590) and Castore Durante’s Herbal of 1585. This tells us much more about his background.

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Pausing here in my search for the identity of the first author of the marginalia, I’d like to speak briefly about the subsequent owners of this Herbal.

At the top spine of the early 18th century binding of the book, there is a clear shelfmark, ‘A | 16.3.3’ gilt-tooled on a green leather label.  There is also a lower (and more recent) shelfmark in brown ink: 17.6.19. These are undoubtedly the shelfmarks of a well-organized library, and probably not a private one.

By poring over the Marciana Archives – quite a time-consuming operation! – I discovered that the only Marciana copy of this Herbal came from the Clerics Regular of Somasca, of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Salute, founded in 1656 (BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4): the title of the incunable appears in the 1811 list of books belonging to their library and transferred to the Marciana Library after the Napoleonic suppression of the monastery.  And there is more.  The second shelfmark appears in a 18th century manuscript catalogue of the same religious library, which luckily still survives among the Marciana collections (Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271).

BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812', file 4.  Used with permission.
BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4. Used with permission.
BNM, Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271), entry ‘Hortus’.  Used with permission.
BNM, Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271), entry ‘Hortus’. Used with permission.

In my next post I will thoroughly explore the (print) sources of the 16th century annotator side-by-side with the evidence of his own experience, the extent of his additions, his organizing structure, the materials to which he referred while explaining his recipes (bombaxina, black wool, etc.) and much more.  We will enter into the content of the recipes and there will be several surprises, which will enlighten us as to the anonymous identity of the author as well as the subsequent uses of this fascinating book.

 
Sabrina Minuzzi is a book historian with strong interests in the social history of medicine and household medicine in particular. Her Ph.D. in Early Modern History focused on the practice, by the Venetian Health authorities, of granting privileges for medicinal secrets devised by common people. She reconstructed the life and vicissitudes of some of them through archival documents and printed sources. Her research has become a book, Sul filo dei segreti. Farmacopea, libri e pratiche terapeutiche a Venezia in età moderna (Milan: Unicopli, 2016). A sample of her investigation will be shortly available in Social History of Medicine (‘Quick to say quack. Medicinal secrets from the household to the apothecary’s shop in early eighteenth-century Venice’). She is now part of the team of the 15cBOOKTRADE.

Treating the Stone in Sixteenth-Century Wales (According to the Vicar of Gwenddwr)

By Diana Luft

Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).
Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).

National Library of Wales MS. Peniarth 182 is a miscellany in the hand of Huw Pennant, a poet who lived and worked in Gwynedd and then Carmarthenshire at the turn of the sixteenth century.[1] The manuscript has the look of a personal collection, and it was written over a period of five years, from 1509 until the scribe’s death in 1514. It contains pedigrees, chronicles, religious texts, and texts of a medical nature, including a list of the dangerous days of the year, a short herbal based on Macer Floridus, and two collections of medical recipes. These collections are united by their subject: they all treat the condition tostedd or bladder stone. The first collection has been gleaned from a medieval source; its five recipes can be traced to the four earliest medical manuscripts in Welsh. The second is a mix of recipes that can be traced to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources, with the addition of a unique remedy ascribed to an unnamed Vicar of Gwenddwr in Breconshire.

Writing in 1801, Theophilus Jones described the village of Gwenddwr as ‘a vile assortment of huts’, adding that, ‘the best fabric in it is the alehouse’.[2] It may be that the village had fallen on hard times by the nineteenth century, as it seems that its sixteenth-century vicar was recommending a rather complicated, and expensive, course of treatment for bladder stones. Here is the recipe in full:

Rhag y tostedd, medd Bickar Gwenddwr

Kymer ddyrnaid o saets, a’r gymaint arall o’r persli gwraidd ag oll, a’r gymaint arall o’r alisander, a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘selver’ (yr hwn a elwir kynga’r koed), a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘mors off maed lik’ (hynny ydyw, barfav kennin o’r rai ni fflannwyd yn y blaen), a xxxiii o rawn yr eiddaw, a dyrnaid o’r ‘betoni’ (yr rain a elwir kribe sanffred). Golch yn lan hwynt a phwnia mewn mortar kyn vaned a’r grinsaws. Yn ol hyny, bwrw hwynt mewn llestyr glan olchiad, a bwrw arnvn yno dri chwart o hengwrw kadarn, a thri chwart eraill o Rwmnai da. Kymered wraig a dwylaw glan olchiad, a gwasged hwynt hyd pan el ffrwyth y llysiav yn y ddiod. Oddyno kymrud lliain glan a’i hidlo ef yn dda, oddyno bwrw ymaith y soeg, oddyno brew y ddiod hyd pan el chwart o’r chwech chwart dan y brew. Oddyno yskimma ef yn lan, ag oddyno tyn y ddiod oddiar y tan, a bwrw ar y ddiod geinhiagwerth o’r graynys, a dimewerth o’r coleandur,  keinhiagwerth o bowdwr syngir, dimewerth o bowdwr galingall, gwerth tair keinioc o saffrwm, dimewerth o bowdwr licorys. Dod y ddiod ar y tan a gad i verwi ias vechan i gymryd ffrwyth y llysiav. Oddyno tyn i’r llawr, a phan oero ef ddigon, dyro dy ddiod mewn llestyr pridd. Ystopia ef yn dda a lliain glan, a gad yno i sefyll dridiav a theirnos. Yn ol hynny, hidler y ddiod drwy liain glan a rodder i’r glaf y’w yfed yn oer y bore a’r nos, yngwres y gwaed. Arvered o hyn, a iach vydd drwy nerth Duw. Poed gwir Amen

For the stone, says the Vicar of Gwenddwr

Take a handful of sage and the same amount again of parsley, roots and all, and the same amount again of alexanders and the same amount again of ‘cleavers’ (which are called wood burdock), and the same amount again of ‘moss of leek cuttings’ (that is, the beards of leeks which have not been planted before),[1] and thirty-three ivy seeds, and a handful of ‘betony’ (which are called St. Brigid’s combs). Wash them clean and pound them in a mortar as fine as green sauce. After that, put them into a newly-washed vessel and add three quarts of strong old beer, and three more quarts of good Rumney wine. Let a woman with newly-washed hands be brought, and let her press them until the essence of the herbs goes into the liquid. Take a clean linen cloth and strain it well, and throw away the residue, then boil the liquid until one of the six quarts boils away. Skim it clean, remove the liquid from the heat, and add a penny’s-worth of grains of paradise, a halfpenny’s-worth of coriander, a penny’s-worth of ginger powder, a halfpenny’s-worth of galangal powder, three penny’s-worth of saffron, and a halfpenny’s-worth of liquorice powder. Put the liquid on the heat and let it boil for a little while to take the essence of the herbs. Then put it aside, and when it cools enough, put the liquid into an earthenware vessel. Stop it up well with a clean linen cloth and leave it to stand three days and three nights. After that, let the liquid be strained through a clean linen cloth and let it be given to the sick person to drink cold in the morning and at body temperature at night. Let him use this and he will be healed through the strength of God, Amen.

While Pennant’s text is in Welsh, the vicar’s original recipe was likely in English. Most of the ingredients are given in Welsh, but three are in English with Welsh explanations (cleavers, leek grass, and betony). It is not uncommon for Welsh recipes to use English borrowings, especially for foreign or exotic ingredients. The medieval recipe collections contain ingredients such as alym (alum), arment (arnament), atrwm (atrament), brwnston (sulphur), cod (cobbler’s wax), kopros (copperas), and opium. But the English words in this recipe do not refer to foreign or exotic ingredients, rather they indicate the common native herbs. The names of the imported ingredients are borrowings, but they are very old borrowings which have already been incorporated into Welsh. For example, the form coleandur (coriander) appears in Welsh in the earliest herbal glossary, while saffrwm (saffron), licorys (liquorice), and syngir (ginger) are found in the fourteenth-century recipe collections. Thus, while the imported ingredients in this recipe are borrowings, it is the explanations of the common herbs which indicate an English source.

Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.
Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.

Pennant does not say how he has come by this recipe, whether he has copied it from a book, received it from a friend or neighbour, or perhaps been in correspondence with the vicar himself.  This is the last remedy in this manuscript, all of which treat a common and very painful condition. The collections of remedies in this manuscript, written over a period of years, all treating the same condition, beginning with old remedies taken from manuscripts and ending with what may be the result of correspondence with a contemporary, seems to tell a tale of increasing desperation in the face of an intractable illness. It is impossible to say whether Huw Pennant suffered from bladder stones himself, but the medical texts he chose to include in his collection would seem to suggest that he did. They would also seem to suggest that his interest in these remedies was not academic, but rather practical, that is, that he intended to use them, and may have done so. The cause of Pennant’s death is not recorded. I can only hope that, whatever it was, he received some relief from the ailment that seems to have plagued him for so long.

[1]      This seems to be a reference to the propagation of leeks by removing the seed from the seed head and allowing the head to develop small clones of the parent plant upon it (leek grass), which can then be planted out. I have interpreted mors as representing English ‘moss’, in the sense of a plant resembling moss (OED ‘moss, n.1’ II.4) or perhaps ‘hairiness’ (MED ‘mos’ 1(a)), and maed as representing English ‘math’ that is, a cutting or a mowing, from Anglo-Saxon mæð (OED ‘math, n.1’) and thus mos off maed lik as a cutting of leek, which results in the production of leek grass which is hairy or moss-like in appearance.

[1]      On Huw Pennant see Cartwright, J. 2016. The Middle Welsh Life of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. In Cartwright, J. ed. The Cult of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. Cardiff: UWP, pp. 163–86.

[2]      Jones, T. 1809. The History of the County of Brecknock. Vol. 2 of 2. Brecknock: George North, p. 296. You can judge for yourself, from the photograph of the village taken by John Crellin in 2011 for his Radnor Images website (www.radnorimages.co.uk) and used with his kind permission here, whether Jones’s opinion holds true today!

*****
Diana Luft is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. She is currently working on a project called ‘Medieval Welsh Medicine: A new Approach’. The aim of this project is to produce new editions and translations of the Welsh medical texts from the four fourteenth-century manuscripts which represent the first witnesses to such texts in Welsh.

Practical Magic in a Suffolk Village

By Edward Higgs

In 2000 I was foolish enough to buy a listed house in an old Suffolk weaving village in eastern England. The building had originally been built in about 1400, probably as a merchant’s house with a shop (the round arches) in one corner.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

However, it had since had numerous makeovers: by the Elizabethans, when the main chimney was installed during the ‘Great Rebuilding’; by the Georgians who introduced glass windows; and in the 1950s, when new electrics were put in and first of a series of rather nasty extensions added. The Georgians (or at least someone using late 18th century bricks) also added a fireplace and chimney in the largest of the upstairs bedrooms.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

The chimney was short-lived because late 19th century photographs show no sign of it. But the fireplace, a ton of bricks dumped unsupported in the corner of the bedroom on the medieval floor joists, survived. This had led to the splitting of some of the medieval timbers beneath, and threatened to tip one corner of the house into the street.

In the circumstances permission was easily obtained from the listing authorities to take the structure out, which I did myself. However, as I took down the bricks row by row various objects began to appear out of the dust and rubble that had accumulated in a cavity to the side of the chimney breast. First a candlestick, then shoes, the ribs of fans, strips of textiles, sharp objects (nails, bobbin pins, a razor, shards of glass), a comb, and eventually the remains of halved lemons. What exactly was going on here?

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

Some research revealed that this assemblage was probably a form of practical (or apotropaic) magic used to ward off evil.[1] In pre-modern Europe it was believed that witches, their familiars, or other evil forces could easily infiltrate the house from outside, gaining access through windows, and cracks in doorways and walls. As King James I of England wrote in his Daemonologie of 1597 regarding witches’ familiars:

Some of them sayeth, that being transformed in the likenesse of a little beast or foule, they will come and pearce through whatsoeuer house or Church, though all ordinarie passages be closed, by whatsoeuer open, the aire may enter in at.[2]

Reginald Scot, writing in his Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1583, listed the plethora of evil entities commonly feared as:

Spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs ….[3]

With such a plethora of evil forces acting like Wi-Fi, how was one to protect the home, and especially the chimney and hearth, both the centre of the home and its weakest point? The answer was to place simulacra of the body in the chimney to act as decoys, and to draw the evil away, and the most frequent form of such distributed embodiment was the shoe. Shoes, which have been found up chimneys in houses all over Britain, Europe, North America and Australia down into the early 20th century, could act as decoys because they retained the shape of their wearer. This was especially the case since, prior to industrial mass production, the local cobbler would make shoes using a wooden lathe based on individuals’ own feet. As frequently happened in the pre-modern world, a sign-object standing in for its owner or user created a duplicate presence, a presence not actual but nonetheless real. Once ensnared the source of evil could be subjected to pain and discomfort from the fire of the candlestick, the sharp points of pins and knives, and the bitterness of the lemons, although all these had themselves magic properties.

Such counter-spells are just one of the forms of apotropaic magic in the house. You can find secret signs under windows:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

‘W’ scratched on timbers, possibly indicating ‘Virgo Virginum’ – Virgin of Virgins, or Mary Mother of Christ:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

And concentric circles on doorways, which acted to trap evil spirits in an endless maze:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

The house itself has become a ritual object designed to repel harmful forces, although now, fortunately, with underfloor heating!

[1] For a general discussion of practical magic see: Ronald Hutton (ed.), Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: a Feeling for Magic (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
[2] James I, Daemonology, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25929, p. 32.
[3] Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft https://ia800201.us.archive.org/32/items/discoverieofwitc00scot/discoverieofwitc00scot.pdf , p.122.

*****

Professor Higgs studied modern history at the University of Oxford, completing his doctoral research there in 1978 on the history of nineteenth-century domestic service. He was an archivist at the Public Record Office, the national archives in London, from 1978 to 1993, where he was responsible for policy relating to the archiving of electronic records. He was a senior research fellow at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine of the University of Oxford, 1993-1996, and a lecturer at the University of Exeter from 1996 to 2000. His early published work was on Victorian domestic service, although he has written widely on the history of censuses and surveys, civil registration, women’s work, the impact of the digital revolution on archives, the information state, and the history of identification.

Tales from the Archives: Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.)

But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, with the first signs of spring here in the UK, I want to share a floral-themed post by Colleen Kennedy. In this piece from August 2013, Colleen discussed early modern uses of violets in confectionery and perfumery. I am particularly touched by Renaissance descriptions of the scent of violet as melancholy. Unlike overpowering floral scents, that of violet strikes a softer, perhaps sadder, chord.

I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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.

Hannah Woolley's The Accomplish'd lady's delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)
Hannah Woolley’s The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (1675)

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:

“Orsino and Viola” by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (c. 1850)

“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.”

John Gerard's "The herball or Generall historie of plantes" (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets
John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. (1633) Chapter 312: Of Violets

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.

Viola odorata

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).