Category Archives: Plants and Herbs

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).

Bright Red, Dark Red: Coral’s Color-Coded Virtues

By Jennifer Park

I have long wanted to explore the fascination with coral as an ingredient in the history of science and medicine. Laurence Totelin wonderfully began her post on the use of coral in an ancient amulet by placing coral “centre stage,” noting its curious and complex categorization as animal, plant, or stone, and bringing attention to the other posts in which the red ingredient has cropped up. In tandem with these fascinating mentions of coral, I have been struck for years by a remarkable image in the medieval French Livre des simples médecines which depicts coral on an apothecary’s shelf in a beautiful, vibrant red.

Livre des simples médecines, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS n.a. fr. 6593, fol. 12322.

In this post, I’d like to focus on coral’s red color, a key indicator of the ingredient’s effectiveness, and its naturally occurring virtues as explained in early modern texts. In his medical treatise, translated into English as Paracelsus his Dispensatory and Chirurgery (London,1656), the physician Paracelsus provides an entire treatise on “the Vertues and Preparations of CORALS.” From the start, Paracelsus’s examination focuses on the color of red coral, determining two main kinds: a “dark red colour, or toward a purple colour,” and “a bright, shining red colour” (39). It is the quality of the redness of coral, Paracelsus insists, that indicates its virtue and effectiveness.

Coral that has the “clear, bright, shining red colour”—and additionally which is “full of boughs, and no where broken”—is “full of power and vertue” (40). This virtue is lessened if the coral has “clefts” or is missing parts. Paracelsus uses this to begin his analysis of color differences in coral, and how those color differences indicate the use value of the coral in a number of different remedies.

Paracelsus’s starting premise is that the corals that have the bright red color are “pleasant and delectable,” while the “dark red” or purple are “not pleasant to the eye” (40). Correspondingly, Paracelsus advises that if you carry coral with you, one should “chuse and love the bright Coral,” but “beware…the dull, dark Coral” (40). This leads to Paracelsus’s emphasis of the role of color in distinct affective differences in coral. “As joy differs from sorrow, and laughing from weeping” he outlines, “so these two sorts of Corals differ the one from the other” (40). Therefore, a “sick or weak man, who would have his heart merry and joyfull” would “increase his disease and sadnesse of heart” were he to carry with him the darker colored coral (40-41).

In addition to the affective differences in brightly or darkly colored red coral, the redness of the coral, according to Paracelsus, serves to address one’s susceptibility to various mental, psychosomatic, and spiritual concerns. For example, bright red coral is “good to quicken Phansie, or imaginative faculty” (41), which helps to aid the “studie of Secrets, of Arts and Sciences, and new Inventions” without tiring the mind (41). This is because bright red coral prevents the mind from being infected by “the Divel,” or with “impurity, wickedness or vanity” (41); the dark red coral, however, “doth the contrary” (41).

Bright red coral also protects against “Phantasms, or nocturnal spirits” as well as “vain visions, or vain sights, call’d Spectra” (41). Phantasms and nocturnal spirits were believed to be both good and bad, related to nightmares. Though not of much use to humans, these phantasms were cumbersome in that they could trouble one’s thoughts. Bright red coral provides a remedy, as these phantasms “fly from these bright Corals as a dog from a staff,” although one must beware of the darker colored corals which, in contrast, attract these nocturnal spirits (42). Spectra, on the other hand, are ghosts, or as Paracelsus describes, the “Starry bodies of dead men” (42). These ghosts “cannot endure to be where the bright Coral is,” and thus bright red coral can be used as protection from them. In contrast, however, “dark coloured Coral allures” the ghosts (42).

It is perhaps due to the influence of bright red and dark red coral on both psychosomatic and supernatural afflictions, the spirits and ghosts that can plague early modern minds, that it also gains the reputation of aiding with melancholy. Melancholy, according to Paracelsus, is “a disease which makes a man sad whether he will or not; that he grows weary of every thing, and becoms dull: and by his diverse thoughts and speculations makes him grieve and weep” (43). Bright red coral is able to drive melancholy away, whereas the dark red coral increases melancholy.

Indeed, the early modern description of these virtues of a coral’s redness fits with the ways in which we ascribe affective significance to colors. The vibrancy of red coral thus contributes to its use in recipes that draw upon its redness, not only for its affective influence but also for its sympathetic properties, like the blood staunching remedies of antiquity that Laurence Totelin brings to light and the eighteenth-century bloodstone that Marieke Hendrikksen examines. As Paracelsus himself exclaims, “the mysteries and secrets of Corals are wonderfull” (51)!

Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.

What lies behind the name? Rest-harrow – A medieval herbal enigma

By Theresa Tyers

‘Mystery, magic and medicine: in the beginning they were one and the same’ so begins Howard Haggard’s 1930s book on the rise of scientific medicine.[1] Exploring medieval manuscripts reveals how magical recipes, charms, amulets and ritual healing all formed part of the everyday ‘medicine chest’ of treatments which were intended to deal with a myriad of conditions. Vernacular plant names are fascinating they can be a key to their uses, for example consoude or bonewort, toutsain, (all-heal) or the astringent sanguines. To modern ears the magical sound of: foxgloves, archangel, biting-grass, moonwort or even weasel-tongue can conjure up images in our minds of strange and wondrous plants. Perhaps the most appealing are those rare vernacular names that bring to life the people who may have encountered the plants as they went about their daily life, whether working out in the field ploughing and sowing, or pilgrims travelling long distances by foot along the byways and highways of medieval England and Europe. They would have had ample time to take in their surroundings as the seasons past slowly by and, take note of the notorious twisted rooted wild pink vetch today called ‘rest-harrow’. The ploughman would have easily recognised this troublesome plant and no doubt dreaded its presence. He knew that if he was to clear the land of this tenacious ‘weed’ it would need to be ploughed well and each piece of the noxious root had to be cleared away before the crop could be set.

Common Restharrow (Ononis repens) flower at Stevenston Beach Local Nature Reserve, North Ayrshire, Scotland. Image courtesy of wikicommons.
Common Restharrow (Ononis repens) flower at Stevenston Beach Local Nature Reserve, North Ayrshire, Scotland. Image courtesy of wikicommons.

Sometime ago I also stumbled across ‘rest-harrow’ but this time it was not in a field but in a reference to an intriguing remedy, one which had been added to others in a popular compilation known as the Lettre d’Hippocrate (MS Oxford, Bodley 86).[2] In this post, I’m going to look at three examples of the use of rest-harrow in medieval remedies which were intended to treat diarrhoea. The remedy is, on the whole, the same one that appears elsewhere around this time. However, there are differences between the versions recorded in these three examples and it is these intriguing differences that prompted me to dig a little further!

The late thirteenth-century manuscript MS Cambridge, Trinity College, O.1.20 is one of the earliest vernacular collections of medical texts, written in French, that we have. The remedy that calls for rest-harrow appears to suggest a magical or ritual element to the healing practice. In this rhymed collection of recipes and remedies ‒ the Physique rimee the author claims that he was compiling the knowledge to introduce those who ‘have no Latin (l. 86) to the useful properties of herbs and plants’, the names of which he notes ‘may already be familiar to them’.[3](Hunt, 1989:144). Among the plants he cites is l’arestboef, a name which is echoed today in the French common-name of L’arrêt-boeuf (Ononis arvensis) and in the English ‘rest-harrow’.

Rest-harrow in the field seek it out

It will be pounded and crushed and cooked,

Then tip this [mixture] into a bowl,

Put into [this bowl] the patient’s feet

So long as their feet are kept in there

To move [go forward] they will have no desire.[4]

A ploughman depicted in a manuscript copy of William Langland’s Piers Plowman (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.3.14, fol. 1v), courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.
A ploughman depicted in a manuscript copy of William Langland’s Piers Plowman (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.3.14, fol. 1v), courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

The compiler who made a number of additions to a group of practical remedies for menesiun in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86 also recommended the recipe for its use for diarrhoea but perhaps doubting the rationale behind the author of MS CTC O.1.20’s advice he amends the remedy. His version calls for the patient’s legs and knees to be washed often in the concoction while placed in the bowl and he then places the cause of its efficacy firmly in the hands of God.[5] . There is no mention here of the idea which links the efficacy of the treatment with the time spent soaking the legs in the herbal mixture. The final example of the medieval use of this recipe is also cited in a collection that was copied in 1313, (MS CTC O.5.32, Trinity Practica) and although it shares a number of remedies and recipes in common with MS CTC O.1.20 the author, once again, leaves out the reference to ‘rest-harrow’, its connection with ploughing and its supposed efficacy in the treatment of diarrhoea. In this remedy the reference to oxen is reduced to homely instructions which explains that one simply has to cook ‘rest-harrow’ as one would cook the meat from the same beast.[6]

 The traditional use of rest-harrow for urinary problems and stone is well-documented in Herbals and other recipe and remedy collections. The tenacious growing habit of this plant is also evident in the way in which it appears, once again, in later herbals. In 1640 John Parkinson, accustomed to citing the virtues of rest-harrow for urinary problems, gives a number of remedies for the condition in his monumental work Theatrum Botanicum.[7]

The said quantite of the rootes sliced and put into a stone pot close stopped with the like quantite of wine and so set to boil in a ‘Balneo Marie’ for 24 houres is a daintie a medicine for tender stomacks as any of the daintiest Lady in the Land can desire to take being troubled with any of the aforesaid griefes:.[8]

This remedy, tasting sweetly of liquorice, is a far cry from that of the down to earth compiler of the Physique rimee, who cited its use for diarrhoea, and knew of rest-harrow’s infamous reputation for stopping both the oxen in their tracks and their unfortunate ploughman. Perhaps the answer to the conundrum is that he added his own little twist to the remedy in an attempt to help his students. He made the link of the image of the ploughman behind his plough battling with the ‘rest-harrow’ to provide an aide memoire for his students, who already knew the names of plants, but not their hidden virtues. Subsequent authors, unsure of the empirical authenticity behind its efficacy, quickly dropped this author’s curious explanation so that its use in treating diarrhoea has become an intriguing medieval enigma.

MS Cambridge, Cambridge University Trinity College O.1.20 fol. 7va here. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.
MS Cambridge, Cambridge University Trinity College O.1.20 fol. 7va here. Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

 

 

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Footnote: In preparing this piece for the blog I wanted to make sure that there was no evidence that Ononis arvensis (or its relations) had been traditionally used for treating cases of diarrhoea. Anne Stobart and members of the History of Herbal Medicine group quickly responded to my request for advice on its uses. Dr. Henry Oakeley (Royal College of Physicians) and John Adams (Syon Abbey) also provided me with confirmation of its use which they had gleaned from a wide range of Herbals across historical time periods. Everyone’s input, on the whole, confirmed that this medicinal remedy is not usually cited for diarrhoea and as such it remains a medieval medicinal enigma. My grateful thanks to everyone for their help and advice.

[1] Haggard H. Mystery, Magic, and Medicine. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.; 1933.

[2] Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England, D.S. Brewer: 1989, 141.

[3] Hunt, 1989: 144.

[4] L’arestboef ens el chaump querés, Triblé sera, puis le quirés, Puis le versés en une gate, Les piés metes ens au malade. Taunt com les piés la dedens tendra, D’aler avaunt talent n’avra. [4] (Hunt, 1989: 167)          

[5] Et face laver ses genoilz et ses jambs de cel ewe et ceo sovent, si estaunchira od l’aide de Deu

[6]E pernez restbuef e quisez en ewe cum char de buef, destemprez ses pes leinz sic haut cum il purra soufrir, si garra”, Hunt, Anglo-Norman Medicine II, Shorter Treatises, 1997: 273.

[7] For an example of its inclusion in household books see: Elaine Leong, ‘Herbals she peruseth’: reading medicine in early-modern England, Renaissance Studies, 2014

[8] Open access: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/rest.12079/full DOI: 10.1111/rest.12079