In 647, an emissary from Gapi, a kingdom in northern India, presented a plant called “yu gold aromatic” (yu jin xiang) to the court of Tang (618-907). The foreign herb flowered in the ninth month of the year, with the shape of a lotus. The color of the flowers was purplish blue, and their fragrance could be smelled over tens of paces.
This account comes from a tenth-century institutional history of Tang (Tang huiyao), in a section that reviews a list of plants and animals submitted by the foreign countries to the Tang. The event took place at a time when the Tang was ascending to a powerful and cosmopolitan empire, expanding its territory into Central Asia. As a result, the period witnessed a vibrant material exchange between China and India, Tibet, Persia (and from the mid-seventh century on, the Arabic empire), and even as far as Europe (see Edward Schafer’s classic work on this topic, also see an earlier post). Saliently, a wide array of foreign aromatics entered China, such as aloeswood and camphor from Southeast Asia, frankincense from India, and myrrh from Persia, which greatly enriched Chinese pharmacy.
What then is “yu gold aromatic”? Most likely, the name refers to saffron in medieval Chinese sources. “Gold” (jin) probably specifies the color of the flower, and “aromatic” (xiang) naturally points to its characteristic smell. Intriguingly, the word “yu” conjures up a fragrant herb in ancient China, which was used to scent ritual wine. Therefore, medieval Chinese writers took a familiar word from the past to name a foreign plant thereby readily integrating it into their own cultural terrain.
Not surprisingly, the earliest account of saffron in Chinese sources identifies the herb as a wine-scenting agent. According to a third-century text on natural history (Nanzhou yiwu zhi), saffron grew in Kashmir—still a major site of saffron production today—where local people offered its fresh flowers to Buddha whilst collecting the withered flowers to make fragrant wine. In the following centuries, saffron entered China either as a diplomatic gift (shown in the opening story) or as a commodity of trade. It was an expensive substance due to the intense labor involved in harvesting the three red stigmas of each flower. To obtain one pound of saffron, based on one estimation, seventy thousand flowers must be manually collected. This “circumstantial rarity,” to use Paul Freedman’s term, has made saffron one of the most costly spices in the world.
How was saffron used in medieval China? Noticeably, it became a powerful antidote. According to the eighth-century pharmacological work Supplement to Materia Medica (Bencao shiyi), saffron can dispel all types of noxious odors. Often mixed with other aromatics, it can eliminate malignant qi and demonic possession in the body. Later medical texts (Fig. 1) make it explicit that the fragrant plant can counter all poisons, highlighting its antidotal value.
In addition, saffron appeared in Buddhist healing rituals. In a seventh-century scripture titled “Sutra of Golden Light,” we encounter a recipe of thirty-two aromatics (saffron included) that promises to cure all disorders and ward off adverse influences (Fig. 2). In particular, the recipe recommends that the aromatic mixture be employed to cleanse the body, with the following instruction: on the eighth day of the month, take an equal amount of each aromatic, pound and sift them, and collect the powder. Next, cast a spell on the powder for one hundred and eight times before adding it into water to wash the body. Situating drugs in a proper ritual—in this case an incantatory performance—was vital for their efficacy.
Given its strong scent, saffron was also used as a perfume in medieval China. The seventh-century medical work Essential Emergency Recipes Worth a Thousand in Gold (Beiji qianjin yaofang) by Sun Simiao, for example, offers a number of recipes to perfume clothes. One utilizes eighteen aromatics including frankincense, clove, aloeswood, musk, and saffron. Upon pounding into powder, they are mixed with boiled honey and jujube, and made into pills. Burning these pills creates vapor to scent clothes. Due to the high price of saffron at the time, it is conceivable that only the wealthy elites could afford such a perfume. Consistent with this, several Tang poems associate saffron with the sumptuous clothes of elite women. The scent of the exotic flower became a sign for patrician beauty.
Finally, I must say a few words about saffron as a spice in China. This is the primary function of the herb today, especially in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It also constituted the chief use of the herb in medieval Europe, for enhancing the flavor and color of food. Yet the culinary use of saffron was minimal in medieval China; we have to wait until the 14th century, when China was under Mongol rule, to see the use of saffron as a spice, especially for preparing meat dishes. This practice, though, remained marginal in the following centuries. Today in China, saffron, curiously called “Tibetan Red Flower” (zang hong hua), is harnessed primarily as a medicine, not as a spice. Why? This is a fascinating puzzle that awaits further research, which invites us to ponder the untold journeys from smell to taste, from medicine to food, from the exotic to the familiar.
When you say indigo, the first thing many people will think of is blue – jeans blue. (Or if you’re me, you’ll think first of a seventeenth-century recipe to make decorative blue prunes from wax with indigo. Occupational deformation.) But historically, indigo has been used in many more ways, and to make more dye colours than just blue, as I recently discovered. Today, most jeans are died using a synthetic blue dye, but indigo dyes, made from some of the over 750 species of the genus Indigofera as well as from some other plants, have been used to dye textiles for at least 6,000 years, while other subspecies of Indigofera were traditionally used as analgesics with anti-inflammatory properties.
The term ‘indigo’ according to the OED started to occur from the sixteenth century onwards in various European languages to denote blue dyes from India (or east Asia more generally), but can now also refer more generally to dyes, violet-blue light, or blue hues. It might be argued that the term only really applies to dyes created from Indigofera subspecies, while it could also be said that indigo is any dye created from plants through the decomposition of the glucoside indican, which exists not merely in the indigo-plant, but in woad and various other plants too.
While on holiday in Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a weaving and dying workshop with Ock Pop Tock, an organization that was established to preserve the traditional Laotian craft of making hand-loomed textiles. There, I discovered that there is more indigo besides Indigofera, and that one indigo plant can give many more dyes than just blue. They also have a wonderful informative website on natural dyes. At Ock Pop Tock, the plant species used to create indigo dyes is Persicaria tinctoria, or long leaf Japanese indigo, a plant indigenous not to Japan but to China, Vietnam, and Laos. Depending on how the leaves are treated, it can be used to create blue, green, black, and mauve.
Using the fresh leaves creates a green dye, fermenting them for at least five days and adding limestone as a mordant gives a blue dye. Traditionally, the Lao believed that the dye was female, and that it fermented because it attracted a male spirit. To coax the spirit, the pots containing the dye would be dressed in a skirt, and a knife placed on top of the lid to ward off evil spirits that could ruin the dye. The fermentation is actually a naturally occurring oxidation process, with atmospheric oxygen as the oxidant. Regular stirring ensures the process continues. The longer the indigo mixture is left to ferment, the darker it turns. If this mixture is boiled, it turns black. Alternatively, a rare indigenous plant, mak bow or bow vine, can be added to the blue dye to create mauve.
As part of the half-day workshop, I got to dye a silk scarf with a dye of my choice. I love green hues and wanted to make a dye from start to finish, so I chose to dye my scarf ‘indigo’ green. This was, apart from some pretty intense pounding of leaves, surprisingly easy. I got to pick fresh Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the beautiful garden, washed them, and mashed them vigorously in a mortar for about five minutes. Then I transferred the mashed leaves into a tub, added some cold water and then the raw silk scarf. After kneading the dye into the fabric for a couple of minutes, I could rinse my scarf and hang it to dry. The end result is a beautiful soft green scarf, that is not just a souvenir, but a tangible reminder of the traditional Laotian knowledge about natural dyes preserved and shared at Ock Pop Tock.
In late August, 1781, Sir Charles Blagden, physician, Francophile, army surgeon and Fellow (later to be Secretary) of the Royal Society of London received a letter from his friend, Thomas Curtis. Curtis was concerned about the health of his son, who for more than a decade had suffered a ‘very peculiar kind of head ach’ with ‘a dizziness, or partial vision’, and which recently seemed to coincide with the fortnightly full or changed moon. Curtis had sought the opinions of plenty of doctors, but their prescriptions had failed. Blagden responded swiftly. He proposed that the young man was suffering from what the French called migraine. Blagden was not convinced that the moon’s phases were causing Curtis’ illness, but if the young man’s disease returned on 12 September 1781 (the date of the next full moon), Blagden instructed that the young Mr Curtis should have twelve ounces of blood taken a week later, and then to trial valerian ‘in considerable doses’, increasing the dose until his stomach could bear no more.
Having long been known as an anticonvulsant, by the middle of the eighteenth century the herb Valerian had become something of a fashionable prescription for treating migraine. The distinguished physician Richard Mead, author of the famous Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon human bodies (1748) recommended frequent use of valerian root for periodic diseases of the head ‘pulverized before it shoot out its stalk’. This seems to have prompted the Scottish physician John Fordyce to try it for his own hemicrania. Finding it of very great benefit, he recommended taking drachm doses of valerian three or four times a day in his essay De Hemicrania (1765). Erasmus Darwin included both bleeding and valerian in Zoonomia as treatments for the symptoms of hemicrania, and physicians throughout the nineteenth century would continue to recommend the herb. Such influential texts explain why Blagden turned to valerian for his young patient’s periodic ailment, but it struck me that this had not been one of the herbs that I had come across during the many months I had spent researching the Wellcome Library’s collection of recipe books for seventeenth century migraine remedies, though Nicholas Culpeper talked of valerian’s warming properties, and recommended the root for headache, diseases of the eyes, wounds splinters and thorns. I forgot about Curtis, and moved on. Then, by accident, I discovered that the valerian family also contains a plant called spikenard, and the penny dropped. Like valerian root, spikenard has an earthy musky odour, and a similar effect on the body – having sedative and relaxing properties. Suddenly, valerian didn’t appear to be an eighteenth-century story, but an episode in a longer history, which I’ve written about here before.
But the story goes back even further. The dispensatory of the Nestorian physician and pharmacologist Sābūr ibn Sahl, from southwestern Iran, is one of the earliest pharmacopeia written in Arabic. Dating from the ninth century CE, it provides important evidence of medieval Eastern Arabic medical practice. In Chapter Four of the dispensatory instructions set out the preparation of nard oil, an expensive essential oil with sedative properties used to treat hemicrania, among other things. This was an expensive recipe requiring a large investment to collect over twenty herbal ingredients (including cyprus, laurel, elecampane, citronella, myrtle leaves, wild caraway, forget-me-not, sweet marjoram, stalkless roses, fresh myrtle-water, myrrh and grape ivy), and prepare them with different liquids in three stages taking several days. The third stage took Indian spikenard (the ingredient that gave ‘nard oil’ its name), pounded together with cloves, storax, nutmeg, added to fresh water, balm oil and the strained oil from the previous two stages. Then the whole concoction should be boiled until the water had disappeared, before being bottled, stored and used as required.
Several centuries later, we find a mid fifteenth-century English ‘leechbook’ contained a recipe for migraine attributed to ‘Galen the good philosopher’ that required several of these same ingredients: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, a pennyweight of ‘spiknard’, anise, elecampane, liquorice, and sugar. By the sixteenth century, spikenard was appearing in print. In 1526, the anonymously published A New Book of Medecynes gave a recipe for migraine, postume and dropsy requiring ‘iiii peny weyght of the rote of Pyllatory of Spayne / a half peny weyght of Spygnarde’, ground together and boiled in good vinegar. The compilers of recipe books (including this blog’s favourite Mrs Corlyon) adapted these remedies to local conditions, substituting herbs of similarly warm, dry and aromatic qualities (such as sage and rosemary) that they could more easily obtain or grow. Following translations is notoriously hard, as Sietske Fransen’s post shows, but spikenard and valerian have weaved their way through more than a thousand years of migraine history. Does it work? Perhaps. It certainly has sedative properties, so today it’s more commonly used for insomnia.
 Richard Mead, A Treatise concerning the influence of the sun and moon upon Human Bodies and the Diseases thereby produced trans. Richard Stack (London: J. Brindley, 1748), 84-6
***** Katherine Foxhall is Lecturer in Modern History at University of Leicester. Her new book, a history of migraine, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2019.
Ars longa, vita brevis, as you hear every day in the tearoom at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This Christmas at the Folger I made a discovery which made me feel young: Erasmus’s favourite wine! The thought had been with me since I heard a disputation at the British Academy, years ago, between Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. All of a sudden, for once they agreed on something: that the Reformation was essentially a quarrel between beer-drinkers and wine-drinkers. You will be glad to know that the new Encyclopaedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation (New York, 2017) has a learned entry on Beer. And as Duffy and MacCulloch wound down into post-symposium revelries, already an Erasmian colloquium was forming in my mind, on whether Erasmus was a beer-drinker or a wine-drinker. After all, he was born in Holland, one of the great beer-drinking countries of the world, which even invented the world’s best drinking snack, bitterballen, precisely to go with monastic ales.
On the other hand, I felt sure that Erasmus preferred wine, just as, despite espousing reform, and flirting with the young Luther, he remained a life-long Catholic. Familiaria colloquia (1522) – where else – provides a definitive answer. It comes in the Convivium profanum, a dialogue between a variety of characters (chiefly Augustinus, Christianus, and Erasmius), who vie with each other in gluttony, and in describing foods and wines beloved of gourmets (or else people who just eat a lot). There are jokes at the expense of Stoics and other moralists, and worst of all, Diogenes the Cynic, who lived off raw vegetables and clear water. Kale, quinoa, and mesclun, are definitely off the menu at this particular feast.
At this point, Christianus asks what his friend likes to drink with a meal: does he prefer red or white (rubrum an candidum)? Augustinus replies: “The colour’s no hindrance provided the taste’s agreeable” (a classic wino’s quip). But something else is going on: how do we use words to describe sensory things? Verbal discrimination is deliberately elided by Erasmus into distinctions of taste, since food – and especially wine – is famously hard to put into apt words, at least without resorting to absurd metaphor. Christianus comments: “Yet there are famous gourmets who deny that wine deserves approval unless it pleases the four senses: the eyes by its colour, the nostrils by its fragrance, the palate by its taste, the ears by its name and fame.” Now he drops his foodie bombshell: Tantum, ut multi non stupidi palati vehementer probarint villum Louanio vernaculum quum crederent, esse Belnense. Many people with “not stupid palates” can’t tell a wine from Louvain from one of Beaune in Burgundy.
This is the joke that got me salivating. At first I thought it was a beer gag: because in Louvain these days you will not find Belgian wine (the very idea is an oxymoron) but plenty of Belgian beer, including Bourgogne de Flandres (which sounds like an Erasmian trope). But in the fifteenth century, the Dukes of Burgundy planted vines in their territories at Brussels, Namur, Mons, and Louvain. Still, the thought brings a sneer to the nose of Erasmus: who could make such a terrible mistake? And there is a theological joke, too: Louvain is home to the nastiest scholastics.
So, is Beaune Erasmus’s favourite wine? Here I digress into a visite du vignoble via P.S. Allen’s great edition of Erasmus’s letters. Epistola 1342 to Marcus Laurinus is one of the most extraordinary in the 3000 letters that survive. Half of it is a defence of his position on the Luther affair, which was convulsing Europe; the other half is an itinerary of his odyssey around Europe in 1521, especially an uncomfortable stay in Constance and a long convalescence in Basel. In Constance he was very ill with fever and the gallstone, and nearly died (before we feel too sorry, remember that Erasmus is always nearly dying of something). But on return to Basel he is sent a half-cask of red Burgundy by Nikolaus von Diesbach, dean and bishop-designate. Erasmus makes a miraculous recovery: he felt reborn, renatus in alium hominem. Is this a sly dig at Luther, in a letter which is all about Luther’s evangelical doctrines, and how they are worse than any disease? Especially when he now claims that red Burgundy has had a direct medicinal benefit observed by the doctors, who say that his stone has disappeared. Happy is the name of Burgundy, he raptures: O felicem vel hoc nomine Burgundiam! In another letter he calls the wine a deus ex machina. He might move to France tomorrow, except that with fresh supplies he will not need to, as he reports in Ep. 1510, a year later: “I have done a deal with the vintner for three half-casks, one of old wine and two of new”.
Can we locate what particular wine might have brought such magical results? Here we encounter a great aporia in epicurean history, which is that the technological revolutions of the eighteenth century – in bottling and especially in corks – mean that we judge wine by completely different standards. Beaune, with its beautiful coloured rooftops, is now the commercial centre of a multi-million-Euro industry. Wine is a science (oenology, a word Erasmus surely must have invented) which went from France to California and back again, transforming an everyday drink into the wine-tasting superlatives of today. Red Burgundy, some connoisseurs say, has typical aromas of horseshit [sic] and blackberry jam. What would Erasmus have made of that? I think he would have loved it, and cited it in De copia, his great book which makes a philosophical marriage between all the possible words, and all possible things in the world. But what did he taste? There are three references in the letters to a wine from Beaune, which seems to be the one he liked best; it “was of a most agreeable colour – you might call it ruby-red”; the taste was “neither sweet nor dry”, “neither cold nor fiery”, and so kind to the digestion that “it did very little harm” – even when taken in quantity.
The mythology of French wine is based on a holy trinity of values: the grape; the vintage; and most mystical of all, leterroir. This untranslateable word means something like “all the best wine comes from France”. White wine in Burgundy is now dominated by the Chardonnay grape, which in unoaked form is still perhaps the most opulently elegant white in the world; but in Erasmus’s time almost certainly the whites of Burgundy were made from the Fromenteau grape, perhaps equivalent to Pinot Gris. As for reds, on the other hand, we have documentation: on 6 August 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, made the political decision of his life in banning the “vile and disloyal Gamay”, and giving precedence to the Noirien, a less high-yielding grape. This is the ancestor of the modern Pinot Noir, that most quixotic and awkward of grapes. For those who love it, it is the cutest grape in history, but it is very hard to grow in abundance, and likes poor soil, cool climates, and fairly steep hills. Since these are also the conditions that wipe out harvests in bad years, the Pinot Noir is a cruel mistress, although it has found renewed success in chillier areas such as Oregon, New Zealand, and Alpine Italy, as well as its native Burgundy. However, good red Burgundy also needs a bit of age in the bottle to develop its flavours, and nothing about wine storage in Erasmus’s time was much suited to ageing. He describes liking wine with a bit of age (perhaps two years), but after four he says most of the flavour has disappeared.
We are left with terroir. The intensity of the modern wine trade is such that individual parcels of land perhaps 30 metres wide are prized as having such a particularity of flavour that they are considered quite distinct from others only a hundred metres away. It is possible that for Erasmus “Beaune” meant nothing like that. Belnense might be a generic name for wine of the whole region, somewhat like “Bordeaux” or “Sonoma”. But it is also possible that Erasmus does mean the name of this particular village. So could we find his wine on a map? It got me thinking, and indeed googling, looking at wine maps, which have always given me a special kind of pleasure. There is something cartographically exciting about a wine map: all of those tiny parcels of land, and weird names, coloured in crimson for red wine, or yellow-green for white; in the case of Burgundy, with darker shading, the better the wine. So I googled this.
And it got me thinking: if any of these vineyards are really old, they will be close to the town but not part of it; for instance, those near the cemetery. The cemetery will always have been in the same place. And here I was excited, because there on the map, at just that point, were some vineyards I knew the names of: “Toussaints”, “les Bressandes”, “les Cent Vignes”. Not really expensive wines – but of a price which a father, shall we say my own father, might buy his son for his 40th birthday.
For here the strands of my story had become personal. My father, who was a complicated man, was always happiest when opening a bottle of red Burgundy with his own family. He discovered Burgundy, place and wine, when I was in my teens. We used to stay at an unpretentious hotel in one of the smaller villages, Fixin – Beaune even then was hopelessly expensive and chic. The hôtel was called (as almost all nice Logis de France are, at least in the memory) Chez Jeannette, and we would stay for a week, and each night my father would buy a slightly better wine. He wasn’t buying the most expensive stuff, and Burgundy was then still quite a backwater for most travellers, nothing like the Côte d’Azur. In memory of these trips, when I was 40, he did indeed buy me 12 bottles of Beaune, “Les Cent Vignes”, made by Albert Morot, an extremely traditional negociant.
How did these vineyards get such beautiful names? Originally, the story goes, it was “Sans Vignes”, because no wine was made there; then they planted vines and changed the name. “Les Bressandes” is either named after the 13th century canon, Johannis Bressand – or else after the women of Bresse. “Les Marconnets” perhaps refers to an ancient gallic tribe conquered by the Romans.
Such etymologies are very Erasmian. It would be nice to believe in an Erasmian vineyard. It is not impossible – for it was the Benedictines from Cluny who first began cultivating wines on a large scale, and the Cistercians who first walled off individual vineyards and prized the difference between small parcels of terroir. They were doing this in the 14th century. But the oldest map of Burgundian wine, to my knowledge, is 18th century. It offers nothing at this level of detail, consisting of a range of small mountains and the names of the main villages.
It is appended to the first ever book on Burgundy, by Claude Arnoux: Dissertation sur la situation de la Bourgogne, et sur les vins qu’elle produit (1728). He mentions four vineyards in Beaune, St Desiré, la Montée, les Grèves, and la Fontaine de Marconney. Traces of all these can still be found – the last is now Les Marconnets, above. Arnoux favours even more the wines of Volnet (now Volnay) and Pommard. Wines from Beaune, he says, much as Erasmus does, do not do well after two years of age. Volnay, he says, has the colour of l’oeil de perdrix – the eye of a partridge – and goes on: “il est plein de feu, de montant, & de legereté; il est presque tout esprit” (“it is full of fire, of flavour, and of lightness; it is almost all spirit”). Just like in Erasmus, Arnoux presents us with the problem of copia: how to represent things in words. Word is added to word, to express through variety of language the abundance of matter. Wine, like language, is a cornucopia. And so, as we continue to try, and fail, to give expression to sense perception through metaphor, there is nothing for it but to open another bottle, and wonder if it might be, as for Erasmus, a cure for life’s ills or even a deus ex machina.
Brian Cummings FBA is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. His books include Mortal Thoughts: Religion, Secularity & Identity in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture (OUP, 2013), and an edition of The Book of Common Prayer: the Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662, which appeared in Oxford Worlds Classics in 2013. In 2012 he gave the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University on ‘Bibliophobia’, and in 2014 the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture at the Folger Library, coinciding with a NEH-sponsored conference on Shakespeare’s Biography. With Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge) he is leading the project “Remembering the Reformation”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2016 to 2019. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.