Tag Archives: John Gerard

Prick’t By Benedictus: Blessed Thistle and Much Ado About Nothing

Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons
Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula by John Sutcliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

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.

Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinque foil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Painting of Carduus benedictus (holy thistle) & Potentilla reptans (creeping cinquefoil) from The Romance of Nature, Louisa Anne Meredith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.


Exploring CPP 10a214: Pages from Gerard’s Herbal

By Rebecca Laroche with Hillary Nunn

In recent months, as part of our continuing exploration of the unique and marvelous manuscript at the College of Physicians, Hillary Nunn and I have been examining the nature of sources as they are or are not delineated in the collection. Whether divine (12/03/2013) or noble (09/04/2013) in origin, each recipe has revealed something about the nature of the overall collection at the same time it makes connections to other manuscripts in other repositories. This month, I have chosen to focus on two entries that leave no doubt to their origin, and, in naming their origin, point to the larger cultural practice by women in the period.

On folios 26 and 27 the compiler, “Cal: Downing,” records two wound remedies “probatum per” [proved by] Elizabeth Downing. The first is an oil made from St. John’s wort, the second a salve from English tobacco or henbane. Such wound recipes are common in seventeenth-century collections, but what is unusual is the addenda attached to the end of the recipes by either the compiler or by the source Elizabeth Downing. On page 26, the compiler writes, “Master Gerrard saith folio, 433, that it is good as any balsom and there is not a better oyle in the world”, and on page 27, “this Master Gerrard saith folio 285, hath gotten him both Crownes and Credit”. Upon investigation, I indeed found the recipes in the entries for the corresponding herbs on page 433 and 285 of the 1597 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, the most popular treatise on plants and their medicinal uses from the time.

I have shown elsewhere that women from the sixteenth and seventeenth century regularly owned/read large authoritative herbals. This instance and two others found since 2009 bring the total up to 28.[1] Recipe books provide regular evidence of this reading. Indeed, Elizabeth Digby’s “Receipts Approved by Persons of qualitie and iudgment” (1650) even contains the same directions for St. John’s Wort Oil as the CPP manuscript, as well as another “To make Gerrards excellent Balsome” made from Peruvian Henbane, or Tobacco proper.[2] Elaine Leong has analyzed Elizabeth Freke’s extensive copying of Gerard in the British Library collection.[3] The Wellcome Library, so often invoked in the Recipe Project, also has a “Booke of Hearbes and Receipts” (Wellcome MS 169), owned by Elizabeth Bulkeley and dated 1627, that begins with 23 Gerardian entries on common English plants.

The reasons for this general practice of copying could be indicative of thrift, a gift, or a means of rote memorization, but the Downing entries stand out in the way they cite the source, revealing the text behind the text. In citing Gerard’s authority, the compiler adds evidence to Elizabeth Downing’s “probatum,” or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Elizabeth Downing’s “probatum” adds proof to Gerard’s published assertion.

This is the fourth in a series of monthly posts on the topic.

[1] This blog entry extends the work of my introductory chapter in Medical Authority and Englishwomen’s Herbal Texts, 1550–1650 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009) into our discoveries about CPP 10a214.
[2] British Library MS Egerton 2197, Images 38 and 25 in the database Defining Gender (Adam Matthews), Online.
[3] Elaine Leong, “Medical Recipe Collections in Seventeenth-Century England: Knowledge, Gender, and Text” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2005/06). See also Elizabeth Freke, The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671-1714, ed. Raymond A. Anselment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Royal Historical Society, 2001).