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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).

Translating Recipes 14: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 8 – BETWEEN 3

[This is the third of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first two parts, see here and here.]

The following is a translation of our long-translated Manchu medical recipe in dialogue form, to explore the between-ness of the recipe through a conversation among materials: fluid, powder, and flesh. In this dialogue-shaped translation of the recipe, the major characters are the major materials interacting in the story. There are three of them – Oil, Flour, Flesh – with an early cameo by Spoon. Here, the medium of the conversation is not sound, but instead touch and movement. When speech is touch rather than sound – when voicing is touching and enabling your conversation partner to be touched, moving and enabling your partner to be moved – then the conversation works somewhat differently from what we tend to expect. Here, a single instance of touching functions as a single unit of this touch-speech. The conversation becomes a dialogue in gestures and movements over, across, with, etc. The problem that animates the dialogue is the event that stimulates and initiates movement; resolution is the circumstance in which movement eases. It is a critical issue that must be resolved: a body has been poisoned.

Between: A Dialogue in Touch

Characters:

Flour

Spoon

Flesh

Oil

 

 

Flour: (pillowed powder pile, then a smooth arc planes the surface as a small spoon cuts through to measure out a portion)

Spoon: (smoothes a concavity in the powder before cradling it away to a bowl and releasing it to its next home)

Flour: (bids farewell, dissolving into liquid and becoming something new)

Flesh: (suffering from a relationship with a substance that does not wish it well; welcomes flour in its new liquid form, into its throatspace and down and down)

Flour: (meets flesh, tries to soothe its suffering as it passes through the throat and down, roils the unkind substance poisoning the flesh and tries to bring it back up and out again)

Flesh: (pulses after ejecting the flour from itself)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands)

Flesh: (bucks and roils, breaks and bleeds, angry and unplacated)

Oil: (keeps trying; drops into meat broth – or drops into buttered milk – and mixes and swirls)

Flesh: (takes the oil back into its throatspace and down and down and retches and roils and drinks…and again…and again…)

Oil: (pours from container to handflesh)

Flesh: (still roiling; flesh slides on flesh to warm the oil; hands slide oil over belly)

Oil: (warms and slides and soaks into belly and hands…and again…and again…)

Flesh: (roiling and retching…but less…and less…and on like that more and more gently…)

Oil: (sliding and dropping…now more faintly…and gently…and more gently)

Flesh: (stillness)

Oil: (stillness)

Translating Recipes 13: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 7 – BETWEEN 2

[This is the second of a three-part posting on BETWEEN-ness in recipes and their translation. For the first part, see here.]

Happy new year, readers of the Translating Recipes series! When last we met, I was telling you about the latest exploration of “Recipes in Time and Space” with some early thoughts on between-ness in recipes and beyond. We left off by considering the characteristics of the dialogue, a storytelling genre that embodies the spirit of between. You might want to take a moment to revisit that post, which addressed the importance of some basic components of the dialogue form: character, speech, and problem. Briefly put, in translating our Manchu medicinal recipe we would expect to see characters that are involved in some sort of a relationship speaking to one another about a central problem that animates the conversation.

For your reference and reminding, here is a straightforward rendering of the Manchu recipe that has been the focus of this series of translations:

A medicinal oil eliminating (harmful) poison.

One kind [of oil] used if a person has just been poisoned.

Before eliminating the poison, after taking a flour-based drug in accordance with the 30th prescription, and after that drug causes the poison to be vomited up, spread this oil on the navel part of the stomach.

If the person has consumed so much poison that a lot of internal things are going wrong and the condition has become very serious, after taking 15 – 20 drops of the oil and combining it with either the fatty broth from boiled meat, or butter combined with milk, drink it. Having already smeared this oil on the navel part of the stomach again after 2 erin periods, the following day smear it again two times.

If this has still not eliminated the poison, after taking one or more drops of this medicinal oil again according to the prescription, if you smear it according to the prescription all will be well.

When I think of translation as rendering, my thoughts now turn to the work of STS scholar and anthropologist Natasha Myers. We recently had a chance to talk about her new book, which explores many different senses of “rendering” – separating, surrendering, modeling, deciphering, and more – in a study that emphasizes the importance of movement and kinesthetics in making knowledge. That linking of rendering, movement, and materiality has inspired how I approach translation here, and specifically how I think about translating relationships and between-ness.

With that in mind, the translation that follows – a translation of our Manchu medical recipe in a spirit that emphasizes the between-ness inherent in the text – is going to take us back to the materiality of the recipe, letting us linger over the physical matter of the story and thus helping us understand the ways that between-ness creates material experience. This is a world where speech happens not with words, but in patterns of materials. What does the voice of a powder sound like? Is sound even the right medium for understanding the voicing of a powder? Can we hear it at all, or do we instead feel this voice via touch? What does the voice of a liquid sound (or feel) like? How do these voices communicate with each other in telling a larger story?

The translation takes the form of a dialogue, and this dialogue becomes a conversation among materials: flour, oil, flesh. Each material will have its own voice. (Though we are accustomed to associating speech and voice with the sonic, here voicing is something that happens through touch, not through sound.) The conversation will allow us to explore the conversational aspects of material experience itself. Thinking about the voices of powders and liquids and flesh in this way will help us to understand materials as individuals that engage in relationships with one another, that grow and develop and change as a result of those relationships. Tune in to Thursday’s post to read the full translation!

A Recipe for a Gothic Novel

By Katherine Bowers

Terrorist Novel Writing,” an anonymous essay that appeared in The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1797 (Volume 1), closes with the following recipe for creating a gothic novel in the style of popular author Ann Radcliffe, “should any of [the journal’s] female readers be desirous of catching the season of terrors, she may compose two or three pretty volumes”:

Take – An old castle, half of it ruinous.

A long gallery, with a great many doors, some secret ones.

Three murdered bodies, quite fresh.

As many skeletons, in chests and presses.

An old woman hanging by the neck; with her throat cut;

Assassins and desperados quant. suff.

Noises, whispers and groans, three-score at least.

Mix them together, in the form of three volumes, to be taken at any of the watering-places before going to bed.              PROBATUM EST.

 

Catherine Morland reading Udolpho, from the 1833 Bentley edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Image credit: public domain, digitized by ebooks@Adelaide)
Catherine Morland reading Udolpho, from the 1833 Bentley edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Image credit: public domain, digitized by ebooks@Adelaide)

This satirical piece plays with generic expectation to amuse readers. The recipe, a familiar domestic literary genre, has its own conventions: “Take–“; “Mix…”; “[T]o be taken.” The genre requires specificity: here, the castle is not just old, but must be also half ruined. The old woman is not only hanging, but her throat must also have been cut. Smaller words from the recipe lexicon appear to describe the precise arrangement of ingredients needed for this three-volume novel. The murdered bodies are not only meticulously quantified, but also specified as to quality, “quite fresh.” As the recipe continues, features of the Gothic novel that might normally be considered exceptional or unquantifiable are multiplied and quantified: assassins, desperados, noises, whispers and groans. When enumerated thus, such features become mundane… and funny.

The recipe formula exposes the formulaic quality of gothic novels, and such gothic recipes appeared regularly in journals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mixing these ingredients together, as gruesome as they are, always produces the same result, a fact attested to by the Latin postscript PROBATUM EST, a testimony that the recipe has been tested, and will work the same each time. The three volumes of the novel produced are objects for consumption, not artistic works. They are untitled and interchangeable.

The first wave of gothic novels published in Great Britain in the late eighteenth century introduced eager readers—most often young ladies—to a long list of terror-inducing conventions: ruined castles, haunted monasteries, incestuous abductions, demonic pacts, tortured corpses, and horrible secrets. The first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), lent the genre its name and featured a unique story line with alarming mysterious events such as death by giant helmet crushing. In the preface to The Old English Baron (1778), another early gothic novel that features a plot with a stolen inheritance, a rightful heir, and a ruinous castle, author Clara Reeve acknowledges her debt to Walpole. She sets out to “fix” Walpole’s errors, creating a new work, yet still describing her novel as “the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto.” As this example demonstrates, a growing genre is naturally imitative.

Death by giant helmet! Illustration from the 1824 edition of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (Image credit: Creative Common license, University of St. Andrews Library Special Collections, Fle PR1297.E23).
Death by giant helmet! Illustration from the 1824 edition of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (Image credit: Creative Common license, University of St. Andrews Library Special Collections, Fle PR1297.E23).

My research examines the influence of these gothic novels on Russian literature, decades after their original publication in Great Britain. As Orest Somov’s “Plan for a Novel à la Radcliffe,” published in May 1816 in the Kharkov Democrat, demonstrates, Russian critics also turned to a recipe text to satirize gothic novels:

 

 Robbers, an underground prison,

A tower, half a dozen owls;

Gleaming through ravines the moon has risen,

Wolves are baying, the wind howls;

Awful dreams torment my heroes

Fiery dragons, flying griffins from myth;

Fear, horror after them flows…

There you have it, a novel à la Radcliffe!

Somov’s “Plan” and the anonymous recipe above rely on the same methods for producing humor through mundanely quantifying atmospheric pieces. The ubiquity of the gothic genre’s typical props, settings, and tropes meant that critics considered them formulaic and unoriginal. These recipes suggest that creating novels in this vein is a matter of following a basic plan, implying that Radcliffe’s novels are imitative and easily reproduced.

However, while critics complained, the novels with their improbable plots and excessive horrors were widely popular, demonstrating that literary merit and public taste are not necessarily the same. Ann Radcliffe’s novels, in particular, were reprinted in multiple new editions each year; less than a decade after its original publication, by 1803, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), her most famous, had already been printed in five new editions in Britain. In early nineteenth-century Russia, her name on a cover was enough to make a best seller, and a number of books she did not write were attributed to her, including translations of Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796) and original novels written by Russian translators, who could produce new gothic novels faster than they could translate them.

Radcliffe was the most-read writer in late eighteenth-century Britain, and exercised influence, even abroad, years after her death. In the 1860s, Fyodor Dostoevsky, for example, recalls his childhood love for Radcliffe’s novels: “I used to spend the long winter hours before bed listening (for I could not yet read), agape with ecstasy and terror, as my parents read aloud to me from the novels of Ann Radcliffe. Then I would rave deliriously about them in my sleep.” This quote and others like it make me wonder: Are the critics right when they say that gothic novels are all basically the same? How can a repeated reading experience produce such a powerful effect? Even if gothic novels are formulaic, to have such an impact on a reader years afterward demonstrates their influence, so why were critics so reluctant to take them seriously? Can genre fiction ever be considered great literature?

Thinking about these gothic recipes, there’s more to them than just a demonstration of the formulaic nature of the genre. Recipes may produce the same result each time, but a recipe is repeated when the results are delicious. And when a novel is good, we devour it… or savor it, like a tasty meal. As even the “Terrorist Novel Writing” author acknowledges, three-volume novels of terror taken before bed in a leisurely way can be very pleasant indeed.

Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture. Currently she is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism.

[1] Cited and translated in: Alessandra Tosi, Waiting for Pushkin: Russian Fiction in the Reign of Alexander I (1801-1825) (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), 84-85.

[2] Fedor Dostoevskii, Zimnie zametki o letnikh vpechetleniiakh, in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 30 tomakh (Moscow: Nauka, 1972-1990), Volume 5, 46. Translated by David Patterson, in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 1-2.