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

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 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’s we re-feature a post by Colleen Kennedy, first published in August 2013. I think that it fits very well with our conversations this month, don’t you?

Enjoy the spring flowers, everyone!

Elaine

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By Colleen Kennedy

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).

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.