Smelling ‘Violet’ in Renaissance Works

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).

To Make Muske Cakes

By Casey Mitchell

From a cultural perspective, odd foods are a common occurrence in the world today. Individuals from America might be horrified to eat something as foreign as monkey brains–a delicacy in Africa and India–or haggis, the Scots’ age-old recipe for beef-in-a-sheep’s bladder/stomach/what you will. Jane Baber’s Book of Receipts, compiled in 1625, contains several recipes that are, well, interesting, to say the least. Most of them have medicinal qualities of some sort, and, while nutritious, may be pungent or downright aromatic in their own way. One such recipe is “To Make Muske Cakes.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Musk? Like the really smelly ‘perfume’?” Yes, indeed. The very thought of including a glandular secretion from an animal into a recipe sounds fairly disgusting, right? The important part is not in its smell or taste, but its purpose, as musk grain, like most smelly ingredients, is used as “a remedy for very grave diseases known to all antique pharmacopeias”.[1]

The process of obtaining the musk itself is worth mentioning, as it can be long. During the period in which Jane Baber was collecting recipes, musk had been an international commodity for about 300 years. Marco Polo’s journey to the Orient in the late thirteenth century yielded the West’s first real encounter with the identity of the musk deer, the animal responsible for the big stink (pun intended). The animal itself, native to Kashmir, was hunted once a year for the two musk pods contained under the belly of the males, which gave off the odious secretions we’re so familiar with today. Once the secretions congealed, they became very much like coffee grounds, filling the glands with musk grain. According to a modern Kashmiri perfumer, “3 small grains of one gram are sufficient to make a liter of alcoholic perfume”.[1] Taking into account the offensiveness of the musk itself and the amount used in making perfume, Baber’s recipe calls for “2 grains of Muske,” making this a very smelly cake.

musk 1
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Other ingredients include, at the very start of the recipe, “gum dragon” or Tragacanth, to be laid “3 days in Bee water.” The plant itself is used in foods and pharmaceuticals as a binding agent, like flour and eggs in baking, and can be administered medicinally to treat both constipation and diarrhea.[2] The “Bee water” remains something of a mystery, being a possible reference to another early modern recipe entitled, “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours”.[3] The recipe itself involves the pulverizing of bees using a wooden mortar and pestle, straining the resulting juice, and drinking it to cure urinary blockages, which plays into the waste-managing qualities of the remaining ingredients of the Muske Cakes. Alternatively, it might refer to the syrupy sugar water used by beekeepers to supplement the diets of bees during late winter and early spring when honey and pollen are scarce. This particular concoction in its modern form is made of a heated combination of water, cane or beet sugar–and a small amount of apple cider vinegar to prevent the sugar from caramelizing, which can harm the bees.[4]

The inclusion of caraway seeds in the recipe fulfills the role of an added spice to the cake itself, which is also comprised of “one new laid eg” and “double refine sugar,” mixed in a mortar and pestle. Because this particular recipe doesn’t call for flour, yeast, or any other composite for making a bread-based cake, one would assume that the gum dragon would render the “cake” into something resembling a flan or Jell-O mold. The recipe calls for “the stuffe” to be laid on “wafers” before being put into the oven, to be made “as hott as you can that they maye bee well bakt.” Because I was so interested in what the final product of this oddity might look like, I searched for and found an image that might closely resemble it.

Musk Cakes 2
Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite. Source: Bubble and Sweet’s flickr photostream, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bubbleandsweet/5037947115/in/photostream.

The differences between this version of what the description referred to as a “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite” and Jane Baber’s version are many.[5] The main one, however, is that the ingredient of true musk grain is now very difficult to find, given that the musk deer has been hunted almost to extinction. Therefore, the musk utilized in the recipe pictured above is very likely taken from the derivative of a musk plant, which serves the same aromatic purpose, though not the medicinal one. The texture of the cake’s interior, however, appears to be pretty close to what I pictured as that of Baber’s.

While the medicinal purpose of Jane Baber’s musk cake is yet unknown, having possibly some connection with the digestive and laxative properties of gum dragon, its composition remains fairly simple. Its ingredients thereof, including artificial musk, can be found in most markets and health food stores. Buyers beware, however, as the smell of musk in a kitchen may be enough to put off the appetites of others! In short, I would only recommend this recipe to those who have no problem in adopting their own special fragrance.

[1.] AbdesSalaam Attar, “Moschus Moschiferus, The Kashmiri Musk Deer”, www.profumo.it, March 2006. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[2.] “Tragacanth”, www.webmd.com. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[3.] “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours.” British Library, Egerton MS 2608.

[4.] Tammy Curry, “How to Make Sugar Water for Bees” www.ehow.com15 August 2012. Dates accessed, 6 April 2013.

[5.] Linda V. “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite”, Bubble and Sweet’s Photostream, 29 July 2010. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

Casey Mitchell is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. Casey was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.