Above, from left to right: Herb paris (Paris quadrifolia) flourishing in the dappled shade of a quince tree in April (although typically four-leaved, five- and six-leaved forms of herb paris like these are not uncommon); a detail of the narrow-petaled, star-like green flower with golden stamens; detail of the single black fruit, ripening in late June. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.
Herbe Paris riseth up with one small tender stalke two hands high; at the very top come forth foure leaves directly set one against another in the manner of a Burgundian Crosse or True-love knot: for which cause among the Antients it has been called Herbe True-love.
—John Gerard, the Grete Herbal, or Generall Historie of Plants
Trew-loue among men is that most is of lette,
In hates, in hodes, in porses, is sette.
Trewe-loue in herbers spryngeth in May.
Bot trew-loue of herte went is away.
—Popular Middle English rhyme.
The leaves of herb paris suggested both the the cross of Christ and the true-love knot to the medieval mind, and both these resemblances were exploited allegorically. The popular Middle English rhyme quoted above alludes to the custom of placing the spring-blooming herb paris in hats, hoods, or purses as a charm for luck in love, while stressing how quickly such love is lost. (For the custom of adorning oneself with spring-blooming woodland plants, see “As I Went Out on a May Morning,” May 1, 2009.) The quatrain was set down in the fourteenth-century Fasciculus Morum, a handbook for Franciscan preachers. Susanna Greer Fein argues that herb paris was a plant associated as much with morality as with medicine in medieval English tradition; and that the plant’s link with true love was still current in the Renaissance. She finds that Paris quadrifolia was an oft-used emblem of the opposition between profane and spiritual love in late-medieval poems and sermons, and was employed simultaneously as a symbol of the transience of earthly love and as an emblem of the heavenly love expressed in the sign of the cross—this double valence informs elaborate poetic allegories like The Quatrefoil of Love.
Shakespeare scholars have noted suggestive links between specific herbs and their virtues and the dramatis personae of Romeo and Juliet, and Fein speculates that the name of Romeo’s rival for Juliet’s love, Count Paris, alludes to the plant still known as true-love—an allusion that would not be lost on an a sixteenth-century audience. The plant’s name is derived neither from the city of Paris nor from the Paris of mythology, but from the Latin pars, meaning “equal,” describing the symmetry of the four leaves arranged in a whorl around the single stem. The pairing of the leaves also suggested the pairing of lovers.
Shakespeare’s contemporary, the herbalist John Gerard, lists the medicinal properties of Paris quadrifolia, describing it as an extremely cold herb “whereby it represses the rage and force of poison,” both the fresh berries and the dried and powdered herb being administered over the course of twenty days as antidotes to such highly toxic substances as arsenic and mercury. Gerard cites the experiments of his Italian contemporary, the great Pietro Mattioli, in support of this regimen. Mattioli also noted that the black berries of herb paris were used as a remedy for those who had lost their minds through bewitchment, or in cases of epilepsy produced by the same agency. A seventeenth-century German source cited by Grigson corroborates this folk use of the fruit as an antidote for mental confusion due to supernatural causes. In such cases, the berries of this plant of parity were to be administered in unequal numbers—either three, five, seven, or nine—in order to restore the balance of the victim’s mind.
The fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis describes herb paris as as a plant belonging to Venus, of a cold and dry quality, useful in staunching both the flow of blood and intestinal flux. Grieve and other modern authorities agree that the seeds and berries are poisonous, producing nausea, vertigo, and convulsions, and the plant is no longer used in modern medicine, although minute quantities may be employed in homeopathic remedies.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Gerard, John. The Herbal, or General History of Plants. 1633 edition, revised and enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover Press, 1975.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
Fein, Susanna Greer. “Verona’s Summer Flower: The ‘Virtues’ of Herb Paris in Romeo and Juliet.” ANQ: American Notes and Queries. Vol. 8, Issue 4:5–9. CITY: PUBLISHER, 1995.
———.”The Four Leaves of the Truelove: Introduction.” Originally published in Moral Love Songs and Laments. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998.
Mabey, Richard. Flora Brittanica. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.
Tags: arsenic, Fasciculus Morum, Geoffrey Grigson, Grieve, herb paris, Hortus Sanitatis, John Gerard, Juliet, medicine, mercury, pars, Pietro Mattioli, poison, quadrifolia, quatrefoil of love, Romeo, Susanna Greer Fein, true love, Venus