The sweet-smelling, short-stemmed garden violet (Viola odorata) blooms from late March into April. Prized in medieval pleasure gardens for its color and scent, this violet was also at home in kitchen and physic gardens. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt
Native to woodland margins and damp and shady places throughout Europe, the early blooming Viola odorata was prized for its fragrance as well as its rich purple color. The sweet violet is included in Albertus Magnus’ list of desirable flowers for the pleasure garden, along with the lily and the rose. These three flowers are often linked symbolically as well as horticulturally in medieval sources, as flowers of Paradise and as emblems of the Virgin—the low-growing but beautiful and sweet-scented violet was equated with Mary’s humility.
Violets had medicinal virtues as well. The Tacuinum Sanitatis describes them as cold in the first degree and moist in the second. Smelling violets was enough to calm the frenzied, and drinking a preparation made from violets would purify bilious humors. Hildegard of Bingen provides a recipe for oil of violets as a cure for blurred vision:
Violet is between hot and cold [and is of an especially sober color]. Although it is cold, it grows from the [mild, gentle] air which after winter is beginning to warm up. It is valuable against fogginess of the eyes. Take good oil, and boil it in a new pot, either in the sun or over a fire. When it boils, put violets in so that it becomes thickened. Put this in a glass vessel and save it. At night put this unguent around the eyelids and eyes. Although it shan’t touch the inside of the eyes, it will expel the fogginess.
—Book CII, Physica
Hildegard goes on to recommend an unguent made of violets against vermin on the body, and violets cooked in pure wine to check melancholy in conjunction with afflicted lungs. (For more about Hildegard, see “Mutter Natur,” October 15, 2010). The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus emphasizes the cooling, moistening, and cleansing properties of violet, and the Hortus Sanitatis recommends a decoction of the plant to assuage thirst.
Violets were grown in medieval kitchen gardens as well as medicinal gardens; both the young leaves and the flowers were eaten in salads, and conserves and syrups were made from the flowers. Violets and other Viola species like pansies are still widely used as edible flowers, and fresh or candied violets are used in confectionery. A medieval recipe for “Vyolette,” a dessert made from violet petals, almond milk, and rice flour, is available on the Gode Cookery website.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.