Archive for May, 2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Women and the Medieval Garden

Honor Making a Chaplet of Roses

Above: Honor Making a Chaplet of Roses, ca. 1425–1450. South Netherlandish. Wool warp, wool wefts; 93 x 108 in. (236.2 x 274.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1959 (59.85). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

The theme of this year’s Garden Days at The Cloisters is the relationship between women and gardens, real or imaginary, in the Middle Ages. Please join me at noon on Saturday, June 4, and Sunday, June 5, for enticing views into the hortus conclusus of the Virgin Mary, the convent cloister garth, and the delightful pleasure grounds of medieval romance, inhabited by elegant ladies. In Bonnefont garden, we’ll focus on women’s role in practical horticulture and on plants in medieval health, healing, beauty, and housekeeping, especially herbs mentioned in the works produced by the brilliant twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen and those attributed to the legendary Dame Trotula of Salerno.

In addition to this special gallery/garden talk, you’ll have the opportunity to meet the gardeners, enjoy tours of the gardens, hear readings from the Romance of the Rose, participate in a family workshop, and see a demonstration of medieval embroidery techniques.

Learn more about the programs scheduled for June 5 and 6.

I’ll post again after the event and a short break.

—Deirdre Larkin

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hart’s Tongue

Asplenium Scolopendrium

The hart’s tongue fern, named for a fancied resemblance to the tongue of the male red deer, was used medicinally for centuries but is now grown as an ornamental plant. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt

Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium, also known as Phyllitis scolopendrium) is a European member of a very large family of ferns, the Aspleniaceae, or spleenwort family. The family includes nine genera and some seven hundred species. The straplike leaves were employed in ancient and medieval medicine. Dioscorides remarks on the bitterness of the leaves, but recommends that they be drunk with wine as an antidote to snakebite; he also prescribes a draught of ‘phyllitis’ for dysentery and diarrhea (De Materia medica, III.121). The fifteenth-century Herbarius Latinus advocated a decoction of A. scolopendrium, drunk for forty days, to dissolve blockages of the spleen. The fern was also said to ease gout, clear eyes, heal fresh wounds, cool fever, and remove warts and pustules. The U.C.L.A. Index of Medieval Medical Images includes a realistic representation of lingua cervina, or deer’s tongue, from an Italian herbal dated to about 1500.

The leathery, undulating fronds of this attractive, easily grown woodland plant are not divided, as many ferns are; ornamental forms with exaggerated undulations (see image) or crested tips have been developed. Although the fern is hardy to U.S.D.A. Zone 5 and is evergreen in milder climates, we find it necessary to remove all the old fronds in early spring.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.

Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eagle or Dove?

Columbine Flowering under Quince Aquilegia vulgaris

Columbine flowering under a quince tree in Bonnefont garden. Columba is Latin for “dove,” and the flower is named for the fancied resemblance of its nectaries to a circle of doves. The modern botanical name, Aquilegia, also links the blossom with a bird, but refers to the Latin for eagle, aquila. Both avian associations were current in the Middle Ages. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

A number of the medieval names for the delightful Aquilegia vulgaris, a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family, were suggested by the resemblance of the flower’s nectaries to a circle of birds, whose wings extend downward from their incurving necks, as if they were feeding from a dish. According to Albertus Magnus the name aquilegia was taken from aquila, the Latin for “eagle.” While Richard Mabey and others presume that the identification with the eagle was made on the basis of the “winged” nectaries, Maude Grieve claims that the spurs of the flowers were thought to resemble the raptor’s talons, although she provides no historical source for this identification. Hildegard of Bingen referred to the columbine as agleya. (For more on Hildegard of Bingen, see “Mutter Natur” (October 15, 2010). The modern German name for the columbine is akelei, and the plant is still known in Italy as aquilina.

In both French and English, the plant is commonly known as “columbine,” in keeping with the medieval columbina from the Latin for dove or pigeon. The herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius attributes the name not to the form, but to the color of the flower, which is said to resemble that of the columba.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.

Bedevian, Armenag K. Illustrated Polyglottic Dictionary of Plant Names in Latin, Arabic, Armenian, English, French, German, Italian and Turkish Languages. Cairo: Argus & Papazian Presses, 1936.

Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1956.

Mabey, Richard. Flora Brittanica. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996.

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.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Swallow Wort

Greater Celandine Broken Stem of Greater Celandine (detail)

Greater celandine, or swallow wort, has an ancient association with the common European swallow; it was believed that mother birds dropped the juice of the celandine into the eyes of their blind fledglings. The plant and the bird were linked for many centuries, and celandine’s reputation as a sovereign remedy for clearing eyes and sharpening the sight outlasted the Middle Ages.  Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

It seems to be called Chelidonia because it springs out of the ground together with ye swallows appearing, & doth wither with them departing. Somme have related that if any of the swallowes’ young ones be blinde, the dames bringing this herbe, doe heale the blindness of it.

—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II: 211

The greater celandine, Chelidonium majus is native to Europe and western Asia, but is widely naturalized in waste places in the eastern United States, where it is commonly known as “swallow wort.” For more information, see the U.S.D.A. Plants Database. (Chelidonium majus is characterized as greater celandine, to distinguish it from an altogether different species, Ranunculus ficaria, widely known as lesser celandine.) Read more »