This pretty yellow flower, gathered since the Middle Ages when “bringing in the May,” was known in Middle English by various names, including primerose, primerole, and cowslyppe. Photograph by Carly Still
Primula veris, literally the “first little one of spring,” was known in Middle English as prymerole and as prymerose, or “the first rose.” It was also known as cowslip, a name thought to be derived from “cow slop” or dung, perhaps because it grew in meadows and pastures where cattle grazed. The names prymerole and prymerose came from the Latin through Old French, and were shared with the cowslip’s relative, the common primrose (Primula vulgaris). As Geoffrey Grigson notes in his fascinating compendium of plant lore, The Englishman’s Flora, it can be very difficult to distinguish which of the two species is meant in early sources. Renaissance plantsmen like William Turner, John Gerard, and John Parkinson tried to clarify the confusion caused by the shared common names; as late as the eighteenth century, the great Swedish naturalist and taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus considered the cowslip, the common primrose, and the oxlip (Primula elatior; see image) to be forms of the same species.
In the last two stanzas of his early poem “The Court of Love,” Geoffrey Chaucer describes a May Day outing to the greenwood to gather green branches and fresh flowers, and the primrose is among them. The cowslip’s career as a celebratory May flower outlasted the Middle Ages: cowslips are among the flowers used to deck the Maypole in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native; and, for those we who have the good luck “to live in a cowslip country,” Gertrude Jekyll’s 1908 book Children and Gardens gave instructions for making a cowslip ball, or “tissty-tosstie,” to “bring in the May.” (For more on “bringing in the May,” see my earlier post “As I Went Out on a May Morning,” May 1, 2009). Unlike some other May-blooming plants that opened when the cuckoo sang and were linked both with sexuality and death in the Middle Ages (cuckoo-pint and early purple orchis are two examples), the cheerful, yellow-flowering cowslip seems to have been wholly positive in its associations. (For more on “cuckoo plants,” see “Adam and Eve and Arum,” May 22, 2009.) A fairy flower in Shakespeare, cowslips are invoked in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Scene I) and in The Tempest (Act V, Scene I; multiple renderings of Ariel’s famous song have been compiled by LibriVox.)
Cowslips are as well represented in art as in literature, and are one of the spring flowers that carpet the garden floor in the famous fifteenth-century Little Garden of Paradise painted by the Upper Rhenish Master (St??del Museum). Jean Bourdichon portrayed both primroses and cowslips in the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, but the most famous rendering is probably Albrecht D??rer’s study The Tuft of Cowslips (National Gallery of Art), painted in 1526.
The Noble Boke off Cookry gives a recipe for a sweet pottage made of primerole and ground almonds; the flowerbuds were eaten in salads, and the young leaves boiled as a potherb. Cowslip also had medicinal virtues, against spiritual as well as physical ills. Hildegard of Bingen’s use of the name hymelsloszel, or “keys of heaven,” indicates that she is referring specifically to Primula veris: the fancied resemblance of the hanging flowers to a bunch of keys had pagan and Christian forms; once associated with the Norse goddess Freya, they came to be linked with the Virgin and Saint Peter:
Primrose (hymelsloszel) is hot. All its vital energy is from the sharpness of the sun. Now, certain plants are strengthened by the sun, others by the moon, and certain others by the sun and moon together. But this plant takes its strength especially from the power of the sun, whence it checks melancholy. When melancholy rises in a person, it makes him sad and agitated in his moods. It makes him pour forth words against God. Airy spirits notice this, and rush to him, and by their persuasion turn him toward insanity. This person should place primrose on his flesh, near his heart, until it warms him up. The airy spirits dread the primrose’s sun-given power and will cease their torment.
???Physica, Book CCIX
According to the fifteenth-century herbal Hortus Sanitatis, cowslips were warming and drying in action, and were good for headache and catarrh. Oil of primrose rejuvenated the elderly and alleviated sufferings associated with the pains and cold of winter. When given in wine or dropped in the ears, this oil was good for palsy, and restored the faculties of those paralyzed by apoplexy. The nodding flower heads of the cowslip were a sign of its usefulness against trembling of the limbs, as the freckled throats of the flowers were an indication of its efficacy in removing spots and pimples from the skin.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Freeman, Margaret B. Herbs for the Medieval Household. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
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.