Friday, May 10, 2013

When This You See, Remember Me

forget-me-not girl-with-garland

The forget-me-not’s associations with love and remembrance date to the Middle Ages, and were expressed in both the Old French and Middle High German names for this pretty little flower. Left: a pot of forget-me-nots on the parapet in Bonnefont garden. Photograph by Carly Still; Right: a young woman making a chaplet of forget-me-nots on the reverse of a portrait of a young man painted by Han Suess von Kulmbach. The legend on the banderole says “I bind with forget-me-nots.” See Collections for more information about this work of art.

A medieval symbol of love and remembrance that still decorated many a Victorian valentine, the forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) was already known as ne m’oubliez mye in Old French and as vergiz min niht in Middle High German. The etymological and iconographic evidence for the forget-me-not’s medieval significance is ample, but the frequently repeated story of a German knight who tossed the forget-me-nots he had picked for his lady to her as he drowned, imploring her to remember him, is of the “as legend has it” variety. Margaret Freeman, who cites the use of forget-me-not as a token of steadfastness by several fifteenth-century German love poets, speculates that the color blue, associated with fidelity in the Middle Ages, may have contributed to the flower’s meaning.

The forget-me-not was depicted with some frequency in fifteenth-century art, in both secular and religious contexts, and appears in the works of Rogier van der Weyden, Stefan Lochner, Vittore Carpaccio, and Luca Signorelli. The exiled Lancastrian Henry Bolingbroke adopted the forget-me-not as his personal emblem, retaining it when he gained the throne of England as Henry IV.

Myosotis cymes

The specific name scorpioides, i.e., “scorpion-like,” was given to the plant as early as the sixteenth century because the coiled inflorescence suggests the curving tail of a scorpion. The pale pink buds turn blue as the flower opens, indicating that the plant belongs to the borage family (for another member of the borage family, see “Lungwort,” April 28, 2013). Photograph by Carly Still

The flower came to be called “forget-me-not” in English, but not before the mid-sixteenth century, when it was borrowed from the Old French. The herbalist John Gerard gave no vernacular name for the plant known to him as Myosotis scorpioides, but designated it by the book name “scorpion grass,” shared with another Mediterranean species in the bean family (Scorpiurus sulcatus), whose coiled pods resembled a scorpion’s tail (see image). (This “scorpiurus” was identified with the “skorpioides” of Dioscorides, recommended for the scorpion-smitten; De Materia Medica, Book IV, 195.)

The curved cymes of the boraginaceous forget-me-not were similarly suggestive, and the same name was applied. (The Greek botanical name of this genus of some fifty species means “mouse ear” and refers to the shape of the leaf. Myosotis scorpioides is also known as M. palustris, or swamp forget-me-not, because of its preference for wet places.)

Forget-me-nots seem to have had a purely symbolic significance; Hildegard of Bingen deems them neither hot nor cold, having no medicinal or other use, and doing more harm than good if eaten (Physica, CXXIV).

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Behling, Lottlisa. Die Planze in der Mittelalterlichen Tafelmalerei. Weimar: H. Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1957.

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

Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.

Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.

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.

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