Posts Tagged ‘Dioscorides’
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.
Coltsfoot blooming in a pot in Bonnefont garden. The scaly stems and bright yellow blossoms of this early-spring-blooming member of the daisy family emerge well before the foliage; the hoof-shaped leaves appear only after the flowers have set seed. This notoriously invasive Eurasian species is best grown in a container. Photograph by Carly Still
Tussilago farfara, known in the Middle Ages under the Latin names ungula caballina (”horse hoof”) and pes pulli (”foal’s foot”), is still called coltsfoot, ass’s foot, or bull’s foot in English, pas-de-poulain in French, pie d’asino in Italian, and hufflatich in German. These names all derive from the fancied resemblance of the young leaf to the foot of a quadruped. See an image of the plant in leaf. A slideshow of images of Tussilago farfara in all stages of growth is available at Arkive.org.
No mader, welde, or wood no litestre
Ne knew; the flees was of his former hewe;
Ne flesh ne wiste offence of egge or spere.
No coyn ne knew man which was fals or trewe,
No ship yet karf the wawes grene and blewe,
No marchaunt yit ne fette outlandish ware.
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Former Age, ll. 17–22
Above, left: Dyer’s madder, a rough perennial herb native from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, grows in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval arts and crafts in Bonnefont cloister. The dried and pulverized roots of madder afforded a strong, fast red. Right: Detail from The Unicorn Defends Itself (from the Unicorn Tapestries). A range of colors—from pinks through bright reds, purplish reds, and oranges—could be achieved with madder, depending on the mordant used and the way in which the madder was combined with other colorants. (See Collections for more information about this work of art.)
The antiquity of the dyer’s craft is conveyed by Chaucer’s inclusion of the ignorance of madder, weld, and woad, the holy trinity of medieval dye plants, in his description of a period so remote and so devoid of the arts of civilization as to predate the use of knives, spears, coins, and ships. The use of madder is especially ancient, as demonstrated by this fragment of an Egyptian leather quiver in the Museum’s collection that may date to the 3rd millennium B.C.
Left: A wallflower in Bonnefont garden shows a cheerful yellow in late November. Wallflowers require a cold period to bloom, and generally flower in spring. Our plants were started indoors from seed and planted out in the garden this summer; the autumn chill spurred them into bloom. Right: Detail of a wallflower blooming above a hunter’s head in The Hunters Enter the Woods (from the Unicorn Tapestries).
The stalks of the Wall floure are full of green branches, the leaves are long, narrowe, smooth, slippery, of a blackish greene colour, and lesser than the leaves of stocke Gillofloures. The floures are small, yellow, very sweete of smell, and made of foure little leaves; which being past, there succeed long slender cods, in which is contained flat reddish seed. The whole plant is shrubby, of a wooddie substance, and can easily endure the colde of winter.
—John Gerard, “Of wall-Floures, or yellow Stocke-Gillo-floures,” Chap. 119, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants, 1633
The sweetly perfumed common wallflower (Erysimum cheiri) belongs to the mustard family, or Brassicaceae, along with such pungent vegetables as cabbage and horseradish. It is in no way related to the sweet violet, Viola odorata, or to the spicy-smelling clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), but it bore ancient and medieval names associated with both, to the confusion of plant and garden historians. The name “violet” was applied to more than one sweet-smelling species by the ancients; the French girofle and the English “gillyflower” given to the pink derived from the Latin name for clove, but in England a number of fragrant garden flowers in the mustard family, including stock (Matthiola incana), dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), and wallflower, were all known as “stock gilliflowers.” John Harvey, an authority on medieval plants and gardens, identified the sweet-smelling kheiri mentioned in medieval Islamic sources with this same group of closely related plants. The fourteenth-century Dominican friar and horticulturist Henry Daniel didn’t regard the yellow wallflower, a native of Southern Europe, as a well-known plant in England, although he admired it and thought it easy to grow. While Daniel notes that the plant was called keyrus by the Saracens, it was known to him as Viola major, or “great violet.”
The Greek herbalist Dioscorides had discussed several plant forms under the single name of “Leukion,” or “white violet.” He noted that there were white, yellowish, blue, and purplish varieties of leukion, and that the yellowish variety was best for medicinal use. Medieval herbalists followed Dioscorides in regarding all these forms as varieties of a single plant, but Renaissance botanists and plantsmen like William Turner and John Gerard distinguished between the white or purplish-flowering “stock gilliflowers” and the yellow-flowering “cheiry,” or wallflower, in their reading of Dioscorides.
The history of the common English name “wallflower” is less convoluted: Gerard says that the wallflower grows on brick and stone walls, in the corners of churchyards everywhere, and on rubbish heaps and other stony places, flowering all year long, but especially in winter.
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. The Complete 1633 Edition as Revised and Enlarged by Thomas Johnson. New York: Dover, 1975.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Harvey, John H. “Gilliflower and Carnation.” Garden History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 46-5
____Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981
Turner, William. The Names of Herbes, A.D. 1548. Edited by James Britten. London: N. Trübner & Co., 1881.
From right to left: A small start of wild or creeping thyme, a native of Northern Europe, in a terra rossa pot; detail of a planting of common or garden thyme, indigenous to the Western Mediterranean, growing in a sunny bed under the parapet wall in Bonnefont cloister. Although these two plants are easily distinguished in the garden, it can be difficult to know which of several species of thyme is under discussion in ancient and medieval sources.
There are hundreds of species in the genus Thymus, and a large and confusing array of hybrids and cultivated forms. Ancient and medieval sources agree on the heating and drying properties of thyme, which is still greatly valued for its antibacterial and antifungal properties, but the species known in the European Middle Ages were not those of the ancients. The attempt to equate the plants discussed by Dioscorides in the De Materia Medica with more familiar species would occupy botanists well into the Renaissance.
The blue-green fronds of rue were admired for their beauty in the Middle Ages, and the intensely aromatic leaves were prized as a condiment, a medicament, and an amulet. Photograph by Carly Still
Here is a shadowed grove which takes its color
From the miniature forest of glaucous rue.
Through its small leaves and short umbels which rise
Like clusters of spears it sends the wind’s breath
And the sun’s rays down to its roots below.
Touch it but gently and it yields a heavy
Fragrance. Many a healing power it has —
Especially, they say, to combat
Hidden toxin and to expel from the bowels
The invading forces of noxious poison.
—Hortulus, Walahfrid Strabo, translated by Raef Payne
Crithmon, some call it Critamon, is a little shrubbie herbe, thick of leaves, the height of it is about a cubit, growing in rockie and maritime places, being full of fatt, and whitish leaves, like unto those of Purcelane, yet thicker & longer & salt to ye tast.
—Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, Book II: 157
Rock samphire is one of several maritime species grown in Bonnefont herb garden. This edible plant was foraged rather than cultivated in the Middle Ages; it also had medicinal uses. Below, left to right: Samphire in bloom; the flower structure is typical of the Apiaceae, a large family of aromatic plants. Ripening seedheads; the name “crithmon” by which the plant was known in antiquity is thought to derive from the Greek word for barley, as the seeds resemble the grain.
Left: Roses are one of the special attributes of Saint Dorothea, as shown in the detail of this stained-glass panel; Right: Rosa gallica officinalis blooming in Bonnefont garden. Remarkably, the rose has retained its ancient name in dozens of modern languages.
The rose has been known by the same name throughout Europe since antiquity. It began as vrda in ancient Persia (related to the modern Arabic warda) and became known as rhodon to the nearby ancient Greeks. (Oddly, the modern Greek for rose is triantafillo, meaning “thirty leaves,” while rhodon remains in our “rhododendron,” meaning “rose tree”). By the time of the Roman Empire the name had become rosa, immediately recognizable in most modern European languages—rosa (Italian and Spanish), roos (Dutch), ros (Swedish), rosier (French)—and many others, including the Japanese rozu.
Sesame, also known as “benne,” is a tender, large-leaved, Asian annual grown here in Bonnefont garden. Sesame has been cultivated for some five thousand years and was known to many cultures in antiquity. Although the plant is somewhat rangy and coarse in habit, the tubular flower (above, left) is attractive. The immature green pods (above, right), which will split and spill out their seeds when ripe, contain one of the world’s oldest domesticated oilseeds. The seeds also have a long history of use as a seasoning. Photographs by Carly Still.
A cultivated plant of fabulous antiquity, sesame (Sesamum indicum) is known as simsim in Arabic, susam in Turkish, sesam in German, sésame in French, sesamo in Italian, and sesame in Spanish. Called sesemt by the ancient Egyptians, it was also grown in Ethiopia in very early times. Sesame seeds were taken from West Africa to America by slave traders; the name “benne” derives from the West African benni. Sesame had long been grown in India and Persia, and was introduced to China by the end of the fifth century A.D. Read more »