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Herbs and the Written Word

( Originally Published 1933 )



In Exodus it is told how the Jews made burnt offerings of incense, and the priests anointed themselves and the sacred vessels with fragrant oils made from myrrh, cinnamon, sweet calamus, and cassia.

Exodus 31 :

This shall be an holy anointing oil unto me throughout your generations. Upon man's flesh shall it not be poured, neither shall ye make any other like it, after the composition of it; it is holy and it shall be holy unto you.

In Matthew, Chapter 23, verse 23, are the lines:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith; these ought ye to have done and not to leave the other undone.

The first European to write on plants was the Greek Theophrastus, called the father of botany, who was born in 370 B.C. He was a pupil of Plato and later of Aristotle. His writings are fresh and unaffected and give glimpses of everyday life at the height of Greek glory. He describes how perfumes were compounded from thyme, bergamot, mint, saffron, lilies, sweet marjoram, and iris, and mentions the same fixatives and tropical spices as compose the perfumes of today. He gives a list of "coronary herbs" and says the garland makers' favorites are the gilliflowers and wallflowers. Speaking of savory, "Inquiry into Plants," he says:

Savory and still more marjoram has a conspicuous fruitful seed, but in thyme it is not easy to find being somehow mixed up with the flower; for men sow the flower and plants come up from it. This plant is sought and obtained by those in Athens who wish to export such herbs . . . they say it can not be grown or become established where the breeze from the sea does not reach. This is why it does not grow in Arcadia while savory, marjoram and such plants are common in many parts.

He speaks of wild thyme :

... which they bring from the mountains and plant at Sicyon, or from Hymettus and plant at Athens; and in other districts the mountains and hills are quite covered with it, for instance, in Thrace.

And of saffron he says, after describing the leaves:

The root is large and fleshy and the whole plant vigorous; it loves ever to be trodden on and grows fairer when the root is crushed into the ground by the foot : wherefore it is fairest along the roads and in well-worn places.

Theophrastus must have had numerous followers, be-cause Pliny speaks of having studied five hundred Greek and Roman authors, amongst whom there were surely some botanists and doctors. The three most important writers about plants in classical times are Galen, Dioscorides, and Pliny, because they are continuously quoted by later authors, both Christian and Mohammedan. Until the eighteenth century it was more admirable to be learned than to be original, and most books began with the Creation, even as I am doing now, and often did not travel beyond the Greek and Roman classics.

Claudius Galen, or Galen of Pergamus, lived from 130-200 A.D. and was a physician to Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, and wrote many books. One of his lesser achievements is the invention of Cold Cream. The formula, known as Ceratum Galeni, is given by Piesse, in "The Art of Perfumery." I have had it made up and find it a delightful and most efficacious cream. It may be found on page 284.

Dioscorides Anazarbeus of the first and second century A.D. was another physician whose treatments and remedies were handed down through the centuries. His chief commentator and translator was Matthiolus, the first edition of whose works appeared in 1544.

Caius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny, was born in A.D. 23. He was a traveler, soldier, administrator in Spain, and courtier, yet he found time to acquire the entire sum of human knowledge of his day. Much of his work was a compilation from his reading, but he also included his own observations. His easy, gossipy style is so amusing that it is not at all surprising his writings have delighted all scholars from his day to ours. It has been difficult to limit oneself to quoting only a few lines from "Natural History" translated by John Bostock, and H. T. Riley, 1856, Bohn Classical Library, Book XIX, Chapter 46:

Parsley is sown immediately after the vernal equinox, the seed being lightly beaten first in a mortar. It is thought that by doing this the parsley will be all the more crisped, or else by taking care to beat it down, when sown, with a roller or the feet. It is a peculiarity of this plant that it changes color; it has the honour in Achaia of forming the wreath of the victors in the sacred contests of the Nemean Games.

Chapter 53—The Poppy:

... That the poppy has always been held in high esteem among the Romans, we have proof in the story related of Tarquinius Superbus, who, by striking down the tallest poppies in his garden, surreptitiously conveyed his sanguinary message, unknown to them, through the envoys who had been sent by his son.

Chapter 57—The Maladies of Garden Plants :

The garden plants, too, like the rest of the vegetable productions, are subject to certain maladies. Thus, for instance, ocimum, when old, degenerates into wild thyme and sisymbrium into mint, while the seeds of old cabbage produce rape and vice versa. . . .

Out of the classical writers about herbs grew the herbals, which were generally ponderous tomes, containing a compilation of herb lore from previous writers with more or less contemporary material added. They are a mixed border in which medicinal remedies, cookery recipes, and botanical descriptions of plants are intermingled, and must have constituted valuable household encyclopedias for the castles and monasteries that possessed them.

The first herbals were manuscripts, and a very early one is that of Apuleius Platonicus, who lived in Africa in the fourth or fifth century, which is thought to be based on Dioscorides. It was repeatedly copied and one of these made in England in A.D. 1100 finally came to the Bodleian Library. This has been reproduced in modern days by the Oxford University Press. Gunther, who wrote the introduction, when speaking of the illustrations, says that although the original paintings which illustrated these early herbals may have been from nature, through repeated copying they became more and more conventionalized until they ceased to bear any likeness to the plants they were supposed to represent. Furthermore, the plants from which the first pictures were taken belonged to a southern flora and were not available to the artist who was doing the illustrations.

From the first, the plants were described in the herbals more or less as in Gerard's which appeared in 1597, where the headings were as follows: The Kindes, The Descriptions, The Place (where to "set" them), The Time (when they flower), The Names (names in many languages), The Temperature (it was thought all plants were either hot or cold in their effects), and The Vertues.

The printed herbals first appeared during the last quarter of the fifteenth century and from then until the end of the seventeenth a large crop of them grew in Germany, France, England, and Italy. The authors copied from each other, stole one another's plates, and behaved in general—shall we say—with medieval morality? The influence of the classical authorities was strong and the herbalist spent much time in commenting and wondering which plants growing in England or France would fit the descriptions of Galen or Pliny.

Arabic Spain contributed a share to herb lore, and although this has been translated into European languages only since the first half of the nineteenth century, the Arabic practices in agriculture had been carried wherever the Spaniards settled colonies. The writings of Ibn Baithar, a physician and botanist who lived in Malaga in the thirteenth century, have been translated into German. He, too, quotes from Galen and Dioscorides, but he also quotes from Arabic, Persian, Syrian, and Indian sources. Another writer was Ibn Al Awam, who called himself "The Illustrious Sheik," and lived and gardened near Seville. In his "The Book of Agriculture," written in 1158, which has come to us in a French translation, he described his own gardening experiences and those of his neighbors and also quotes from classical and Mesopotamian authorities. As with all Mohammedans, who are forbidden to drink wine, he stressed the distinctions between different waters, and when he speaks of the violet he says:

The violet only likes soft light waters from rivers and fountains, heavy waters such as come from wells render it languishing and often kill it. . . . it should not come into contact with dust from a tomb nor with earth coming from cemeteries; that would cause it to weaken and a lengthy contact might cause complete destruction.

Of lavender, he says :

The Persians are enthusiastic about the virtues of this plant; they consider it as an object of benediction; they say if one gazes upon it for a long while the soul experiences a joy, and that it dissipates sorrow, which comes from an unknown cause . . .

Slowly the roots of horticulture and botany were shaken free from their entanglements with medicine and magic, although they were still intertwined with cookery. By the end of the sixteenth century, books which combined gardening and cookery appeared in France and England.

"Les Délices de la Campagne," written by Louis XIV'S valet, Nicolas de Bonnefons, appeared in Paris in 1654. "The Delights of the Country" consisted in growing one's vegetables and then eating them as well as the birds and game from one's country estate. The details of the recipes are lingered over as if the author thoroughly enjoyed pre-paring a salad or a roast. I give one entitled "Little herbs of all kinds for salads" from Chapter XXIX:

Tarragon, samphire, cress, La Trippe Madame, La Corne du Boeuf, Herbe a l'Évêque or corn salad, anise and a thousand others, flowers as well as herbs, serve to compose the little salad, dressed with oil or sugar which the more agreeable they are the more amusement they furnish : anise serves also to put into a glass to give to the wine of its taste and fragrance.

In England, Gervase Markham's books were a combination of gardening and cooking. In "The English Housewife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to be in a Compleat Woman," he gives recipes, some of which are so rich that it is no wonder

gout, jaundice, and other results of luxurious eating were widespread.

Contemporary with these were treatises containing practical directions for farming and gardening, such as Jean de La Quintinye's "Instructions pour les Jardins, Fruitiers et Potagers," which went into many editions and was translated into English by John Evelyn in 1673. Quintinye had charge of the vegetable garden of Louis XIV, which still exists at Versailles, and he describes the herbs from the point of view of an experienced gardener.

John Parkinson, in his "Paradisi in Sole," London, 1629, which in my opinion is the finest garden book ever written, describes the plants he grew in his garden in Shakespeare's English. This was before the invention of botanical terminology, as the following quotations show :

The ordinary Garden Thyme is a small woody plant with brittle branches, and small hard greene leaues, as every one knoweth hauing small white purplish flowers, standing round about the tops of the stalkes : the seed are small and browne, darker than Maieirome seed: the root is woody and abideth well diuers Winters.

Dill doth much growe wilde, but because in many place it cannot be had, it is therefore sowne in Gardens, for the uses whereunto it serueth. It is a smaller herbe than Fennell, but very like, hauing fine cut leaves, not so large, but shorter, smaller and of a stronger, quicker taste : the stalke is smaller also, and with few joynts and leaues on them, bearing spoakie tufts of yellow flowers, which turne into thinne, small and flat seedes: the mote perished euery yeare, and riseth againe for the most part of its owne sowing.

At this time it was the custom for literary noblemen to collect recipes while they were making the Grand Tour. Sir Kenelm Digby did this and so did his contemporary, John Evelyn, the diarist. "The Closet" of Sir Kenelm Digby, which appeared in 1669, reads like the excerpts from the diary of a gallant, as for example his gossipy comment upon the recipe of "The White Metheglin of My Lady Hungerford" :

"Since my Lady Hungerford sent me this receipt, she sent me word that she now useth (and liketh better) to make the Decoction of Herbs before you put the honey into it."

John Evelyn was so much interested in gardening and farming that he translated several French books on the subject besides writing his own "Acetaria, A Discourse on Sallets," which appeared in 1699. Evelyn presented the case of the vegetarian as follows :

Certain it is, Almighty God ordaining Herbs and Fruits for the Food of Men speaks not a Word concerning Flesh for two thousand years. . . And what if it was held undecent and unbecoming the Excellency of Man's Nature, before Sin entered, and grew enormously wicked, that any Creature should be put to Death and Pain for him, who had such infinite store of the most delicious and nourishing Fruit to delight, and the Tree of Life to sustain him?

He continues to say that man naturally went to the fruits for his food, and that the poets, recounting the happiness of the Golden Age, speak of "Their innocent and healthful lives in that delightful Garden."

In describing how to flavor a sallet, he says:

Every plant should bear its part without being overpower'd by some Herb of stronger taste, so as to endanger the native Sapor and Vertue of the rest; but fall into their places like Notes in Music, in which should be nothing harsh or grating and tho admitting some discords (to distinguish and illustrate the next) striking in the more sprightly and sometimes gentler notes reconcile all dissonances and melt them into an agreeable composition.

However, no herbal with its meticulous descriptions of plants, nor even the cook book which causes our mouths to water when we read about the delicate flavors of the herbs, can compare with the poetic renderings we find in Shakespeare, as when Perdita in "The Winter's Tale," says:

... Here's flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age...

and the verse from "A Midsummer Night's Dream":

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: ...



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