The flower is often associated with the sword of justice, and both the Dominicans and the Cistercians held it in high honour. It is worth noting, too, that some traditions make the lily the favourite flower of St. Cecilia, although the popular legend makes the angel bring her a bouquet of roses every night from Paradise.
But how did the lily become the badge of France? One tradition is that it was adopted by the French kings because it was the emblem of purity, and closely associated with both Christ and Solomon. One old legend has it that after one of the great battles of the Crusaders, the French banners were found covered with lilies. According to others, the Fleur de lys is merely a corruption of Fleur de Luce, or Fleur de Louis, and was not a lily at all, but the purple iris, which Louis the Seventh adopted for his emblem on his departure to the Holy Land. On the other hand, there is a legend that a shield of azure bearing the device of three golden lilies was presented by an angel to Clothilde, the wife of Clovis, and it is claimed that the lily has been the true national emblem of France ever since the time of that Sovereign. Whatever the origin, however, of Fleur de lys, it certainly means lily now, and the Lily of France is a symbol as definite as the Rose of England, as the Shamrock of Ireland, or as the Thistle of Scotland.
It is curious how much superstition and romance have clustered round the humble clover-leaf. Not one of us, perhaps, but has in childhood spent hours in looking for the four-leaved clover that was to bring untold luck. What trouble to find it! What joy when found! And what little profit beyond the joy of the search! As the old couplet has it, somewhat inconsequently:
'With a four-leav'd clover, double-topp'd ash, and green-topp'd seave, You may go before the queen's daughter without asking leave.'
The advantage here suggested is not very obvious, but the Devonshire people had a more defined idea of the virtue of the double clover, and they state it thus:
'An even-leaved ash, And a four-leaved clover; You'll see your true lover Before the day's over.'
But in Cambridgeshire it seems that the two-leaved clover is the object of desire, for there the saying goes:
'A clover, a clover of two, Put it on your right shoe; The first young man you meet, In field, or lane, or street, You shall have him, Or one of his name.'
This, while presenting a considerable amount of uncertainty in the result has, at least, the merit of presaging something.
In other parts, however, and in more ancient days, the carrying of the four-bladed clover was believed to bring luck in play and in business, safety on a journey, and the power of detecting evil spirits. In Germany the clover was held almost sacred whenever it had two or four blades. Now, as to luck, a curious thing is stated by the author of the Plant Lore of Shakespeare. He says that clover is a corruption of clava, a club, and that to this day we preserve the emblem of luck on our playing-cards in painting the suit of clubs. Somehow the etymology does not seem very satisfying; but at any rate we all know what 'living in clover' means.
Yet, perhaps, everyone does not know that in rural districts the clover is looked upon as a capital barometer, the leaves becoming rough to the feel when a storm is impending. A writer, quoted by Mr. Thiselton-Dyer, says that when tempestuous weather is coming the clover will 'start and rise up as if it were afraid of an assault.'
It is probable that the association of good luck with the four-bladed clover arose from its fancied resemblance to the cross. Support is given to this hypothesis by the traditional origin of the shamrock as the badge of Ireland. In the account given of St. Patrick in The Book of Days, it is stated that once when the Saint wanted to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity to his pagan hearers, he plucked a piece of the common white clover. Now, it seems that the trefoil is called shamrakh in Arabic, and was held sacred in Persia. And it is remarkable that Pliny says the trefoil is an antidote against the bites of snakes and scorpions. It is not by any means certain that the common clover was the original shamrock of Ireland; and even to this day many claim the title for the wood-sorrel. Still, for fifty years, at any rate, the popular belief has been that the trefoil-clover is the plant which was plucked by St. Patrick, who drove out the snakes from Ireland, who is still her patron-saint, and whose badge is worn to this day.
But how did the name come from Arabia, and what is the connection between Pliny's theory and the legend, of St. Patrick's victory over the vermin? These remain among the unsolved mysteries of folk-lore.
With the emblem of Scotland—the thistle—not so many classical associations and active superstitions are to be found, but yet it is not devoid of folk-lore. Of course opinions differ as to what was or is the true Scotch thistle, but of the several varieties of thistles many beliefs are entertained. One variety—the Carline—is esteemed in some parts as a barometer, as it closes up when rain is approaching. In Tartary there is a variety which grows to such a size that it is planted for shelter on the windward side of the huts on the Steppes. This thistle is called the 'Wind Witch,' because, after the heat of the summer is past, the dried portions take the form of a ball, with which the spirits are supposed to make merry in the autumnal gales.
The origin of the name thistle is probably Scandinavian, and associated with Thor. The plant was, at any rate, sacred to the Scandinavian god, and was believed by the old Vikings to receive the colour of the lightning into its blossom, which thereupon became endowed with high curative and protective virtues. There was a species of thistle on Dartmoor which used to be called Thormantle, and was used in that district as a febrifuge. Some writers have said that in Poland some infantile disorders are supposed to be the work of mischievous spirits using thistle-seed.
The Lady's Thistle, which some believe to be the true Scotch thistle, is one of the many plants associated with the Virgin. The tradition, according to Brand, is that the white spots on the leaves are due to the falling of some drops of the Holy Mother's milk, a legend we have seen to be attached also to the lily. Then the great Emperor Charlemagne's name is blended with that of the Carline Thistle, the story being that during the prevalence of an epidemic among his troops he prayed to God for help. An angel appeared, and indicated, by firing an arrow, a plant which would allay the disease. This was the Carlina acaulis, which, of course, cured all the sick soldiers, and possibly may have some of the febrifuge virtues which the Dartmoor people fancied existed in another kind of thistle. Nettle-soup is still a familiar housewife's remedy for some childish ailments.
In some parts of Germany there is a superstition that sores upon horses' backs may be cured by gathering four red thistle-blossoms before daybreak, and placing them in the form of a square upon the ground with a stone in the middle. It is not easy to trace the probable origin of this belief, but many of the old herbalists mention the thistle as efficacious in cases of vertigo, headache, jaundice, and 'infirmities of the gall.' Says one, 'It is an herb of Mars, and under the sign Aries.' Therefore, 'it strengthens the attractive faculty in man and clarifies the blood, because the one is ruled by Mars. The continual drinking the decoction of it helps red faces, tetters, and ringworms, because Mars causeth them. It helps the plague, sores, boils, itches, the bitings of mad dogs and venomous beasts, all which infirmities are under Mars.' This same writer agrees with Dioscorides that the root of a thistle carried about 'doth expel melancholy and removes all diseases connected therewith.' In other words, the thistle was held to possess all the virtues now claimed for podophyllum, blue-pill, and dandelion—a universal antibilious agent!
But how did the thistle become the emblem of Scotland? Well, there are as many traditions on the subject as there are opinions as to which variety of the plant is the true Scottish thistle. It would be tedious here to refer to all, so let us just note that although the Carduus Marianus, or the Blessed or Lady's Thistle—the origin of whose name we have given—is very commonly accepted, so competent an authority on Scottish lore as the author of Nether Lochaber rejects both that and all other varieties in favour of the Cnicus acaulis, or the stemless thistle. In doing this, he founds his belief upon the following tradition: Once, during the invasion of Scotland by the Norsemen, the invaders were stealing a march in the dark upon the Scots, when one of the barefooted scouts placed his foot upon a thistle, which caused him to cry out so loudly that the Scots were aroused, and, flying to their horses, drove back the Danes with great slaughter. Now, this could not happen, says Dr. Stewart, with any of the tall thistles, but only with the stemless thistle, which has sharp, fine spikes, and grows close on the ground.
This, at least, is as reasonable an explanation as any of the great national badge of Scotland. It but remains to add that the first mention of the thistle as a national emblem occurs in an inventory of the jewels and other effects of James the Third, about 1467, and its first mention in poetry is in a poem by Dunbar, written about 1503, to commemorate the marriage of James the Fourth with Margaret Tudor, and called The Thrissell and the Rois. The Order of the Thistle dates from James the Seventh of Scotland and Second of England, about 1687.
And now, as we began with the wreath of parsley, which symbolized death, let us end with the crown of orange-blossoms, which, among us, now symbolizes the twofold life of the married state. Among the Greeks, the brides used to wear garlands of myrtle and roses, because both of these plants were associated with the Goddess of Love. In China the orange has, from time immemorial, been an emblem of good luck, and is freely used to present to friends and guests. But although the orange is said to have been first brought by the Portuguese from China in 1547, nevertheless this fruit is supposed to have been the golden apple of Juno, which grew in the Garden of Hesperides. As the golden apple was presented to the Queen of Heaven upon her marriage with Jupiter, we may find here a definite explanation of the meaning attached to the fruit.
But, besides this, it seems that orange-blossom was used centuries ago by Saracen brides in their personal decorations on the great day of their lives. It was meant to typify fruitfulness, and it is to be noted that the orange-tree bears both fruit and blossom at the same time, and is remarkable for its productiveness. It is possible, then, that the idea of orange-blossom for bridal decoration was brought from the East by the Crusaders; but it is uncertain at what date the custom began to be followed in England. However introduced, and whether retained as a symbol or merely for the exquisite beauty of the flower, it will continue to hold its place in the affections of the maiden-bride, to whom it seems to sing:
'Honour, riches, marriage-blessing, Long continuance and increasing, Hourly joys be still upon you, Juno sings her blessings on you.'
ROSEMARY FOR REMEMBRANCE.
'Doth not Rosemary and Romeo both begin with a letter?' asks Juliet's nurse. Yes, but what did she mean by the query, and by the further remark that 'Juliet hath the prettiest sententions of it, of you and rosemary, that it would do you good to hear it'? For answer we must make some search into the beliefs and customs of the past.
Rosemary is the 'Ros-marinus' of the old herbalists, but it is not a native of Britain, and there is no exact record of when it was introduced here from the South of Europe. Mention of 'Ros-marinus' occurs in an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary of the eleventh century, where it is translated Feld-madder and Sun-dew. There is some doubt whether this has reference to the actual plant now known to us as rosemary, but in no case was it the Rose of Mary, as some have supposed. It is not a rose, and the 'Mary' is from 'marinus,' or 'maris.' The old English spelling was Rosmarin, or Rosmarine; in these forms one finds the word used by Gower, and Shenstone, and other old poets.
In the South of Europe the rosemary has long had magic properties ascribed to it. The Spanish ladies used to wear it as an antidote against the evil eye, and the Portuguese called it the Elfin plant, and dedicated it to the fairies. The idea of the antidote may have been due to a confusion of the name with that of the Virgin; but as a matter of fact the 'Ros-marinus' is frequently mentioned by old Latin writers, including Horace and Ovid. The name came from the fondness of the plant for the sea-shore, where it often gets sprinkled with the 'ros,' or dew of the sea, that is to say, sea-spray. Another cause of confusion, perhaps, was that the leaves of the plant somewhat resemble those of the juniper, which in mediaeval times was one of the plants held sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the island of Crete, it is said, a bride dressed for the wedding still calls last of all for a sprig of rosemary to bring her luck.
And thus we come to find rosemary in close association with both marriage and death, just as the hyacinth was, and perhaps still is, among the Greeks. It is interesting to trace the connection by which the same plant came to have two such different uses.
One of the earliest mentions of rosemary in English literature is in a poem of the fourteenth century called 'The Gloriouse Rosemaryne,' which begins thus:
'This herbe is callit rosemaryn, Of vertu that is gode and fyne; But all the vertues tell I ne can, Nor, I trowe, no erthely man.'
Nevertheless, the poet proceeds to record at great length many astounding virtues, including the restoration of youth to the aged by bathing in rosemary water.
The 'cheerful rosemarie' and 'refreshing rosemarine' of Spenser was once a great favourite in England, although now it is hardly allowed garden space. Sir Thomas More said: 'I let it run all over my garden walls, not only because my bees love it, but because 'tis the herb sacred to remembrance, and therefore to friendship: whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem at our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.'
The popularity of the plant was doubtless due to the long-enduring scent and verdure of the leaves. It is one of the most lasting of evergreens, and the pleasant aromatic odour lingers very long after the leaves have been gathered.
Fragrance and endurance, then, are the characteristics of a plant which came to be commonly accepted as an emblem of constancy, and also of loving remembrance. Thus it is that Herrick sings of it:
'Grow for two ends, it matters not at all, Be't for my bridal or my burial.'
Thus it is that we find Friar Laurence over Juliet's body, saying:
'Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary On this fair corse,'
which is certainly not what the nurse meant when she told Romeo of the 'prettiest sententions.'
High medicinal properties were ascribed to the rosemary, so much so that old Parkinson writes: 'Rosemary is almost as great use as bayes, both for outward and inward remedies, and as well for civill as physicall purposes; inwardly for the head and heart, outwardly for the sinews and joynts; for civill uses, as all do know, at weddings, funerals, etc., to bestow among friends; and the physicall are so many that you might as well be tyred in the reading as I in the writing, if I should set down all that might be said of it.'
One of the 'physicall' uses was in stirring up the tankard of ale or sack, and at weddings a sprig was usually dipped in the loving-cup to give it fragrance as well as luck.
The virtues of the plant are celebrated in a curious wedding sermon quoted by Hone:
'The rosemary is for married men, the which by name, nature, and continued use, man challengeth as properly belonging to himself. It overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden boasting man's rule; it helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memory, and is very medicinal for the head. Another property is, it affects the heart. Let this ros-marinus, this flower of man, ensign of your wisdom, love, and loyalty, be carried not only in your hands but in your heads and hearts.'
One does not easily reconcile this laudation with the popular superstition that wherever the rosemary flourished there should the woman be the ruling power. And to this superstition, be it noted, has been ascribed the disfavour into which the plant has fallen among gardeners since Shakespeare's time.
The medical properties may have been over-rated by old Parkinson, but some are recognised even to this day. Thus rosemary is used as an infusion to cure headaches, and is believed to be an extensive ingredient in hair-restorers. It is also one of the ingredients in the manufacture of Eau-de-Cologne, and has many other uses in the form of oil of rosemary. It is said that bees which feed on rosemary blossoms produce a very delicately-flavoured honey. Perfumers are greatly indebted to it. According to De Gubernatis, the flowers of the plant are proof against rheumatism, nervous indisposition, general debility, weakness of sight, melancholy, weak circulation, and cramp. Almost as comprehensive a cure as some of our modern universal specifics!
The medicinal properties of rosemary have been held by some to account for its funeral uses. At all events, an ingenious writer of the seventeenth century held that the custom of carrying a sprig at a funeral had its rise from a notion of an 'alexipharmick' or preservative virtue in the herb which would protect the wearer from 'pestilential distempers,' and be a powerful defence 'against the morbid effluvias of the corpse.' For the same reason, this writer asserts, it was customary to burn rosemary in the chambers of the sick, just like frankincense, 'whose odour is not much different from rosemary, which gave the Greeks occasion to call it Libanotis, from Libanos (frankincense).'
The hyssop of the Bible is believed by some to be rosemary, and it is said that in the East it was customary to hang up a bunch in the house as a protection against evil spirits, and to use it in various ceremonies against enchantment. Perhaps there was some connection between this custom and that of the Greeks referred to by Aristotle, who regarded indigestion as the effect of witchcraft, and who used rue as an antidote. The dispelling of the charm was just the natural physical action of the herb.
In Devonshire, however, there was a more mystic use for rosemary in dispelling the charms of witches. A bunch of it had to be taken in the hand and dropped bit by bit on live coals, while the two first verses of the sixty-eighth psalm were recited, followed by the Lord's Prayer. Bay-leaves were sometimes used in the same manner; but if the afflicted one were suffering physically, he had also to take certain prescribed medicines. Rosemary worn about the body was believed to strengthen the memory and to add to the success of the wearer in anything he might undertake.
It is as an emblem of remembrance that rosemary is most frequently used by the old poets. Thus Ophelia:
'There is rosemary for you, that's for remembrance; I pray you, love, remember.'
And in The Winter's Tale:
'For you there's rosemary and rue; these keep Seeming and savour all the winter long; Grace and remembrance be with you both.'
And thus Drayton:
'He from his lass him lavender hath sent, Showing her love, and doth requital crave; Him rosemary his sweetheart, whose intent Is that he her should in remembrance have.'
Quotations might be easily multiplied, but the reader will find in Brand's Popular Antiquities numerous references to the plant by writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
As an emblem of rejoicing, rosemary was also often used. Hone quotes a contemporary account of the joyful entry of Queen Elizabeth into London in 1558, wherein occurs this passage: 'How many nosegays did her Grace receive at poor women's hands? How often times stayed she her chariot when she saw any simple body offer to speak to her Grace? A branch of rosemary given to her Grace, with a supplication by a poor woman about Fleet Bridge, was seen in her chariot till her Grace came to Westminster.' The object of the particular floral offering in this case is not very obvious, unless as an emblematic tribute to the maiden queen.
Rosemary used to be carried in the hand at weddings, as well as strewed on the ground and dipped in the cup. Thus Stow narrates of a wedding in 1560, that 'fine flowers and rosemary were strewed for them coming home'; and Brand cites numerous instances from old plays. In one, 'the parties enter with rosemary, as if from a wedding'; and in Beaumont and Fletcher's Scornful Lady, the question is asked about a wedding, 'Were the rosemary branches dipped?' This dipping, moreover, was in scented water as well as in the loving-cup, and hence the allusion in Dekker's Wonderful Year to a bride who had died on her wedding-night:
'Here is a strange alteration; for the rosemary that was washed in sweet water to set out the bridal is now wet in tears to furnish her burial.'
It is on record that Anne of Cleves wore rosemary at her wedding with Henry the Eighth; and in an account of some marriage festivities at Kenilworth, attended by Queen Elizabeth, there is frequent mention of the plant. An idea of how it was sometimes used is given in a description of a sixteenth century wedding quoted by the Rev. Hilderic Friend: 'The bride being attired in a gown of sheep's russet and a kirtle of fine worsted, attired with abillement of gold' (milliner's French even then!); 'and her hair, yellow as gold, hanging down behind her, which was curiously combed and plaited' she was led to church between two sweet boys, with bride-laces and rosemary tied about her silken sleeves. There was a fair bride-cup of silver-gilt carried before her, wherein was a goodly branch of rosemary gilded very fair, and hung about with silken ribands of all colours.'
Coles says that the garden rosemary was called Rosmarinus coronarium, because the women made crowns and garlands of it. Ben Jonson says that it was customary for the bridesmaids to present the bridegroom next morning with a bunch of rosemary. And Brand says that as late as 1698 the custom still prevailed in England of decking the bridal bed with sprigs of rosemary.
In Jonson's Tale of a Tub, one of the characters assembled to await the intended bridegroom says: 'Look an' the wenches ha' not found un out, and do present un with a van of rosemary and bays, enough to vill a bow-pott or trim the head of my best vore-horse; we shall all ha' bride-laces and points, I see.' And again, a country swain assures his sweetheart at their wedding: 'We'll have rosemary and bayes to vill a bow-pott, and with the same I'll trim the vorehead of my best vore-horse'—so that it would seem the decorative use was not confined to the bride, the guests, and the banquet.
As a love-charm the reputation of rosemary seems to have come from the South. There is an old Spanish proverb which runs:
'Who passeth by the rosemarie, And careth not to take a spray, For woman's love no care has he, Nor shall he, though he live for aye.'
Mr. Thiselton-Dyer says that rosemary is used in some parts of the country, as nut-charms are on Halloween, to foretell a lover; only, St. Agnes' Eve is the occasion on which to invoke with a sprig of rosemary, or thyme, with this formula:
'St. Agnes, that's to lovers kind, Come, ease the troubles of my mind.'
For love-potions, decoctions of rosemary were much employed.
As to funereal uses, those who are familiar with Hogarth's drawings will remember one of a funeral party with sprigs of rosemary in their hands. Misson, a French traveller (temp. William the Third), thus describes English funeral ceremonies: 'When they are ready to set out, they nail up the coffin, and a servant presents the company with sprigs of rosemary. Everyone takes a sprig and carries it in his hand till the body is put into the grave, at which time they all throw their sprigs in after it.' Hence Gay:
'To show their love, the neighbours far and near, Follow'd with wistful looks the damsel's bier; Sprigg'd rosemary the lads and lasses bore, While dismally the parson walk'd before. Upon her grave the rosemary they threw.'
Whether the fact that the rosemary buds in January has anything to do with its funereal uses admits of conjecture, as Sir Thomas Browne would say; but that fact was certainly present to the writer of the following verses, which were worthily rescued by Hone from a 'fugitive copy,' although the writer's name has been lost:
'Sweet-scented flower! who art wont to bloom On January's front severe, And o'er the wintry desert drear To waft thy waste perfume! Come, thou shalt form my nosegay now, And I will bind thee round my brow; And, as I twine the mournful wreath, I'll weave a melancholy song, And sweet the strain shall be, and long— The melody of death.
'Come, funeral flower! who lov'st to dwell With the pale corse in lonely tomb, And throw across the desert gloom A sweet decaying smell. Come, pressing lips, and lie with me Beneath the lonely alder-tree, And we will sleep a pleasant sleep, And not a care shall dare intrude To break the marble solitude, So peaceful and so deep.
'And hark! the wind-god, as he flies, Moans hollow in the forest trees, And, sailing on the gusty breeze, Mysterious music dies. Sweet flower! the requiem wild is mine. It warns me to the lonely shrine— The cold turf-altar of the dead. My grave shall be in yon lone spot, Where, as I lie by all forgot, A dying fragrance thou wilt o'er my ashes shed.'
In South Wales, in Cheshire, and in Bucks, the custom still obtains, according to Mr. Hilderic Friend, for each mourner to carry a sprig of rosemary to the grave, into which it is thrown. For weddings, rosemary was dipped in scented water, but for funerals in plain water. Hence the reference in an old play, quoted by Hone:
'If there be Any so kind as to accompany My body to the earth, let them not want For entertainment. Prythee, see they have A sprig of rosemary, dipp'd in common water, To smell at as they walk along the streets.'
In Dekker's Wonderful Year there is a description of a charnel-house pavement strewed with withered rosemary, hyacinth, cypress, and yew. During the Plague rosemary was in such demand for funerals that, says Dekker, what 'had wont to be sold for twelvepence an armfull went now at six shillings a handfull.' Certainly a remarkable rise. What the price was in 1531 we know not; but in an account of the funeral expenses of a Lord Mayor of London, who died in that year, appears an item, 'For yerbes at the bewyral L0 1 0'—which presumably refers to rosemary.
'Cypresse garlands,' wrote Coles, 'are of great account at funeralls among the gentiler sort; but Rosemary and Bayes are used by the commons both at funeralls and weddings. They are all plants which fade not a good while after they are gathered and used, as I conceive, to intimate unto us that the remembrance of the present solemnity might not die presently, but be kept in minde for many yeares.'
We have now seen something of the many significations of rosemary, and find an explanation of why the same plant was used for both weddings and funerals, in the fact that it emblemised remembrance by its evergreen and fragrant qualities. One may have doubts about the truth of the story of the man of whom it is recorded that he wanted to be married again on the day of his wife's funeral because the rosemary which had been used at her burial would come in usefully and economically for the wedding ceremony. But if the story is too good to be true, there is suggestion enough in the circumstance referred to by Shakespeare, that
'Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corpse.'
HERB OF GRACE.
Why did Ophelia say: 'There's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb grace o' Sundays, for you must wear your rue with a difference'? For the same reason that Perdita says, in The Winter's Tale, when welcoming the guests of her reputed father and the shepherd:
'Reverend sirs, For you there's rosemary and rue; these keep Seeming and savour all the winter long; Grace and remembrance be to you both, And welcome to our shearing.'
Remembrance, as we have already seen in the last chapter, was symbolized by the rosemary, and by both Ophelia and Perdita the rue is taken as the symbol of grace. How this came to be is what we have now to consider; but perhaps Mr. Ellacombe, author of Plant-Lore of Shakespeare, is stretching rather far in suggesting that the rue was implied by Antony, when he used the word 'grace' in addressing the weeping followers (Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV., Scene 2) thus:
'Grace grow where these drops fall.'
What Ophelia said was: 'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thought. There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me. We may call it herb-grace o' Sundays. Oh! you may wear your rue with a difference.'
There was a method in her madness, and she was distributing her flowers according to the characters and moods of the recipients. Fennel, for instance, emblemised flattery, and columbine ingratitude. Rue emblemised either remorse or repentance—either sorrow or grace—so 'you may wear your rue with a difference.'
So we find the gardener in Richard II. saying, after the departure of the anxious Queen:
'Here she did fall a tear; here in this place I'll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace; Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen, In the remembrance of a weeping Queen.'
The herb was believed to be endowed with high moral and medicinal properties, yet was supposed to prosper better in one's garden if stolen from that of a neighbour. But originally it was associated with sorrow and pity. The word rue is doubtless of the same root as 'ruth,' and to rue is to be sorry for, to have remorse. Ruth is the English equivalent of the Latin ruta, and in early English appeared as 'rude.' As regret is always more or less a mark of repentance, it was the most natural thing in the world for the herb of ruth, or sorrow, to become the herb of repentance; and as repentance is a sign of grace, so rue became known as 'herb of grace.' This, in brief, is the connection, but it is worth noting in passing that rue is only once mentioned in the Bible, and then only along with a number of other bitter herbs, and without any special significance.
There is this association between rue and rosemary, that both are natives of some of the more barren coasts of the Mediterranean, and that both were very early admitted to the English herb-garden. The old herbalists make frequent mention of rue, and even in Anglo-Saxon times it seems to have been extensively used in medicine. Three peculiarities—a strong, aromatic smell, a bitter taste, and a blistering quality in the leaves—were quite sufficient to establish it in the pharmacopoeia of the herb doctors.
The curative qualities of what Spenser calls the 'ranke-smelling rue' were reputedly of a very varied sort. Most readers will remember the reference in Paradise Lost:
'Michael from Adam's eyes the film removed, Which the false fruit which promised clearer sight Had bred; then purged with euphraie and rue The visual nerve, for he had much to see.'
And perhaps its most popular use was as an eyewash. The old writers have recorded some hidden virtues known only to the animal world, such as that weasels prepared themselves for a rat-fight by a diet of rue. Old Parkinson, the herbalist, says that 'without doubt it is a most wholesome herb, although bitter and strong.' He speaks of a 'bead-rowl' of the virtues of rue, but warns people of the 'too frequent or over-much use thereof.'
As both a stimulant and a narcotic the plant has even now recognised virtues, and is not without its uses in modern medicine. The Italians are said to eat the leaves in salad, but hardly of that species—Ruta montana—which botanists say it is dangerous to handle without gloves. Our garden species is Ruta graveolens and is used by the French perfumers in the manufacture of 'Thieves Vinegar,' or 'Marseilles Vinegar,' once accounted an effective protection against fevers and all infectious diseases.
A curious instance of the value of the herb in this respect occurred in 1760. In the summer of that year a rumour arose, and rapidly spread in London, that the plague had broken out in St. Thomas's Hospital. Immediately there was what would nowadays be called a 'boom' in rue, the price of which rose forty per cent. in a single day in Covent Garden. To allay the popular alarm a manifesto was issued, signed by the physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries of the hospital, certifying that there were no other than the 'usual' diseases among the patients in the wards.
Another explanation of the origin of the name 'herb of grace' has been given than that referred to above. Warburton, among others, thinks that the name was adopted because the old Romanists used the plant on Sundays in their 'exorcisms.' However this may be, rue, or the herb of grace, has been in this country long accounted an antidote of witchcraft. But then, so it was in the days of Aristotle, before it became 'herb of grace,' and when it was hung round the neck as an amulet. The fact is, however, that rue became an antidote of witchcraft because it had become a noted implement in enchantment.
Through its numerous reputed properties, rue early found its way into the magic cauldron.
'Then sprinkles she the juice of rue, With nine drops of the midnight dew, From lunary distilling,'
as Drayton has it. In this incantation, again, we have the association with moonwort; and the connection is further illustrated in an old oracle ascribed to Hecate: 'From a root of wild rue fashion and polish a statue; adorn it with household lizards; grind myrrh, gum, and frankincense with the same reptiles, and let the mixture stand in the air during the waning of a moon; then address your words.'
With regard to the association with moonwort, it is interesting to recall that this is one of the plants supposed to be employed by birds for opening nests and removing impediments. Thus in an anecdote gravely related to Aubrey, we find this virtue mentioned: 'Sir Bennet Hoskins told me that his keeper at his parke at Morehampton, in Herefordshire, did for experiment's sake drive an iron naile thwart the hole of a woodpecker's nest, there being a tradition that the dam will bring some leafe to open it. He layed at the bottom of the tree a cleane sheet, and before many houres passed, the naile came out, and he found a leafe lying by it on the sheete. They say the Moonwort will doe such things.'
On the same subject Coles, the botanist, writes: 'It is said, yea, and believed, that Moonwort will open the locks wherewith dwelling-houses are made fast, if it be put into the keyhole.' And Culpeper, the herbalist, writes thus: 'Moonwort is a herb which, they say, will open locks and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. This some laugh to scorn, and these no small fools neither; but country people that I know call it Unshoe-the-horse. Besides, I have heard commanders say that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horseshoes pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex's horses, being there drawn up in a body, many of them being newly shod, and no reason known, which caused much admiration.' As well it might! This power of the moonwort is said to be still believed in in Normandy, and a similar virtue was also ascribed to the vervain and the mandrake, both associated with rue.
This curious property of moonwort it is which is referred to in Divine Weekes thus:
'Horses that, feeding on the grassy hills, Tread upon moonwort with their hollow heels, Though lately shod, at night go barefoot home, Their maister musing where their shoes become. Oh, moonwort! tell me where thou hid'st the smith, Hammer and pinchers, thou unshodd'st them with? Alas! what lock or iron engine is't That can the subtle secret strength resist? Still the best farrier cannot set a shoe So sure but thou, so shortly, canst undo.'
The old alchemists, however, had a more profitable use for moonwort than the unshoeing of horses; they employed it for converting quicksilver into pure silver, at a time when that metal was neither 'degraded' nor 'depreciated.'
There is an old and pleasant belief, of which John Ruskin makes effective use in driving home one of his morals, that flowers always bloom best in the gardens of those who love them. One could easily find a rationalistic explanation of this sentiment, of course, but it is akin to a superstition entertained in some parts that wherever the moonwort flourishes the owner of the garden is honest.
The ingredients thrown into the mystic cauldron by European sorcerers were in close imitation of those of the ancient alchemists. Moncure Conway has pointed out that among the ingredients used by English and Scotch witches were plants gathered, as in Egypt, at certain seasons or phases of the moon. Chief among such plants were rue and vervain. The Druids called vervain the 'Holy herb,' and gathered it when the dog-star rose, placing a sacrifice of honey in the earth from which they removed it.
In old Greece and Rome vervain was sacred to the god of war, and in Scandinavia it was also sacred to Thor. It was, moreover, carried by ambassadors of peace, and was supposed to preserve from lightning any house decorated with it. In later times it was believed that a decoction of vervain and rue, mixed, had such a remarkable effect on gun-metal that anyone using a gun over which the liquid had been poured would shoot 'as straight as a die.' This may be news to our modern musketry instructors.
Had this belief, one may wonder, anything to do with the special effect on the eye always supposed to be possessed by rue? Its virtue as an eye-salve, at any rate, may explain how it came to be regarded as capable of bestowing the 'second sight.' To this day, in the Tyrol it is still believed to confer fine vision. If hallucinations were, as Moncure Conway assumes, the basis of belief in second sight, then we can understand the reputed virtues of rue in its narcotic qualities. We have seen how it came to be called 'herb of grace,' yet some think it got this name through being used in witchcraft by exorcists to try the devil.
Speculating on why herbs and roots should have been esteemed magical, Mr. Andrew Lang concludes that it is enough to remember that herbs really have medicinal properties, and that untutored people invariably confound medicine with magic. Thus it was easy to suppose that a plant possessed virtue not only when swallowed, but when carried in the hand. The same writer examines the theory that rue was the Homeric moly, which in a former chapter we identified with the mandrake. But Lang rejects that theory, and says that rue was called 'herb of grace' and was used for sprinkling holy water because in pre-Christian times it had been supposed to have effect against the powers of evil. The early Christians were thus just endeavouring to combine the old charm of rue with the new potency of holy water.
'Euphrasy and rue,' says Lang, 'were employed to purge and purify mortal eyes. Pliny is very learned about the magical virtues of rue. Just as the stolen potato is sovran for rheumatism, so "rue stolen thriveth the best." The Samoans think that their most valued vegetables were stolen from heaven by a Samoan visitor. It is remarkable that rue, according to Pliny, is killed by the touch of a woman, in the same way as, according to Josephus, the mandrake is tamed. These passages prove that the classical peoples had the same extraordinary superstitions about women as the Bushmen and Red Indians. Indeed, Pliny describes a magical manner of defending the crops from blight by aid of women, which is actually practised in America by the red-man.'
Although rue was found in the witches' cauldron, it is also to be found as a popular specific against the blight of witchcraft. Concerning this, however, Moncure Conway says that 'the only region on the Continent where any superstition concerning rue is found resembling the form it assumed in England as affecting the eye is in the Tyrol, where it is one of five plants—the others being broom-straw, agrimony, maidenhair, and ground-ivy—which are bound together, and believed, if carried about, to enable the bearer to see witches, or if laid over the door, to keep any witch who shall seek to enter fastened on the threshold.'
In Scandinavia and North Germany, St. John's wort was used in much the same way for the same purpose.
As to the vervain, which we have seen to be associated with rue, this is a plant the use of which against witchcraft was more widely distributed, just as its medical virtues were also more extensively known. The vervain, indeed, was a sacred plant among the Greeks, as well as among the Druids, who gathered it with solemn religious ceremonies, as they did the sacred mistletoe. Vervain was most esteemed, however, as a love potion, but the connection between its virtues in this respect, and its power over witches and spirits of evil, opens up a branch of inquiry away from our present purpose.
We speak of vervain in connection with rue, because it was the 'holy herb,' just as rue was the 'herb of grace.' Not only was the vervain sacred among the early Druids, but it acquired an early sanctity among Christians. Thus the legend runs:
'All hail, thou holy herb, vervain, Growing on the ground; On the Mount of Calvary There wast thou found! Thou helpest many a grief, And staunchest many a wound; In the name of sweet Jesu, I lift thee from the ground.'
Mr. Thiselton-Dyer says that a wreath of vervain is now presented to newly-married brides in Germany, but whether this is a survival of the sanctity of the plant, or of its ancient reputation as a love-philtre and charm, is not very clear.
It is to be feared that vervain has sadly fallen out of favour in this country, although not many years ago a pamphlet was written to recommend the wearing of vervain tied by white satin ribbon round the neck, as preservative against evil influences and infection.
'On the Continent'—rather a wide term—Mr. Hilderic Friend says, 'the three essential plants for composing a magic wreath are rue, crane's-bill, and willow.' The crane's-bill is the Herb Robert, or Robin Hood, and the willow has always been connected with lovers. Such a wreath, then, is made by lovers when they wish to see their 'fate.' Love-sick maidens will employ such a wreath to find out how long they have yet to remain single. They walk backwards towards some selected tree, and as they walk throw the wreath over their heads until it fastens on one of the branches. Failure to 'catch on' requires another backward walk, and so on—each failure to buckle the tree counting as a year of spinsterhood. It seems rather an awkward way of getting at the future, but if not more blind than other processes of love divination, would at least require the guarantee of the absence of tight-lacing among the maidens practising it.
Aristotle mentions the use made by the Greeks of rue as a charm against evil spirits, and he accounts for it, somewhat singularly, by the habit of the Greeks in not sitting down to table with strangers. The explanation is, that when they ate with strangers they were apt to become excited and nervous, and so to eat too rapidly, with the result of flatulence and indigestion. These effects were equivalent to bewitchment, as, indeed, disorders of the digestive organs are frequently regarded by many Eastern peoples even to this day. As rue was found to be an effectual antidote to these distressing symptoms, it became a charm against enchantment.
Among many old-wife recipes for the cure of warts is the use of rue. Most people know the old folk-jingle:
'Ashen tree, ashen tree, Pray bury these warts of me,'
which has to be accompanied by the thrust of a pin into the bark of the tree. The idea was doubtless to extract the sap, for the application of thistle-juice and the juice of the ranunculus are said to prove efficacious in removing warts. In Devonshire they use the juice of an apple, but in some parts of the country rue is preferred. Other wart-curing plants are the spurge, the poppy, the celandine, the marigold, the briony, and the crowfoot.
As old Michael Drayton remarked:
'In medicine, simples had the power That none need then the planetary hour To helpe their workinge, they so juiceful were.'
There is a substratum of truth in this, although it requires a wide stretch of imagination, as well as a profundity of faith, to believe that consumption can be cured by passing the body of the patient three times through a wreath of woodbine cut during the increase of the March moon. Yet to this day some French peasants believe that the curative properties of vervain are most pronounced when the plant is gathered, with proper invocations, at a certain phase of the moon.
The notion that animals are acquainted with the medical properties of plants is an old one, probably older than either Pliny or Aristotle. Our own Gerarde, the herbalist, tells that the name celandine was given to that flower (which Wordsworth loved) from a word meaning swallow, because it is used by swallows to 'restore sight to their young ones when their eyes be put out.'
Then Coles, the old botanist, also writes: 'It is known to such as have skill of Nature what wonderful care she hath of the smallest creatures, giving to them a knowledge of medicine to help themselves, if haply diseases are among them. The swallow cureth her dim eyes with Celandine: the wesell knoweth well the virtue of Herb Grace: the dove the verven: the dogge dischargeth his mawe with a kind of grass: and too long it were to reckon up all the medicines which the beasts are known to use by Nature's direction only.'
A Warwickshire proverb runs to this effect:
'Plant your sage and rue together, The sage will grow in any weather,'
the meaning of which is not very clear—but obscurity is a common complaint of rhymed proverbs. Another rhyme, however, in which rue appears, has a more practical note:
'What savour is better, if physicke be true, For places infected, than wormwood and rue?'
Rue, indeed, seems to have been in special request as a disinfectant long before carbolic acid was invented, or Condy heard of, yet, perhaps, containing the germ of the idea materialised in 'Sanitas.' For disinfecting purposes wormwood and rue were used sometimes together, and sometimes separately.
The connection between plants and heraldic badges is often close, and although we do not find rue frequent in heraldry, one curious instance of it is interesting. In 809 an Order was created whereof the collar was made of a design in thistles and rue—the thistle because 'being full of prickles is not to be touched without hurting the skin,' rue because it 'is good against serpents and poison.'
Here we have a suggestion of the lizards of the old oracle quoted above.
THE ROMANCE OF A VEGETABLE.
There used to be a popular acrostic the foundation of which is the subject of much speculation. It turned upon two lines of Scott's famous poem, and ran thus:
'"Charge, Chester, charge! On, Stanley, on!" Were the last words of Marmion. Were I in gallant Stanley's place, When Marmion urged him to the chase, A word you then would all espy, That brings a tear to every eye.'
The answer is 'Onion,' and the speculation which results is: Why does a raw onion make the eyes water?
The Greeks, being aware of this characteristic, called the onion kromuon; and when they ate it raw, they prudently closed their eyes.
Shakespeare's players in the Taming of the Shrew knew all about it:
'If the boy have not a woman's gift, To rain a shower of commanded tears, An onion will do well for such a shift, Which in a napkin, being close conveyed, Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.'
So did Lafeu:
'Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon.'
So also did Domitius Enobarbus, who comforted Antony, on reporting the death of Fulvia, by saying, 'Indeed, the tears live in an onion that should water this sorrow,' and who called himself 'onion-eyed' when the Roman addressed his followers before the battle.
The fact, then, has been known for centuries, but the explanation only since chemistry came to be applied to matters of common life. The onion belongs to the genus Allium, all the species of which possess a peculiar, pungent, acrid juice, with a powerful odour. The garlic has a stronger smell than the onion, but the onion has more of the volatile oil which all the members of the genus possess.
The constituents which make the genus valuable as food are: albumen, sugar, mucilage, phosphate of lime, and certain salts. All the members of the onion tribe yield a heavy volatile oil when distilled with water—an oil so pungent and concentrated that an ounce of it will represent the essence of forty pounds of garlic. This oil is a compound of sulphur, carbon, and hydrogen, and is called sulphide of allyl, because of its origin in the allium tribe. It is the more volatile, sulphurous fumes of this oil which ascend as an onion is cut that cause the eyes to water, just as sulphur fumes do anywhere. It is the less volatile portion of the oil which gives such permanence and adhesiveness to the onion odour as to render a knife that has been used to cut one offensive for a long time afterwards, in spite of washing.
In the Arabian Nights the purveyor for the Sultan of Casgar tells a story of a man who lost his thumbs and great-toes through eating garlic. This was a youth who had married a beauteous bride, but was unfortunate enough on his marriage-day to eat of a dish strongly flavoured with garlic. The lady was so annoyed that she ordered the bridegroom to be bound, and his thumbs and toes cut off, as punishment for presuming to come to her without first purifying his fingers. Ever afterwards the unfortunate husband always washed his hands one hundred and twenty times with alkali, after dining off a garlic ragout, for, of course, he did not use a fork. But had he known Menander the Greek's receipt, he might have saved his digits. This was to roast beetroot on hot embers for the removal of the odour of garlic.
It might be more generally known that if either walnuts, or raw parsley, be eaten along with onions, the smell of the latter will be destroyed, and digestion of them assisted.
There is, one must admit, a certain association of vulgarity with the onion. It is a valuable food, and an indispensable accessory to the culinary artist; but as used by many people it is not suggestive of refinement. And yet the bulb has not only an honourable character—it has a sort of sacred history.
Both Pliny and Juvenal, among old writers, and many Egyptologists of our own time and country, have recorded that the ancient Egyptians worshipped the onion. It is true that Wilkinson, who wrote on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, doubts the evidence of this; but he adds that the onion was admitted as a common offering on every altar, and that the priests were forbidden to eat it. In Ellis's History of Madagascar it is noted that the Malagasy of our time regard the onion as unclean, and forbidden by the idols. The symbolization of the universe in the concentric folds of the onion may be taken as an explanation of the high reverence in which it was assuredly held by some ancient races.
Whether or not the onion was sacred in Egypt, the garlic, as Herodotus tells us, was the daily food of the Egyptian labourer. And the Jews, when they left Egypt, looked back with fondness to these delicacies. 'We remember the fish which we did eat freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic,' so they told Moses. The onion is still a common food in Egypt, and sometimes almost the only one of the poorer classes. Moreover, the onions of Egypt are much sweeter than, and superior in quality to, those of Europe. It is also noteworthy that the onion grows coarser and more bitter as it is traced northward.
Herodotus says that sixteen hundred talents were expended on garlic, onions, and radishes for the workmen during the building of the Pyramids; and it is recorded that an onion taken from the sarcophagus of an Egyptian mummy two thousand years old was planted and made to grow. We have also the authority of Pliny for what he calls the foolish superstition of the Egyptians in swearing by garlic and onions, calling these vegetables to witness when taking an oath.
Botanists seem now agreed that the original habitat of the onion was the mountainous region of Central Asia; and, according to the Gardener's Chronicle, it is still found in a wild state in the Himalayas.
The Mohammedans do not seem to have reverenced the Allium tribe. On the contrary, they have a tradition that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after the fall of man, garlic sprang up where he planted his left foot, and onion where he planted his right foot. This is the reason alleged why Mohammed could never bear the smell of either, and even fainted when he saw them.
Among the Greeks both onions and garlic were held in high regard, both as articles of food and as medicaments. Theophrastus wrote a book on onions, as did also Palladius. Then Homer tells that the onion was an important part of the banquet that Hecamede spread before Nestor and Machaon:
'Before them first a table fair she spread, Well polished, and with feet of solid bronze; On this a brazen canister she placed, And Onions as a relish to the wine, And pale, clear honey, and pure barley meal.'
Among the Romans the onion seems to have been the common food of the people, although Horace could not understand how they digested it. Its use for promoting artificial tears was also well understood by them, for Columella speaks of Lacrymosa caepe, and Pliny of Caepis odor lacrymosus. Ovid, again, says that both onions and sulphur were given to criminals to purify them from their crimes, upon the old theory of purgation by fumigation. The Romans thought not only that the onion gave strength to the human frame, but that it would also improve the pugnacious quality of their gamecocks. Horace, however, thought that garlic was a fit poison for anybody who committed parricide. The Emperor Nero, on the other hand, thought that eating leeks improved the human voice, and as he was ambitious of being a fine singer, he used to have a leek diet on several days in each month.
The onion tribe must have been held in reverence elsewhere than in Egypt, for, according to Mr. Thiselton-Dyer, in Poland the flower-stalk of the leek is placed in the hands of Christ in pictures and statues.
On Halloween, in some parts of the country, girls attempt a method of divination by means of a 'Saint Thomas onion.' They peel it, wrap it up in a clean handkerchief, and, placing it under their heads, repeat the following rhyme:
'Good St. Thomas, do me right, And see my true love come to-night, That I may see him in the face, And him in my kind arms embrace.'
On the other hand, to dream of an onion is supposed in some parts to foretell sickness.
'To dream of eating onions means Much strife in the domestic scenes, Secrets found out, or else betrayed, And many falsehoods made and said.'
It is also a portent of the weather:
'Onion's skin very thin, Mild winter's coming in; Onion's skin thick and tough, Coming winter cold and rough.'
It was the practice in some places to hang up or burn an onion as a safeguard against witchcraft, and the theory of this was that the devil respected it because it was an ancient object of worship. This seems a survival of the Egyptian story; but Mr. Hilderic Friend says that the Arabs, Chinese, and many other peoples, to this day employ onions, leeks, or garlic for preventing witchcraft, and that he himself has frequently seen them tied up with a branch of sago-palm over the doors of Eastern houses for this purpose.
The old custom of throwing an onion after a bride is doubtless well known. It had the same origin as the old Scotch custom of throwing a besom after a cow on its way to market, to avert the evil-eye, and insure luck.
The idea of bad dreams being associated with the onion seems due to the old herbalists. At all events, Coghan wrote in 1596: 'Being eaten raw, they engender all humourous and contemptible putrefactions in the stomacke, and cause fearful dreams, and, if they be much used, they snarre the memory and trouble the understanding.'
Old Gerarde had no opinion of the medical properties of the tribe. Of both leeks and garlic he wrote most disparagingly, as 'yielding to the body no nourishment at all,' but 'ingendereth naughty and sharpe bloud.'
Some of the other old herbalists treat it more kindly, and some ascribe almost every virtue to garlic and onion. Garlic came to be known as 'Poor Man's Treacle,' and in some old works is thus often described. But the word treacle here has no reference to molasses, and is probably derived from the Greek theriakos, meaning venomous, for garlic was regarded as an antidote against poison, and as a remedy for the plague.
Pliny long ago wrote of garlic as a remedy for many of the mental and physical ailments of the country people. It was used by the Romans to drive away snakes; and the Romans seem to have adopted this idea from the ancient Greeks. It was recommended by one old English writer as a capital thing with which to frighten away birds from fruit-trees; and has been recently recommended, in solution, as the best preservative of picture-frames from the defilement of flies. Bacon gravely tells of a man who lived for several days on the smell of onions and garlic alone; and there was an old belief that the garlic could extract all the power from a loadstone.
The belief that the eating of onions will acclimatize a traveller seems not uncommon in Eastern countries. Thus, in Burnes' Travels into Bokhara it is recorded that at Peshawur 'Moollah Nujieb suggested that we should eat onions in all the countries we visited, as it is a popular belief that a foreigner becomes acclimated from the use of that vegetable.'
And in Morier's Travels in Persia it is said: 'Those who seek for sulphur, which is found at the highest accessible point of the mountain of Damarvend, go through a course of training previous to the undertaking, and fortify themselves by eating much of garlic and onions.'
The general explanation given of how the leek became the emblem of Wales, and is worn on St. David's Day, is this: In 640 King Cadwallader gained a complete victory over the Saxons, owing to the special interposition of St. David, who ordered the Britons always to wear leeks in their caps, so that they might easily recognise each other. As the Saxons had no such recognisable headmark, they attacked each other as foes, and aided in their own defeat.
There is a more poetic story. It is that St. David lived in the valley of Ewias, in Monmouthshire, spending his time in contemplation:
'And did so truly fast As he did only drink what crystal Hodney yields, And fed upon the leeks he gathered in the fields, In memory of whom, in each revolving year, The Welshmen, on his day, that sacred herb do wear.'
St. David, however, died in 544, and therefore it is probable that the leek was a common and favourite vegetable in Wales during his lifetime—that is to say, more than thirteen hundred years ago. A still more prosaic explanation of the Welsh emblem is sometimes offered. It is that it originated in a custom of the Welsh farmers when helping each other in a neighbourly way to take their leeks and other vegetable provender with them. Now, as the word leek is from the Anglo-Saxon leac, which originally meant any vegetable, it is probable enough that the Saxons sneeringly applied the word to the Welsh on account of their vegetarian proclivities. We cannot, of course, be sure that the leek was worn as a badge in Cadwallader's time, but we have at any rate Shakespeare's authority for concluding that it was worn by the Welsh soldiers at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.
The phrase 'to eat the leek'—meaning to retract and 'knuckle-under'—is supposed to have originated in that famous scene in Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth, where Fluellan the Welshman compels Pistol to swallow the vegetable at which he had been expressing such abhorrence. But there is earlier evidence that the leek was regarded as something ignominious in England. Thus in Chaucer:
'The beste song that ever was made Is not worth a leke's blade, But men will tend ther tille.'
Without dwelling on the culinary uses of the onion tribe, which have been exhaustively described by others, a few applications, not generally known, may be briefly noted.
In olden times there was a famous ointment called Devil's Mustard, which was supposed to cure cancer, remove tumours, and so forth. It was a compound of garlic and olive-oil, and had a smell which was enough to frighten away any disease—or else to create one. Then the fair dames of old had a favourite cosmetic for the hands and face, and one also which was used as an antiseptic, which was largely composed of garlic. Leek ointment, again, made of pounded leeks and hog's lard, was used as a liniment for burns and scalds.
It is said that in India, where dyspepsia is common, garlic is found to be a great palliative. It is in many countries regarded as a sure antidote against contagion; and persons have been known to put a small piece in the mouth before approaching the bed of a fever-stricken patient. Whether it has any real virtue of the kind one may doubt, but let us hope that it has more than is ascribed to some so-called disinfectants—the power to kill one bad smell with another.
In The Family Dictionary, popular in our grandfathers' time, appears the following certain remedy for the plague: 'Take away the core of an onion, fill the cavity with treacle dissolved or mixed with lemon-juice, stop up the hole with the slice you have cut off, roast the whole on hot ashes so long till well incorporated and mixed together, then squeeze out the juice of the roasted onion, and give it to a person seized with the plague. Let him presently lie down in his bed and be well covered up that he may perspire. This is a remedy that has not its equal for the plague, provided the patient perspires presently.'
And if it did promote perspiration, one can well believe that it might be curative.
Not only has garlic been esteemed as an antidote to the bite of snakes, but it has also been regarded as a cure for hydrophobia, while onions have been claimed as a cure for small-pox, and leeks as an antidote for poisonous fungi. Old Celsus, from whom Paracelsus took his name, regarded several of the onion tribe as valuable in cases of ague, and Pliny had the same belief. In our own time the onion is held to be an excellent anti-scorbutic, and is thought to be more useful on ship-board than lime-juice in preventing scurvy.
In fact, in all skin diseases, and in many inflammatory disorders, preparations of the onion have a real value. The juice is also useful in stopping bleeding, although one may hesitate to believe, as was popularly supposed, that a drop of it will cure earache, and that persistent application will remove deafness.
There still exists, however, a belief that onion-juice is the best hair-restorer in the market, in spite of its disagreeable smell.
It would take too long to mention all the virtues that have been claimed, with more or less reason, for all the members of the Allium genus, but it is a curious fact that the onion, which relieves dyspepsia and aids the digestion of some, is a certain cause of indigestion in others. Is it not said that Napoleon, who was a martyr to indigestion, lost the Battle of Leipsic through having partaken of a too hurried meal of beefsteak and onions? It is a savoury dish, but has worked woe to many. One does not wonder that the old writers declared that onions brought bad dreams—if they were eaten raw, or badly cooked, at late supper.
It is open to grave doubt whether the author of The Family Dictionary was right in saying that 'they that will eat onions daily will enjoy better health than otherwise.' What is one man's meat is another man's poison; and certainly there is no article in common use which produces such opposite effects upon the human system as the onion. It has often been found beneficial to individuals in feverish attacks, and yet the malingerers in our garrison hospitals know well how to promote febrile symptoms by a hearty consumption of garlic.
A fitting conclusion to this chapter will be the summary of Sir John Sinclair, the author of a Code of Health and Longevity:
'Onyons in physick winneth no consent, To cholerick folke they are no nutriment; By Galen's rule, such as phlegmatic are A stomacke good within them do prepare. Weak appetites they comfort, and the face With cheerful colour evermore they grace, And when the head is naked left of hair, Onyons, being sod or stamp'd, again repair.'
THE STORY OF A TUBER.
The planting of a tuber by Clusius, in 1588, in the Botanical Gardens at Vienna, is often referred to as the introduction of the potato into Europe. As a matter of fact, however, this was not the first planting, for the Spaniards brought the real potato—Solanum tuberosum—home to Spain about 1580. From Spain it extended to Italy, and became at once a common article of food there. From Spain it also extended to Belgium, and was cultivated there; and it was from a Belgian that Clusius got the roots which he planted at Vienna in 1588.
Then, again, it has been said that Christopher Columbus was the first European who ever tasted a potato, and that was in 1492, when he reached Cuba. From Cuba he brought samples back with him to Genoa. This would make our history one hundred years older, only it so happens that the Solanum tuberosum is not a native of these parts, and could not have been at Cuba when Columbus was there. What he tasted and brought home was the Convolvulus batatas, or sweet potato, a very different article, although it gave its name, 'batatas,' to our tuber in the modified form of 'potato.'
The real potato is a native of Chili, and it has been proved to the satisfaction of naturalists that it did not exist in North America before the arrival of Europeans. How, then, could Sir John Hawkins bring it from Santa-Fe in 1565, or Sir Walter Raleigh from Virginia in 1584? Well, in the first place, it was the sweet potato that Sir John brought; and in the second place, before Sir Walter went to Virginia, the Spaniards had brought there the real potato on returning from some of their South American expeditions. In 1580 they sent it home, and there is evidence that by 1580 the Solanum tuberosum had been planted in North America. By the time Raleigh brought it to England, however, it was already a familiar root in Italy.
But did he bring it? There are some who say that it was Sir Francis Drake who brought the roots and presented them to Sir Walter Raleigh, who planted them on his estate near Cork in the year 1594. M'Culloch, however, says that 1610 was the year of the introduction into Ireland, and other writers say that Raleigh knew so little of the virtues of the plant he was naturalizing that he caused the apples, not the tubers, to be cooked and served upon his own table. Buckle, however, says that the common, or Virginian, potato was introduced by Raleigh in 1586, and Lyte, who wrote in that year, does not mention the plant; but Gerarde, who published the first edition of his Herbal in 1597, gave a portrait of himself with a potato in his hand.
Here, then, we have some negative certainties and some positive uncertainties. Columbus did not take the real potato to Genoa in 1492; Hawkins did not bring it to England in 1565. The Spaniards did take it to Spain in or about 1580; but whether Raleigh was the first to bring it to Britain, and in what year, remains open to doubt.
During the whole of the seventeenth century the potato was quite a rarity in this country, and up to 1684 was cultivated only in the gardens of the gentry. In Scotland it does not seem to have been grown at all, even in gardens, before 1728. Phillips, in the History of Cultivated Vegetables, says that in 1619 the price in England was one shilling a pound. He further says that great prejudices existed against it, that it was alleged to be poisonous, and that in Burgundy the cultivation of it was prohibited.
These early prejudices against the potato are explainable on the supposition that the people did not know how to cook it, and possibly ate it raw, in which state it is certainly unwholesome, if not actually poisonous. Then, again, it belongs to a family of ill-repute, the Solanacae, of which the deadly nightshade and the mandrake are members, as well as more honoured specimens like the tomato, tobacco, datura, and cayenne-pepper plants. The mandrake, of course, was the subject of ancient dislike, and perhaps it was natural for our superstitious progenitors to regard with suspicion any relative of that lugubrious root.
Even the tempting appearance of the tomato did not suffice to win favour for it when first introduced into Europe, until somebody discovered that, although undoubtedly sent by the infidels to poison the Christians, the Bon Dieu had interfered, and transformed it into an agreeable and wholesome fruit.
One meets with two references to the potato in Shakespeare, and these are said to be the earliest notices of it in English literature. Thus in Troilus and Cressida: 'The devil luxury, with his fat rump, and potato finger, tickles these together!' In the Merry Wives, Falstaff says: 'Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the time of Green Sleeves; hail kissing-comfits, and snow Eringoes.'
There are several references in the early dramatists, which the curious reader may find collected in a note in Steevens's Shakespeare, but which hardly serve our purpose. There is one reference, however, by Waller, which is interesting:
'With candy'd plantains and the juicy pine, On choicest melons and sweet grapes they dine, And with potatoes fat their wanton kine,'
because it seems to be the case that, prior to 1588, the Italian peasants used the potato as food for their pigs as well as for themselves.
We are constrained, however, to conclude that Shakespeare and the old dramatists referred to the sweet potato, sometimes called the Spanish potato. 'Eringoes,' mentioned by Falstaff, were candied roots. Eringo is curiously suggestive of 'Gringo,' which was the name of contempt applied by the Spaniards to all foreigners, but especially Englishmen. The word would seem to have been imported by the gentlemen-adventurers from the Spanish Main, in the time of Good Queen Bess. If we take 'candied roots' in association with 'kissing-comfits,' we are compelled to conclude that Falstaff's potato was the 'batatas,' the sweet, fleshy roots of which were described by Columbus to be 'not unlike chestnuts in taste.'
Certain it is that the potato was not regarded in this country as an object of national importance until 1662, when the Royal Society advised that it should be planted. In the history of the Society there is the record of a recommendation of a committee, dated 1662, urging all the Fellows who possessed land to plant potatoes, and persuade their friends to do the same, 'in order to alleviate the distress that would accompany a scarcity of food.'
In Scotland, the first mention of the potato occurs in the household book of the Duchess of Buccleuch and Monmouth. From Chambers's Traditions of Edinburgh we learn that the price in 1701 was half-a-crown a peck. Robertson, of Irvine discovered what he thought the earliest evidence of potatoes in Scotland in the household book of the Eglinton family. The date of this entry, however, was 1733, and Robert Chambers showed that the date in the Buccleuch book was thirty-two years earlier.
Further information is given by the Duke of Argyle in Scotland As It Was, And As It Is. There we learn that, until long past the middle of the eighteenth century, little or nothing was known of the potato in Scotland, although in after years it brought about the most prodigious effects on the population. The Celts of Ireland first began to use it as an adjunct, and then as a main article of food. From them it passed over to the Celts of the Hebrides, and was introduced into South Uist by Macdonald of Clanranald in 1743. The Highlanders, always suspicious of novelties, resisted the use of it for some years; and the neighbouring island of Bernera was not reached until 1752. It was soon found, however, that the tuber would grow luxuriantly almost anywhere—even on sand, and shingle, and in bogs. It was quickly planted in those patches of ditched-off land known in the Highlands as 'lazy beds'—a not inappropriate term, which in Ireland is applied to patches of potatoes not sown in drills.
In Ireland and in the Highlands it quickly came to be the main food of the people during the greater portion of the year; but in the Lowlands of Scotland, and the rural districts of England, it was only used as a food accessory, though it soon became an important article of commerce. It has often happened that the potato crops have realized higher prices than any other product of the farm.
It has been sometimes stated that the man who planted the first field of potatoes in Scotland died within the last forty years. This is an error. The first field planted in the Lowlands was at Liberton Muir, about the year 1738, by a farmer named Mutter, who died in 1808. An attempt had been made some years earlier by a farm-labourer, named Prentice, near Kilsyth, but not as a farming operation.
In any case we do not get farther back than about 1730 for potato-planting in Scotland, whereas in England, by 1684 the recommendations of the Royal Society had been largely adopted, especially in Lancashire, where the first serious beginning seems to have been made. On the other hand, the cultivation has not extended so rapidly in England as in either Ireland or Scotland.
The annual crop of Ireland is estimated as, on the average, equal to about one thousand three hundred and twenty pounds per inhabitant; that of Scotland, about three hundred and ninety pounds; and that of England, about one hundred and twenty pounds. Germany is the next largest producer to Ireland, and also the next largest consumer—the crops being equal to about one thousand and sixty pounds per head. Holland and Belgium each produce about five hundred and eighty pounds, and France about five hundred and fifty pounds, of potatoes per inhabitant per annum.
It is curious that, although Spain and Italy were the first cultivators and users in Europe, the product of each of these countries is now only about fifty-five pounds per head.
The annual value of the entire potato crop of Europe may be stated at about one hundred and sixty million pounds; and that of the United Kingdom at about one-tenth of this total. That of North America is about twenty million pounds more; and it is a curious instance of the vagaries of time that the Solarium tuberosum is now known in America as the 'Irish potato,' to distinguish it from the batatas, or sweet potato.
All this immense development of cultivation does not complete the topographical record of our tuber. It has been introduced into India, and is now successfully cultivated both in Bengal and in the Madras Presidency. It has found a home in the Dutch East Indies and in China; and its tastes and habits are affectionately studied in Australia. But as in the tropics it has to be grown at an altitude of three thousand feet, or more, above sea-level, it can never become so common in hot countries as in Europe.
It is not only as a food-plant that the potato has secured the respect and affection of mankind. Starch is made from it both for the laundry and for the manufacture of farina, dextrin, etc. The dried pulp from which the starch has been extracted is used for making boxes. From the stem and leaves an extract is made of a narcotic, used to allay pain in coughs and other ailments. In a raw state the potato is used as a cooling application for burns and sores. A spirit is distilled from the tuber, which in Norway is called 'brandy,' and in other places is used for mixing with malt and vine liquors. Many of the farinaceous preparations now so popular in the nursery and sick-room are made largely of potato-starch; and in some places cakes and puddings are made from potato-flour.
To the potato are also ascribed properties of another kind. The folklore of the plant is meagre, considering its wide distribution, but there are a number of curious superstitions connected with it. In some parts there is a belief that it thrives best if planted on Maundy Thursday; in others, that if planted under certain stars it will become watery. In Devonshire the people believe that the potato is a certain cure for the toothache—not taken internally, but carried about in the pocket. It is by several writers mentioned as a reputed cure for rheumatism in the same way; only it is prescribed that, in order to be an effective cure in such cases, the potato should be stolen. Mr. Andrew Lang mentions an instance of faith in the practice of this cure, which he came across in a London drawing-room. He regards this belief as a survival of the old superstitions about mandrake, and as analogous to the habit of African tribes who wear roots round the neck as protection against wild animals.
The value of the potato as food has been much discussed; but it seems to rank next to the plantain, and a long way behind either rice or wheat. The author of the Chemistry of Common Life has pointed to the remarkable physiological likeness of tribes of people who live chiefly on rice, plantain, and potato. The Hindu, the negro, and the Irishman are all remarkable for being round-bellied, and this peculiarity is ascribed to the necessity of consuming a large bulk of food in order to obtain the requisite nourishment.
It is not, of course, the root of the plant which we consume. The tubers known to the table are the swollen portions of the underground branches, and the so-called 'eyes' are really leaf-buds. It is by cuttings from these tubers, however, that the plant is mostly propagated. About three-fourths of the weight of the potato is water, and this may explain the injurious effect which excessive rainfall has on the crops. The disease which attacks the plant, and has been the cause of Irish famines, past and prospective, is a species of fungus, which first attacks and discolours the straws, and then spreads downwards to the tubers, increasing the quantity of water in them, reducing the quantity of starch, and converting the albumen into casein.
When this disease once appears it is apt to spread over wide areas where the same climatic influences prevail, and when the disease appears in any strength the crops are rapidly rendered unfit for human food. The trouble of the Irish peasantry of the West is that they have no alternative crop to fall back on when the potato fails. Their plots are too small for cereals, and they cannot be persuaded to cultivate cabbages and other vegetables along with their tubers. It is thus that, when the day of tribulation comes, the potato appears to be really a curse rather than a blessing to agricultural Ireland.
There have been frequent projects for reverting to original types—that is to say, for obtaining a fresh supply of the indigenous plant from South America, and breeding a new stock, as it were. It is a possible mode of extirpating the disease which may be resorted to.
The Irish famine of 1847 was due to the failure of the potato crops in 1846, preceded by two or three years of bad crops. This failure was due to disease, and the eating of the diseased tuber brought on a pestilence, so that altogether the deaths by starvation and epidemics in that disastrous period amounted to nearly a million and a quarter persons. To deal with the distress various sums were voted by Parliament to the total amount of over ten millions sterling. This was supplemented by private philanthropy in this country, and by generous aid from the United States and some European countries. What was the actual money cost to the world at large of the failure of the Irish potato crop in 1846 can never be accurately known; but the amount was so enormous as to create a serious economic problem in connection with the homely tuber.
There have been several partial failures since in Ireland, although nothing so extensive as that of 1846, and in 1872 the disease was very bad in England. In that year, indeed, the importation of foreign potatoes rose to the enormous value of one million six hundred and fifty-four thousand pounds to supply our own deficient crops. In 1876, again, there was great excitement and alarm about the 'Colorado beetle,' an importation from America, which was destined, it was said, to destroy all our potato-fields. But the beetle proved comparatively harmless, and seems now to have disappeared from these shores.
The Englishman and Scotchman cannot do without his potato as an adjunct; but the error of the Irishman is in making it the mainstay of his life. The words of Malthus in this connection put the matter in a nutshell, much as he has been abused for his theory of the effects of the potato on population. 'When the common people of a country,' he says, 'live principally upon the dearest grain, as they do in England on wheat, they have great resources in a scarcity, and barley, oats, rice, cheap soups, and potatoes, all present themselves as less expensive, yet, at the same time, wholesome means of nourishment; but when their habitual food is the lowest in this scale, they appear to be absolutely without resource, except in the bark of trees—like the poor Swedes—and a great portion of them must necessarily be starved.'