Hops – an unwholesome weed.

https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52000858n/f455.image

In 1426 an innkeeper in Kent was fined for putting a weed into the beer – hops. Jack Cade’s rebellion of 1450 was blamed on hops rather than the ineptitude of the government in at least one instance. The plant was perhaps looked on askance because it originated from the Low Countries. However, by 1597, John Gerard was advocating hops in beer as a remedy to keep the drinker healthy rather than merely as a thirst quencher.

In 1603 Parliament passed an act which forbade hop growers from adulterating their hop flowers with bits of stalk and leaves. By the seventeenth century there was no stopping the growth of hop farming. Indeed in 1710 another act was passed preventing the use of anything but hops.

Traditionally hop garlands and wreaths were hung up every year for good luck. Rather than adding them to beer in spring the new shoots can be eaten (I’ve not tried) – hence the name “poor man’s asparagus.” And of course, a pillow filled with dried hops will apparently send you to sleep. And having lulled you into a false sense of security now is probably a good time to mention that spring was a time for fasting and purging – putting a whole new meaning on the idea of spring cleaning. Hops were just one of the plants used to treat pests and parasites – yellow iris, red current leaves, wormwood and tansy were just a few of the ingredients added to the brew to give you a fresh start after the winter months.

I think I need to end on a more positive note! In 1406 John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Order of the Hop. He had just become the Count of Flanders and wanted his new subjects to feel appreciated. It was John who helped to popularise hops in Europe. Aside from hops John also commissioned many books, continuing the work of his parents. One of them – the Livre de Merveilles du Monde, contains some rather famous descriptions of journeys to exotic and strange places including Marco Polo’s account of his journey to China. However, the reason why its in this post is because as Celia Fisher explains that the frontispiece of the book depicts hops. The whole of the book is available to view online – just follow the link beneath the image at the start of this post.

Illustration from the Medieval Flower Book p62

Fisher, Celia. (2013) The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library

Forget-me-not and courtly love.

L0055259 Platearius, Matthaeus Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Western Manuscript 626 Platearius, Circa instans seu de medicamentis simplicibus …; circa 1480 to 1500 1480 – 1500 Platearius, Matthaeus (d. 1161) Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Myosotis is part of the borage family and there are various folk lore based stories for it’s name. One of them is based on courtly love. A knight was walking with his lady beside a river. Obviously when one goes courting it is essential to wear full armour – in this case the knight was very chivalrously carrying the lady’s flowers when he slipped and tumbled into the raging current – as he was swept away he threw her flowers to her crying “Forget me not!” And there you have it!

Courtly love is of course the medieval form of ritualised love expressed by a knight for a married lady who is outside his reach – so duty, honour, devotion and courtesy were all important as they were part of the chivalric code. Ideally a knight’s love should be unrequited. Lancelot and Guinevere became very popular at this time. For a more in-depth article about the literature of courtly love follow the link to the British Library:

https://www.bl.uk/medieval-literature/articles/love-and-chivalry-in-the-middle-ages

An illustration from Anne of Brittany’s book of hours. Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne. Type : manuscrit Langue : Latin Format : 238 ff. – 300 × 190 mm. – Reliure galuchat noir datée de 1684, fermoirs métalliques XVIIe s. au chiffre d’Anne de Bretagne, gardes pap. dominoté, tranches dorées Droits : domaine public Identifiant : ark:/12148/btv1b52500984v



By 1190 the monks of Glastonbury had cashed in on the popular stories of the knights of the Round Table with the discovery of the graves of King Arthur and his queen.

Courtly love became the rage in the twelfth century at the point where tournaments also became the height of fashion. The use of courtly love as a motif in England grew when Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen. It was William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) who made it fashionable in 1101. Aquitainean troubadours carried songs of romance around Europe. It should be noted that William’s love was not unrequited – he appears to have been something of a serial seducer.

Henry of Bolingbroke adopted the forget-me-not as an emblem during his exile in 1398 when Richard II banished him from England for ten years. When his father John of Gaunt died the following year Richard turned the sentence into banishment for life – setting in motion the events that led to his usurpation.

Anyway, back to the forget-me-not, in medieval times if you got bitten by a dog or a snake you might be treated with forget-me-not. Gerard called it scorpion grass named due to the shape made by the curling bract of flowers.

Phillips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore. London: Robert Hale

Swabey F. (2004) Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love and the Troubadours

Solomon’s seal – medieval medicine

Illustration from the Book of Simple Medicines circa 1470

According to Gerard Solomn’s seal will mend a black eye within a coupe of days caused, and I quote, by “women wilfnulnes, in stumbling upon their haste husbands fists.” I make no comment other than to be grateful that Gerard’s humour would no longer be regarded as acceptable in any way shape or form. The roots of the plant will also help heal wounds and mend broken bones.

It took me years and years to find some Solomon’s seal of my own as wasn’t very popular in garden centres at that time. I assume because it grows in such profusion that those with the plant are more than happy to share it – the knack is to find a gardener with the aforementioned plant. Consequently I have been carefully to pot up some of the plant with each successive move I have made and there is always the concern that it won’t like it’s new home but it is currently spreading happily.

The plant is called Solomon’s seal after the marks on the root which are said according to folk lore to come from King Solomon’s seal when he first discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. Rather alarmingly the notes in my dictionary of plants inform me that the fumes that come from he brewed flowers were used to inspire painters and poets and keep evil spirits at bay. I shan’t be eating it anytime soon even if it a very useful medical plant, not least because my Alnwick Poison Garden guide observes that everything about the plant is toxic -it contains saponins and convallamarin demonstrating that medieval medicine really was a case of kill or cure.

Philips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants: in myth, legend, magic and lore. London: Robert Hale

Heartsease (viola tricolour) – Elizabeth I’s flower

“There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts”.  Ophelia

Detail of pansy on hemline of Hardwick Portrait

The regular post has moved to a midweek time to accommodate the weekly history challenges. Let’s hope I can stay organised.

I’ve been doing some gardening today, making the most of the lovely weather. At this rate I’ll have the tidiest garden ever. Today I did some weeding and planted some seeds that I’ve found lurking in the back of a cupboard. Apparently heartsease populate walls, rockeries and paths easily. Time will tell. Anyway, heartsease as I know it has many different names including Jack-behind-the-garden-gate; kiss-behind-the-garden-gate; Kit-run-around; godfathers-and-godmothers; herb trinity and herb constancy to name but a few.

The name heartsease comes from the days when if you were suffering from a broken heart you could take an infusion of the pretty little plant to treat your woes. I don’t suggest that you try it. In Victorian times when courting couples couldn’t speak openly the flower represented happiness and if you gave it to someone the meaning might be that the recipient occupied the giver’s thoughts – presumably leading to the kiss behind the garden gate.

Gerard’s herbal reveals other medicinal uses for the pansy or heartsease:

It is good … for such as are sick of ague, especially children and infants, whose convulsions and fits of the falling sickness it is thought to cure. It is commended against inflammation of the lungs and chest, and against scabs and itchings of the whole body and healeth ulcers.’

So back to the history – the pansy was Elizabeth I’s favourite flower, and as a consequence it was everyone else’s as well. For Elizabeth the humble heartsease was not linked with kissing behind gates, it represented chastity- an important facet of being the Virgin Queen. In medieval times, prior to the Reformation, it was linked with the Virgin Mary. The colours of the heartsease, white, yellow and purple relate to purity, joy and mourning respectively which relate in turn to the Virgin’s life. 

The Stowe Inventory of the Wardrobe identifies many of Elizabeth’s clothes in 1600 as well as her new year’s gifts which included many hand embroidered items. Elizabeth herself hand embroidered gifts for her own family, most famously Katherine Parr’s prayer book cover stitched when Elizabeth was eleven-years-old, which includes pansies or heartsease.

Katherine Parr’s Prayer book cover stitched by Princess Elizabeth

Look closely at any number of Elizabeth’s portraits including the Pelican Portrait, the Hardwick Hall portrait and the Rainbow Portrait for example and you will find pansies.