Stay Young, with Rosemary

ROSEMARY images-20

Remedy for: 

sprains, fractures, wounds, cough, dizziness, stomach troubles

Magic & beliefs : Rosemary, if hung around the neck, protected from plague whereas the twig offered protection against the evil eye. It was also claimed that people who sniffed the flowers of the herb regularly retained their youthfulness. In addition to this, rosemary prevented faeries from stealing infants. oh dear.


According to legend, it was draped around the Greek goddessAphrodite when she rose from the sea, born of Ouranos‘s semen. The Virgin Mary is said to have spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting, and the flowers turned blue. The shrub then became known as the ‘Rose of Mary’

Rosemary [Rosmarinus officinalis], pine-scented, dark green woody shrub, though one of the fussier herbs, is well worth growing because it was one of the medieval favorites.  It is used in cooking, particularly pork, as well as in medicine.

Rosemary has a very old reputation for improving memory and has been used as a symbol for remembrance during weddings, war commemorations and funerals in Europe and Australia. Mourners would throw it into graves as a symbol of remembrance for the dead. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” (Hamlet, iv. 5.) A modern study lends some credence to this reputation. When the smell of rosemary was pumped into cubicles where people were working, they showed improved memory, though with slower recall.

Banckes’ Herbal [1525] suggests it as a medieval Stridex antiseptic: “boil the leaves in white wine and wash thy face therewith, thy beard and they brows, and there shall no corns grow out, but thou shall have a fair face,” and more metaphysically: “Make the box of the wood and smell to it, and it shall preserve thy youth.” It was used as a fumitory– burned to cleanse the air (Virgil cited by Clarkson)–, laid up in linens, strewed on the floors (Tusser), and put in tussy-mussy flower bunches to ward off vermin and noxious odors.  It was supposed to improve the memory, if consumed or smelled, and to sharpen the mind (Culpeper, Clarkson).  Symbolic of memory and fidelity, it was used in wreaths for marriages and funerals.Unknown-11

Rosemary is a perennial but it should almost always go in a pot, because it does not tolerate the cold and must be brought inside for the winter. You can either put it in a big (8-12″) clay pot which you stick in the ground in summer, or into one of those large, terra-cotta look urns or cauldrons (though I’d recommend using the plastic ones) which actually look quite a bit like those in Italian Renaissance paintings. Rosemary must have plenty of sunlight, and will die off if it is kept too wet or too dry: it likes to dry out between waterings, and then be thoroughly drenched. In Europe, it gets up to 6 feet high, but here it generally settles down at 2 or 2 1/2 feet and bushes out.  There is are prostrate varieties, as well as regular ones, and a hybrid called ARP that is supposed to be hardy as far north as north-central PA and NJ. Some rosemary flowers white, some blue, in late summer.

From The Medieval Garden Enclosed ….

In the later Middle Ages, the leaves, stems, and flowers of this aromatic member of the mint family were used to effect cures for many ills, and provide protection from both spiritual and bodily harm.

The two quotes above epitomize the ancient reputation of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) as a medicinal simple, and the hallowed status it came to enjoy in the later Middle Ages. Friar Henry Daniel’s famous treatise on rosemary includes medical prescriptions, horticultural advice, and sacred lore. In the introduction to the work, Daniel attributes the Latin original to a scholar of Salerno and tells us that he has rendered the “little book” into the vulgar tongue himself, word for word. He also tells us that the book was sent by the Countess of Hainault to her daughter Queen Phillipa(wife of Edward III) in the year 1338. [The reverse of the Wilton Dyptych (ca. 1395–1399, National Gallery of London) shows an enchained white hart, which was the personal emblem of Phillipa’s grandson King Richard II, lying on a large rosemary, the emblem of his queen, Anne of Bohemia.]

Rosemary is not known to have grown in England before Queen Phillipa received the cuttings her mother sent along with the little book. John Harvey, a twentieth-century authority on English medieval gardens, surmised that these cuttings were entrusted to the care of Henry Daniel and first planted in the privy garden of the old palace of Westminster. Daniel warns that this Mediterranean herb must be protected in the English winter from black frost and from cold northern, eastern, and northeastern winds.

While rosemary’s introduction to England can be dated to the fourteenth century, it is not clear when it was first grown in northern Europe. Rosemary is listed in two of the three important ninth-century sources for Carolingian gardens: the Capitulare de Villisincludes it as one of more than eighty other plants to be grown on the imperial estates, and a bed marked “rosmarino” appears in the small medicinal garden rendered on the St. Gall Plan, but it is not among the herbs named in the Hortulus as growing in Walahfrid Strabo’s little garden at Reichenau.

Although absent or uncommon on the Continent, this Mediterranean maritime plant may have been very familiar to the southern European compilers of Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius, a late classical production copied and transmitted by medieval monks. (The Bodleian Library’s collection includes an eleventh-century manuscript of thePseudoApuleius from St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury that includes a depiction of rosemary)

The Old English Herbarium, an Anglo-Saxon translation of the PseudoApuleius made about the year 1000, lists rosemary’s therapeutic properties, but that doesn’t mean that the plant was known and grown in tenth-century England. The book treats rosemary as an ordinary medicinal simple that could be pounded with lard to treat fresh wounds and whose juice was of value in treating toothache and itch. It makes no mention of the marvelous powers attributed to every part of the plant, but especially the flowers, in the later Middle Ages. Rosemary is not characterized as a “holy herb,” as Henry Daniel calls it, nor is it a powerful amulet against all manner of physical ills and spiritual dangers, as attested in the anonymous treatise On the Virtues of Rosemary. According to George R. Keiser, an authority on medieval medical and scientific texts, this popular work was probably compiled soon after Friar Daniel’s little book. It survives in many manuscripts in English, and in Latin versions which were widely circulated on the Continent. In this encomium to rosemary, the powdered flowers have not only the power to heal all manners of sickness, but to comfort and cheer the person who carries them and to make them beloved. Not only can rosemary cure snakebite, it can kill adders when placed in their holes, and a branch placed above the lintel can prevent snakes from entering a house.

By the sixteenth century, rosemary had become a common garden plant in England as well as Italy, as John Gerard attests. Once prescribed to warm the brain and strengthen the memory, the herb had become an emblem of remembrance, as proffered by Ophelia: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember” (Hamlet,Act IV, Scene V). The herbalist John Parkinson (1567–1650) notes not only that rosemary grew in every Englishwoman’s garden, but that it was commonly used as a token at both weddings and funerals. The seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick epitomizes the plant’s significance in a single couplet simply titled “The Rosemary Branch”:

Grow for two ends, it matters not at all,
Be’t for my bridal, or my buriall.

—Deirdre Larkin



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