Fennel

(Foeniculum vulgare) A Mediterranean plant, in Britain probably a naturalised physic herb, growing mainly by the sea and in some waste places inland.

In Elizabethan times, fennel was used as a symbol of strength (Leyel. 1937), and also flattery, which is what Milton presumably meant, in Paradise Lost. Bk xi:

The savoury odour blown,

Grateful to appetite, more pleased my sense,

Than smell of sweetest Fennel.

Shakespeare probably had this in mind when he made Ophelia say, "There's fennel for you, and columbine ..." (Dyer. 1883). Grindon, though, had another explanation to offer, linked to the belief that fennel improves the eyesight (see below). She is trying, according to him, "to quicken the royal consciousness", i.e., open their eyes to what is going on, but, to return to the "flattery" theme, the Italian idiom 'dare finocchio' means to flatter (Northcote). In one of the many Italian folk tales involving St Peter, the saint is sent to buy some wine, and allows himself to be persuaded by the wine merchant to eat some fennel seed, so that he cannot distinguish good wine from bad (Crane). It is pointed out that the tale is in all probability the result of folk-etymology - the verb infinocchiare, meaning to impose on one, is very close to finocchio.

'Sow fennel, sow sorrow' is quite a well-known proverb (Wiltshire), pehaps because it tends to inhibit other plant growth (except that of Eremurus apparently). And you must not give it away, for that would cause disaster to follow (Wiltshire). Another superstition, from Somerset, is that fennel over the door prevents the house catching fire (Tongue), but that is because it is a protective plant, and powers out of the ordinary have been associated with it. It was used to ward off evil spirits (Emboden. 1979), and to plug keyholes to keep away ghosts (Cullum), and it was hung over the door along with other herbs of St John at Midsummer (C P Johnson). The 'benandanti' of 16th century Friuli, who were the "night-walkers" who fought the witches on a psychic level, carried fennel as their weapon, while the witches carried Sorghum, seemingly some kind of millet, as theirs. It was said that these 'benandanti' ate garlic and fennel "because they are a defence against witches" (Ginzburg). There is even a suggestion that cows' udders were smeared with an ointment or liniment made from fennel to prevent the milk being bewitched (Rowe). Certainly, fennel was used as a personal amulet. The seeds were hung round a child's neck against the evil eye (W Jones), and in Haiti it protects against loupga-rous, and also serves to fortify pregnant women (F Huxley). A medieval Jewish protective amulet turns out to be a sprig of fennel over which an incantation had been recounted, which was then wrapped in silk, and then, with some wheat and coins, encased in wax (Trachtenberg). Emboden. 1979 suggested that these beliefs could have arisen from observation of the effect that the distilled oils could produce - epilepsy-like fits of madness, and hallucinations, giving the impression of powers out of the ordinary belonging to the plant.

The Greeks believed that snakes had recourse to fennel to cure blindness (Grieve. 1933), and it was popularly believed in the Middle Ages that dragons could cure their blindness, "apparently a common affliction of dragons", by rubbing their eyes with fennel, or eating it (Hogarth). The other point about snakes and fennel is that " so soone as they taste of it they become young again." (Hulme). Macer reckoned fennel to be a restorer of youth, quoting the snake belief (Hulme). Perhaps this is relevant to an odd reference in Shakespeare: Falstaff, in Henry IV pt 2, says of Poins, "he plays quoits well, and eats conger and fennel", as if this were a sign of manliness.

Fennel appears in Anglo-Saxon medical receipts as early as the 11th century, probably owing to the active part Charlemagne took in its diffusion through central Europe (Fluckiger & Hanbury). The faith put in it in earlier times is shown by one of the medical maxims from the Book of Iago ab Dewi (Berdoe): "He who sees fennel and gathers it not, is not a man, but a devil". It is said, too, that a certain Comte St Germain became a very rich man by selling a tea that he claimed prolonged life - it was apparently composed of senna and fennel leaves (Thompson. 1897). By the end of the 19th century only the seeds were official in the British Pharmacopeia, and they were used in the form of distilled water, or volatile oil. The chief consumption was then in cattle medicine, and also (the oil) in the manufacture of cordials. But the carminative action had been recognised for a very long time: "Fennel seed drunke asswageth the paine of the stomacke, and wambling of the same, or desire to vomit, and breaketh winde ..." (Gerard). In other words, it helps digestion, and relieves flatulence. Fennel tea is the usual carminative these days, made by pouring boiling water on to the crushed seeds. Fennel juice was also used at one time as a sort of anti-fat (Berdoe). For example, "pro stomaco. Who-so have swellyng in his stomake, take ther route of fynel, and the route of arache [orach], and stampe hit with wyn and hit schal helpe and hele hit" (Henslow). It is said that Greek athletes included fennel in their diet for stamina, and as a guard against getting over-weight. In fact, the Greek name for the plant is marathron, from maraino, to grow thin (Sanecki). The Welsh medieval text known as the Physicians of Myddfai has an entry: "To reduce fatness: whosoever is fat, let him drink of the juice of fennel, and it will reduce him". And it is still being prescribed (both the leaves and the seeds) for constipation and obesity (A W Hatfield).

It was mentioned above that dragons were wont to use fennel to restore their eyesight; it was Topsell who first wrote of the natural history of dragons, and it was his opinion that "their sight many times grows weak and feeble, and they renew and recover it by rubbing their eyes against fennel or else by eating it". So did snakes, apparently. With these precedents, no wonder that the belief arose that "to repair a man's sight that is dim", nothing better than fennel could be found (Hulme). Already, by the 15th century, a recipe "for itching and web in the eye" had been recorded -"take the juice of fennel-roots and put it in the sun in a brazen vessel 12 days; and then put it in his eyes in the manner of a collyrium" (Dawson), and in 1542 Boorde could write "the roots of Fenell soden tender, and made in a succade, is good for the lungs and for the syght". Gerard was able to quote a popular rhyme in his exposition of the virtues of the plant:

Of Fennell, roses, vervain, rue and celandine

Is made a water good to cleere the sight of eine.

The medicine travelled to America, too - in Maine (Beck), an infusion of fennel seed is still a domestic remedy for eye trouble. Longfellow remembered the belief, too:

The fennel, with its yellow flowers,

In an earlier age than ours

Was gifted with the wondrous powers

Lost vision to restore (from Goblet of life).

The seeds are still used in Chinese medicine for running eyes, and also to treat hernia (R Hyatt).

Another of Gerard's prescriptions was: "the greene leaves of Fenell eaten, or the seed drunke made into a tisan, do fill womens brests with milk". Since it is similar to dill in appearance, fennel has picked up some of dill's attributes, like increasing the flow of milk in nursing mothers, settling babies' stomachs, etc., (G B Foster). Fennel tea is still taken for bronchitis (Fluck), and, so it is said, it soothes rheumatic pains (A W Hatfield). It was also part of an ointment to put on the bite of a mad dog, according to the Physicians of Myddfai. Babies with teething difficulties were give fennel tea in America (H M Hyatt). But the most spectacular of its many cures must surely be this one from Ireland: it is a remedy for the falling sickness, and said that if the patient fell in the fit, put the juice of absinthe, fennel or sage in his mouth, and there would be an immediate recovery (Wilde. 1890) (because they are green, is the implication in Hutchings's paper).

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