Rosemary

(Rosmarinus officinalis) Tradition has it that rosemary was introduced into Britain by Philippa of Hainault, Edward Il's queen, though it probably took place much earlier than that. One belief is that it never grows higher than the height of Christ during his earthly life; after 33 years the plant may increase in girth but never in height (Rohde). Another legend tells how, during the flight into Egypt, the Virgin threw her cloak over a rosemary bush while she rested beside it. For ever afterwards the flowers, which had been white, turned the blue colour of her cloak (Rohde). There was certainly a definite association between rosemary and the Virgin Mary (Baker. 1980), if only by a misunderstanding of the common name. But that was a good reason why it was always taken to be such a powerful "disperser of evil" (Baker. 1978), and that is why it is planted near the house, so that "no witch could harm you". A remedy for illness caused by witchcraft "used and prescribed by the cunning man was to put rosemary, balm and many gold flowers in a bagg to the patients brest as a charm and to give them inwardly a decoction made of the same in a quarrt of ale and their own blood ..." (taken from a deposition to the Assizes, Leicester, 1717 (Ewen). Like the Glastonbury Thorn (in fact) rosemary was thought to bloom exactly at midnight on the eve of Twelfth Day - Old Christmas Eve, that is (Dew).

Rosemary is the symbol of remembrance. Shakespeare has Ophelia say "there's rosemary - that's for remembrance", and earlier, Sir Thomas More wrote: "As for rosemarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie 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 of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds". Its use by mourners at funerals made it a token to wear in remembrance of the dead, and in the 1930s there was a demand for rosemary for Armistice Day ceremonies (Rohde), along with the more conventional symbolic poppies. In the north of England, it was a "breach of decorum" for a mourner to attend a funeral without it. It was also the custom for a table to be put by the door, on which would be put the sprigs of rosemary and box (another funerary token), for each mourner to pick up as he came into the house (Vaux). The Lincolnshire custom was sometimes to put the rosemary on the breast of the corpse, and it was buried with him (Gutch & Peacock), just as in France it was once customary to put a branch of it in the hands of the dead (Thompson. 1897). Around Northwich, in Cheshire, mourners were given funeral biscuits, wrapped in white paper and sealed with black sealing wax. A sprig would be tucked in the folds of the paper, and this was thrown on to the coffin as it was lowered into the grave (Hole. 1937). Not surprisingly, given the symbolism, rosemary was also reckoned to stimulate the memory, and was prized as such (Macleod). Wear rosemary on the person, and memory will be strengthened, wrote a Derbyshire correspondent of Notes and Queries in 1871, and in the 1930s Mrs Leyel was still saying that rosemary tea, besides curing a nervous headache, would, by constant use improve a bad memory (Leyel. 1937).

Rejuvenation is also symbolised by rosemary, at least in the French language of flowers, where it stood for the power of re-kindling lost energy (Rohde). Bancke's Herbal of 1528 carried the advice "make a box of the wood and smell it and it shall preserve thy youth" (Arber). It was with rosemary that they tried to wake the Sleeping Beauty (Rohde). Yet another of rosemary's symbolic virtues is that of fidelity in love. As such, it was appropriate as a gift from the bride to the groom. "Rosemary bound with ribbons" was a token of a bride's love for her husband (Higgins), and a favourite valentine used to be a sprig of rosemary painted on a heart (Webster). Rosemary was worn at weddings, and appears to have been considered as the insignia of a wedding guest; on these occasions the sprigs were often gilded, and dipped in scented water (Andrews). Polish brides and bridegrooms wore a tiny wreath of rosemary on their head. It was blessed by the priest and carefully kept, to be boiled in the water to be used as the first baby's first bath (Kennedy). Sprigs of rosemary in the bride's bouquet signified happiness (Webster), and it was also woven into the bridal coronet. Anne of Cleves, when she arived at Greenwich as a bride, wore "on her head a coronet of gold, and precious stones, set full of branches of rosemary". Gerard described the plant under the name Rosmarinus coronarium, "because women have been accustomed to make crowns and garlands thereof". As well as the coronet, the flowers, tied with coloured ribbons, were put in the bride cup and carried ceremonially before her (Rohde). It was also strewn before her, and a sprig dipped in the wine before the health of the bride and groom was drunk (Leyel. 1937). In addition, young men in Wales used to put a large bunch of rosemary, tied with white ribbons, at the bedroom window of a girl they admired, as a May morning tribute (Roheim). Rosemary, then, was obviously a fertility agent. As late as 1700, country bridal beds were decked with it (Baker. 1977), and the Welsh medical text of the Physicians of Myddfai prescribed it as a remedy for barren-ness. Hartland reported that it still had that reputation in Belgium in his day. At Hildesheim, women were struck with branches of rosemary at Shrovetide, much as in the Roman festival of the Lupercalia. The plant also appears in marriage divinations. For example, on St Agnes' Night, take a sprig of rosemary and one of thyme, and sprinkle them three times with water. In the evening put one in each shoe, putting a shoe on each side of the bed. When ready to go to bed, say:

St Agnes, that's to lovers kind, Come ease the trouble of my mind.

The future husband will appear in a dream. So wrote Halliwell. 1869, as an example of a charm from the north of England and Scotland. The rhyme, though, has been quoted also as:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,

Hither, hither, now repair;

Bonny Agnes, let me see

The lad who is to marry me (Drury. 1986), if we can believe that a country girl could use such language. Derbyshire girls used to put a sprig of rosemary and a crooked sixpence under their pillows at Hallowe'en, so that they should dream of their future husbands (Addy). "If you lay a branch of rosemary under your head, on Easter Eve, you will dream of the party you shall enjoy", so says an 18th century chapbook (Ashton). Another kind of divination was in fashion in Herefordshire. There they put a plate of flour under a rosemary bush on Midsummer Eve. The initials of the intended lover were expected to appear in the flour next morning (Leather). The bad atmosphere created by marital quarrels could be exorcized by burning rosemary in the house, as was the custom in parts of Portugal (Gallop).

It is odd to find one herb to have marriage associations, and at the same time to be a funerary plant; there is a story that Hartland has of a widower who wished to be married again on the day of his former wife's funeral, because the rosemary used at the funeral could serve at the wedding too. That reminds one of Herrick, Hesperides:

The Rosemarie branch

Grown for two ends, it matters not at all,

Be't for my Bridall, or my Buriall.

There are many other superstitions concerning rosemary. In Guernsey, it was thought unlucky not to have one in the garden, but it should never be bought, or stolen, but grown for you and presented by a friend (MacCulloch), preferably with a gracious speech, something on the lines of "I give you this rosemary gladly, and I hope it will grow with you" (Baker. 1978). In America, it is good luck to dream of it (Whitney & Bullock). Another common superstition is that where rosemary grows, the woman rules, or "the grey mare is the better horse" (Hone). Nevertheless, Dr Hackett, in 1607, wrote: "Rosmarinus 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 ..." (quoted in Tyack). That, though, is very much a minority view, the consensus being that "it only grows where the missis is master".

North country people in England say that a sprig of rosemary in the buttonhole will give the wearer success in all his tasks, and of course will particularly help his memory (Waring). There are plenty of beliefs about it in Wales. It was used there for chronic drunkenness, for example, and for this reason an infusion of it was often put in a cask of beer. It also kept the beer from souring (Trevelyan). Welsh people also thought that the smell of the burning bark could release a person from prison, that the leaves pressed and applied as a poultice kept wounds from running, that a spoon made from the wood would make whatever was eaten from it nutritious, and that when put under a doorpost it would keep snakes away (Trevelyan).

There was an old belief that rosemary made people merry. Banckes' Herbal of 1528 has " .take the flowers and make powder thereof and bynde it to the ryfgt arm in a lynen clothe, and it shall thee bryght and mery". Langham, in 1579, repeated the belief - "carry powder of the flower about thee, to make thee merry, glad, gracious, and well beloved of all men". Banckes went on with more practices, the strange mixed with the practical: "take the floures and put them in a chest among your clothes or among bokes, and moughtes [moths] shall not hurt them ... Also boylle the leves in whyte wyne and wasshe thy face therewith - thou shall have a fayre face. Also put the leves under thy beddes head, and thou shall be delivered of all evyll dremes ...", and so on.

Essence of rosemary was used for scenting; it smelt, accrding to Rimmel, very like camphor, but one perfume became extremely well known. In 1709, an Italian chemist named Farina concocted a mixture of orange, alcohol, bergamot, lemon oil and rosemary. This proved very popular with the Germans, and Farina marketed it under the name K├Âlnisches Wasser - later known as eau de Cologne (Wykes-Joyce). Rosemary was the chief ingredient of Hungary water, too. The name came from Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, whose use of it is said to have had such a rejuvenating effect that the King of Poland wanted to marry her (she was 72). She refused him (Leyel). A hair rinse for dark hair is another toiletry for which the herb is used. It is even claimed that it prevents greying. It is still used to good effect as a shampoo to eliminate dandruff (Hemphill), and it is an ingredient in many current hair restorers (Porter. 1969). A manuscript of 1610 advised rosemary water for baldness - "if thou wash thy head with the ... water, and let it drye on agayne by itselfe, it causeth hayre to growe if thou be balde" (quoted in Gentleman's Magazine Library: popular superstitions). Equally optimistic was "a wash to prevent the hair from falling off", noted in the Housekeeper's and Butler's Assistant of 1862; it required "a quarter of an ounce of unprepared tobacco leaves, two ounces of rosemary, two ounces of box leaves, boiled in a quart of water in an earthen pipkin with a lid, for twenty minutes ...". A pomade was made from rosemary, too. In the Fen country, it was picked in April and May, pounded with the kidney fat of ewes that had died lambing, and then strained into pots, to be used on the hair when required (Porter. 1969).

Rosemary tea, made simply by pouring boiling water on to a handful of the leaves and flowers, is recommended for a number of ills, particularly for a cold, to clear the head (Rohde), but also for headaches, "tremblings of the limbs, and all other nervous disorders" (J Hill), or for weak hearts (Mrs Wiltshire called it a "supreme heart tonic"). It is also claimed to be good for the liver. Coughs can be treated, according to an 18th century prescription from Anglesey, by drinking the result of boiling up the herb with a quantitiy of Liverpool ale with honey and salt butter (T G Jones). Headaches are cured by rubbing the forehead with a handful of the herb (Newman & Wilson), as well as by drinking rosemary tea.

There seems to be some belief in rosemary as a general protector in all diseases, even if it is only treated as a charm rather than a drug. In the Balkans, for example, a doctor in Sarajevo told Kemp that women would throw down a sprig of rosemary as a protection against the doctor, and therefore all the diseases with which he was associated. In Brazil, too. its virtues are well appreciated in healing ceremonies. It is believed that anyone passing near a bush should stop and savour its scent:

Whoever passed by the rosemary

And did not smell it

If he was ill

Became worse (translation by P V A Williams).

Gerard, of course, was enthusiastic about its powers. It is given, he said, "against all fluxes of bloud; it is also good, especially the floures thereof, for all infirmities of the head and braine", and he cites Dioscorides as his authority for using it for jaundice. He recommended it for a lot more ills, from "stuffing of the head, that commeth from coldness of the braine", to halitosis, and to comfort the "weake and feeble braine in most wonderfull manner". Not least of the marvels assigned to rosemary was its supposed powers against the plague. It was an old custom to burn it in sick chambers, for this reason (Grieve. 1933), and there is the oft-quoted passage from Thomas Dekker, Wonderful Yeare, 1603, speaking of persons apprehensive of catching the plague: "They went (most bitter) miching and muffled up and downe, with rue and rosemary and wormwood stuft into their eares and nosthrills, looking like so many bores' heads with branches of rosemary to be served for brawne at Christmas".

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