Strewing Herbs

RUE was important as such, for not only did it keep fleas away, but it was a protection too against plague

(see PLAGUE). In 1750 it was used to strew the dock of the Old Bailey as a protection against the jail fever then raging at Newgate Prison, and the custom continued right into the 20th century (Genders. 1972). MEADOWSWEET, with its very aromatic leaves, was Queen Elizabeth 1's favourite strewing herb. "Queen Elizabeth of famous memorie did more desire meadowsweet than any other sweet herbe to strewe her chambers withal" (Parkinson. 1629). Gerard was enthusiastic about that usage: "the leaves and floures farre excell other strowing herbes for to decke up houses, to strew in chambers, halls, and banqueting houses in the summer time; for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighteth the senses; neither does it cause head-ache, or lothsomeness to meat, as some other sweet smelling herbes do". Sprays of JUNIPER were often strewn over floors so as to give out, when trodden on, the aroma which was supposed to promote sleep. Queen Elizabeth's bedchamber was sweetened with them (Fernie). It was also burned in rooms to sweeten the air, just as PLOUGHMAN'S SPIKENARD was. But that, too, could be used as a strewing herb to counteract musty atmospheres (Genders. 1971).

SWEET FLAG roots are aromatic, with a violet-like fragrance that is brought out as they are trodden on. Hence its former use for strewing on the floors of churches and the houses of the rich. Ely and Norwich cathedrals had their floors covered with it at festival times, as the plant grows in the Fens (Genders. 1971; Fletcher. 1997), where it was actually harvested, and not only for floor covering, for it seems that they were used for thatching too, especially for churches (A W Hatfield). One of the charges of extravagance brought against Cardinal Wolsey was that he ordered the floors of his palace at Hampton Court to be covered mch too often with rushes and flags, since they were expensive and difficult to get (Genders. 1972). Even more expensive was SAFFRON. He used rushes strongly impregnated with saffron to strew at Hampton Court (Dutton). But then he could afford it. BASIL was used, too (Brownlow). RAYLESS MAYWEED (Matricaria matricarioides) is a plant that gives off a pleasant scent when crushed (hence one its names, Pineapple Weed), so was valuable as a strewing herb. Indeed, its abundance by waysides is in part due to its tolerance of being trampled underfoot (Mabey. 1977). BEE BALM leaves, with their lemon fragrance, were used, too (Clair), with a "quasi-medicinal effect", as one writer put it (Fletcher). Mint, too, was used -WATER MINT, for example, "the savor or smell (of which).. .rejoyceth the heart of man, for which cause they use to strew it in chambers" (Gerard).

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