Sweet Violet: Renaissance Use

The Renaissance writers rehearse the themes. A number, for example Gerard, Parkinson and Dodoens, relate the origin of the Greek name for violet, ‘Ion’. How either, according to Nicander, it was named after the nymphs of Ionia, who first gave the flower to lupiter; or rather after the ‘young damosell, Io’ (Gerard), ‘that sweete girle or pleasant damosell’ (Dodoens) whom lupiter courted and then, ‘after that he had got her with child’ (Dodoens) turned her into a cow, or ‘trim heiffer’ according to Dodoens, to protect her from the jealous eyes of Hera. lupiter then caused the flowers to grow as fragrant food for his erstwhile mistress. The Latin term ‘viola’ is then proffered to come from ‘vitula’ meaning heifer. De Cleene & Lejeune (2003) add that the violet is dedicated to Persephone, goddess of fertility and queen of the underworld; it is often associated with death, particularly of a young person. In Christian legend the violet hangs its head because the shadow of the cross fell on the flower.

Gerard is comprehensive in his coverage of violets. He begins with a more ‘moral’ influence through their beauty; violets ‘… have a great prerogative above others, not only because the minde conceiveth a certain pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those most odoriferous of flours, but also for that very many by these violets receive ornament and comely grace … yea gardens themselves receive by these the greatest ornament of all, chiefest beauty and most gallant grace; and the recreation of the minde which is taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest’. He lists seven sorts: purple garden, white garden, double garden, white double, yellow, wild, field and one found in Germany. The virtues cover the Ancients, Arabic writers and ‘later phisitians’. He lists by mode of application. The flowers are good for all inflammations, especially the lungs; they take away hoarseness of the chest, ruggedness of the windpipe and jaws, allay heat of the liver, kidneys and bladder, ease the heat of burning agues, temper sharpness of choler and take away thirst. The oil, made from fresh, moist violets, put on the testicles (this is the only reference I found to this part of the body) counters hot and dry distempers to allow sleep; mixed with egg yolk it eases pain of the fundament and haemorrhoids; also in enemas and poultices to cool and ease pain. Dried violets are mixed with medicines, according to ‘later physitians’, says Gerard, to comfort and strengthen the heart. The leaves taken internally cool, moisten and make the belly soluble. Externally they cool hot inflammations by themselves or with barley flour, and, after Galen and Dioscorides, this same mixture thus cools a burning stomach and eyes and can be applied to the ‘fundament that is fallen out’. He cites Pliny’s use as garlands for surfeiting, heaviness of the head, squinancie (quinsy) or inward swellings of the throat, the falling sickness, especially in young children, and the seed against scorpion stings. Three or four ounces of the syrup softens the belly and purges choler. He offers a recipe:

First make of clarified sugar by boyling a simple syrrup of a good consistence or meane thicknesse, whereunto put the floures cleane picked from all manner of filth, as also the white ends nipped away a cjuantitie according to the cjuantitie of the syrup, to your owne discretion, wherein let them infuse or steepe foure and twenty homes, and set upon a few warm embers; then strain it, and put more violets in to the same syrup; thus do three or foure times, the oftner the better; then set them upon a gentle fire to simper, but not to boyle in any wise; so have you it simply made of a most perfect purple color, and of the smell of the floures themselves. Some do adde thereto a little of the juice of the floures in the boyling, which maketh it of better force and virtue. Likewise some do put a little cjuantitie of the juice of lymons in the boyling, which doth greatly encrease the beauty thereof, but nothing at all the vertue.

The decoction is taken for hot fever, inflamed liver and other organs, and the juice, syrup or conserve can be used similarly. The syrup is used too for inflammation of the lungs and breast, pleurisy and cough, fever and agues in young children, for burning fevers, pestilent diseases, inflammation of the throat, mouth and uvula, quinsy and epilepsy in children. Sugar violet heals inflammations and sore throat, comforts the heart, eases headache and promotes sleep. The leaves are used with other plants such as ‘Mercurie’ (dog’s mercury which is poisonous) and mallows in plasters, oils, cataplasms, poultices and enemas.

Fuchs, Dodoens and Dalechamps all write similarly, citing Dioscorides, Pliny, Galen, Mesue and others. Dodoens and Mattioli both point out it is clear Galen and the Greeks had not discovered the laxative property of violets. Mattioli stresses the gentleness of the remedy in this respect; it can be used without harm. Culpeper too remarks on its mildness and ascribes the herb to Venus. He otherwise follows Parkinson almost word for word, covering the same areas as Gerard and the rest. Bauhin’s coverage is thorough, as usual. On reading his text, his frequent mention of the general recommendation for epilepsy in children, e.g. citing Bayrum ‘for epilepsy in children, especially when the fever is acute’, presents the suggestion that the epilepsy referred to might be simply the convulsions occurring in children with a high fever, rather than epilepsy itself. Is this perhaps what Diosco-rides meant? Violets’ cooling properties would suggest a more obvious and effective use here.