Damask rose: Medieval Contraction

The Old English Herbarium includes only the sweet briar or eglantine Rosa canina or Rosa rubiginosa, the ‘plant called cynosbatus’. It is ‘harsh on the throat and disagreeable before meals, but nevertheless, it will purge the chest, and anything sour or bitter; although it harms the stomach, it benefits the spleen greatly. If the flowers of this plant are drunk, they affect a person in a way so that the intestines and urine will take out disease. It also purifies bleeding.’ The bark can be used as external application for the spleen. Without the richness of cultivated roses, the uses here appear rather restricted and do not attain the breadth of Arabic or Renaissance sophistication, although application to the chest is notable, reflecting somewhat Dioscorides’ spitting of blood and reappearing in Culpeper’s later use for TB.

Hildegard may have had access to better stock or wider sources, but her applications are still not wide and there is no specific reference to internal use, or wider external use. Rose is cold, she says, and this coldness contains moderation which is useful. Rose petals placed on the eyes in the morning will draw out the humour and clear them. The mucus of small ulcers on the skin can be drawn by rose petals. A person who is ‘inclined to wrath’ should make a powder of rose and sage, less sage than rose, and take as snuff, ‘hold this powder to his nostrils’, for the sage eases the wrath and the rose cheers. An ointment can be made from the same two plants cooked in lard for rubbing on cramps and paralysis.

The Trotula has a few uses for rose, variety unspecified, and they are all cooling remedies. A very practical one is for pain of the womb coming from heat, for instance made hot from the ‘use of Venus’ when marsh-mallow, herb of violets, roses and root of rush should be cooked in water, fomented and applied. If the feet swell in pregnancy, rub with rose oil and vinegar. A plaster which mitigates pain and restores strength for a lesion of the womb from a hot cause might include juice of purslane, houseleek, fleawort, great plantain, prickly lettuce and rose oil.

A most interesting entry in a later section of The Trotula is the recipe for oleum rosaceum or oleum rosatum, since it shows clear influence, albeit limited, from earlier, presumably Arabic, texts. ‘The oleum has a cold and styptic power’, the recipe says, ‘and this is the best thing for head pains from fever or heat of the sun’. It will remove burning and heat from a bilious stomach and when its windiness [of the stomach] fills the head. Pain in the head or part of the head is eased if anointed with this oil. For pains in the stomach or intestines from ‘sharpness of the humors’ it should be applied mixed with mastic and wax. It is good for erysipelas that does not appear on the surface of the skin and other similar conditions. This oleum rosaceum, typically for this time an infused oil, not a distilled one, is made thus; 1J4 lb slightly crushed fresh roses are placed in 2 lb of common ‘(and in our opinion cleaned)’ oil; these are put in a pot in a bain marie and boiled until reduced to one third of the quantity, pressed and the liquid saved. There is a further recipe for rosata novella which rids vomiting and upset stomach, counters weakness and thirst and eases a long sickness: Take 1 oz, 1 drachm (4 g) and 2½ scruples (38 g) each of rose, sugar and liquorice; 2 drachms, 2 scruples and 2 grains (10.5 g) cinnamon; 1 scruple and 8 grains (1.8 g) each of clove, spikenard, ginger, galangal, nutmeg, zedoary, storax, watercress and wild celery and honey as needed. Take morning, noon and night in cold water.