Sweet Violet: Echoes, Changes And Additions

With the medieval herbals there are echoes, changes and additions. Macer writes of ‘vyolet’ as cold in the first degree, moist in the second; how it is good for sore, swollen or ‘blasted’ eyes, the root being stamped with myrrh and saffron – no distinction here between the purple and the yellow; for head wounds a plaster of the leaves stamped with honey and vinegar – is this a version of ‘when the head burns’?; and as a foot bath and a binding for the temples for poor sleep due to sickness, ‘and ye shall sleep well by the Grace of God’. The Old English Herbarium carries two uses: for fresh or old wounds (not just the head this time), swellings and calluses, the leaves are applied with lard. Then violet’s use for constipation is introduced; take the flowers mixed with honey and soaked in very good wine to relieve the constipation. Hildegard records a number of uses. She begins with use of the oil for the eyes, against fogginess of the eyes. She gives a recipe for this oil ‘take good oil and make it boil in a new pot, either in the sun or over a fire. When it boils, put violets in so that it becomes thickened. Put this in a glass vessel and save it. At night put this unguent around the eyelids and eyes. Although it shan’t touch the inside of the eyes, it will expel the fogginess’. She continues that if the eyes are inflamed, foggy and painful, then violet, rose juice and fennel juice are mixed in the ratio of 3:6:2 parts, respectively, add a little wine and again rub round the external parts of the eyes. To anointing for heaviness in the head, Hildegard adds use for kidneys or ‘any other place fatigued by palsy’ by application of the juice of violets added to goat tallow and half as much old fat. Head pain is relieved by violet juice with olive oil and goat tallow, and this mixture will also rid crabs (lice or scabies) from the body. Tertian fevers, presumably due to violet’s cooling properties, are helped by 3 parts violet with 1 part plantain and 2 parts savory, frequently eaten with vinegar or roasted salt. An early reference to use for lungs then follows, but a use linked directly with melancholy ‘anyone oppressed by melancholy with a discontented mind, which then harms his lungs, should cook violets in pure wine. He should strain this through a cloth, add a bit of galingale, and as much licorice as he wants, and so make spiced wine. When he drinks it, it will check the melancholy, make him happy and heal his lungs’. This presumably hails from the phthisical diathesis delineated in the Hippocratic Corpus, where tendency to cerebral and lung diseases is the dominant diathesis.

The Trotula applies violets’ cooling nature; juice of violets for excessive flux of the menses through ‘too much bile’; the herb along with marshmallow, roses and root of rush for pain in the womb from heat ‘made hot from the use of Venus’; the oil, made in the same way as rose oil, anointed on the liver, pulse points, temples, palms of the hand and soles of the feet, to extinguish heat in acute diseases; and in various treatments, together with rose and marshmallow, for women with a hot constitution, determined by insertion of a diagnostic pessary prepared as described under mugwort.

The Salernitan herbal reads much like the Ancients; it is cold in the first degree, moist in the second, is moistening, sweetening, softening, cooling and loosening; the oil for an overheated liver, head pain caused by heat, the bruised, cooked plant applied to ‘inflamed apostumes’ in the early stages; bathing the feet and forehead in a hot decoction induces sleep in acute fevers. Two recipes are offered; violet syrup, which has more virtue made with fresh flowers, is prepared thus; place violets in water overnight, then cook, strain and add sugar; violet sugar, which will keep for 3 years is made by taking 1 lb flowers to 3-4 lb sugar; chop the violets and mix with the sugar in a glass container; place in the sun for 3 days, stirring every day.

The source of these mediaeval recommendations is no doubt via the Arabic writers, who wrote widely on violet, and here too we find hearty recommendations for use for the lungs, along with applications from the Ancients, plus additions. Ibn Sina tells us violets are cold and moist in the first degree, they balance the blood. The leaves with barley flour as bandage calm hot swellings. The oil is good for skin eruptions. To smell violets or apply their oil calms headache due to blood humour. For hot inflammations of the eyes the oil is applied or the infusion drunk. Inflammations of the stomach are eased too. The syrup ‘softens nature’ and helps rectal prolapse. Thus far he follows the Ancients. But then he diversifies: for a hot cough, violets boiled with sugar lenify the chest; syrup of violets is useful for pleuritis and inflammation of the lungs; the syrup is also diuretic and helps illnesses of the kidneys, and dried violets purge bile. Compare here Hildegard and the Trotula. Simeon Seth, cited in Fuchs, stays with the gastrointestinal tract and offers cautions; violets are useful for pains of the intestines but offend the heart; smelled or drunk they ease pains ofthe head due to yellow bile; they induce sleep; they moisten a dry head and cool a hot one, but will render moist heads liable to defluxion. Bauhin and Mattioli cite Mesue, and Bauhin adds that Mesue describes viola’s powers more accurately than others. Fresh violets are cold and moist in the first degree, says Mesue, although when dry they cool and moisten less. Bauhin’s version of Mesue continues: for in a fresh preparation an excrementitious moisture is purgative by a lubricating action and it dampens heat, then breaks it by drying and its bitter taste purges the heat by a drawing action. Mattioli writes ofthe same ideas in Mesue: so being dried they have more heat and less humidity; so dried, their faculties are more ejective not because they soften but because they dissolve. Fresh violets thus cool, easing hot pains in the manner of narcotics, extinguish all inflammations, soothe the trachea and lungs, purge yellow bile and extinguish its heat, and ease headache from a hot cause; they bring sleep. Violets carry off inflammations ofthe throat, pleurisy and other hot swellings of the lungs; dried they greatly help liver inflammation, dry obstruction there and help jaundice; they counter inflammatory fevers. They allay thirst but provoke a runny nose. The juice and syrup soothe. Honey ofviolets is more cleansing and less cooling; sugar of violets works the other way round. The dose of the syrup, Mesue says, is 2-4 oz; the dose of the juice, which does not tolerate much preparation, is 1-2 oz; the vinegar, which reduces fever wonderfully, 4-8 oz; the preserve 1½-3 oz. Dalechamps, citing Mesue, adds that since violets purge weakly, some add half its quantity of turbith or scammony (this is poisonous) and make troches (lozenges), for violets and oil ofviolets retard the violence of medicines and are added to them for that purpose.