Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hello! I was reading a very interesting article called Ophelia’s Herbal: it traces flowers and herbs and their uses in women’s health. In the study, Lucile F. Newman examines herbals around Shakespeare’s time in order to help us understand Ophelia’s seemingly insane “litany of herbs” that she gives in Hamlet.[1]

Two particular qualities of plants are discussed in the article; as abortifacients and as emmenagogues. In my class on the Bible, my professor first introduced us to the problem of infrequent menstruation that woman faced in the ancient world, and judging from other articles and books that I’ve read this semester, this problem seems to have carried on through the medieval period. Nothing was known yet of the connection between a missed period and a woman’s malnutrition (or even what malnutrition really consisted of) since “men and [most notably] women who lived in this period lacked almost all the scientific medical advances that have become part and parcel to life in the West today.”[2] Because this information was undiscovered, women used emmenagogues to start a missed period.

Although students of Shakespeare’s literature have had differing views on the significance of Ophelia’s speech, Newman makes the intriguing observation that the plants in it, “were widely known and subjects of commonly held belief for author and audience.”[3] Newman cites the 1568 herbal of William Turner, Bartholomew Batman’s 1582 herbal and John Gerarde’s herbal of 1597 as they enumerate some uses for plants. She reports that Turner said “[rosemary] bringth down a women’s fluers”; Gerarde confirms this when he says “wyld rosemary [provokes] the desired sickness.”[4] Newman also says that Turner reports a use of fennel also. Turner obtained this information from the Greek Dioscorides. Fennel, he says, “provoketh flowers.”[5]

All the uses of gardens in the middle ages are widely varied and quite wonderful when you think about it! I’d like to see maybe some fennel and certainly rosemary in our Heraldic garden at Loyola.  Make sure you come visit us sometime!

Rosemary (left) and anise, from the fennel family.

[1] Newman, Lucile F., “Ophelia’s Herbal,” Economic Botany Vol. 33, (1979); 227-232.  
[2] Carol Rawcliffe, “Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles': Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England.” Garden History, Vol. 36, (2008): 3-21.
[3] Whether or not her statement is true that, “the suggestion is not made that…Ophelia was meant to have used [abortifacients and emmenagogues],” is, I think, a debatable question. Newman, Lucile F., “Ophelia’s Herbal,” Economic Botany Vol. 33, (1979); 227-232.
[4] Ibid. (1)
[5] Ibid (1) 

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