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Lady Violette

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Posts Tagged ‘Lavender and Napoleon’

A Treatise on Lavender in History

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

Photo by Anita Ritenour



In the Language of Flowers  

Lavender expresses acknowledgment of Love.

Spearmint connotes Virtue and warm feelings.

Lemon implies Zest.

Orchid signifies Beauty.

Lavender, in the Elizabethan era, was considered the traditional flower of love, much as the long stemmed red rose is today. A bunch sent from a lover signified true and devoted love. Included in the wedding bouquet, lavender was believed to bring luck in marriage.

Lavender is for lovers true,

Which evermore be fain,

Desiring always for to have

Some pleasure for their pain.

Elizabethan song lyric


So by Tudor times lavender had allied with cupid. If a maiden wished to identify her true love, she would sip a brew of lavender on Saint Luke’s day while murmuring,

Saint Luke, Saint Luke, be kind to me,

In my dreams let me my true love see….

The aromatically intense lavender and spearmint are both members of the mint family, botanically known as Lamincae, and often share the same habitat in the wild.

In folklore, lavender has always been linked with Love, as has food.

Lavender was popular in Elizabethan times for its fragrance and for its distinctive flavor. It married well with mint in the making of romantic sweets.

According to Nicholas Culpepper, Physician and Astrologer (1616 – 54),  in his book, The English Physisian, The Complete Herbal,  (still in print today and considered a definitive source on the medicinal uses and properties of many herbs and flowers) ~

Lavender is ruled by the planet Mercury and Spearmint is an herb of Venus.

The ancients classified herbs as hot or cold, or alternatively masculine or feminine.

Hot herbs were considered positive and stimulating or restorative in some way.

Lavender was the designated fragrance of the wedding night in classical times.

Well recognized and appreciated for its calming properties, lavender also enjoys a long and exotic reputation as an aphrodisiac for men!

Shakespeare, familiar with this association, has Perdita saying to older men, Polixines and Camillo in The Winter’s Tale (1610)

Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mints, savoury, majoram;

The marigold that goes to bed wi’ the sun,

And with him rises weeping: these are flowers

Of middle summer, and I think they are given

To men of middle age. You’re very welcome.


It seems that lavender was the Viagra of the Elizabethan age!

Country girls slipped lavender beneath their swain’s pillows, hoping to inspire romance; once married,  couples put lavender flowers between their sheets to encourage connubial bliss.

Courtly love and long nights of passion fanned the fires of desire for lavender itself and a brisk business rose up from the flames.

In France and England, lavender was first gathered from the wild and cultivated in cloistered priests’ gardens  and cottage and castle herb gardens. In time, desire for the flowers became so great that serious cultivation for commercial purposes developed and great fields of lavender were planted to meet the demand.

The busy streets  of London and Paris were filled with peddlers of all kinds vying to capture  the crowd’s attention for their goods and services. Lavender, ~ much appreciated for its fragrance and love making enhancement, as well as for its varied culinary, household, and medicinal uses ~ was sold alongside other popular herbs.

The picturesque street cries of London’s peddlers were first transcribed by a fifteenth- century Benedictine monk named John Lydgate.  They have since become a popular part of English folklore. Every flower seller had her own distinctive version.

Some Lavender Cries of London

From a dainty and plaintive flower girl:

Lavender! Sweet Lavender!

Who’ll buy my sweet lavender?

Sixteen bunches a penny;

Sweet blooming lavender!

Somewhat later, as prices had inflated and competition for sales become more fierce,  the more robust;

Ladies, buy my sweet lavender

Sixteen stalks for a shilling;

And that lad that you fancy            [ Variation of

Will soon be most willing!       Lady Violette de Courcy ]

These eventually became songs written about lavender ~~~

From an uninhibited seventeenth century broadsheet we have the origins of the nineteenth century nursery rhyme Lavender Blue:

Spearmint is green, dilly dilly,

Lavender’s blue;

You must love me,dilly dilly,

‘Cause I love you.

I heard one say, dilly dilly,

Since I come hither

That you and I, Dear,         [ Variation of

Must lie together.          Lady Violette de Courcy ]

A bawdy nineteenth century version was;

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly,

Spearmint is green;

Tomorrow  I’ll be King,

And you’ll be my Queen.

Send my man to make hay;

And your maid to shear corn,

And you and I, Dear,                           [ Variation of

Will make the bed warm!             Lady Violette de Courcy ]

It was nigh impossible to resist such suggestive flirtatiousness. Everyone was buying and using lavender!

Lavender has become increasingly popular through the twentieth century. It is a favorite garden plant and a valuable farm crop. Thirty plus species are now recognized. They grow wild only in the Northern Hemisphere.

Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region, and grew wild in the sunny hills of southern France. Lavender was spread throughout Europe by the Romans who are thought to have brought it to England. Most likely it was also introduced there by Benedictine monks from France.

Lavender’s name comes from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash.” It is refreshing and has naturally antiseptic properties. Lavender has long been used to make perfumes and soaps. The Romans scented their baths lavishly with great bundles of it. Cleopatra anointed her body with lavender oil. On sunny days, French and English ladies made a tradition of spreading their lingerie and sheets over lavender bushes to dry and absorb the alluring fragrance: this practice attracted both bees and boys. Gentlemen, as well, came to enjoy the pleasures of perfumed sheets and shirts. Lavender calmed the soul and soothed the nerves. It was customary to put sweet-smelling pots of it on sunny balconies and windowsills to perfume the air. These practices would be just as comforting today.

Piscator, in Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler, 1653, enthusiastically describes

“An honest ale-house where we shall find a cleanly room, lavender in the windows, and twenty ballads upon the wall.”

Izaak Walton, 1682, wrote

“Good master, let’s go to that house, for the linen looks white and smells of lavender, and I long to lie in a pair of sheets that smell so.”

It was a joy to keep memories of the freshness of summer in the house all year round by storing clothing and linens in lavender.

From Lydia

My mother, for the love of her,

Unlocks her carved drawers;

And sprigs of withered lavender

Drop down upon the floors.

For Lydia’s bed must have the sheet

Spun out of linen sheer,

And Lydia’s room be passing sweet

With odors of last year…

Lizette Woodworth Reese, { 1856 – 1935}

And from an early twentith century brochure promoting the lavender industry;

Satin gown and silky fur,

Should be laid up in lavender,

For its fragrance drives away                    [ Variation of

Flitting moths of silver grey.                Lady Violette de Courcy ]

Lavender was a natural insect repellent. To have fine furs and delicate clothes “laid up” in lavender was a special luxury and very expensive.

This topic was a continual theme with the flower sellers as well:

Will you buy my sweet lavender, lady?

Sixteen bunches for a penny,

You’ll buy it once, you’ll buy it twice,

It will make your clothes smell very nice!

And from another charming song:

Come buy my lavender, sweet maids

You cannot think it dear;

There must be profit from all trades,

Mine comes but once a year.

Just put one bundle to your nose,

What rose can this excel;

Throw it amongst your finest clothes,

And grateful they will smell.

Though Winter comes, it still retains

The fragrance of today;

And while the smallest sprig remains

Your purchase will repay.

One penny’s worth is all I have,

This  sold, my stock is gone;

My weary footsteps you might save

By purchasing this one.

The witty Mister Greene wrote in 1592 of one economically challenged man; “The poor gentleman paies so deere for the lavender it is laid up in that if it laies long at the broker’s house, he seems to buy his apparel twice.’

The popularity of lavender at court drove the prices up.

Culinary records exist of lavender’s use in vinegars, stews, stocks, wild game and marinades. Lavender was also used to flavor jams, jellies, conserves and fruit pies. And it worked well with sweets.

When Simple Simon met the pie man going to the fair, The pie man’s tarts probably contained lavender flowers!

In England, the road from the growing district of Mitcham to a Renaissance fair was a gypsy ribbon of caravans selling wares made with lavender. The gypsies had a long association with the Lavender growers of that region.

In France, the perfume industry developed under the auspices of the Medici family in the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The master glove-makers of Grasse became the first perfumers because fashion of the time dictated that gloves and all other items made of animal skins should be highly scented. Gloves were, of course, essential accessories to all “persons of quality.” Eventually, the perfume industry superceded all others, and the growing and processing of lavender became the main business of the area.

The industrial revolution and rural exodus of the peasants for jobs in the cities had monumental effects on both town and country. Scent, as a symbol of social success and personal refinement, was in ever higher demand as the urban working population grew. Fashion became economically accessible to all classes. Consequently, the perfume and cosmetic industries flourished in all the great cities of Europe and America.

Historically, perfumes were a continual and precious aspect of aristocratic life. It followed that the bourgeoisie were influenced by the nobility and the working classes  then imitated the bourgeoisie.

Lavender regularly consorted with royalty. This pungent herb was a favorite of Charles VI of France who, Lady Violette discovered, when she sat down on a divan in his salon, had his upholstered furniture stuffed with it. Queen Elizabeth I of England commanded that the royal table never be without lavender tea to soothe her migraine headaches, or a conserve made of it to be sprinkled on meats. (This was a clever way to disguise the fact that meats, in an era prior to refrigeration, were often past their prime.) Queen Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henry IV of France and Marie de Medici,  and the wife of Charles I of England, was a great patron of gardens. She had immense amounts of rare white lavender planted on the palace grounds and believed greatly in its magical power. It was considered an herb of protection ~ and divine protection was direly needed by women in court! Louis XIV of  France, the Sun King, carried sprigs of lavender in his pockets, for the pleasure of its scent and to ward off evil. He also washed with lavender water. Queen Victoria loved the fragrance. She wore it as her signature perfume and had her entire castle cleaned with lavender-based products. The royal gardens were  chock full of lavender plants. And, as far as we know, HRH Queen Elizabeth II enjoys it to this day.

Men and women of power throughout the ages were avid for perfumes. Napoleon had an insatiable appetite for eau de cologne. After his exile to Saint Helena, he was unable to obtain it, so he had his servant concoct a home brew from wild plants on the island ~ including lavender.

In addition to imparting its alluring scent to humans, lavender also works well as a natural insect repellant. It was sewn into sachets to be placed in drawers and armoires, or to be carried in the pockets of a silk waistcoat or gown. That is one of the reasons pockets were invented.

Lavender has been gathered from the wild and grown in monastic gardens for medicinal purposes for centuries. The Greeks and Romans are known to have used it to treat a wide range of problems. The first written evidence of its presence and use in Great Britain occurs in the texts of the great Welsh physicians of Myddfai in the thirteenth century. Lavender oil was used in a tincture to treat cuts, snake and insect bites, and stings  and burns, in both animals and people. Its essence is a natural antiseptic.

It had long been observed in Provence that a cut incurred when gathering lavender with a sickle never became infected. Lavender was one of the herbs gathered in copious amounts by civilians during World Wars I and II to treat wounded soldiers. It has long been used to relieve headaches, soothe tension, calm nerves and alleviate insomnia. Lavender helped relieve the  symptoms of colds, coughs and chest infections. It was used in treatment of asthma attacks. It is recognized as a mild tranquilizer and was used in treating depression. It was also used as a sexual stimulant and a treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Lavender also served as a strewing herb ~ an herb spread over floors to be crushed when walked on and, thus, to mask unpleasant odors. It was often used in the sickroom as a deodorizer and disinfectant. In medieval times, it was burned in large quantities in buildings and streets to fight the plague, which was thought to be spread by smell. Financial records exist showing that towns purchased huge quantities of it from peasants for these fumigations. It was recommended that a person tie a bundle to each wrist to ward off the plague. Lavender was considered a powerful protection against infection. There is an interesting account of four thieves in Marseilles in 1722 who plundered the corpses of the dead and washed their hands and bodies regularly with a strong lavender vinegar and never contracted the dreaded plague. The aforementioned glove-makers of France, who perfumed their wares, escaped infection during a sixteenth century cholera epidemic as well.

The ancient name of lavender was spikenard. There are many Biblical references to spikenard and to its price. Lavender products were extremely precious at that time.

From the Gospel of Saint John: “Then took Mary a pound of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” [Chapter 12, Verse 3]

Stories from the Bible and legends became entwined over time. It was thought that Adam and Eve took lavender with them when they were banished from the Garden of Eden. One legend claims that lavender had no scent at all until the Virgin Mary laid the baby Jesus’ clothing on a lavender bush to dry and, with her saintly touch, bestowed its scent upon it for his pleasure and protection. That may be the source of lavender’s reputation as a traditional safeguard against evil. And of the custom of hanging a cross made of lavender over an entryway for protection. In Tuscany children were given sprigs of lavender to carry for protection and in North Africa women wore it to protect themselves from abuse from their husbands.

As an herb lavender has a long tradition of use in magic. It’s old use and meaning was as an herb of love, protection and purification. Lavender was used in celebrations of the summer solstice, where it was thrown on bonfires on Midsummer Night. In modern magic, it retains these associations, being used in incenses, in purifying and healing rituals and, of course, in love potions.

I think of lavender as the Cinderella of herbs and flowers: she can clean the house and work in the laundry during the day; metamorphose through magic and appear elegantly  at a  palace ball to dance the night away and charm her way into the hearts of royalty;  return the next day to grace the garden of a humble cottage in exquisite simplicity and scent the hearth of a fine house; and, all the while, linger unforgettably  in the memory of a prince like a beautiful perfume;  and again, with the help of flower magic, finally find her true and devoted life love! It is safe to assume that there was lavender in Cinderella’s wedding bouquet and that the phrase “living happily ever after” included marital passion between lavender-scented sheets. Cinderella would definitely have known about these things!

Lady Violette de Courcy

Treatise on Lavender

Tina Peterson

( Lady Violette de Courcy )     8/6/2002

Copyright Tina C. Peterson 2002