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The History of Rosemary – Early Use

(Rosemarinus officinalis)

Rosemary Plant
Rosemary Plant

Rosemary has quite an interesting and varied history; from fairies and witches to weddings and burials – this herb seems to be truly a story full of legend and perhaps even a bit of fancy. Many of the historical references and legends surrounding rosemary have grown vague with time and the folklore of the origins of Hungary water has its own legends.

Pliny (23 – 79 AD), Dioscorides (contemporary of Pliny and author of De Materia Medica a work on the use and identification of medical herbs which was the basis of medical practice for the next 1400 years), and Galen all wrote of rosemary. (I found numerous historical works that indicated the three worked with rosemary but only one mentioned that they agreed that it improved memory). It was cultivated by the Spanish in the 13th century and was a popular condiment with salt meats from the 15th to 18th centuries.

Rosemary History: Weddings

Rosemary was often entwined into a wreath, dipped in scented water and worn by brides at the alter. The wreath symbolized fidelity, love, abiding friendship and remembrance of the life the woman had led prior to her marriage.

The crowns and garlands of rosemary at weddings, in turn, led to the lays, or amorous ballads of the Troubadours (approx. 1100 – 1350) referring to rosemary as “Coronaria”.

Anne of Cleves (1515 – 1557), Henry the Eighth’s 4th wife, wore a rosemary wreath at their wedding. At that time, wealthy bridal couples would also present a gilded branch of rosemary to each wedding guest.

Robert Hacket, in a wedding sermon in 1607 said, “Let this Rosemarinus, this flower of men, ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your heads and hearts.” The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote of rosemary’s attachment to both beginning and end of adult life with,


Grow for two ends – it matters not at all
Be’t for my bridall, or my buriall.”

Rosemary History – Crime Prevention

Rosemary history contains an interesting bit of folklore from the 14th Century. Rosemary root was “seethed in wine vinegar” and the lotion was then used to wash the feet of a thief. The lotion was thought to sap the strength of the robber so that he would not longer commit robbery, steal or do any further harm. In a humorous aside, our original source for this bit of folklore questions their own source with, “How the potential or suspected thief is to be persuaded to wash his feet, the manuscript does not divulge.”

Rosemary History – Early Medical Uses

A number of leading physicians and herbalists used rosemary to treat a number of ailments. Rosemary history and its use to relieve suffering is well-documented.

The Countess of Hainault, Jeanne of Valois (1294 – 1342), sent her daughter Queen Phillippa (1311 – 1369), wife of King Edward III of England (1312 – 1377), an accounting of the virtues of rosemary and it is presumed a number of plants or cuttings accompanied the gift. The original manuscript can be found in the British Museum. The Countess suggests that laying the leaves under the head of a man while he sleeps will “doth away evell sprirites and suffereth not the dreeme fowl dremes ne to be afearde.”

Bancke, in his work Herball from 1525, suggests techniques to use rosemary as a remedy for both gout of the legs and to keep the teeth from all evils. He also recommended that smelling rosemary regularly would “keep thee youngly.”

Gerard, author of Herball or Historie of Plants(1597), referred to someone named Serapio who suggested that a garland of rosemary worn about the head was a remedy for the “stuffing of the head, that commeth through coldnes of the brain.” He also mentions that rosemary grew so plentifully in Languedoc (a former province in south-eastern France) that “the inhabitants burne scarce anie other fuel.”

Rosemary was also believed to offer protection from the plague. In 1603, when bubonic plague killed 38,000 Londoners, the demand was so high that the price increased from one shilling for an armful of branches to six shillings for a handful. To put that price increase in perspective, one price list from 1625 indicated that one could obtain 18 gallons of good ale or double beer with carriage(delivery?) for only 3 shillings or an entire ‘fat pig’ for 1 shilling.

Rosemary History – Early Folklore & Non-Medicinal Uses

Richard Folkard, author of Plant Lore, Legends and Lyrics, written in 1892, mentions that in Sicily, rosemary was a favored plant and that “the young fairies, under the guise of snakes, lie concealed under its branches.”

Rosemary and thyme were used on St. Agnes’ Eve, an evening and day that honors St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins and young girls. St. Agnes’ eve is celebrated on January 20th and 21st. Wikipedia mentions some rituals practiced on St. Agnes’ Eve were to aid young girls in discovering their future husbands, a superstition that was the main theme of John Keat’s poem, The Eve of Saint Agnes.

The history of rosemary includes the common saying: “Where rosemary flourishes the lady rules.” However, the tale warns men that by simply damaging or destroying that same rosemary, he will not find relief from his lady’s rule

Rosemary history includes a number of references to its reputation for strengthening the memory and as a symbol for remembrance. Greek scholars were known to twine rosemary in their hair when studying for exams in the hope of aiding their memories. According to one old ballad:

“Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight.”

Parkinson (1567-1650), the King’s Botanist to Charles I, mentions that in countries where rosemary was well-suited and grows to a large size that thin boards of rosemary were used to make lutes and other instruments, carpenters rules, and a myriad of other implements. The French believed that combing their hair once a day with a rosemary wood comb would prevent giddiness. Rosemary wood was so prized that unscrupulous merchants would often use less expensive woods and simply scent them with rosemary oil.

Shakespeare’s (1564 – 1616) has a part in rosemary history. His Ophelia says in Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember!” He also mentions how the English once placed rosemary in coffins and around graves in Romeo and Juliet when Father Lawrence says,

“Dry up your tears, and stick your Rosemary
On this fair corse.”

In researching our rosemary history, we found some disagreement within our sources as to the reason why rosemary was often placed with corpses at burial. Most linked its usage to being a plant associated with remembrance. One source, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, believed the custom stemmed from a much more practical application. It was thought that the smelling of rosemary provided a powerful “defence against any morbid effluvia from the corpse.” In other words, rosemary was used by mourners to provide relief from the odor of decomposition.

With perhaps some reference to fidelity and his lack thereof, a soldier shot in 1649 for mutiny was buried with rosemary. His body was adorned with branches of rosemary but half of each branch had been stained with blood.

Queen Elizabeth was fond of mead and her own recipe for the drink included the leaves of sweet briar, with rosemary, cloves and mace. (Unfortunately, our source failed to identify which Queen Elizabeth or the country over which she ruled.)

French hospitals, at one time, burned Juniper berries with rosemary to correct vitiated or poor quality air and to prevent infection. They have may also used rosemary for its healing powers. In the French language of flowers, rosemary represents the power of rekindling lost energy.

Rosemary history includes its use to create Essence of Mustard which also included spirits of turpentine and black mustard seed. The resulting oil was not prone to going rancid and was used by clock makers and for other “instruments of precision.”

In Spain, rosemary was used as a protection against witchcraft and menaces on the road. George Borrow mentioned how he came to learn about this superstition in his work The Bible in Spain (1843). He first mentions meeting a traveler who had adorned his hat with rosemary and later mentions a lady, who concerned for Borrow’s own safety, offered him some for his own hat. Despite the promised protection provided by the Rosemary, Borrow met with a series of misfortunes on his journey. In his work, he contemplated a return visit to the lady to inform her of the failure of the protective abilities of rosemary. (One is left to assume that he never did so.)

An old Spanish proverb says of rosemary that men who are indifferent to the scent of rosemary are likely to be insensitive about other pleasures,

…Who passeth by the rosemarie
And careth not to take a spraye
For woman’s love no care has he,
Nor shall he though he live for aye…

Additional Rosemary Information.

Rosemary has been treasured for generations. Along with this historical look at the origins and early uses of rosemary, Our Herb Garden has guides on Growing Rosemary and Rosemary Companion Planting.

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