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Medieval Roses

By the high Middle Ages, the rose was the undisputed queen of flowers in Europe, feted for her beauty, fragrance, symbolic richness, and medical efficacy. Yet the roses of medieval gardens were not the hybridised, intensely bred varieties we are used to seeing today. Some of our modern roses originate in China or even the Americas. Historians cannot be certain, but it is likely that these native European roses found their way into medieval gardens ...

But the rose hadn’t always reigned supreme over medieval hearts. The ancient Romans were very keen on roses, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, roses fell somewhat out of favour. Besides the cultivation of roses being a low priority in the unsettled Dark Ages, some Christian thinkers castigated the flowers as decadent. Roses were associated with ancient Roman decadence and luxury, as manifested in fountains of rosewater, floors covered in rose petals, and said petals raining down over guests at banquets. (Both Emperor Nero and later Emperor Elagabalus supposedly suffocated guests under such a deluge of petals, although Elagabalus may have thrown in other flowers as well.)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888)

But Christian Europeans came to love roses again, in part due to contact with rose-loving peoples of the Middle East during the Crusades. Persians in particular have a long history of rose appreciation. Ancient Zoroastrian texts mention rose growing, and Islamic legend suggests that roses were born of Muhammad’s sweat (who evidently had no need of deodorant).

The rose intertwined itself into Christian legend too. Red roses were said to receive their colour from Christ’s blood, or alternately from the blood of martyrs. Devils and witches thus feared the gory blooms. (A pleasanter ward against evil than garlic?) According to one account, the origin of rosary beads lies in flowers: the prayers of a monk to the Virgin Mary emerged from his lips as roses and then were transformed into a bead-garland by the holy lady. In fact, roses were associated with divine love to the point that Paradise was imagined as a rose garden, and Dante portrayed Heaven as an eternal rose, redolent with the sweet scent of God’s praise.

The rose also reigned as the queen of earthly love – and continues to do so. Even today, it is de rigueur to gift a rose to one’s Valentine. In the immensely popular medieval poem, the Romance of the Rose (begun c.1230), the ‘rose’ symbolises the beloved lady, who initially appears surrounded by thorns. I echoed this symbolism, and the poem’s walled garden of love, in my romance The Rose and Her Knight.

Roses were thought to have a host of practical uses too. Discerning medieval herbalists likely preferred dog roses (rosa canina) for their remedies. (left)

Roses were generally considered to possess cool and dry humoral properties. This meant they could counteract heat, e.g. fevers and inflammation, and wetness, e.g. bleeding and diarrhoea. The whole rose plant was utilised for health purposes: leaves, seeds, hips, juice, and of course the flowers themselves. Rose fragrance supposedly held plague-bearing air at bay, the seeds were effective against snake bites, and the flowers apparently countered drunkenness.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but even today one may buy rosehip oil face creams that promise to reverse time.

Further Reading:

Mia Touw, 'Roses in the Middle Ages', Economic Botany, 36:1, 1982, pp. 71-83.


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