Virgins and Whores: Rosemary’s Herbal History

Rosemary has always had a but of a dual nature. In cooking is is noted for imparting it’s aromatic, slightly spicy tang to meats and veggies but can also be substituted for mint in sweet recipes. In aromatherapy is is suggested for use both as a calming scent and an invigorating one. And in the 17th century, Robert Herrick wrote this one sentence poem titled “The Rosemarie Branch”:

Grow for two ends, it matters not at all
Be’t for my Bridall, or my Buriall (Herrick 1876)

Rosemary in Flower photographed by Sarah Sexy Plants

Rosemary in Flower photographed by Sarah Sexy Plants

This poem, of course, alludes to the dual decorative purposes of rosemary at the time, both in wedding garlands and dressing the deceased at funerals. So it’s no wonder that Rosemary would be the first herb I’ve come across in my research with it’s own Virgin/Whore history. 

Rosemary has been utilized foremost as a memory enhancement. The most famous instance of this comes at the turn of the 17th century. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia tells her brother:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember (Hamlet 4.5)

This common relationship between herb and memory would have been common knowledge at the time. Writing sightly later than Shakespeare, Culpeper claims that it “helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses” (Culpeper 1653).

This idea that rosemary strengthens memory evolved from the ancient herbal texts of Pliny and Galen (Staub, 2008). Students in ancient Greece, we are told, wove garlands of rosemary to wear about their heads while studying to increase concentration and retention of material (D’Andrea, 1982). Dioscorides makes mention of this fact in De Materia Medica:

…the Romans call [it] rosmarinus and those who plait wreathes for the head use it (Dioscorides)

Rosemary and Roses Wedding Bouquet

Rosemary and Roses Wedding Bouquet

These associations with memory eventually transferred to fond remembrance both between lovers and the living and the dead. In both ancient Rome and Athens the dead were buried with sprigs of rosemary in their hands (D’Andrea, 1982) and in Rome rosemary was carried in the bridal bouquet or pinned onto the groom to promote his vitality (Loe, 2000). As the tradition evolved, rosemary began to implicate sexual fidelity within a marriage, literally “remember not to stray from your wedding vows.” It was reported that during her wedding to King Henry VIII in 1540, Anne of Cleves wore rosemary branches woven throughout her bridal crown. Whether this was already the custom or if she was just another royal wedding trendsetter is up for debate; however, by the 1600s the use of rosemary as a bridal decoration was trending.  (As an aside, the rosemary certainly did nothing for her in terms of marital fidelity, although she wasn’t beheaded or killed in childbirth, so she had that going for her.)

In 1607, noted theologian Robert Hackett wrote a sermon extolling the virtues of rosemary (and by substitution marriage). Titled “The Marriage Present” he stated:

Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart. Let this rosmarinus, this flower of men ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your hearts and heads (Staub 2008)

Ceremonial wedding customs of from the Elizabeathen era (1558-1603) through the Restoration (1660-1688) involved the bridal couple “dip[ping] a rosemary spring into each other’s wine before toasting their love” (Hoffmann and Manning, 2002). Somehow this little herb of remembrance became the most powerful symbol of sexual faithfulness and purity.

And yet…

It is the very notion of this fidelity that lead to the herb’s “tarnished reputation.” There is no question that the brides in these marriages were more interested in keeping their new husbands faithful than the other way around. Not that these men were blase about their wives’ chastity, it’s just that their wives really had no option for cheating themselves. Oh sure, they could, but unlike their husbands they would not be accepted back into society if they were found out. Suddenly emphasis was placed on the herb’s representation as a fidelity symbol by young brides in a way it wasn’t before. Rosemary’s meaning again evolved. Marital fidelity? Only if your wife was a bitch and kept you on such a tight leash that you couldn’t get some on the side, am I right?

That became the dominating interpretation, anyway. By the late 1800s Thomas Moore reports that “the employment of rosemary in wedding wreaths as a symbol of fidelity is now obsolete” although it was still used for funerary customs (Moore, 1889). Likely this shift in cultural identity had much to do with:

a vulgar belief in Gloucestershire and other counties that rosemary will not grow well unless… the mistress is ‘master’ (Moore, 1889)

of the house. We certainly can’t have the men of the land emasculated by their shrewish wives and their marriage vows. Moore states that:

so touchy are some of the lords of the creation upon this point, that we have more than once had reason to suspect them of privately injuring a growing rosemary in order to destroy this evidence of their want of authority (Moore, 1889).

Which means exactly what you think it does – the man of the house would purposely destroy the flourishing rosemary growing in the garden so that the other men of the town didn’t think he was whipped.

Like most symbols of feminine authority it was only a matter of time before poor rosemary’s reputation fell even further. In modern Mexico and the American west, Romero (Rosemary) is known as “the prostitute’s herb” (Artschwager, 1996). What a difference 400 years makes. However, there might be some science backing up rosemary’s bad girl status. It’s essential oil has been shown to “exhibit antibacterial, anti-parasitic, [and has] mild analgesic properties” (Johnson, et. al, 2010). These properties would be quite a boon for the sex workers who use a decoction of the leaves as “a douche to clear vaginal infections, to regulate menstruation, and also to abort” (Artschwager, 1996). Indeed, contemporary uses for rosemary “emphasize female problems” and “strong infusions are used [as a tea] to bring on delayed menstruation and ease cramps” (Davidow, 1999) and one of the compounds extracted from the plant, thujone, has been shown to “possess abortifacient properties” (Artschwager, 1996).

There is also the beauty angle. Rosemary has also been widely employed as a cosmetic enhancement for both the skin and hair from antiquity to modern products. In the 1525 English Herbal Banckes writes:

Boyle the leaves in white wine and washe thy face therewith and thy browes and thou shalt have a faire face (Grieve, 1931)

Thomas Moore claims that “it is employed in the form of lotion and wash for the hair and is useful in cases of baldness” (Moore, 1889) and by the 1900s, Mrs Grieve writes in her herbal that “an infusion of the dried plant… combined with borax and used when cold, makes one of the best hairwashes known”  and will fight dandruff (Grieve, 1931). This still rings true. Type “rosemary” into the cosmetic database at the Environmental Working Group and you will see that there are about 3,500 cosmetic products currently on the market that list rosemary as one of their ingredients.

Virgin Mary next to Rosemary Plant photographed by catholiccompany.com

Virgin Mary next to Rosemary Plant photographed by catholiccompany.com

However, its original function as an herb of memory has some merit as well. A 2003 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience showed that participants who smelled rosemary essential oil “produced a significant enhancement of performance for overall quality of memory and secondary memory factors” as compared to both the control and lavender oils (Moss, et.al. 2003). So although rosemary has had a long and varied history, there has always been some true behind the folk claims, both chaste and impure.

But perhaps most interesting tidbit is the true Madonna/Whore dichotomy this plant exhibits. For you see not only is rosemary used by “fallen” women: prostitutes, the sexually active, women seeking abortions, but it is said in Christian folklore that rosemary was one of the plants that gave shelter to the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. She spread her blue cloak over the branches and when she removed it, the white flowers had turned blue and rosemary was from then on considered to be “Mary’s Shrub.” An interesting backstory for an herb with such a sordid past.

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