Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Roses revisited

part 1

Since I write about rosary beads, I do my share of myth-debunking, and like anyone else who has written about rosaries, I get a lot of questions about beads made of rose petals. As I've discussed in some detail here, modern rosaries made of rose-petal beads -- or imitations thereof -- are perpetually popular. And truly, it's a nice idea, at least when one is not smacked in the face with cheap imitation rose scent upon opening the box with the rosary in it. (I have such a rosary: I seldom open the box ;)

Nonetheless, there are some common myths about rose-petal beads, and the biggest one is that rose-petal beads have something to do with why this string of beads is called a "rosary."

I've gone into some detail here on exactly how the rosary got that name. Briefly, "rosary" began as a word for a garden in which roses are grown. From there, a few authors used it to refer to a collection of essays, such as the Rosarium Philosophorum, a 1386 treatise on alchemy by Arnaldus de Villa Nova. It was a short step to extend this from a book of written essays to a book of written prayers, and then to any other sequence of prayers, written or not. The name "rosary" for the devotion -- which dates back to the middle 1400s with this meaning -- was reinforced by the circulation of popular legends that envisioned each prayer said as a "rose" given to the Virgin Mary.

Petals, and indeed beads, are nowhere in this story.

(Incidentally, the author of the first rosary manual, Alanus de Rupe, hated the “rose” metaphor because he thought it far too evocative of sensual pleasure. But of course that may have been why it had such wide appeal. He preferred to call the devotion the "Psalter of Our Lady.")

The story is further complicated by a problem with dates. In order for rose-petal beads to have anything to do with the word "rosary," you first have to find out if rose-petal beads even existed at the time you're talking about. For rosaries, that would be the late Middle Ages, especially the first half of the 1400s when what we now know as "the rosary" was in development.

I've been looking for years for evidence of when rose-petal beads were first made, and so far, I have not found anything that clearly dates them any earlier than the 19th or early 20th century. Sources like a 1996 issue of "The Herb Companion" or Dover books' reprint of Rose Recipes from Olden Times by Eleanor Rohde, are quite willing to label rose-petal mixtures as "medieval," but without -- as far as I can tell -- consulting anything other than their own imaginations. (Typical quote: "Centuries ago, when knighthood was reportedly in flower, noblewomen made fragrant beads of petals plucked from castle rose gardens...")

It's quite easy to find multiple recipes for rose-petal beads (here's one) on the Internet: most of them involve putting rose petals through a blender and simmering the resulting mush gently for some hours. Some recipes add a binding material such as vegetable gum or flour and salt. Simmered in a cast iron pan, the mashed petals turn black, otherwise the color may be dark red, pinkish or orange. When the consistency is like clay, small amounts can be rolled into bead shapes and pierced with a needle before drying.

It was in following up another clue on this trail that I discovered something new this week (well, new to me, anyway). I discovered that a book that I'd dismissed as a figment of someone's fantasy actually does exist, and probably was written by the author it's attributed to. And while it still does not produce a recipe for beads made out of rose petals, what it does say is quite interesting.

The book is usually referred to in English by the title of a modern edition, The Elixirs of Nostradamus. To give him his proper name, Michel de Nostradame (known as Nostradamus) was a prolific French writer and professional apothecary who wrote at least two books in the mid-1500s on medicine, as well as a series of Almanacs and his famous collection of prophecies, first published in 1555.

The book usually called the "Elixirs" originally had a very long title beginning Excellent et moult utile opuscule..., but it's more usually referred to as the Traite des fardemens et des confitures (Treatise of Cosmetics and Preserves) and was first published in 1555 (or 1552, it's not clear). There doesn't seem to be any doubt that Nostradamus wrote it, although as was very common in those days, he takes a lot of his material from earlier published works. (Copyright in the modern sense did not exist back then.)

I doubt that I could have found this seven or eight years ago when I first became interested in this question, but there are now at least two places on the Internet where you can see actual facsimiles of Nostradamus's publications online. One is the Nostradamus library at Repertoire Chronologique Nostradamus but I prefer the images at the related site Prophecies Online which also contains a (partial) English translation.

The pages of interest are 55 through 59, which contain Part I, Chapter X and Chapter XI. Right there at the top of page 56, sure enough, is the word patinostres (his spelling) and the recipe that follows certainly starts with gathering a large quantity of roses. (It says "five or six hundred, more or less" -- de cinq à six cents tant du plus que du moins) (I get tired just thinking about this!)


However (and it's a big however) the recipes that follow are not your classic recipe for beads made out of mashed-up rose petals.

There are in fact two recipes: in the first (Chapter X), you are instructed to make an extract of the rose petals and then throw the petals out and boil down the liquid. One of my correspondents has tried this, and she says what it actually produces is a very concentrated, strongly scented rose oil. As Nostradamus wrote them, the instructions say the recipe produces a "sweet-smelling, long-lasting paste" (une paste laquelle sera d'une bonne odeur durant longuement), but in the end it is described as "as thick as boiled honey" (asses espes comme miel cuit).

This is the recipe I've usually seen mentioned as producing "rose-petal beads," but clearly that's not quite what it does. This is made clearer by the next recipe, which I'll discuss in a future article.

All posts in this series:

Part 1: Roses revisited
Part 2: Rose pastilles
Part 3: The beads of Nostradamus