Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The beads of Nostradamus

roses revisited, part 3

As I mentioned in Part 1, the first of Nostradamus’ two recipes (Chapter X of the book) produces an intensely scented rose extract or oil. Now we'll look at his second recipe (Chapter XI), which is for making pommes de senteur (literally “scented apples,” meaning pomanders) out of a whole list of things compounded together, of which the rose extract is only one.

Apothecary monk
Autre annotation pour composer pommes de senteur. Recipe Ladani purissimi z.ij. Storacis calamitici, Assae odoriferae, que nous appelons benioin Ann. z.i. Tricos de roses z.s. Pouldre de violete z.ij. Ambre & musc de chascun demy drachme. puis le tout soit pulverisé & pasté avec la surdite mixtion de roses: & soit faite paste fort malaxee par l’espace d’une heure: & aves d’une pomme de la plus souveraine senteur, & la plus durable qui se puisse faire au monde:

Here’s my best guess at a translation:
Another method for making aromatic balls: Take two ounces of the purest labdanum, an ounce each of Styrax calamites and Assae odoriferae (which we call benzoin), half an ounce of rose-tablets, one ounce of violet powder, and half a dram each of amber [ambergris?] and musk. Grind it all into a powder, knead it together with the rose-mixture mentioned earlier [i.e. the rose extract from the first recipe] for the space of an hour and you will have an aromatic ball of the most supreme perfume, and the longest-lasting that can be made anywhere in the world.

(By the way, these do not have opium in them! The ingredient mentioned is “labdanum” (note the B) not “laudanum”!)

So what we have here is about four ounces of ground-up plant resins (labdanum, benzoin and storax), an ounce and a half of powdered dry ingredients (rose tablets and violet powder), half a dram each of ambergris (or a substitute) and musk (both these last are waxy animal products), and an unknown quantity of rose extract.

There are some surviving objects from the Renaissance with a composition like this, or at least I think that's what they might be: there are a couple of small bear sculptures and a carved pendant from the 16th century that are said to be composed of “musk or ambergris,” though apparently they haven’t been analyzed in detail. I’d be unsurprised to find them composed of something similar to this recipe; I’d think pure musk or pure ambergris would be too soft as well as too expensive. (The resins were expensive, but both musk and ambergris were worth at least twice their weight in gold.)


What was Nostradamus' second recipe used for? And why does it say it makes "paternosters"?

Obviously the main purpose of compounds like this is to give off a pleasant scent. Many of the similar recipes I've looked at recommend leaving these scented balls or cakes in a dish on a table to scent a room, rather like potpourri. The same use is also prescribed for pastilles like the ones discussed in Part 2.

The same formulas are also recommended for burning like incense, which also makes sense. I certainly don't see any ingredients in them that would not burn, given a little encouragement.

Scented balls, or sometimes the paste before it hardened, could also be used to fill pierced metal or filigree containers, such as the pomanders that survive from this period in museum collections, or those seen in paintings (for instance, something like this, where a pomander is clearly part of a rosary:


And finally, beads. I think when M. de Nostradame says his recipe is for making "patinostres" he means beads: by the 16th century, a single bead could be referred to as "a paternoster," as well as the whole string.

There are a number of references to scented paternoster beads in period documents. Some of these are clearly pierced metal or filigree beads with scented stuff inside. (I am much indebted to R. Lightbown's chapter on paternoster beads in Medieval European Jewellery, which lists a number of these.) For instance, young Marie de France in 1377 had a paternoster of gold beads "filled with amber," probably real or imitation ambergris. Her father Charles V in 1380 had certain beads "full of musk" and in 1386 King Charles the Bold of Navarre paid for botones, probably paternoster beads, of gold and silver "that if pierced may be used for filling with musk."

Then we get to references that are harder to interpret. In 1300, Constance of Sicily, queen of Aragon, had a paternoster with "some beads of gold, pierced, and some of labdanum." In 1432 King René of Anjou had a paternoster with beads "of musk". The first of these especially suggests -- but doesn't prove -- that the labdanum was not inside a pierced gold bead, but perhaps was a solid bead by itself.

There is also a recipe from more than 100 years later that reads as follows (from From Mary Doggett, Her Book of Recipes, 1682):
Take a quarter of an ounce of civit, a quarter and a half-quarter of an ounce of Ambergreese, not a half a quarter of an ounce of ye spiritt of Roses, 7 ounces of Benjamin [benzoin], almost a pound of Damask Rose buds cut. Lay gumdragon [gum tragacanth]in rose water and with it make your pomander, with beads big as nutmegs and color them with Lamb black[lampblack]; when you make them up wash your hands with oyle of Jasmin to smooth them, then make them have a gloss, this quantity will make seaven Bracelets.

But while this, unlike Nostradamus, produces something that does have quite a lot of rose petals in it, it also has quite a lot of benzoin. And it is not a medieval or even a Renaissance recipe. And beads (if that's what they are) "as big as nutmegs" would be at least an inch in diameter, which to me makes it much more plausible to think in terms (again) of a bracelet with a single pomander hanging from it, rather than an entire bracelet of beads that big. (Though I could, of course, be quite wrong here -- any late 17th-century costumers may feel free to correct me ;)

So does Nostradamus' second recipe make beads? It very well could.

But is it evidence for medieval beads made from rose petals? I don't think so. We have evidence of Renaissance-era beads made from a lot of plant resins, a small amount of dried and powdered flower petals, and a rose extract. They are fascinating -- but I, at least, would not call those "rose petal beads."

All posts in this series:

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

(P.S. This series took me a long time to write because I kept getting distracted by fascinating sidetracks: for instance, did you know labdanum was collected by clipping the beards of goats who had been grazing on the plant?)