When my online persona of the Victorian Librarian, created while I was researching the Pre-Raphaelites’ use of libraries, began to assume a life of her own in the real world, it seemed time to create a logo to use on my forthcoming website, in letterheads, as a watermark (as will appear on all pages of my Chartership portfolio, which is almost complete), and on business cards (to be printed once the website is operational).
I have some very talented friends, and it was to one of these I turned to design my logo – Lora Jones. The image that you see above is the wonderful fruit of her labours. While the “VL” monogram on the open vellum pages of a book should be clear enough, the choice of floral iconography are almost certainly less so. Thus today’s Medieval Monday begins my more in-depth study of the medieval meanings and uses of the iris and the bluebell, two of my favourite flowers.When I was asked to present at ARLIS’s trial of a Scottish “Taking the Plunge : art librarianship as a career option” (sadly, attendance wasn’t enough for the event to be repeated) workshop in November 2005, I wanted to make sure that my presentation (“Starting out: a recent graduate”) was as nice to look at as it was (hopefully!) interesting to hear. So I created a Powerpoint slide template featuring a historiated initial P containing an iris on each page (look to your left to see the iris in question).
The iris has long been a favourite flower of mine, one with which I grew up in our garden (and one which I mean to plant if ever I have my own garden). It was named for the goddess Iris, goddess of the rainbow, because of the many colours in which the flower blooms. Walahfrid Strabo (a 9th-century Benedictine abbot, theologian, and poet) describes the iris thus in his Liber de Cultura Hortorum:
GLADIOLA , iris germanica
Te neque transierim Latiæ cui libera linguæ
Nomine de gladii nomen facundia finxit.
Tu mihi purpurei progignis floris honorem,
Prima æstate gerens violæ iucunda nigellæ
Munera, vel qualis mensa sub Apollinis alta
Investis pueri pro morte recens yacinthus
Exiit et floris signavit vertice nomen.
Radicis ramenta tuæ siccata fluenti
Diluimus contusa mero sævumque dolorem
Vesicæ premimus tali non sicius arte.
Pignore fullo tuo lini candentia texta
Efficit, ut rigeant dulcesque imitentur odores.
(Translation: Nor may I pass you by, Iris, known also
as Gladiola, a name eloquently derived from
gladius, the Latin word for sword.
You pay me honour with your purple flowers,
and in early summer you assume the nature
of dark violets, and also of hyacinths,
which arose beneath Apollo’s altar as a new
kind of flower taking the place of the dead,
beardless youth, bearing his name on your petals.
We crush dried bits of your root, and dissolve
them in wine, a good remedy for piercing
bladder pains. And with your reliable assistance,
the fuller stiffens up his linen cloth and bestows
your sweet fragrance upon it.
Note: translation by James Mitchell, On the Cultivation of Gardens: A Ninth Century Gardening Book, published by Ithuriel’s Spear, 2009.)The bluebell has been one of my favourite flowers since a childhood visit to the medieval shrine of Saint Ninian at Whithorn. The pilgrimage route goes through the gorgeous Physgill Glen, which is filled with bluebells, and my memory of seeing it for the first time has never faded. The colours and the smell seem to be as strong as they were on that day.
My search for the medieval bluebell, in preparing to write this blog entry, has been tricky. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens give the bluebell a variety of Latin names – Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Endymion non-scriptus, Scilla non-scripta, Scilla nutans. As a good Scot, I must add to that list the Latin for the harebell, which in Scotland is generally called a bluebell: Campanula rotundifolia (see Books and the City‘s post ‘Why bother with botanical Latin?’ for more on this problem). Strabo’s description of the iris germanica (given above) is very similar to Carl Linnaeus’ description of the bluebell, which is of course rather confusing.But the bluebell is not only used in marginal art; Dominican friar Henry Daniel (Aaron Danielis) described them as “lilies of the wood … like daffodils but blue”. Celia Fisher, who thus quotes Daniel in her book The Medieval Flower Book, also states that this is the first recorded mention of bluebells, in the fourteenth century. Daniel’s herbal exists in three different forms, in British Library Arundel MS. 42, which was then much revised to create the version in British Library Add. MS. 27329. I found mention of these two manuscripts in George R. Keiser’s article ‘Through a Fourteenth-Century Gardener’s Eyes: Henry Daniel’s Herbal’, published in vol. 31 (1) of The Chaucer Review (pp,58-75) in 1996, and available via JSTOR. Neither manuscript has been fully digitised as yet, so I was unable to read further about the bluebell in time to write this blogpost. Fisher also states that the medieval bluebell bulb was used as the source of a glue valuable in the attaching of feathers to arrows, in bookbinding, and in starching, but didn’t state if this information came from Daniel. I will report back as I keep learning more about two of my favourite flowers, to show how they are important to me.