“Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”
Doesn’t that just send a shiver down your spine? The immortal words of Macbeth’s witches tend to hang in the air, and you can almost hear the cauldron bubbling.
But what is that stuff in the cauldron?
Guess what? Most of it is plants!
Anyone who has worked in the garden has noticed that many plant names have odd, fanciful or gruesome names. If you really consider them, names like ‘dandelion’, ‘foxglove’ and ‘mistletoe’ are pretty odd, aren’t they?
The reason is multi-faceted. A large contributing factor is a socio-historical phenomenon known as ‘linguistic drift’, which is the term for the fact that words are changed over time. Originally, according to Oswald Cockayne’s ‘Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest’, Dandelion was originally ‘Dent De Leon’, or ‘Lion’s Teeth’, referring to the dentition of the leaves. Andrew Yang notes another good example in his work ‘Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy’ : “The tan of mistletan, notes Sauer, “originally meant ‘twig,’ but it was later associated with tan [as OE] toe,” to form mistletoe.”
Another main contributing reason is pragmatic: it’s hard to forget a plant called ‘dead man’s fingers’ or ‘bear’s breeches’ as a rule, which made remembering and passing on plant knowledge much easier.
The Tryskelion Press gives us a short guide to the 16th century English plant name meanings in their August 2015 issue.
|Old Name for Part||Actual Part of the Herb Used|
|Eye||Inner part of a blossom|
|Paw, Foot, Leg, Wing, or Toe||Leaf|
|Guts||Roots and stalk|
|Hair||Dried, stringy herbs|
|Heart||A bud or seed|
Here’s a few examples of the common names in the 16th century and the same plants today.
|Old Herbal Name||Herb/Plant Name|
|Adder’s Fork||Adder’s tongue|
|Adders Tongue||Dogstooth Violet|
|Ass’s Foot or Bull’s Foot||Coltsfoot|
|Bear’s Foot||Lady’s Mantle|
|Bird’s Eye||Germander Speedwell|
|Black Maidenhair||Black Spleenwort|
|Black Snake Root||Black Cohosh|
|Corpse Plant||Indian Pipe|
|Crocodile Dung||Black Earth|
|Crow Corn||Ague Root|
|Crow Foot||Wild Geranium|
|Crown for a King||Wormwood|
|Cuckoo’s Bread||Common Plantain|
|Dead Man’s Ashes||Mandrake root|
|Devil’s Eye||Henbane, Periwinkle|
|Devil’s Flower||Bachelor’s Buttons|
So what was in that cauldron? Black mustard, Crowfoot, Holly, Horehound, Wormwood, and a lot of other rather powerful plants. I wouldn’t drink a cupful myself, but if you want to see visions and fly this brew would definitely do it.
The Shakespere Standard, http://theshakespearestandard.com
Cockayne, Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: The History of Science Before the Norman Conquest, vols. 1-3. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press. 1864-66.
Gledhill, D. The Names of Plants, 2nd ed. Cambridge: 1989.
Andrew K. Yang, Plant Names in Old and Middle English: Problems and Trends in Taxonomy
The Old English Herbarium (OEH) and Medicina de Quadrupedibus. Hubert Jan de Vriend, ed. Toronto: Oxford. 1984.
Tryskelion Press, Old World Names For Herbs And Plants, http://www.tryskelion.com/herbs_old_world_names_for_herbs.html
Thanks! I shared this with the DBG Guild members and my garden club and ….
Cockayne’s Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft is in the rare book collection at the Health Sciences Library at Anschutz Health Sciences Center. It was my favorite rare book when I worked at the library.
Thanks, this was fun!
A perfect way to celebrate the season!