Monday 22 July 2013


Eryngium maritimum © Valerie Hill 

Effective, practical enhancement of the art of love has been sought after since ancient times. Roots of sea holly or Eryngium maritimum were collected on a large scale in England during the 17th and 18th centuries for candying as restorative, quasi-aphrodisiac pastilles, known as eryngoes. Old records of Colchester show that the town was famous for oysters and eryngo root, where a 17th-century apothecary called Robert Burton set up a manufactory to made these popular sweetmeats, candied with sugar and orange-blossom water. They even get a mention in the 'Merry Wives of Windsor', when Falstaff, off to meet Mistress Ford in Windsor Forest, declares; ‘…hail kissing comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation…’ 

Sea holly grows well in gardens (you absolutely wouldn’t collect it from the wild anymore – it’s far too scarce) and Mrs Grieve suggests digging up the roots at the end of the season, from plants at least two years old. Geoffrey Grigson points out wryly that, ‘careful wives grew Sea Holly in the physic garden.’ (What are you waiting for...?)

Pliny describes it as a sweet savouring root. 16th-century botanist William Turner writes of its virtues; ‘to stir up the lust of the body, and … give it to both men and women that are desirous to have childer. Some condite (candy) or keep in sugar the roots for this purpose.’ Nicolaus Alexandrinus of the late 13th century has four medicines using this herb which he ‘maketh to stir up the pleasure of the body, and to make men and women fruitful.

Sea holly © Valerie Hill
Here’s a 17th-century recipe for Candied Eringo-roots from Hannah Woolley. I have it on good authority that it is effective – but don’t blame me for consequences of any sort whatever:

Take of your Eringo-roots ready to be preserved, and weigh them, and to every pound of Roots you must take of the purest Sugar you can get two pound, and clarifie it with the whites of Eggs exceedingly well, that is may be as clear as Crystal; it being clarified, you must boil it to the height of Manus Christi, and then dip in your Roots two or three times till they are all Candyed; put them in a Stove, and so keep them all the year.

Dorothy Hartley gives us a hand-me-down recipe for Eyringo Jelly (sometimes called Gloucester Jelly as sea holly grew in the estuary):

1 oz each of sago, hartshorn shavings, eyringo root, and pearl barley; put into a pan with 2 quarts water, and boil until reduced to 1 quart. Strain and let it set – it should be stiff. Slices of it should be put into invalid drinks (!) – or it may be flavoured and sweetened and eaten as a jelly.

She also suggests Eryingo toffee:

Boil some of the sliced root in a little water till well flavoured, and add this water to the sugar and butter with which you make the toffee: just as it is ready to set, drop the softened root chips into it.

Early purple orchid © Valerie Hill
It wouldn’t be representative of the early herbals if I didn’t include mention of them getting it perfectly wrong. A popular but useless aphrodisiac came from the orchid (or standergrasse) family. ‘Orchis’ is from the Greek orkhis meaning literally ‘testicle’, and the plant acquired attributes of sympathetic magic due to the shape of its tuber. Orchids, particularly Orchis mascula or Early Purple were cited as a vital ingredient in a sweet electuary known as a diasatyrion, which combined Orchid tubers with dates, various nuts including pistachios, galingale, peppers, musk, ambergris, grains of paradise, ash-keys, nettle seed and Malaga wine, and which was prescribed by the College of Physicians in London as ‘a provocative to venery’. Henry Lyte’s 'New Herball' of 1578 says: ‘the full and sappy roots of Standergrasses (but especially of Hares Ballocks, or Goates Orchis) eaten, or boyled in Goates milke and drunken, provoketh Venus, or bodily lust.

But there were plenty of other options if you couldn’t get your hands on either of these. Pliny suggests that artichokes ‘taken in wine stirreth up the lust of the body… but likewise as this herb provoketh lust in women, so it abateth the same in men.’ As ever it depends on whom you read, and Henry Lyte disagrees on the finer point; ‘the first springes or tender impes of the Artichoke sodden in good broth with bytter, doth mightily stirre up the lust of the bodie both in men and women, causeth sluggish men to be diligent in Sommer…’ Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) is a traditional aphrodisiac, a sweet, warming stimulant herb. Turner says of anise that ‘it stirreth men to the pleasure of the body.’ There was lovage, and garlic. Ayurvedic medicine still regards garlic as rejuvenative and aphrodisiac. Turner says that it ‘stirreth men to venery, drunken with green Coryander and strong wine.

Ash keys © Valerie Hill
Anyone could obtain a bit of ash out in the woods or on the roadside – its seeds according to Dioscorides, ‘provoke lust’ or ‘render a man more spirited with ladies’. Lyte says, ‘The seed of the ashe-tree increaseth naturall seed, and stirreth by Venus, especially being taken with a Nutmeg, as Isaac, Rhasis, Damascenus, and many other Arabian Physitions doe write.

Other traditional spring tonics like watercress (nasturtium) and parsley feature often in the herbals as having aphrodisiac virtues. Turner claims that ‘Persely… stirreth up appetite to cold women’, and it’s notable that parsley oil is used today in perfumes for men. There was saffron, or coriander seeds, or leeks and onions; in some regions of France there was a custom of preparing onion soup for newly-weds after their wedding night. Pliny suggested that if southernwood (also called lad’s love) ‘…be layed under the bed, pillow or bolster, it provoketh carnall copulation, and resisteth all inchantments, which may let or hinder such businesse, and the inticements to the same.

The opposite effect.
Just in case, I should point out one or two easy-to-find antidotes or anaphrodisiacs: such as mallow, hops and lettuce. The Pythagoreans knew lettuce as the 'eunuch’s plant', but luckily you need more than a bowlful of salad for it to have an effect, it’s the concentrated milky juice or sap, the 18th-century 'lettuce opium' that has the sedative power.

And while I’m in this bodily vein (it’s all sex and death today) – there are still tickets left for the upcoming Medicine and Mortality weekend at the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex, 21-22 Sep. Historians including Ian Mortimer, Clare Gittings and Owen Davies will talk about health, fatal illnesses, magic, medicine and funeral rituals; medical herbalist Christina Stapley will demonstrate historical herb recipes – ask her about eryngoes! – and much more.

And that, people, is my very last post. I’ve absolutely loved being a History Girl and will go on reading HG posts galore, but right now must bury myself and do nothing but write, write, write, for a while.

Thank you for having me, and adieu… 


H.M. Castor said...

Thank you for all your wonderful posts, Jane. I've enjoyed them hugely. And good luck with your writing!

Imogen said...

Thank you for the posts, Jane! They've been inspirational and enormous fun.

Katherine Langrish said...

We'll miss you, Jane - but will look forward to the next book!

Joan Lennon said...

Best of luck with the concentrated writing and thanks for the posts!

Mary Hoffman said...

So sorry to lose you, Jane! Thanks for all the informative posts and do keep in touch.

Jane Borodale said...

Thank you HGs! xx