'The Love Potion' by
Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919)
February is the month when supermarkets and florists try to make us fall 'in love with love' again. But if you are looking for an alternative to chocolate hearts and a cute card to win someone’s affection, you might want to take advice from our medieval forebears, who had numerous ways of enticing a lover and, perhaps more importantly, useful methods of ridding themselves of annoying suitors.
Love-philtres were lucrative money-spinners from the time of the ancient Greeks onwards, though as physicians consistently warned, drinking one was like drinking a cup of poison, for in addition to ingredients such as mandrake root, menstrual blood and the pizzle of an animal, formulae often called for ingredients which were likely contain lethal bacteria, such as cat’s brains, the hair around a wolf’s anus and young swallows, which were buried in the earth and dug up when they were beginning to decompose. If these dead swallows were unearthed with their beaks open were they added to love-philtres, while those with their beaks closed were used in potions intended to destroy love.
Common Valerian, Valeriana officinalis
More palatable and benign love-philtres contained herbs such as anemone, wild carrot, cumin, periwinkle and purslane, and it was said that if a girl wore valerian she’d never lack lovers. In his herbal of 1597, John Gerard tells us that if cyclamen (sowbread) is baked into little cakes it makes a ‘good amorous medicine to make one in love.’ This may have been in part due to one of its other properties, that ‘it loves the vine’ and ‘hates all sobering plants’, so that if added to a drinker’s cup it would increase the potency of the wine and quickly intoxicate the drinker.
Cyclamen or Sowbread, Cyclamen hederifolium.
But by the 16th century love philtres were regarded as witchcraft and it was recognised that many could be lethal or cause irreversible brain damage. Nevertheless, the Flemish chemist and physician Jan Baptist Van Helmont (1580-1644) claimed to know of a ‘common’ herb which, if you rubbed it into your hand until it was warm, then held the hand of the person you desired until their hand was hot in yours, they’d fall in love with you and the effect would last several days. Presumably though, they’d already have to be fond of you to be willing to hold your hand that long, unless, of course, Helmont was attempting to seduce one of his patients whilst taking their pulse.
Before the days of internet dating, you could always use the services of a local hermit. On Dartmoor it was the tradition on Palm Sunday for unwed girls and lads to drink honey-sweetened water from Ashwell spring at Bovey Tracey, in the hope of discovering their future spouse. According to legend, a hermit discovered that a wounded knight and ailing girl, secretly loved one another, but neither believed their love was reciprocated. So, he sent each to bathe in Ashwell spring, telling them it would heal them, in the hope that they would meet and start talking. His plan worked and they married.
|Photo: Hannes Grobe|
Frogs are perhaps not the most popular valentine's symbol, except if the suitor is trying to convince someone of his hidden potential, but because they appeared to ‘regenerate’ in great numbers after the spring floods which brought fertility to the lands, frogs were symbols of the ancient goddesses of fertility in many early cultures. As the goddesses were demonised by the monotheistic religions, the frog also became a symbol of sin and heresy. This irresistible combination of fecundity and sin meant that throughout the Middle Ages and up until the last century, these unfortunate creatures were used in many love-charms and in love-repelling charms too.
If a girl thought her lover’s affections had strayed, she would stick pins into a living frog until it died and bury it. From that moment, her faithless lover would feel as if he was being mercilessly stabbed with red-hot needles, which only stopped when he returned to her. Then she would covertly remove the pins from the frog and her lover would find himself strangely compelled to propose marriage. In some versions of this charm, she was instructed to secretly attach a bone from the frog to the man’s clothing to ensure his return.
Mummified Frog from the Malcom Lidbury
Witchcraft Collection. Photo: Malcom Lidbury
But men could be equally ruthless. If a man wanted a woman to fall in love with him, he would bury a frog in an anthill, until the ants had reduced it to bones. He’d remove two of the bones, one shaped like a hook and the other like a spade. He’d conceal the hook bone on girl’s clothing, where upon she would become infatuated with him. When he became bored with her, he would touch the spade-bone to the hook-bone and she would instantly fall out of love, leaving him free to pursue the next woman. Ants eggs, poppies, water-lilies and hemlock were also said to induce someone to fall out of love. The only problem being that you had to get the victim to swallow them without them knowing, if you wanted to cool his or her ardour.
A husband who suspected his wife was being unfaithful and who wanted to make her reveal her secrets might have followed the advice given by Giambattista Della Porta in ‘Magiae naturalis’ 1558, (translated as ‘Natural Magic’ in 1658) who instructed the husband to put the tongue of a frog over his wife’s heart at night as she slept, because this animal ‘gives tongue’ at night. Then the husband could ask the wife anything he wanted. She would talk in her sleep and answer him truthfully.
If a woman wanted to ensure the faithfulness of her spouse or lover she was advised to secretly dig up the earth from his footprints, put it in a pot and sow marigold seeds in it. That would bind her lover to her and ward off any attempt to steal his affections from her by charms or witchcraft.
Advertisement circa 1900
Miami University Digital Collection
Finally, should a lover need some ‘encouragement to passion’, the Anglo-Saxon leech books prescribed an ointment which could be rubbed onto the reluctant member consisting of nettle seeds, goat’s gall and goat’s dung mixed with incense. Perhaps the incense helped to counteract the stench of goat.
Perhaps after all, it would be safer to opt for the chocolate heart or an over-priced rose this Valentine's Day. They’d certainly smell sweeter.