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Roses in the Middle Ages

Roses in the Middle Ages

By Mia Touw

Economic Botany, Vol. 36, No. 1 (1982)

16th century Red Rose - from British Library MS Royal 11 E XI
16th century Red Rose – from British Library MS Royal 11 E XI

Abstract: Though we now tend to consider roses only as subjects for horticulture and perfumery, there were times when their significance extended far beyond that. Their religious symbolism among the Christian Europeans merits a section to itself; and the section on their practical significance in medicine occupies almost half of the present article. Yet it is not because roses were less important in perfumery and horticulture that the latter two are eclipsed in this way, but only because they were so much more important in areas where they are now forgotten.

Introduction: Roses reached the height of European favor in the 1200s and the 1300s after several centuries of increasing popularity. At first, however, the severe asceticism of some early Christians, notably St. Clement of Alexandria, caused the use of flowers and perfumes generally to be denounced as abhorrent. Roses and lilies were considered special culprits. This was a natural reaction to the significance of roses for their near neighbors and mortal enemies, the Romans. Roses and rose water were a major sign of luxury, and as such were indispensable on occasions of conspicuous consumption. Not only were there whole fountains of rose water, and not only would the floors sometimes be carpeted knee-deep with rose petals, but guests at banquets would have rose petals thrown over them. At a banquet given by Nero this rain of rose petals reached such proportions that several of the noble guests suffocated under the mass of flowers.

The Romans learned to love the rose after their contact with the Persians and the Middle East, though they expressed their feelings in their own characteristically extravagant way. Similarly, hundreds of years later, the returning Crusaders would bring back to Europe a heightened appreciation of the rose. An understanding of the rose in the Middle East is necessary to understanding the influences which shaped European use of and thoughts about roses. Always favorites, they had been cultivated in western Asia and northeastern Africa 5000 years ago. There were roses in the gardens of Semiramis, queen of Assyria. The Zoroastrian text Bundehesh speaks of both a “hundred-petalled” rose and a “dog” rose, and mentions that the rose acquired thorns only when evil appeared in the world, an idea which would be repeated in European stories millenia later.

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