Posts Tagged With: Herbalism

Pteridophyta, or the Fern, or der Farn

Fern is very hot and dry and has a little bit of juice in it.  It holds within itself great power, namely such a power that the devil flees from it (and it even has certain energy which is like the power of the sun.  As the sun lights up dark places, so the fern chases away apparitions, and even evil spirits disdain it).  In the place where it grows, the devil rarely practices his deceptions.  The fern avoids or shrinks back from any home or place where the devil resides.  Thunder, lightning, and hail rarely fall near a home where there is a fern.  Magic and incantations of demons – as well as diabolic words and other phantasms – avoid a person who carries a fern with him.  


A human being has both good and evil knowledge, and good and bad herbs were created for him.  Fern sap has been placed for knowledge, and in its honest nature, goodness and holiness are signified. 


If a person who is forgetful and ignorant holds fern seed in his hand, his memory will return, and he will receive understanding; thus he who was incomprehensible will become intelligible.

(Physica, 29-30)

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Myristica fragrans, or nutmeg, or die Muskatnuß

“If a person eats nutmeg, it will open up his heart, make his judgement free from obstruction, and give him a good disposition.  Take some nutmeg and an equal weight of cinnamon and a bit of cloves, and pulverize them.  Then make small cakes with this and fine whole wheat flour and water.  It will calm all bitterness of the heart and mind, open your heart and impaired senses, and make your mind cheerful.”


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Adventures in Transcription: O rubor sanguinis

After two failed attempts to visit the Bingen Stadtsbibliothek and managing to contract some mild sort of German plague, it was another day where adventures in the greater Rheinland were simply not going to take place.  Over the past couple of days I’ve transcribed three antiphons, so today I began more concentrated work on O rubor sanguinis, one of the antiphons for St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins.

O rubor sanguinis,

qui de excelso illo fluxisti

quod divinitas tetigit:

tu flos es

quem hyems de flatu serpentis

numquam lesit.

[O redness of blood, / you flowed from that lofty height / that Divinity touched: / you are a flower / that the winter of the serpent’s breath / has never harmed. (trans. Barbara Newman)]

St. Ursula was a British princess who ended up in an arranged marriage to a pagan prince.  A devout Catholic, she was very unhappy about this and managed to delay the marriage for three years by making a pilgrimage to Rome.  She took with her ten female (virgin) companions, who in turn each brought a thousand extra virginal handmaids with them.  Ursula also brought an extra thousand, just for good measure.  All was grand, until one day St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins (as they came to be known, they would actually number 11,011 but that doesn’t have a catchy ring to it) crossed paths with Attila the Hun.  As you may have suspected, things did not go very well.  Attila demanded that Ursula become his concubine, she refused, and the entire company was martyred.

It can be inferred that Hildegard was first introduced to the legend of St. Ursula fairly early on while she was living in the Disibodenberg monastery.  About a hundred years prior, workmen uncovered bones in a Roman cemetery which were taken to be those of St. Ursula and her companions, and the Disibodenberg monastery acquired some as relics.  (It was later discovered that the bones of men were among them, so the likelihood of the remains actually belonging to St. Ursy and her 11,000 is fairly small.  One of Hildegard’s contemporaries, Elizabeth of Schönau, would disagree, but that’s another story.)  Hildegard saw St. Ursula’s devoted preservation of her virginity as parallel to her own monastic vows, and most of the music she wrote for the Feast of the 11,000 draws heavily on this connection.

(aren’t neumes beautiful?)

Preparation on this work started with transcribing from the original manuscript into modern notation with neumes above.  From there, I dissected its musical bits, isolated patterns, and generally worked out how motives interact to form a coherent musical narrative.  I also looked at patterns in the neume shapes and how these various sets of patterns interacted with the text.  After this intellectual scholar-brain work, I then played it through repeatedly – first reading the modern notation, then mostly the neumes, and then I went back to the original manuscript and sung it several times.

The musical choices I made here are based on the following:

  • The text – the meaning, flow, and rhythm of the words
  • Identification and analysis of recurrent musical motives
  • Tendencies of individual pitches
and, perhaps most controversially,
  • the shapes of the neumes themselves.
One of the main theories I’m working with at the moment is that each neume was chosen for a reason.  There are multiple ways to express the same pitches and groups of pitches in this type of notation, but these specific shapes are the ones that were recorded.  I have a very hard time believing that decision was arbitrary.  If we take the choice of neumes into account, then these shapes become evocative of vocal gesture and performance practice in addition to being pitch-specific – and thus crucial for chant interpretation.  It’s a theory in progress and I have very little supporting evidence at this point, but it *feels* right from a performer’s perspective.
Phew!  Musicology/theory/official project update, check.
But what does it sound like?
Between mild German plague and my lack of regular singing while abroad in London, my voice is less than stellar at the moment – and certainly not up for singing these chants.  Thankfully, I have my trusty soprano recorder on hand!  After much struggle with technology and holding my hands over candles to warm my fingers (my heating has ceased to function again, adding to the medieval authenticity of my experience), I was finally able to make a recording of what I’ve been working on.  This is by no means a finished product or anywhere near professional.  I tried to capture some of the feeling of the words in my articulation, but clearly that textual element is missing because it’s being played on an instrument.
DISCLAIMER:  Thanks to the excellent quality (cough cough) of my computer’s built-in microphone and free audio recording software, I literally had to play in the next room with the door closed to get a recording that didn’t sound like some harpy creature was emerging from the high notes.  If it sounds a little distant and shallow, that’s why – I thought you’d prefer cotton in the ears over insanity.

O rubor sanguinis  


On a completely different note, I’ve found several references in secondary sources to one of Hildegard’s remedies known as “flu powder”.  Apparently, there are six different ways to consume said concoction to treat specific cold symptoms.  Unfortunately, these sources don’t have the complete recipe and of the two ingredients I’ve been able to translate, I could only find one – ground nutmeg.  Hopefully my (successful!) visit to the Stadtbibliothek on Monday can provide me with the primary sources – the Causae et curae and the Physica – and the full ingredient list.

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Urtica dioica, or the common (stinging) nettle

People who are forgetful against their wishes should take stinging nettles and pulverize them, add olive oil, and rub their chest and temples energetically when going to bed; this they should repeat and their forgetfulness will decrease.  The pungent warmth of the stinging nettles and the warmth of the olive oil stimulate the constricted vessels of the chest and temples, which sleep a little by waking consciousness.  

(Causae et Curae 195, 13)


They look like a generic leafy stream-bank plant.  They grow among clusters of flowers.  They will sneak up on you by hiding in plain sight – even when you look at them and think “oh hey, that’s a nettle” somehow it doesn’t sink in that you’re about to put your hand into a stinging pit of discomfort as you reach for a dandelion.  Perhaps it was because I’d never seen so many in one place (the whole bank of the Nahe river I was walking along was covered in them), or perhaps it was because I’m on a different continent, or perhaps it was because I was preoccupied with thoughts about neumes, but I didn’t think twice about our friend the nettle and reached for that fluffy golden dandelion.

Hildegard was certainly right about the nettle’s stimulating properties.

Today they are used in the treatment of arthritis, as a general tonic for the skin, hair, and internal organs,  and to rejuvenate exhausted adrenals.  They’ve also been used as a folk remedy to stimulate muscles exhausted from long journeys on foot – but that involves basically getting stung on purpose.  High in vitamins A, C, potassium, manganese, and calcium, nettles can also be a valuable source of nutrition in the leafy-green department.  Supposedly they taste a bit like spinach when they’re boiled.

I don’t know about making a “memory oil” with them, but they were certainly quick to remind me that nettles are NETTLES.

Thank you for keeping me alert and honest, little plant.

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