Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Tomorrow I will be making another step in  my so far successful quest to convince German friends that British food goes beyond fish and chips, haggis, baked beans and spongy square white sliced bread (“untoasted toast” as one student once put it – I guess you have to have lived in Germany to get that one) and is actually rather good.

The main attraction is going to be beef and Guinness casserole with herb dumplings. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – a very quaint English-sounding mixture to those of us who grew up with the song “Scarborough Fair” and were aware that it was not written by a couple of folk-rock dudes from New York.

The line is a recurring refrain throughout the song, which in its simplest form is the lament of someone who has been left by his lover and imagines a string of impossible-sounding feats that will win her back. The herbs mantra seems at first sight (or hearing) not to make much sense, but centuries-old knowledge about the medicinal properties of these four herbs can be tied in to give a somewhat clearer allegorical meaning.

  • Parsley is well known as an aid to digestion (remember Peter Rabbit?) and as a herb to counteract bitterness or acrid tastes (garlic might fall into the latter category). The jilted lover in the song presumably hopes to overcome his own feelings of bitterness.
  • Sage, whose Latin name salvia comes from the verb meaning “to heal” or “to be / feel well”, is symbolic of strength – it is no coincidence that even today it is used as a herbal remedy for excessive sweating, as a means to “strengthen” the stomach following e.g. a course of antibiotics, and as a more general boost to the immune system thanks to its antioxidant properties. An old rhyming aphorism tells us “He that would live for aye / Must eat sage in May”. The “I” of the song thus wishes for strength to overcome his adversity and recover. In German folk tradition, sage was also used to prepare love potions.
  • The herb rosemary represents loyalty and constancy (maybe partly because it is evergreen), love and remembrance (Nicholas Culpeper noted that “It helps a weak memory” and that it is good for “all the diseases of the head and brain”), qualities the singer of the song has not been receiving too much of recently, but precisely those qualities and feelings he hopes to rekindle in his beloved lady.
  • Thyme also contains potent essential oils (the name derives from the Greek verb thyo, “to perfume”) and symbolizes courage. Culpeper said that wild thyme was “excellent for nervous disorders” and that it was “a certain remedy for that troublesome complaint, the night-mare”. The Ancient Greeks believed it strengthened certain masculine characteristics (it does have proven aphrodisiac qualities, apparently), and in the Middle Ages knights often had thyme painted on their shields as proof of their mettle. Today, apart from its continued use in cooking, it has largely been relegated to a remedy for coughs, sadly distant from its rather grander reputation in older thymes …. err, times. However, the protagonist in the song was probably not thinking about his bronchial health.
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1 Comment

Filed under Food, History, Intercultural & interlinguistic

One response to “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

  1. squonky

    Excellent photo – real “Bexxi Colour” there. And a fascinating insight into herb lore. I’d never connected the words in the song with the properties of the herbs before. Obvious – now you’ve pointed it out to me!

    I know that somewhere I have a recording of the song by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, which brings back happy memories for me. Can’t find it right now, but it has made me dig back into my folky roots. Listening to Sandy Denny right now, “The Northstar Grassman and the Ravens”. The cover to that album might have been made for this post.

    I hope dinner goes well :^)

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