Violets provide an instance in which early modern medicine at once differed from and anticipated current medical practice. Dominant medical thought was derived from the ancient writings of Galen (ca. 130–200 C.E.), who articulated the theory of the four humors. According to this theory, an ill body contained either too much heat or cold and too much dryness or moisture. Medicines thus served to bring the body into balance. As an example, violets were described as “cold and moist”and were therefore used to fight fevers. The sweet scent of violets was also believed to have curative properties, as they belonged to a subset of herbs called “nose-herbs,”a kind of aromatherapy.
Pictured above is a page from Jane Giraud's The Flowers of Shakespeare. Shakespeare and his audience would have been familiar with Galenic theory and understood many of his characters to exemplify one of the four humors. Here, it is the resonance of violets that is depicted:
“That strain again, it had a dying fall,
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet south,
That breathes upon the bank of Violets,
Stealing and giving odour.”
These lines from the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in which the speaker, Duke Orsino, suffers from melancholy, express the comfort associated with the beautiful scent of violets. Significantly, the heroine of the play, and the woman he will marry at its end, is named Viola.
Rembert Dodoens. Cruydt-boeck. Leiden, 1608
Hannah Woolley. The queen-like closet, or Rich cabinet. London, 1675
Humors and Herbs