At first glance, it would not appear that plague doctors and love potions would have anything in common. Dig deeper and you find a common denominator. Four to be exact. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. And a song.
Scarborough Fair is an old English ballad that has been on my mind a great deal lately. The lyrics make little or no sense. How would you make a shirt without seams or needlework? An acre of land betwixt the salt water and sea sand? No such thing. I have always wondered and thought I would do a bit of research behind the song and the meaning of some of the things mentioned in the lyrics.
The song itself could be considered a love lament, a coded message in the form of a riddle that a couple sang to each other once upon a time. Although seemingly nothing that was required could be accomplished, it is supposed that if the riddles were solved, then the tasks could be performed.
The repetitive use of the words, “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”, is a clue to the possibility that the ballad is a song of witchcraft and sorcery. Repetition of phrases and words is a consistent practice when doing spell work of any kind and these particular herbs are favorites for use in love spells and love philtres. Parsley represents purity and spirituality, thyme is for strength, sage is for power, and rosemary is for love and remembrance, and all of these things are necessary ingredients of a strong and true love. These herbs are also frequently used in many stuffing recipes, so I suppose there is some merit to that phrase that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!
The other side of the coin is a grimmer interpretation. It is possible that the references of these herbs are in connection with the black plague that swept through Europe during the 1300s. Given the devastation of people and towns the disease brought, the smell of death would have permeated the atmosphere. People of that period believed that the smell of death was the carrier of the disease and so would burn parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme together in order to overpower the smell of death and so protect themselves from the disease. Plague doctors, those who wore the bird-like masks, would stuff the herbs into the nose cavity of the mask and so breathe in the scents of the herbs rather than the odors of death.
The version of the song Scarborough Fair we are most familiar with stems from the 19th century, but the actual song itself can be traced back to the 1600s. Many, however, believe that the earliest versions could be remnants of even older songs, and so could support the belief that the herbal references are in connection to the black plague.
When Simon and Garfunkel recorded this song, they did so in the form of a canticle that interwove words of another song around the lines of Scarborough Fair. The second song was “The Side of a Hill” and was written by Paul Simon. The Side of the Hill is considered to be an anti-war song in reference to the Vietnam era, but really could refer to any time of war, and certainly Europe of the 1300s was as awash in war as it was in plague.
Simon and Garfunkel’s version is haunting, Gothic, and slightly spooky. If you have not heard Scarborough Fair/Canticle, or have not heard it recently, I have included a link here for you to enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfqpAWPx6T4