Reverie at Bennys Place


The Cloister and the Hearth Cover

The Cloister and the Hearth Cover

When visiting Denver, I always make it a point to lose myself for a couple hours inside Capitol Hill Books. When you walk through the door, you are greeted by the unmistakable scent of old books. Anyone who has ever been in a used book store knows exactly what I mean. It is sort of musty yet inviting. As you venture inside, your eyes begin to seek out a treasure hidden among the vast selection of used books this uniqe store has to offer.

During my last visit, I scanned the shelves looking for vintage gardening books and nothing really called out to me. I then scanned other shelves and in a corner of one of the bottom shelves my eyes caught a glimpse of a small, vintage looking book. The book was The Cloister and the Hearth and this was my treasure for the day. The pages are yellowed and the sepia tone adds to its character. Ironically, I was planning to visit The Tattered Cover to purchase Pillars of the Earth and from the excerpt I read on the back of The Cloister and the Hearth, this was a similar sort of story.

I love to ‘save’ books. I read Pillars first but only after several months had passed since my trip. As I was scanning my bookshelf for my next read, I thought it time to dive into The Cloister and the Hearth and though I have not made it past the first chapter, I am captivated.

I have already  been introduced to one of the main characters — Gerard. I won’t go into details in this post but promise to when I share with you my thoughts of what seems to be a magnificent read.

To speak of this book relates directly to today’s Daily Etymology. At the moment, Gerard is seeking vellum to create something beautiful in the way of prose and art and I had planned on using vellum as today’s word. Though some great information is offered for this word, I turned the page and my eyes came upon verbena which is one of my favorite garden plants. Under the entry of verbena it indicated to see the word vervain. Once there, I stumbled upon yet another exciting reference to some classic 14th century literature.


Entry: A plant of the genus verbena. Derivation: French and Latin. The Middle English version of the word is verveyne. Cited reference is from  John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and once I set out to uncover the reference, I discovered much more than I intended.

Meaning “The Lover’s Confession”, Confessio Amantis, also known as Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins (according to Wikipedia) is a 33,000 line Middle English poem which uses the confession made by an ageing lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative stories.

When searching, I found no translated version so I spent several hours translating it myself. Google was there as a trusted friend as I uncovered several helpful sites that helped with this process. I chose a section that would demonstrate the relevance of the use of the word vervain. It seems in this section, a lamb is being sacrificed to the Gods and part of the preparation is some fieldwode and verveyne. I of course already knew what verveyne was but fieldwode intrigued me. I am a gardener and ancient names of the plants I love intrigue me. It wasn’t until I had nearly finished translating this section of the poem that I came across a version that offered an idea of what fieldwode was:  Google Books thankfully has Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins by John Gower and Henry Morley and I was able to find a more updated version of the reference I was painstakingly trying to translate.  Though I had figured out most of it, I was most excited to get an idea of what fieldwode was. It turns out it is another type of herb known as gentian and the following is a reference from the Gentian Research Network website:

Gentians have been used by humans since ancient times as herbal remedies, and taste very bitter. In Africa gentians are used against malaria, in South America against snake bites, in Europe and Asia as digestives, and in Southeast Asia one species is harvested for its rot-resistant timber. Gentians are also included in perfumes, weight-loss products, skin care products, and homeopathic remedies. In the Alps of Europe, one gentian species is the symbolic flower together with the Edelweiss, and it is found on many souvenirs and art work. Gentians are also considered special in the Japanese and Pacific culture.

This helped confirm that yes, this is indeed what fieldwode was and the final thing that confirmed it was an entry on the Free Dictionary website:

fel·wort (flwûrt, -wôrt)
An annual gentian (Gentianella amarella) having small, lilac to creamy white flowers with fringed corollas.


[Middle English *feldwort, from Old English feldwyrt : feld, field; see field + wyrt, wort; see wort1.]

It was the citing of the Middle English version of the word which adds the best support that this is the plant the poem refers to.

I am now pleased to present the reference where the Middle English version of the word vervain is used. I will be revisiting this poem again in the future and look forward to reading it in its entirety. I think a comprehensive Middle English dictionary may be a mandatory accessory to this purchase.

4020 With gret travaile and with gret pyne,

With great labor and with great pain,

4021 Sche was pourveid of every piece,

She was provided every piece,

4022 And torneth homward into Grece.

And  turned homeward to Greece.

4023 Before the gates of Eson

Before the gates of Eson

4024 Hir char sche let awai to gon,

Her chariot she let away to gone,

4025 And tok out ferst that was therinne;

And took out first that was therein;

4026 For tho sche thoghte to beginner

For though she thought to begin

4027 Such thing as semeth impossible,

Such a thing as seemed impossible

4028 And made hirselven invisible,

And made herself invisible

4029 As sche that was with Air enclosed

As she that was with the Air enclosed

4030 And mihte of noman be disclosed

And might of no man be disclosed

4031 Sche tok up turves of the lond

She took up turfs of the land

4032 Withoute helpe of mannes hond,

Without help of man’s hand,

4033 Al heled with the grene gras,

 And covered with the green grass

4034 Of which an Alter mad ther was

 Of which an Alter made there was

4035 Unto Echates the goddesse

Unto Echates the goddess

4036 Of art magique and the maistresse,

Of art magic and the mistress,

4037 And eft an other to Juvente,

And again another to Juvente – (the goddess of youth)

4038  As sche which dede hir hole entente.

As she which did her whole intent.

4039 Tho tok sche fieldwode and verveyne,

Though took she fieldwode and verveyne

4040 Of herbes ben noght betre tueine,

 Of herbs there had been none, better two

4041 Of which anon withoute let

Of which one without hindrance

4042 These alters ben aboute set:

These alters been about set:

4043 Tuo sondri puttes faste by

 Two different pits fast by

4044 Sche made, and with that hastely

She made and with that hastily

4045 A wether which was blak sche slouh,

A (male) sheep which was black she slew,

4046 And out therof the blod sche drouh

 And out of it the blood she drew

4047 And dede into the pettes tuo;

And did into the pits two;

4048 Warm melk sche putte also therto

Warm milk she put also thereto

4049 With hony meynd: and in such wise

With honey mixed: and in such wise

4050 Sche gan to make hir sacrifice,

She began to make her sacrifice

4051 And cride and preide forth withal

 And cried and prayed forth withall

4052 To Pluto the god infernal,

To Pluto the god infernal,

4053 And to the queene Proserpine.

And to the queen Proserpine (Persephone)

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2 thoughts on “Vervain

  1. Jo Miller

    Pillars of the Earth – is this by Ken Follett? If so, have you read World Without End? It follows on from Pillars and is just as good. I love finding out about history in this way (fiction) rather than watching a historical re-enactment on TV. Ken Follett is an amazing story teller – I love his books and there are only three I haven’t read. Must fix that!

    I think you will like World Without End. In it, one of the characters rebels against common practices of the time in the (church) health profession and concocts her own remedies using old plants and herbs based on what she has learned from a “witch”. I think you would appreciate these references.

  2. Benny Post author

    Hi Jo!

    I had no idea that Follett had created a seqel to Pillars and I have it on the ready for a special moment when I can dive into it properly. I look forward to reading about the herb references. The more I learn about plants, life and health, the more I realize that in the natural world, we have nearly everything to cure what ails us. It is unfortunate it is not as mainstream as it could be.

    Thank you for your comment! I always love hearing from you Jo!

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