A Delicate Language
Frank Rudolph Paul (1884 – 1963)
October Birthday News
A Delicate LanguageMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Generally, when given a red rose, my reaction would be either to go weak in the knees or to smile somewhat stiffly and plan for a swift retreat, and that had a lot more to do with the identity of the donor than with the poor flower itself.
Many of us in the Western world would almost instinctively interpret the gift of red roses as a declaration of romantic interest, and some, when asked about it, would go so far as to quote ‘The Language of Flowers’, but what is this language? Is it universal? What are its sources?
In antiquity plants and flowers were sometimes given a symbolic meaning. For instance, the pomegranate, a fruit sacred to the goddess Hera, came to symbolize matrimony. In the late antiquity and the Middle Ages, often a moral or religious meaning was attached to them, so the palm frond, originally a symbol of triumph, became associated with martyrs; the white lily was one of the symbols for virginity and chastity; and so on.
The full-blown language of flowers, though, or floriography, as it was known then, was mainly a creation of Victorian England, even though it had roots in such different cultures as China, Japan, Persia, ancient Greece, Rome, and Middle-Ages Europe. One of the most often mentioned sources for the meaning given to flowers is usually the selam (or salem, according to different sources), a Turkish system that, according to Mr. Brent Elliott, Librarian to the Royal Horticultural Society, has been rather misunderstood by its European interpreters. According to Mr. Elliott, the Turkish system was "not a language of meanings, but a mnemonic system - the names of the objects rhyme with standard lines of poetry, and are an aid by which the lines can be recalled." (1).
Be it as may, Turkey is the place from which the language of flowers arrived in England and France, and from there expanded to the rest of Europe and America. In London in 1723, Monsieur Aubry de la Mottraye published "Travels through Europe, Asia and into part of Africa (...)" (2), a memoir rich in ethnological elements that enjoyed great success at the time and introduced the selam to the European public. Forty years later, the Turkish Embassy Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of a British ambassador to Turkey (3), gave her posthumous fame as a writer and consolidated the idea of a Turkish symbolic flower language.
The earliest published dictionary of flowers is probably Abecedaire de Flore ou langage des fleurs ( Flora’s Primer, or Language of Flowers), published in 1810. Many more followed both in French and English, through the whole of the century.
Given that most of the lists of meanings came from the same main sources (mainly Charlotte de Latour's Le Langage des Fleurs, published in December 1819), there’s a basic agreement in meaning between English, French and American dictionaries, but it isn’t always the case and it is not so for all European countries. For instance, while the lists I have seen relate chrysanthemum to love, in Italy giving chrysanthemums to a woman is almost guaranteed to ruin every chance of a relationship, since here it is regarded as the flower to put on tombs, since it blossoms near the Day of the Dead; and a yellow rose, that may mean simply ‘friendship’, over here usually is read as ‘envy’.
There is no proof that the Language of Flowers was ever widespread as a mean of communication, the flowers, though were often used by writers, painters, illustrators and decorators to give additional symbolic depth to their works, in case you too want to try your hand at it, here is a sample list of flowers and meanings taken from The Language of Flowers by Henrietta Dumont, published in Philadelphia in 1852.
(1) Quoted in "Flowers, the Angels' Alphabet" by Susan Loy
(2) English translation from the original manuscript in French. The full title of the French edition is: Voyages en Europe, Asie et Afrique. Où l'on trouve une grande variété de recherches géographiques, historiques et politiques, sur l'Italie, la Grèce, la Turquie, la Tartarie Crimée, & Nogaye, la Circassie, la suède, la Laponie, &c. Avec des remarques instructives sur les mœurs, coutumes, opinions &c. des peuples & des païs où l'auteur a voyagé.
(3) Edward Wortley Montagu was ambassador in Turkey in 1716-17, but he and his wife lived there until 1718. Lady Mary championed in England variolation, the Ottoman practice of inoculation against smallpox (contrary to vaccination, discovered by Edward Jenner, that uses cowpox as agent, variolation used a small dose of smallpox pathogen itself).
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