When I hear the words ‘Tussie-Mussie’, for me it conjures up a nostalgic, whimsical image of Victorian times…. A young suitor handing his intended a dainty posy of flowers, waiting to see if she would clutch it to her heart – for if she did, he would have known his love was requited…. Maybe they were secret sweethearts and his gift of flowers conveyed a covert message to her…. Each bloom, individually selected for its meaning, combined together to tell a story…. The language of flowers….
Floriography, the term used for the communication of a message through flowers, was a trend introduced to Europe in the 1700s. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought it to England in 1717; wife of the then Ambassador to Turkey, she is better known for her writing, poetry and upon her return from Turkey, for the introduction of the smallpox inoculation to Britain….
As Floriography gained in popularity throughout Europe and Britain, publications began to appear listing plants, trees and flowers with their meanings. The very first dictionary is thought to be Joseph Hammer-Purgstall’s ‘Dictionnaire du Language des Fleurs’ in 1809. The craze continued throughout the Victorian era and dictionaries were produced in several countries; France, England, the USA, Belgium, Germany and South America. A well-known publication was ‘Le Language des Fleurs’ by Louise Cortambert writing as Madame Charlotte de la Tour, in 1819. Its equivalent in England was by the Clergyman, Robert Tyas and entitled ‘The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora’, written in 1836. Other notable works were Henry Phillips’ ‘Floral Emblems’ in 1825 and Frederic Shoberl’s ‘Language of Flowers’ in 1834….
Perhaps though, the one we may be most familiar with and which is still printed today, is the one written by English, children’s book illustrator, Kate Greenaway. Her book, ‘The Language of Flowers’, which was first printed in 1884, lists over 500 flowers and plants, along with illustrations and the meanings and messages they convey. Many of the images are now reproduced as fine art prints, greetings cards and note paper….
Because so many different publications were available there became many variations of the lists. Certain flowers and plants acquired more than one meaning, sometimes contradictory, often varying from country to country. For example, the herb Basil; in Italy, it represented ‘best wishes’, in Greece it conveyed ‘hatred’, whereas in India it meant ‘sacred’….
There are so many plants and flowers that have meanings, far too many to list here but following are a few of the more familiar ones:
Primrose: Inconstancy, changeability
Sweetpea: Departure, good-bye
Daffodil: Unrequited love
Chrysanthemum: Friendship, cheerfulness
Dandelion: Faithfulness, happiness
Iris: Hope, wisdom, valour
Passion Flower: Faith
Honeysuckle: Love (sweet and secret)
Golden Rod: Caution, encouragement
Forget-me-not: True love, forget me not
Lily of the Valley: Return of happiness
Daisy: Innocence, purity
Purple Heather: Admiration
White Heather: For wishes to come true
Petunia: Resentment, anger
In Victorian times, the Tussie-Mussie became something of a fashion accessory. They would have been carried to social occasions, or maybe worn on the wrist, or as a brooch…. If carried, very often a lace doily would have been wrapped around the stems; or perhaps they would have been contained in a small silver vase that could be pinned to a lapel….
Flowers were the most commonly exchanged gift in the Victorian era; much thought went into the meaning of each bloom that made up the display. A Tussie-Mussie traditionally has one single central flower, which is then surrounded by smaller flowers, herbs, foliage and grasses. Each individual piece playing its part, in conveying the message the person giving the gift wishes the recipient to receive…. Every posy is unique, individual and personal… In Victorian times young ladies were taught how to make them as part of their social up-bringing…. The craze eventually ended with the outbreak of World War 1….
Nowadays, Tussie-Mussies are still occasionally given as gifts; when they are, it is common place to include a note, explaining the meaning….
The name, ‘Tussie-Mussie’, was first mentioned in 1440, as ‘Tusemose’. Tuse – meaning a knot of flowers; mose – refers to the damp moss wrapped around the stems to stop them from drying out. During Mediaeval times, small posies of flowers were more commonly known as ‘Nosegays’; ‘gay’ meaning ornament. The name quite literally means ‘an ornament appealing to the nose’….
A Nosegay could have come in several forms; a small scented posy, or sachet of highly aromatic herbs or maybe even an orange studded with cloves. They would have been used by both sexes, carried, pinned to lapels, worn on the wrist or perhaps around the head – anywhere convenient and easily accessible, to mask bad odours and rancid smells….
Nosegays were extremely popular whilst in crowded places or while walking through the streets of cities and towns. The streets were particularly filthy in the Middle Ages, often coated in raw sewage, where the contents of chamber pots had been flung from windows. Butchers slaughtered animals in the streets leaving the unwanted waste behind….general rubbish and debris would have been left to rot…. The stench could only have been horrendous, Nosegays were quite possibly the only method to prevent gagging…. It was also believed disease was spread by foul air and bad odours….
Contrary to general belief, many people in the Middle Ages did observe personal hygiene. Not all, obviously (hence another use for the Nosegay). Clothes, with the exception of under-garments, would not have been washed frequently; especially in the Winter months, as drying them would have been almost impossible….
Health manuals from the time stressed the importance of keeping clean in order to keep healthy. Magninius Mediolanesis wrote in his ‘Regimen Sanitatis’ “The bath cleans the external body parts of dirt left behind from exercise on the outside of the body”. He then went on to suggest 57 bathing remedies for conditions such as old age, pregnancy and for whilst travelling. He also advised: “Spring and Winter are good times for bathing but should be avoided as much as possible in the Summer”. Another of his pearls of wisdom stated: “Too long in the bath makes you feeble and fat”….
For those would could afford the luxury of a personal bath, namely Royalty, higher nobility and rich merchants, it would consist of a wooden tub with a ‘tent like’ sheet draped over…. Jugs of hot water would have been brought by attendants. According to John Russell’s ‘Book of Nurture’ from the late 1400s, fresh herbs were used for washing and then lukewarm rose-water for rinsing off…. Herbs would also have been added to ease aches and pains; camomile, breweswort, brown fennel and mallow….
Soap was introduced to the Western World during the Middle Ages, most probably from the Orient. Typically, it was a soft soap made from mutton fat, potash or wood ash and natural soda. It was not very effective as it had little cleansing power. Hard soaps were available but were expensive. Produced mainly in Spain from the 12th Century, they were made from olive oil and often had added herbs and flower petals….
For some, bathing was a very important affair….King John would take a bath tub where ever he travelled…. In 1351, Edward III had hot and cold taps installed for his bath in Westminster Palace…. Some wealthy monasteries were able to pipe water in…. Westminster Abbey had a bath attendant, who was paid 2 loaves of bread a day and £1 a year….
However, for the majority of people, having a private bath was not an option; it was unaffordable and too time consuming. The very poor had to make do with rivers, streams and ponds. Many others had the opportunity of using public baths. By the 13th Century there were over 32 available in Paris; Southwark, (then separate from London), a town standing on the banks of the River Thames, boasted 18 baths. Even many of the smaller towns had their own, often connected to a bakery, making use of the ovens to heat water….
Public baths were not without controversy. Many, (the Church in particular), were outraged that men and women would be naked together. Baths were seen as little more than a front to disguise what they really were….brothels! Southwark’s were known as the ‘Stews’. The Mediaeval Church authorities claimed that baths spread immorality and disease….
Initially, little notice was taken of these views but gradually it became believed that it was water that was to be blamed for the spread of disease, enabling it to enter the body through the pores of the skin…. It was thought that as the warmth enlarged and opened up the pores, this in turn allowed airborne infections to enter…. Much of this belief could well have been fuelled by Church propaganda….
Of course, there could well have been some truth in that bath houses were places of debauchery and immoral behaviour…. Promiscuity was prevalent during these times; then, in the late 15th Century there was a widespread outbreak of syphilis across Europe. It is believed the spread of this disease resulted in people becoming less promiscuous and at the same time brought a rapid decline in the popularity of the public bath house….
People in the Middle Ages loved their highly scented herbs and flowers…. Tables would have often been strewn with them in an attempt to keep houses smelling fresh…. Perfume was also popular, made from the oils of flowers and mixed with herbs and spices….both men and women used them….
Well, since bathing had fallen out of favour, they had to do something to mask the pong….!!