I did it again. Fell down a rabbit-hole when I was supposed to be quietly reading an interesting library book, and ended up wandering off on a tangent and researching something completely different. I’m reading Of Books and Botany in Early Modern England: Sixteenth-Century Plants and Print Culture by Leah Knight. It investigates the intersection of plants and books in the early modern period, and is a way of looking at the culture of the time that I hadn’t considered before. Something jumped out at me in the preface though, something that seemed familiar.
“Printed books, then as now, were made from plants at the most basic material level of the botanical pulp -- then flax, now softwood -- that formed their pages. But as an incidental part of his description of the English Hyacinth, Gerard reveals that this was not the only material dependence of books upon plants. The plant’s root, we learn, ‘is Bulbus, full of a slimy glewish iuice, which will serue to set feathres vpon arrows in steed of glew, or to paste bookes with…’. Plants and pages were thus quite literally bound together. While the botanical composition of a book’s pages might be more apparent to a maker of paper than to the ordinary buyer, Gerard’s tip suggests that even ordinary readers and writers may have been familiar with a material interface between paper and plants in this now quite unfamiliar way.
Gerard appears to draw his information about the adhesive quality and use of hyacinth juice directly, though without acknowledgement, from the work of his most significant English predecessor in herbalism, William Turner. In the second part of his own herbal, first printed in 1562, Turner had written under “The virtues of Hiacinthus” that ‘[t]he boys in Northumberland scrape the root of the herb and glue their arrows with that slime that they scrape off’. Turner, who grew up in Northumberland, is almost certainly drawing on his own childhood experience as a source for this botanical fact; Gerard’s apparent borrowing of Turner’s remark is thus an example of the sometimes covert anthological work that was so prevalent in herbals of the period.”
(Knight, 2009, p.xi)
Aside from being amused by the beautifully euphemistic phrase “covert anthological work”, I knew I’d read something before about glue made from bulbs, and after a spot of trawling through my bookshelves, I found it in Geoffrey Grigson’s A Herbal of All Sorts, from 1959. I flipped through the book to look for “Hyacinth” - nothing. Turned back a page to look for “Glue”. Still nothing. It turned out to be under B for Bluebells:
“My only authorities for a glue made of bluebell bulbs are the Tudor botanist William Turner -- and myself.
William Turner in his Herbal of 1568 says: ‘The boyes in Northumberlande scrape the roote of the herbe and glew theyr arrowes and bokes wyth that slyme that they scrape of.’ he grew up at Morpeth in Northumberland; and I dare say had glued his own arrows and his books with bluebell slime. And no doubt bluebells were not used this way only in Northumberland.
Statements of the kind always need testing. I copied out William Turner’s recollection into a blue notebook in April 1945. As the notebook covers were coming adrift, I pasted in paper at each end with scrapings from a bluebell bulb; and then wrote inside the cover ‘REPAIRED WITH BLUEBELL GLUE: APRIL 1945’, In April 1958 (and I had used the notebook a good deal in the thirteen years) my two paper hinges were as firm and fast as ever. Of course, the bulb stores up starch; and the starch does the sticking.
How did the Northumberland boys glue their arrows? Does Turner mean they glued in the feathers? Perhaps arrows of the green wood had been anciently glued with bluebell scrapings in the days of Iron Age, Bronze Age, and New Stone Age forests.
Gerard said that starch in his time was prepared from bluebell bulbs -- ‘the best starche next unto that of Wake Robin rootes’, i.e. roots of Lords and Ladies.”
(Grigson, 1959, pp. 13-14)
Now I have questions.
Are Turner, Gerard and Grigson all talking about the same plant?
Looking at my facsimile copy of Gerard’s Herbal (Woodward, 1998, p.26), which appears to be an abridged version of the 1636 edition, Chapter 15 is titled ‘Of the English Jacinth, or Hare-bells.’ The accompanying illustration is labelled ‘Hyacinthus stellatus latifolius cum flore & semine, The Lilly leaved starry Iacinth in flower and seed.’
In The Names of the Herbs, (Turner, 1568, p.42) (https://archive.org/details/b24976362/page/42) William Turner describes “Hyacinthus”:
“Hyacinthus verus groweth plentously in the mount Appenine. The commune Hyacinthus is muche in Englande about Syon and Shene, and it is called in Englishe crowtoes, and in the North partes Crowtees. Some vse the rootes for glue.”
In his new Herball, (Turner, 1568, p.279) (https://archive.org/details/b30342053_0001/page/n279) the illustrations are labelled Hiacinthus maximus, Hiacinthus ceruleus maior, Hiacinthus ceruleus minor, and Hiacinthus albicanus foemina. The entry itself is short, and simply labelled “Hiacinthus”.
So Turner (in 1568) and Gerard (in 1636) both mention glue made from “hyacinth” bulbs.
I had a look at Reading Herbarium’s copy of Henry Lyte’s niewe Herball (1578), but although Lyte also references the colloquial name of Crowtoes, and agrees with Turner that the bulb is a good antidote to the bite of a field spider, there is no mention of a hyacinth glue. The illustrations included under the chapter “Of the hyacinthes” are labelled Hyacinthus vulgaris &c. and Hyacinthus orientalis &c.
John Parkinson, in his Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (https://archive.org/details/paradisiinsolepa00parkrich/page/110 - a 1904 Reproduction of the 1629 edition, p.110) has rather a lot to say about many different varieties of hyacinth. He compares the root of the Smaller Indian Knobbed Iacinth (Hyacinthus indicus minor tuberosa radice) to the roots of the Arum or Wake Robin, but makes no mention of starch or glue. Aside from mentioning that the roots of “The darke blew Grape-flower” have “a very strong smell, like unto Starch when it is new made, and hot”, Parkinson very rarely talks about the “vertues” of the plants which he describes.
However, Parkinson does give the following description of the English hyacinth or harebells:
“Hyacinthus Anglicus Belgicus, vel Hispanicus.
English Hares-bells or Spanish Iacinth
Our English Iacinth or Hares-bels is so common everywhere that it scarce needeth any description. It beareth diverse long and narrow greene leaves, not standing upright, nor yet fully lying upon the ground, among which springeth up the stalke, bearing at the toppe many long and hollow flowers, hanging down their heads all forwards for the most part, parted at the brims into six parts, turning up their points a little againe, of a sweetish, but heady sent, somewhat like unto the Grape-flower: the heads for seede are long and square, wherein is much black seede: the colour of the flowers are in some of a deeper blew, tending to a purple; in others of a paler blew, or of a bleake blew, tending to an oth. colour: Some are pure white, and some are party coloured, blew and white; and some are of a fine delayed purplish red or blush colour, which some call a peach colour. The roots of all sorts agree, and are alike, being white and very slimie; some wherof will be great and round, others long and slender, and those that lye neare the toppe of the earth bare, will be greene.”
This is the only one of many varieties of hyacinth that Parkinson describes as “very slimie” so this satisfies me that Gerard, Turner and Grigson are all talking about the English Hyacinth, or Harebells. However, the names Harebell and Bluebell are often used interchangeably, even though they are not in fact the same plant.
According to the introduction of Margaret Baker’s “The Folklore of Plants”,
“The Reverend Andrew Young, botanist and poet, found that Scotland calls it wild hyacinth, England, bluebell. But ‘bluebell’ is the Scots’ name for the harebell, while ‘harebell’ is Shakespeare’s name for wild hyacinth and bluebell.”
(Baker, 2013, p.6)
Given that Young was writing on botany from the 1940s to the 1960s, I'm certain that other people had noticed these nomenclative anomalies before then. These days we can be a little clearer, with the Latin names Hyacinthoides non-scripta for the bluebell (although its older name of Endymion non-scriptus still persists) and Campanula rotundifolia for the harebell.
So, back to the glue!
Baker’s The Folklore of Plants reiterates Turner’s report of bluebell glue for arrows and for books, but also mentions, with no further reference, that
“Bluebells also provided starch for fashionable ruffs.”
(Baker, 2013, p.31)
Gerard’s Herbal also mentions starch for clothes in his description of the vertues of the Wake-Robin or Arum maculatum:
“The most pure and white starch is made from the roots of Cuckow-pint; but most hurtfull to the hands of the Laundresse that hath the handling of it, for it choppeth, blistereth, and maketh the hands rough and rugged, and withall smarting.”
(Gerard, 1636, p.194)
Ruth Goodman (How To Be A Tudor, p. 77) has successfully managed to set ruffs using starch from “parsnips, sweet cicely and bluebell bulbs”, and also gives a recipe. It seems likely that alternatives would have been sought to the extremely irritating Arum maculatum, even if its starch was the finest.
Having run out of useful books here at home, a quick wander around the internet brought back dozens of websites mentioning bluebells in the context of starch, arrows, and occasionally bookbinding, but none with actual useful citations.
John Craven’s Countryfile Handbook asserts that:
“Back in the 13th century monks used bluebells to cure leprosy while in Wales it was also a popular ‘cure’ for tuberculosis. In the 16th century the sap from the bluebell bulb was used to glue feathers to arrows while gentlemen could stiffen their ruffs with its starch. Even as recently as the 19th century bluebell glue was used widely in bookbinding as toxins from the highly poisonous bulb deterred silverfish.”
(Craven, 2010, p. 204)
Time to experiment!
On an extravagantly practical level, in the video linked below, Ray Mears makes bluebell glue and uses it to stick feathers to stone age style arrows, which are then bound in place with sinew fibres. I would just like to point out that bluebell bulbs are poisonous, so PLEASE DON’T CHEW THEM. It’s perfectly possible to make the glue by crushing the bulbs with something a lot safer than your own teeth!
Goodman's How To be A Tudor has an extremely comprehensive bibliography, so I’ll definitely be heading back to the library to see what I can find in there to read for myself. But, given Ruth Goodman’s starch recipe (I like the idea of crushing and boiling bluebell bulbs much better than I do chewing them!), and the fact that I have English bluebells, Spanish bluebells and Wake-Robin all growing in my garden, I can feel a bit of an experiment coming on.
I have plenty of fabric, including linen, and I have a set of saucepans that have already been designated as Not For Food, from when I was experimenting with natural dyes. I also happen to need a sixteenth century ruff for a costume that I’m putting together over the course of the next year or two (as you do...), so what better opportunity to try and make a bit of bluebell starch for myself?
I’ll keep you posted on my progress!