As part of my interest in medieval soap making I come across some rather strange and unusual ingredients. Some only look strange at first glance as the medieval word has undergone modernization. Some describe ingredients no longer used in this way, either because they are hard to mass-produce, or because they are now known to be detrimental to our health. Every unknown ingredient I come across digging through countless medicinal and cosmetic soap recipes is carefully checked out and these sometimes obvious, often times obscure, ingredients are compiled in my Glossary for future reference.

Fairy dust

For example, when using google translate to translate muschio, its first hit will be moss. While plausible, when looked at the word in context of the recipe, it is unlikely moss was added as a scrub. What was meant here was the scent musk, a much more appropriate addition as the recipe came from a book about perfumery.

Same with fate poluere – when put into google translate it comes up as fairies dust… Would we really think renaissance Italians caught fairies, dried them, ground them up, and made such good soap Mona Lisa literally seems to glow? I’d like to, though it does seem more likely it is only an older way of spelling fare polvere which means to make into dust, making a whole lot more sense considering the rest of the recipe…

Then what about the botanical garofano? When looked up in the 1611 medieval Italian to medieval English dictionary the Florio the translation given for garofano (garofani) is both cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) and gillyflower, also called carnation (Dianthus caryphyllus), and leaves the matter up for interpretation. Gillyflower as an ingredient makes an appearance in several non-English language soap recipes, including the Italian Notandissimi and the Dutch Dat Batement van Recepten. My curiosity was peaked, but a conclusive period source for either interpretation was nowhere to be found. The 1771 Encyclopedia Brittanica gives the alternate name clove pink for carnation, indicating some sort of connection between clove and carnation. But while it mentions the term gillyflower can be any of several flowering plant species, the spice clove is not listed among them. If they truly are two different plant species, then how can gillyflower mean both in medieval texts?

To Treat Horrible Breath

Scadian Italian cosmetics enthusiast Giata (Gigi Coulson) translated this intriguing recipe from Caterina Sforza to treat horrible breath, to include cloves:

To heal a person who has horrible breath.
Take 1 ounce cloves, 5 ounces ground cinnamon, 5 ounces tirats (sic), and mix with a third of finest wine, then do grind and boil it and take a dose of half a glass at a time.

Are gillyflowers carnations?

A handful of cooking recipes in the 16-17th century Martha Washington’s Cookbook also include gillyflower as an ingredient. Here, the translator states gillyflower is what is now known as the clove-scented pink, or carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus). According to her, gilly comes from French girofle, for clove, and is pronounced jilly. As evidenced by the older forms jellyflower and July Flowers it most likely always was; both are fine examples of the substitution of a word of known meaning for an unknown one of similar sound. Clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus) comes from the French clou de girofle, because of its resemblance to a nail, while the French girofle likely came by way of the Greek caryophyllon. Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree.

Clove gilliflower image from A Sip through Time.

Or are gillyflowers cloves?

The collection of old brewing recipes A Sip through Time by Cindy Renfrow also gives clove gilliflower of the family Caryophilli as an alternate name of gilliflower. Maybe through confusing nomenclature it had become a case of mistaken identity? The Dutch books of secrets soap recipes refer to gillyflower as groffelsnavel, which the Medieval Dutch internet translator Historic Dictionaries on the Internet also translates to gilliflower. At first glance, groffelsnavel (Dutch), groffiaat (Belgium), garofano (Italian), girofle (French), girofre (Spanish) and a number of other alternates all lead back to gillyflower as a carnation.Then the medieval Dutch translator had one last thing to say: “The word was also (including in the Roman Languages) used for the clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus) -1892″. In our modern time the Latin name for cloves is Syzygium aromaticum, but in history the Latin name for cloves was Caryophyllus aromaticus – very similar to the Latin for gillyflower which is Dianthus caryphyllus, and indicates both are part of the family Caryophilli. In history cloves and carnations were classified as belonging to the same family. They had similar physical characteristics (with both the bottom of the flower is sort of nail shaped), were thus likely assumed to have similar properties, and were used interchangeably. Apparently, it is up to context and personal interpretation to decide whether the gillyflower called for is the spice cloves or the herb carnation.

Gillyflowers as found in recipes

Gillyflower is found mentioned in several recipes, both in personal cosmetics (scented soap) and in brewing. Following are a selection of recipes to illustrate the importance of context:

For Clarre. Take cloues and gilofre quibible, and mac? canll’ gygner and spiguale off an in poudre and temper hem with good wyne and the iij. parte as much of fyn honi that is clarified and streine hem thorough a cloth and doo it into a clene vessel, and it may be made wyth ale &c.

For Clare.
Take cloves and gillyflower quibible [could be qui belle, or very beautiful], and mac? canll’ [much candied?] ginger and spiguale off [spigot, or drain off?] and in powder, and mix them with good wine and the iij. part as much of fine honey that is clarified and strain them through a cloth and do it in a clean vessel, and it may be made with ale, etc.
In this recipe from The Customs of London: Otherwise Called Arnold’s Chronicle (1503) gillyflowers & cloves are listed separately, by name, and since gillyflower is likely described as beautiful, my guess is that carnation is meant here.
To Pickle cloue gilliflowrs cowslips burrage & marrigoulds. Clip your flowers clean from the whites & cover them over in white wine vinegar, sweetned with sugar, & shake the glasses you put them in often, & when you discover your pickle to shrink, add more to it.


Since this 16th to 17th century recipe by Martha Washington describes gillyflowers as flowers, it likely indicates that carnations were meant, as opposed to the dried out flower bud of the spice clove.
Carnations, and the double-cloaue Gillofers

from the 1578 Nievve Herbal or Historie of Plantes by Gerard Dewes.

From Dat batement van recepten, a 16th century book of secrets, comes the following recipe for gilliflower soap:

133. To make gilliflower soap.
Take a pound of soap, put it to soak in rosewater three days in the sun, and if you want to make soap, take an ounce and a half gillyflowers well crushed, and half of these same nagelen should you put into the soap, and mix very well. With the other half you do as follows. Take a clean pot with rosewater, and cook it over the fire, and when it starts to boil, add the rest of the gillyflower powder, and take the pot off the fire, and cover it well until the bubbles seized, and that the water is luke warm, then stir with wood, and also stir, mixing with the soap. And if you would like add a little benzoin, which you should do, also you should put the soap in a container, and it shall take on a good scent.

Cloue tree image from the 1633 The Herball, or, General Historie of Plantes by John Gerard.

In this case the giroflatt (alternate of girofle) is also identified with nagelen, an adverb used in modern Dutch for kruidnagelen (“herb-nails”). Kruidnagelen specifically means cloves therefore in this case I would be confident to say here giroflatt means the spice cloves.

From The Housekeeper’s Pocket Book by Sarah Harrison, 1739 (as reprinted in A Sip Through Time by Cindy Renfrow, p.154):

To make clove gillyflower wine.
Take six gallons and a half of spring water, and twelve pounds of sugar, and when it boils skim it, putting in the white of eight eggs, and a pint of cold water, to make the scum rise: let it boil for an hour and a half, skimming it well; then pour it into an earthen vessel, with three spoonfulls of barm; then put in a bushel of clove-gillyflower clip’d and beat, stir them well together, and the next day pit six ounces of syrup of citron into it, the third day put in three lemons sliced, peel and all, the fourth day tun it up, stop it close for ten days, then bottle it, and put a piece of sugar in each bottle.

In this instance it is clear from context as a weedy herb is used, it is not describing the dry spice cloves, but the fresh state of carnations.

Gillyflower in brewing most likely meant carnations

My conclusion: from the handful of brewing and cooking recipes I found using gillyflowers, most seem to indicate using carnation, either as a fresh or dried herb. Most of the perfumed cosmetic recipes seem to use cloves, as a powdered or crushed ingredient. It makes sense that if powdered or crushed gillyflower is called for it is likely to mean cloves, and if fresh or dried gillyflower is called for it is likely to mean carnation. And take a closer look at the provided images of both carnation and clove – the bottoms of the flowers on both plants do look strikingly similar…