Dutch Folklore About Stinging Nettles

Written by Dyami Millarson

Rembert Dodoens, whose family originally comes from Frisia, is known for having published a Dutch plant book titled Cruydt-boeck in 1554. Dodoens was born in 1517, which is the exact year that marks the end of the MIddle Ages if we use the Protestant Reformation as the event that marks the historical separation between medieval and post-medieval Europe. Being perhaps a child of the Middle Ages, Dodoens grew up in a changing world. Nevertheless, he must have possessed linguistic and cultural knowledge of the old medieval world and this may be seen in his medieval-looking Dutch language. Dodoens ought to have been aware of medieval lore about spirits. His plant lore is very extensive and offers us, to some extent, a glimpse into medieval plant knowledge, which may be connected with the the knowledge that the Germanic pagans had of the natural world around them.

People are shaped by the zeitgeist. The fact that Dodoens was at the crossroads between medieval and post-medieval culture makes him an interesting character. In my view, it is unfair to say that Dodoens – despite his novel innovations that broke with established medieval traditions – was distinctly non-medieval, because, from our modern perspective, Dodoens was much more medieval than he was “modern” like us. After all, Dodoens lived much closer to the Middle Ages than we do; we are further removed in time from the Middle Ages than Dodoens was. If we take the Reformation as the definitive point where the Middle Ages ended, we may say that Dodoens’ parents were born and grew up in the Middle Ages. Dodoens reasons in a medieval manner and his way of explaining things is medieval. The only difference is that the post-medieval environment is more tolerant; medieval culture and language were not being wiped out, but they were being phased out gradually by an environment of cultural and linguistic blossoming. Complicating things is that, in fact, the suppressed cultural and linguistic elements of the Middle Ages were suddenly becoming more apparent in the post-medieval world, and so one may argue that the post-medieval world was actually more medieval than the Middle Ages; the oppression and suppression had been reduced, so what had been lying dormant in the Middle Ages could now finally awaken. Just as languages between ages are transitory and do not suddenly change, cultures between different time periods are transitory and do not abruptly change. So, early 17th-century Dutch will look like the 16th-century Dutch language, and early post-medieval culture will look very much like medieval culture. However, the winds of rapid change had started to blow in the 16th century and this would become increasingly visible in the ages that followed the 16th century.

In the year 1608, an amended version of Dodoens’ plant book was published, which contained addenda by various anonymous botanists. The 1608 expanded version of the book contains a passage where stinging nettles are mentioned as a remedy against “spirits and apparitions”. Curiously, the original 1554 version of the book does not contain this entry. So it was not Dodoens himself who transferred this spiritual knowledge, which probably had medieval origins. I had once discovered the passage in the book of Dodoens, but could not find it back after a lot of labour reading through the book over and over again; I found it very strange that the passage that I was looking for was not there, it had magically disappeared. It was only much later that I came to realise that I had read the passage in a later version of the book, which had not been edited by Dodoens himself. The passage from the expanded version (p. 225) that I worked so hard to retrieve is the following:

Early 17th-century Dutch

De ghene die de Netelen over hem draeght / met wat bladeren van Vijfvinger-cruyt / die sal vry zijn van alle geesten ende voorschijnselen die den mensche pleghen te vervaeren: want sy benemen den mensche alle vreese/als sommighe versekeren.


Someone who wears stinging nettles over himself / with some leaves of five fingerwort / shall be free of all ghosts and apparitions which tend to terrorise the individual: because they (i.e., the herbs) remove all fear from the individual/as some assure.

Important to remember here is the fact that Dodoens did, in all likelihood, not write this passage himself and it was added later. It does, however, offer us a glimpse into contemporary Dutch folklore, even though it was added 54 years after the original version was published. This addition must be seen in the context of an environment that is culturally increasingly tolerant to folklore, as this was already quite some time after the Reformation. Folklore had previously been heavily suppressed and it was now only starting to carefully rear its head. I have already previously talked about how the Reformation lead to a pagan renaissance; as a result of Protestantism, medieval paganism could make a resurgence.

I would have liked to put more time and consideration into my words in this article, but as fate would have it, I wrote it somewhat hastily while I am not in the position to spend more time on this than I have already done. Therefore, my assertions here and there might have needed more nuance and deliberation, but I simply had to go with what came to my mind and leave it as it is without any significant improvement. Of course, I may improve upon my current writings at a later time; I consider this article to be a public entry of a diary that records my thoughts.

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