Welsh, Cribau St. Ffraid, Llys dwyfawg. - French, Betoine. - German, Betonie. - Dutch, Betonic. - Russian, Bukwiza. - Italian, Bettonica. - Spanish and Portuguese, Betonica. - Illyric, Bukvica, Sarpak, Banjenik.
Labiatce. Tetrandrce. Betonica.
"Sell your coat and buy betony," says the old proverb, expressing the high estimation in which our forefathers held the plant, in a manner truly characteristic of the practical and business-like traits of its British originators. "He has as many virtues as betony," is the saying of the more sedate, less business-like, and pre-eminently courteous Spaniard, in giving utterance to a similar estimation of the herb, which was formerly considered a sort of panacea for disease, or accident. But (alas! for the evanescence of herbaceous glories), though the plant is known to possess powerful qualities, it is totally discarded from the modern medicine-chest; being, in fact, too severe for a more enlightened system of practice; and it is even fast fading from the memory and the notice of our not over-scrupulous rustic quacks. When given in the smallest doses it is violently purgative and emetic; exciting, when dry, excessive sneezing; and, when swallowed, in a fresh state, causing intoxication, under the influence of which, the most extravagant and extraordinary feats are performed; yet the old "Stockholm MS." (acting apparently on the principle, similia simili-bus curantur) declares that,
"Who so for trauayle, or for swynk Use early or late for to drynke, Use betoyn fastande, i fay [fasting in faith], He schalle not be dronken yt. ilke day".
Somewhat on a similar principle would appear to have been its employment by the old Iberian physicians in cases of insanity, mania, and even hydrophobia.
In addition to its medicinal virtues, the betony was formerly supposed to be endowed with "great power" against evil spirits; or, as Burton expresses it, "driving away devils and despair," freeing from their influence whatever place it grew in. On this account it was carefully planted in churchyards, and hung round the neck as an amulet or charm; sanctifying, as Erasmus tells us, "those that carried it about them," and being also, "good against fearful visions." Antonius Musa, too, the physician of Octavius Augustus Caesar, whom Culpepper affirms to have been an "expert physician," alleging the very excellent reason that, "it was not the practice of Octavius Caesar to keep fools about him," declares it to be a great preservative against witchcraft. It would, however, appear only to possess these supernatural qualities under certain conditions, on which account it was to be gathered at a stated period:-
"Who so betonye on him bere, Fro wykked sperytis it will hy were [guard] In ye monyth of August, on all wyse [always] It mwste be gaderyd or [e'er] sone ryse."*
Almost more remarkable are the feats which may be achieved with serpents through the medium of the plant; in which, however, it is to be observed that a manoeuvre very like the schoolboy feat, of "catching a bird by putting salt on its tail," is to be performed:-
"Who so wyll don a serpent tene, Make a garlonde of betonye grene, And mak a cirkle hy, rounde abowte, And he schalle neuer on lywe [alive] gon owte, But wt. his tayle he schalle hy schende, An wt. hys mowth hy self to rende."†
It may be regarded as a curious proof of that extraordinary immutability of manners and customs which prevails in Spain, that this herb is, at the present day, more used by the peasants of that country - the region of the labiatce - than anywhere else; having been, in ancient times, regarded as an especially Spanish, or rather Iberian, remedy. Pliny asserts that it received its name from the Vetones, a tribe dwelling at the southern foot of the Pyrenees, a district in which it is still highly valued; Vetones being analogous to Betony, for we know how commonly the letters B. and V. are respectively interchanged. Modern authors, however, treat the derivation of the old naturalist with great contempt, asserting it to be inconsistent with the fact that the plant is called Betonic in the Celtic; and resolving the word into the primitive form of Ben (a head), and ton (good); it being good for complaints in the head. I am not aware of the word ton having this signification in any Celtic dialect; but without entering into the merits of the question, I should, of the two, prefer the opinion of Pliny; though I do not place much reliance upon it; and it will be observed, that the European prevalence of the same form of name, affects neither the one opinion nor the other.
* "Stockholm Med. M.S".
The Welsh name of Cribau St. Ffraid, "St. Bride's comb," refers either to the notched outline of the lower lip of the corolla, or, to the hairy, or somewhat bristly, appearance of the whole plant; while doubtless its dedication to St. Ffraid, marked a sense of its valuable properties, she being a very favourite saint in the Principality. Indicative also of the same good qualities, is the name Llys dwyfawg, "the herb of double grace," or "favour." It is, however, now merely used in Wales as a yellow dye for wool; a purpose for which it answers admirably.