By the Greeks linen was used in the time of Herodotus, who especially refers to their trading for it to various countries, and' also to their distinguishing, by name, the linens of different districts. Montfaucon, to whose researches on the subject I have already adverted, finds no mention of the use of linen by the Romans in male attire before the time of Alexander Severus, with whom it was a favourite material; but it would appear to have been worn by women at a much earlier date. For further information on this question I must refer the reader to this author; while such as are interested in the subject of the growth and manufacture of flax, will find ample information in the paper of Professor Hodges, before alluded to,* which also contains much valuable matter with regard to the particulars of the experiments commenced by Charmes, and carried on by Lady Moira and Herr Clausen, with a view to the economy of material by employing the refuse of flax after the manufacture of linen as a substitute for cotton.
* See above page 311.
And now we must return from the rich cultivated vallies, required for the growth of the Linum usitatissimum, to the hilly pastures where blossoms the Llin y Tylwyth teg - from the tumultuous world of politicians, antiquaries, and utilitarians, to the breezy commons, the home of the fairy flax. Not that I would have it imagined that this child of the mountain is without its use, any more than its more valuable congener is without its beauty and grace. For, in common with the Linum selaginoides of Peru, it possesses qualities which make it a valuable rustic medicine, and place it high in the estimation of the Welsh peasants, who have not yet forgotten, nor learned to despise, the simple remedies growing untended on their own mountains and moors. The herb, which is administered in the form of an infusion, is regularly sold in the markets of the Principality, being even still found in that of the modern capital of South Wales, the no longer unsophisticated town of Swansea.
Pagenstecher has extracted from the mountain flax a principle which he describes as linine, and which, though containing some characteristics similar to those of the oil of common flax, is not to be identified with it. It is, probably, in this peculiar principle that the medicinal property resides, and it would be satisfactory to know whether an identical product occurs in the L. selaginoides; as these two species are, I believe, the only Linums which have other than mild, emollient, and mucilaginous qualities; notwithstanding which, we learn from Sir John Herschell the astonishing fact, that old linen rags will, when treated with sulphuric acid, yield more than their own weight of sugar* Verily chemists are the real alchemists; the genii whose wands are more potential than those of the most wonderful fairies of old! It is something even to have lived in days when our worn-out napkins may possibly re-appear on our tables in the form of sugar!
A mere description of the little plant, L. catharti-cum, could convey no adequate idea of its appearance; and rather than attempt it, I would guide the reader to the hill-sides where it abounds, and show him how its silvery-shaped blossoms open in the bright sunshine, or gently incline their delicate heads towards the dew-laden turf, through which its white blossoms gleam like a pearly web: I would guide him to the spots where the pink stars of the lesser centaury, and the pretty wild spurrey grow on the open grounds; for there he would usually find, in the months of June and July, the fairy's flax in all its native beauty.
In Great Britain we have only four Linums, the common flax (L. usitatissimum), the perennial (L. perenne), the narrow-leaved (L. angustifolium), and the L. cathdrticum; and doubts have even been raised as to whether the first is not an introduced plant, though now truly wild in many localities.
See Lis "Natural Philosophy".
At least twenty-six species, exclusive of varieties, are in cultivation in our gardens, of which they form conspicuous ornaments, yet not one of them has greater beauty than the flax of commerce, whose blossoms of turquoise-blue, waving on its slender stems, give so great a charm to the spring aspect of flax-growing countries; and the depth and purity of whose colour is strikingly illustrated by the deceptive appearance of the flax fields in some sequestered Pyrenean valley, which, when viewed from a distant height, may be mistaken for sheets of deep and still blue water; while the intervening spots of young corn increase the illusion by standing out from the surrounding blue, like islands in a lake.
The exquisite delicacy of the flax plant is not unworthily pictured in the words of Coleridge; -
* * * "The unripe flax;
When, through its half-transparent stalk at eve, The level sunshine glimmers with green light".
And its transparent and delicate texture adds a graceful appropriateness to the pretty custom, by means of which the youth of Brittany formerly celebrated their having passed the boundary of childhood, and entered on the more important stage of life. I allude to the June fete, in which all who had attained to the age of sixteen years danced round one of the ancient dolmens, with which that interesting country abounds; the boys being crowned with ears of green corn, as emblematic of strength, while the girls were adorned with bouquets of the flax blossom. These bouquets were afterwards carefully preserved in the belief that they would remain fresh for weeks, if those to whom their wearers had given their young hearts were worthy of the boon so confidingly entrusted to them; but they were sure to fade if the lovers became inconstant and faithless;* - a belief which it were very prosaic to term a mere superstition, since we cannot but suppose that a lover of sixteen would take special care that the flax blossoms of his chosen one should not be seen in a faded state, so long as the fields continued to supply him with the means of renewing them unobserved.
We might almost lament that customs so perfectly innocent, and so simple in their nature, should become extinct as a consequence of the dawn of a higher and brighter era of civilization; for however we, who take a truer view of life, may scorn the follies of the sentimentalist with his "language of flowers," and his petty and languid appropriation of vapid and insignificant meanings to the works of his Creator, yet there is, in truth, more of affinity between young and trusting hearts, and their best emblems, - bright and delicate flowers, than those who have faced the bitterness and the struggle of longer life will always acknowledge. The custom of attributing particular meanings to flowers has been common in all ages, and in many countries, and as the Welsh, Germans, and others, consider the flax and other blue flowers to be emblematic of friendship from their resembling the heavens in colour, so the predilection of the ancient Egyptians for flax was supposed by some to have arisen from its azure blossom resembling the clear blue colour of the sky.*
* Villemarque's "Chansons Populaires".
This, as Plutarch hints, may have been a misconception, but still the reverence attached by the Egyptians to the lotus and other flowers is evident; and Plutarch himself admits that particular meanings were attached by them to certain flowers.
* See above, pages 115 and 293.