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The obscure ingredient Gillyflower as used in medieval culinary & cosmetic recipes. By Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn.

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.

For example, when using Google Translate to translate muschio, its first hit will be moss. While plausible, when looking 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…

Gillyflower 1

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 piqued, 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?

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

A guerire una persona a chi puzzasse la bocca o vero el fiato.
Piglia 1 onca garofani, 5 onca cinamomo fino, 5 onca tirats, con un terzo de finissimo vino fa pistare et fa bollire et danne mezzo bichieri per volta.

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.

Gillyflower 2

Clove gilliflower image from A Sip through Time

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.

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 secret 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 (Belgian), 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.

Gilliflower 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.

Gillyflower 3

Carnations, and the double-cloaue Gillofers from the 1578 Nievve Herbal or Historie of Plantes by Gerard Dewes.

In this recipe from The Customs of London: Otherwise Called Arnold’s Chronicle (1503), gillyflowers and 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.

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

133. Om seepe girofflat te maken.
Neemt een pont seepen, set die te weeken in rooswater drie dagen in de sonne; ende als ghi v seepe maken wilt, neemt een vnce ende een half groffelsnagelen wel gestooten, ende die helft van die selue nagelen sult ghi in v seepe doen, ende dat seer wel mengelende. Met dander helft doet dat hierna volcht. Neemt een cleyn potken met rooswater, ende doeghet ouer ‘t vier sieden, ende alst beginnen sal te sieden, doeter die reste van dat groffelsnagelpoeder inne, ende neemt den pot van dat vier, ende decten seer wel tot dat die bobbelen ghecesseert zijn, ende dattet water law geworden si, dan roeret met een houtken, ende also roerende, mengelet met v seepe. Ende is ‘t dat ghijer een luttel beniuyn toe doen wilt, ghi moeget doen, ooc sult ghi v seepe in een busse doen, ende si sal goede ruecke aennemen.

Gillyflower 4

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

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.

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 that a weedy herb is used; it is not describing the dry spice cloves, but the fresh state of 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…


Arnold, Richard (1503) The Customs of London, London: Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington, et. al., 1811.

Braekman, Willy L. (ed.) (1990) Dat Batement van Recepten (House of Recipes). Brussel: Omirel UFSAL. Likely translated and reprinted from the 1525 Venetian Opera nuova intitolata Dificio di recette. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_bat002wlbr01_01/colofon.htm (© dbnl 2009)

Coulson, Gigi (Giata Magdalena Alberti). Caterina Sforza’s Gli Experimenti, A Translation. Self Published. https://labelladonna.net/

Dewes, Gerard. (1578) Nievve Herbal or Historie of Plantes. London.
This encyclopedia has a nice chapter on the carnation.

Encyclopedia Brittanica; https://www.britannica.com/plant/gillyflower

The Florio 1611 Dictionary Search:

Gerard, John. (1633) The Herball, or, General Historie of Planteshttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Houghton_STC_11751_The_herball,_or,_General_historie_of_plantes,_1633_-_clove.jpg

Hess, Karen. (1996) Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweatmeats. Columbia University Press.

Historische Woordenboeken op Internet (Historic Dictionaries on the Internet).

Renfrow, Cindy. (1996) A Sip Through Time, a Collection of old Brewing Recipes. Self published.

Translations by Susan Verberg, unless otherwise noted.