Revisiting the Posy in Our Current Moment

I love this ... flowers to the rescue. Once thought to protect against disease, the small posy can at least provide a bit of beauty. This from the New York Times ...

A little more than a month ago, as the pandemic was taking flight here in America, I found myself, like so many other nouveau preppers, cruising around my local grocery store in search of provisions. On my way to the checkout, I passed a tiered display of flowers and plants — funnel-shaped bouquets of carnations; potted pastel tulips; lone orchids, their delicate flamingo-neck stems held gracefully aloft — and was snagged by a flash of waxy green leaves and umbels of tiny magenta flowers. The plant was a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, a blooming succulent that flowers in the winter months. “But I am here to buy coffee and Clorox wipes,” I told myself, as “My Misspent Youth” (1999), that Meghan Daum essay about going broke while buying fresh-cut flowers every week, flashed in my mind. And yet, at this sad moment, these bright cheerful blossoms hit me in the gut, stirring up a tangle of emotions: joy, hope, yearning for a time when I would have bought them without worrying they were frivolous, sadness for all the florists and vendors whose businesses are now shuttered. Suddenly I had to have them. The plant felt like a signifier of my past self, and a talisman against palpable, creeping despair. The purchase seemed almost utilitarian.

Flowers, of course, have a long and wide-ranging symbolic and ceremonial history: in Greek and Roman mythology, in the Bible, in the Catholic Church, in Hinduism and Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, where the lotus flower is sacred. But they have also been used more pragmatically, for warding off negative elements, figurative and otherwise. During the Middle Ages and the early modern period, European women carried small, hand-held bouquets of fragrant blossoms and herbs called posies (also known as nosegays) to neutralize the odors of daily life. Men tucked them into their lapels. Because there was zero public sanitation — chamber pots were emptied into nearby rivers or streams — and “excessive” bathing was said to expose the bather to illness, daily life was aromatic indeed.

Yet bad smells were not just an annoyance; they were thought to carry contagion, especially when it came to the stench of rotting flesh. And so, during various bouts of the plague in Europe (including the Black Death in 1348, the Great Plague in 1665 and the various waves in between), people sniffed posies not just as their personal mobile air fresheners but as prophylactics. “I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people,” notes the narrator, known only as H.F., in Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” (1722), “but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or the other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.” In fact, the bubonic plague was not transmitted by odors but rather, it would be discovered in the late 19th century, by a bacterium carried by fleas that had bitten infected rats.

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