Petrosinella or the Parsley Prescription

In which we discover that having long, strong hair doesn’t mean you can’t think for yourself, that you can learn a lot of incredible things from books, that parsley is both useful and tasty and that you should always remember to pack your acorns.

Parsley vs Rampion

So what did you think of the tale? Did you recognise any parts of it? I bet you did, even if you are just returning to the wonders of fairy tales as an adult. I bet you thought, this is an Italian version of Rapunzel didn’t you. It is indeed fairy tale type ATU 310 – The maiden in the tower but it predates Rapunzel by many years. Now that you’ve enjoyed the magic of the tale itself, I’d like to tell you another tale. This one has no ogres or parsley but it does feature heroes of Persian literature, a French noblewoman, 3 Germans who weren’t averse to chopping and changing a tale to suit themselves and an Italian courtier.

From the Shahnameh to the Calabrian Woods

We will begin as we should with the Shahnameh – otherwise known as the Book of Kings was composed 977-1010 CE, is a medieval epic written by the poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi in order to preserve the myths, legends, history, language, and culture of ancient Persia. It is the longest work by a single author in world literature with 50,000 rhymed couplets, 62 stories, and 990 chapters. Ferdowsi thought that the ruler of the time would pay him handsomely for the work but sadly died in penury on the day that payment was delivered. The work was embraced by the people of Iran and eventually became the country’s national epic.

What has this go to do with a woman with unnaturally long hair and significant links to parsley, you may well ask. The link is that the Shahnameh contains the first written incidence of the maiden in the tower with equally long hair. There is no ogress in this instance or even a witch, just an overbearing and disapproving father and a beautiful daughter who has decided what she wants out of life and is determined to achieve it. The princess Rudabeh shows her beauty to the hero Zal who cannot visit her house in the normal way because his king has history with her father otherwise known as the King of Serpents.

You’ll need to read the Shanameh if you want more details about that back story but suffice it to say the princess suggests that Zal should visit her in her tower via her hair. He unlike our later princes in the western version says no as he is worried it will hurt her. He gets a rope and using excellent throwing skills manages to visit with her without pulling a beautiful hair on her head. The Shahnameh version goes as follows:

“And Zal answered her benison, and prayed that he might enter into nearer converse, for he was on the ground and she was on the roof. Then the Peri-faced loosened her tresses, and they were long, so that they fell from the battlements unto the ground. And she said unto Zal:

“Here hast thou a cord without flaw. Mount, O Pehliva, and seize my black locks, for it is fitting that I should be a snare unto thee.”

But Zal cried, “Not so, O fair one, it would beseem me ill to do thee hurt.”

And he covered her hair with kisses. Then he called for a cord and made a running knot, and threw it upwards and fastened it to the battlements. And with a bound he swung himself upon the roof. Then Rudabeh took his hand and they stepped down together into the golden chambers, and the slaves stood round about them. And they gazed upon each other and knew that they excelled in beauty, and the hours slipped by in sweet talk, while love was fanned in their hearts. “

The Shahnemeh By Ferdowsi Translated by Helen Zimmern

I will refrain from mentioning how manners have clearly declined by the next version of our story which is the one I told you earlier. I suppose it is too little to ask for consideration to last for six centuries but as I mentioned no alternative was suggested to climbing Petrosinella’s plaits which actually must have been very painful. Gimabattista Basile was the next written version of ‘The Maiden in the Tower’. The rest of the story is different to the ongoing romance and wedding in the Shahnameh but using hair to allow a suitor to gain entrance to your secured home is almost identical even if our western prince didn’t even think about the fact that climbing someone’s hair could be painful.

Postumous Publishing

Stories from the Pentamerone or Tale of Tales was published posthumously by the author’s sister in two parts in 1634 and 1636. The book is a set of tales within a frame story of a wronged bride and predate the books of literary fairy tales from Charles Perrault in France, the Baroness D’Aulnoy and the Grimm Brothers in Germany. I love this collection of tales, for their baroqueness, their bawdiness, the gorgeous settings and their food imagery.

The original was written in Neapolitan dialect and in older English translations lost a lot of nuance when it was translated into English. The Victorian translators were also held back by the moral standards of their time where some of the, shall we say, less family friendly content could not be shared in printed form. The version I have adapted my tale from is the Penguin Classics translated by Nancy Canepa who has captured the dialect in a much truer form.

The Mediterranean Maiden in the Tower

In the original introduction to this tale, Basile said he had heard it from his uncle and there are similar variants from the Italian/mediterrannean region including Petrosinella, Parsley-girl, Little Parsley, Little Fennel, Fair Angila and Anthousa the Fair with the Golden Hair and Prezzomolina. The general story is that a pregnant woman has a craving for greenery and steals some from the garden of a ogress/fairy/sorceress/witch, gets caught and has to trade her unborn child for her life.

The child is either taken at birth or as a young child and imprisoned in a tower. She grows up to young womanhood in possession of beauty, very long, resilient hair and sometimes magical knowledge. At some point she is found by a prince who climbs her hair when her kidnapper/guardian isn’t present and either the two find out all about the facts of life in a very experiential fashion or they have some very interesting chats. Either way escape becomes necessary and magical items are bribed or magical items are taken away to foil the ogress as they escape.

Sometimes the escape works properly, sometimes the pursuer curses the princess with a dog’s face and she has to beg for her beauty to be returned to her. The greek variant has no garden at the beginning but the ending is the same except for the fact that the heroine is told what to do magically as her love forgets her as soon as he returns home. Prezzomolina has the same start but has no tower, just fairies who give her impossible tasks in which she is assisted by the fairies cousin. In Parsley girl, found in Angela Carter’s The Old Wives’ Fairytale Book, the heroine is kidnapped by nuns which turn out to be witches in disguise but otherwise is very similar to Prezzomolina.

A French Ending

In the literary French and German tales, Persinette and Rapunzel respectively the story is superficially the same until the ending is reached. Here the heroine is punished, she finds herself pregnant, her kidnapper discovers this, her hair is cut off and she is banished to give birth to her children alone with one rudimentary shelter and food. Her prince is tricked and blinded and wanders the wilderness alone for years. In Persinette, he eventually finds his love and the food that she has then turns to ash, they accept their impending death and then the fairy takes pity on them and restores the prince’s sight and takes them all to his kingdom.

In Rapunzel, her tears restore his sight and they then return to his kingdom. Later versions of the Grimm’s tale there is contain no pregnancy but Rapunzel is still punished and the Prince loses his sight. Her tears do also restore his sight when he has been miserable for long enough.

Spot the Grimm Similarities

There are a lot of similarities between Persinette as written by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force (c. 1650–1724), who almost certainly invented her own ending as later French versions of the tale in the oral tradition don’t have the same tragedy enacted on the protagonists, and Rapunzel. There is a good reason for this, Persinette was translated into German by Friedrich Schultz but was almost word for word the same story excepting the addition of the hook for her hair, her kidnapper finds she is pregnant when Rapunzel complains of tight clothes and parsley changes to rampion (hence the change in name).

Schulz states that he heard it from a ‘gute Frau’ suggesting this was an oral source.
The Grimm’s certainly believed it was a German folktale when they took the tale and stripped back what they though were added on literary elements but preserving the ending. In later versions they removed some of what they thought were the more unsavoury elements including the unplanned pregnancy. The fairy also transformed from a fairy to a sorceress to finally a witch.

Passive or Active

Why should we care really, everyone knows that stories aren’t static and there are other variants. What does it matter that there is no longer a magical flight and a battle of wits between the heroine and her captor? I think it matters because our heroine has changed from an active participant in her story, having an effect on the outcome to a passive character who is punished for her natural feelings and responses.

If you read the tales as written down by Basile, the tales that reappear in the more well known German or French versions you find that happens again and again. Basile was writing of his time and obviously the patriarchy was in full force but the women in his tales have some agency, they don’t give in quietly and gracefully. They argue with their fathers even as they eventually follow their wishes. They use their wits and fight hard to improve the odds in their favour. This outspokenness and cleverness is often removed and replaced with propriety and demureness.

Just compare at Cinderella and La Gatta Cenerentola if you ever get the chance (the story is in an early podcast), they are very different heroines even if Basile’s original is almost certainly sociopathic. When I read these tales for the first time and realised that they predated what I thought were the classics I wished that Basile’s versions were the ones that had persisted. Would it have made a difference however small to the accepted behaviours for women. Who knows?

I have recently read the absolutely wonderful book of The Fairy Tellers by Nicholas Jubber which I would recommend to everyone who loves stories. He has similar thoughts and puts it so much better than me:

“Giambattista, surrounded by influential women like his sister Adriana, was rendering his world. But he was doing something else. His heroines swim against the tide of later fairy telling – the sweet, biddable princesses who came to dominate the genre – because the cliché hadn’t set. Reading The Tale of Tales is to be reminded the rules were still in flux. How different things might have been if Giambattista’s heroines – his objectors and outwitters, his shouters, his interrupters – had dominated fairy-telling history, instead of the paper-dolls set down later by the likes of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.”

The Fairy Tellers – Nicholas Jubber

I’ll leave you with that thought and should probably get on with a little bit about the history of parsley as an ingredient in food and remedies as well as what it has has added to the folklore of herbs.

Sardinia to England via Sweden

Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, stated that parsley originated in Sardinia, from where it was brought to England and apparently first cultivated in Britain in 1548. No-one seems to have questioned this since although recently Dr Christopher Monk Has written very eloquently about the literary evidence suggests parsley was used in England in the Middle Ages, as early as the Anglo-Saxon period. See further reading for a link if you’d like to read it for yourself. He concludes that

“It may well be, then, that the introduction and domestication, or cultivation, of both wild and common parsleys occurred in the centuries after the Norman Conquest’

Dr Christopher Monk – https://modernmedievalcuisine.com/2020/10/26/more-on-parsley/

It does seem a sensible conclusion even though until I read this, I had, perhaps fancifully, imagined that it came with the Romans and hung around wild. I may have been influenced in this by C Anne Wilson’s Food and Drink in Britain who writes

’To supply the needs of Roman settlers in Britain, several were now introduced as garden plants. Among the aromatics were alexanders, borage, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, garden mint and thyme, garlic, garden leek, onion and shallot, hyssop, parsley, rosemary, rue, sage, savoury and sweet marjoram’.

C Anne Wilson

The book however also talks about Alexander Neckam’s twelfth century recipes and mentions the Countess of Leicester purchasing two pennyworth of parsley during her visit to Dover Castle in 1265. Henry VIII was particularly keen on a parsley sauce that was served with rabbit.

I did a lot of research on green sauce for a previous episode but I was pleased to see that Alexander Neckham had a recipe containing parsley for it with fish. To travel to the country of origin of our tale, Apicius has an ancient Roman recipe for green sauce with herbs but closer to the time our tale was written down The Neapolitan recipe collection which is from the 15th Century has 38 recipes containing parsley.

Charlemagne is a Fan

All these recipes are on a very grand scale but there is a sort of savoury herb cheesecake that I think might be due a more modern updated version. Parsley still plays big part in Italian cooking as it does across the world, particularly in Southern Europe and the Middle East. Parsley seed was also eaten and apparently Charlemagne was so taken with a cheese flavoured with parsley seed that he ordered two cases of the cheeses to be sent to him yearly.

There is even a particular parsley grown in the Naples area which might even have been the sort our pregnant mother from the tale was craving:

“Neapolitan parsley, much used in S. Italy, is in fact a group of cultivars (Gigante d’Italia, Celery-leafed, etc.) which are generally larger (almost 1 m/3′ in height) than other parsley plants, with proportionately bigger leaves and thicker stems; indeed these plants can be grown and eaten like celery. The strong flavour of the leaves is prized by Italians.”

A Davidson – Oxford Companion to Food

Parsley wasn’t originally a table herb though, it was used in remedies . Gerard was firmly of the opinion that the seed, boiled in ale would ‘cast forth strong venóme or poison’ based on is ability to overcome strong smells like garlic. An oil known as Apiol was derived from the seeds and was used for treating ague and later malarial disorders. Parsley tea was also used for its diuretic properties to treat kidney conditions or dropsy. A poultice made from leaves was also said to be good for insect bites.

Culpepper & Friends

Culpepper recommended it for stomach conditions including wind and suggested a a poultice made of bread and parsley laid on swollen eyes would bring relief. He also suggests that it can bring on menstruation which maybe why some communities avoided it during pregnancy. He suggests the roots boiled and eaten like parsnips can break up kidney stones. The seeds were also considered effective for this. He also recommends it for nursing mothers whose ‘breasts are hard through the curdling of their milk’ in the form of parsley fried with butter and mixed with bread.

Chapped hands were cured in the Fens by rubbing on a salve made from finely-chopped parsley mixed with the fat of a roasted hen. I’m not sure if the remedy is worse than the complaint but at least it must have smelled tasty. It was also considered good for snake bites. It was even considered a cure for baldness as well as used in an antiseptic salve.

Vitamins of Many Kinds

There are few remedies that have lasted but In modern days it is well worth eating, not just because it brings a wonderful freshness to salads but because it contains large amounts of antioxidants and appreciable amounts of Vitamins A, C and K. As Vitamins A and K are fat soluble your body can absorb them better if eaten with fat. This is why parsley and olive oil are a marriage made in heaven. Additionally it is much easier to eat lots of parsley row so you can absorb a lot more vitamins than you do with other dark green vegetables which are usually cooked before eating. Which may explain my recipes later.

Before we get there though we need to look at folklore and find out how that has influenced parsley’s usage throughout history.

Crowns of Parsley

The Greeks held Parsley in high esteem, crowning the victors with dried and withered crowns of Parsley at the Isthmian games and with green fresh parsley at the Nemean games in memory of the death of Archemorus, the infant son of Lycurgus, who, laid down by his nurse on a sprig of Parsley, was killed by a serpent. It formed part of their funeral rites where it was made into wreaths for tombs and was strewn over the bodies of the dead. It was also dedicated to Persephone, part time queen of the underworld.

Death Omens

From these funereal associations the herb acquired an ominous significance; and “to be in need of Parsley” meant that you were very close to death. Plutarch tells of a panic created in a Greek army marching against the enemy when they suddenly met some donkeys laden with Parsley, which the soldiers considered an ill omen. This connection with death may also have influenced the medieval belief that you could condemn your enemy to sudden death if you pronounced his name while in the act of pulling up a root of parsley.

Contradictions and Spirit Guardians

The association with death and the fact that it was believed to be hard to grow because a certain part of the seed went in tithe to the devil meant that this was not necessarily considered a culinary herb for its whole history. There are also vaguely worrying archaic contradictory sayings which don’t encourage its use such as ‘Fried parsley brings a man to his saddle and a woman to her grave’ and ‘Parsley is poison to men and salvation to women.’

Although everyone does seem to have overcome these aversions to eating parsley, it still retained some whiffs of unhappiness and bad luck. In some parts of Devon it was believed that to transplant Parsley was an offence to the spirit who is supposed to preside over Parsley beds, entailing sure punishment either on the offender himself or some members of his family within a year. The people of South Hampshire would also never give away Parsley, for fear of misfortune befalling them.

Parsley, The Devil, Love & Babies

There were a lot of other parsley superstitions, many of them connected with conception and childbirth, as in the old saying “Sow parsley, sow babies” . Many believed that if a young woman sowed parsley seed, she would have a baby, so it was safest if only the mistress of the house, i.e., a married woman, should sow it. In Essex it was said that if parsley wouldn’t grow in your garden you would never have children. Although this maybe not the best contraceptive advice. You were also advised to not to pick parsley when in love as it would kill the love although in another contradictory idea parsley wine was considered an aphrodisiac.

This is another herb which if it was thriving had implications on the manhood of the master of the house. Men were also considered to avoid marrying young women from houses with a flourishing crop. It must have been a tricky balance as it was a useful culinary and medicinal herb, perhaps people would hide bushes in different parts of the garden to avoid these implications. It was hard to grow though, possibly due to the tough outer shell on the seed which may be why pouring boiling water over it to kill the devil in it may have been effective. If you were determined to grow it, it was best to sow it on Good Friday as the holiness of the day would counteract the Devil’s influence particularly if there is a rising moon on that day.

Salad Guidelines

So that’s it for our Parsley Girl and her herb except for the recipe today. Well its two recipes actually, if you can call them recipes, perhaps more salad guidelines. The first is Turkish parsley and onion salad with lemon and sumac and the second is my inauthentic version of Fattoush salad: an incredibly tasty Middle Eastern lemony herb salad with pita croutons.

I haven’t got the coding ability to insert two recipe cards so you’ll have to accept them squished in one card. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Turkish Onion & Parsley Salad and Fattoush Salad

Servings

4

servings
Prep time

30

minutes
Cooking timeminutes

Ingredients

  • Turkish Parsley & Onion Salad
  • 1 small red onion, peeled, cut in half lengthways and then finely sliced

  • 1 large bunch of flat leaf parsley (what the supermarket calls large is around 100g), chopped fairly finely

  • 1 juicy lemon squeezed

  • 1.5tsp sumac

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  • Flaky sea salt to taste

  • Sort of Fatoush Salad
  • 1 bunch salad onions white & green parts, sliced finely

  • 1/2 cucumber sliced thickly and then cut into chunks

  • 2 big vine tomatoes, seeds removed and cut into big chunks

  • 1 large bunch mint (around 100g) chopped fairly finely

  • 1 large bunch parsley (around 100g) chopped fairly finely

  • 1/2 small bunch of radishes, sliced finely (optional)

  • 2 pitta breads

  • 2 garlic cloves grated finely

  • 1 juicy lemon squeezed

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  • Flaky sea salt to taste

Directions

  • Turkish Parsley & Onion Salad
  • Combine all the ingredients and stir until well mixed, serve with anything you fancy.
  • Sort of Fatoush Salad
  • Toast the pitta bread until you can easily split it in half and then toast again until crisp, I find a panini maker is good for this but any grill will work. Break up into large pieces and leave to cool
  • Mix the oil, lemon, garlic and salt together
  • Combine the salad ingredients, the pitta bread and dressing together and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving for the dressing to soak into the pitta pieces a bit
  • Serve with anything you fancy, it won’t be bullied by anything
Further Reading

The Fairy Tellers – Nicholas Jubber
The Oxford Companion to Food – Davidson, Alan
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persinette
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petrosinella
The Tale of Tales or Pentamerone – Giambattista Basile Penguin Classics 2016
THE Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairytales Edited by Donald Haase
Giambattista Basile’s ‘Lo cunto de li cunti’ and the Birth of theLiterary Fairy Tale – Nancy L Canepa
Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, Wayne State University Press, 2007 – Giambattista Basile.
Maidens and Their Guardians: Reinterpreting the “Rapunzel” Tale – https://www.jstor.org/stable/44029886
https://modernmedievalcuisine.com/2020/10/26/more-on-parsley/

Food and Drink in Britain, From the Stone Age to Recent Time – C Anne Wilson
A Modern Herbal – Alys Fowler
A Modern Herbal, Vol. II – Margaret Grieve
Herbal Delights : Tisanes, Syrups, Confections, Electuaries, Robs, Juleps, Vinegars, and Conserves – CF Leyel,
Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics / Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom – Richard Folkard
Cambridgeshire customs and folklore – Enid Porter 1969
Dictionary of Plant Lore – D.C. Watts

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