Saturday 14 March 2015

Coded Lives : Lady Mary's Flower Code

Today’s Coded Lives looks at a code that was popular in the romantic circles of the Victorian period. It was a code which expressed secret desires and emotions, and one of the acknowledged originators of this code was Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762).

Lady Mary has featured several times on this blog over the years, and today, looking forward to a summer of floral colour, we’ll have a look at the code she popularised.

The flower code, or language of flowers (it even has its own name, floriography) was most popular during the reign of Queen Victoria across Europe and in northern America. Many different meanings have been given to flower since Lady Mary’s time and there hasn’t been a central authoritative body to decide which definition is “correct”. Before I list some of the more popular meanings of flowers in use today we’ll take a look at the Turkish influence of Lady Mary’s language of flowers and its development.

Lady Mary was the wife of the UK’s Ambassador in Turkey between 1716 and 1718, William Wortley-Montagu. Among the folk cultures of Turkey there was a system of rhymes and poems which were to help in remembering medicinal, herbal and culinary uses for a whole variety of plants, not just the flowers but the seeds, roots and leaves as well. This was known as a “selam”. The selam wasn’t a code like the later romantic language of flowers became. It was acknowledged in the 1830s, long after the secret language of flowers became popular, that the selam was a system of openness in its meanings and was no secret at all. Lady Mary wrote about the selam in her letters which were published after her death and she believed them to be just that, secret meanings, and it is her misconception of the selam that led to the coded meanings of flowers that developed.

Meanwhile, another visitor to Constantinople, Aubrey, Seigneur de la Mottraye, also mentioned the selam in a book published in 1727. By the early 1800s the phrase “language of flowers” had become common across Europe in romantic literature and poetry. Many books were published in the middle of the 19th century which gave lists of flowers and their secret meanings. This was when different definitions for the same flowers began to emerge. Most of the current meanings derive from a book published in 1819 called “Le Language des Flores” by Charlotte de Latour. These lists were republished year after year in the popular annual almanacs.

Lady Mary may not recognise today’s language of flowers but the predominantly romantic meanings will be familiar. From the original memory-aiding rhymes of the selam to the romantic lists of the Victorian era new floral “codes” developed, with specific flowers now being assigned to birth-months and star signs.

So, if you want to give your loved one or secret love some flowers this summer expressing your emotions you could choose from the list of selected flowers below.

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