How I would love to be transported back in time to find myself in the centre of the medieval fair town of Provins, not in medieval times but in the 16th century. I would be surrounded by bustling businesses trading in scented sachets, candied rose petals, medicines and balms and other products made from the flowers grown in the surrounding acres of rose fields. The main street of Provins was dominated totally by the men and women who traded in rose products.
The rose used was Rosa gallica ‘officinalis’, a highly aromatic rose that had been appreciated for its scent and beauty since Roman times and is still recognised by those who continue to grow it for its fragrant and colour retention qualities even after the petals have dried. It is still grown throughout Europe where it is an important item of commerce in the pharmaceutical, perfume, liquor and soap industries.
Though we seldom consider the use of roses in modern medicine, this species does contain tannin, oils, sugar, wax, cyanin and quercetin. As a result it has astringent, bactericidal, bile-removing, and anti-inflammatory properties which were thought to ease headaches, control vomiting, help dysentery and fever, heal wounds and act as a restorative, a tonic for the liver and as a mild laxative. Cures for many ailments but which I understand are grounded in scientific fact.
From this rose, which became known in France as the Provins Rose the people of Provins throughout the years have made a number of products including medicinal syrups, skin lotions, jams and sweets and sachets of dried petals. Through several centuries until the 19th century there were more apothecaries on the main street of Provins than any other type of shop. Outside each a rose was planted at the entrance. The druggists dispensed remedies that reportedly aided digestion, sore throats, skin rashes and eye maladies. Women believed that rose petals would reduce their wrinkles! The fresh petals were also strewn in abundance during religious celebrations. It is believed that when Marie Antoinette stayed in Provins she slept on a bed made entirely of roses.
Provins lies approximately 60 kilometres South West of Paris and is today a World Heritage Site enabling the preservation of the medieval buildings that were standing in the 12th and 13th centuries when it was a well-known trading centre of up to 80,000 people. It was at this time that legend suggests that Thibault 1V, the Count of Champagne, brought back from the Crusades in the Middle East a rose bush that was to become the ancestor of all the roses which have bloomed in and around Provins for centuries. This rose, Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ often called the Apothecary’s Rose, has featured prominently in the trading prosperity of this now small town and is a significant part of its heritage.
Provins has many visitors each year who are attracted by the medieval architecture and its commercial heritage. In addition, now there is a 3 hectare garden which features many beautiful roses. Rose jam is still made in Provins as well as honey perfumed with rose petals and rose candy but sadly there is not the bustling high street where all those wonderful rose products are sold!