Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Chimney-sweepers

Posted on by royvickery |

Nicki Faircloth enquires about four lines of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (4.2.260-3):
Thou thy worldy task has done
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
She wonders if ‘chimney-sweepers’ is a plant-name, and, if it is, what is the plant.

1. Golden lads was the Warwickshire name for dandelions in flower, chimney-sweepers the name for dandelions in seed [Anwen Evans, 16 July 2011].

2. This information is taken from Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, 2007, p.192. No authority is given, though possibly Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, 1997, cited in the bibliography, is the source [Nicki Faircloth, 18 July 2011].

3. J. Britten & R. Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant-names, 1886, give chimney-sweeper as a Northamptonshire and Warwickshire name for ‘heads’ of ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), and G. Grigson, in his Englishman’s Flora, 1955, records that ribwort plantain was also known by this name in Worcestershire, however as many of his names are taken from Britten and Holland it is likely that this is a mistake for Warwickshire.
A.S. Macmillan in his Popular Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc., 1922, gives chimney-sweepers as a northwest Wiltshire name for knapweed (Centaurea nigra).
Plants which have been given the name chimney-sweep include sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), knapweed, field woodrush (Luzula campestris), timothy (Phleum pratense), hoary plantain (Plantago media) and bulrush (Typha latifolia) [RV, 23 July 2011].

4. Courtesy of Bill Bryson and Jonathan Bate I have tracked down the source of chimney-sweepers as a name for dandelions.
Bryson quotes Bate, who found it in Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, 1996, p.360.
Mabey appears to give a single reference to one person’s use of the name, which is, of course, how plant-lore works, but I think it is difficult to argue from this that the name was in general currency in Shakespeare’s time [Nicki Faircloth, 19 September 2011].

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