Hortus Conclusus 1100-1450: End-of-Project Study-Day

LHM writes: The Medieval Enclosed Garden project is rapidly drawing to a close – or, at least, the funded part! To mark the end of the project, the team is convening an end-of-project study-day /colloquium to showcase findings, introduce collaborators and new research contacts, and provide a platform for a number of new PhD students working on this an associated topics. The event is an open one and, thanks to the generous funding of the Leverhulme Trust, will be free to all who wish to attend. Please get in touch by email if you wish to book a place (e.mcavoy@swansea.ac.uk).  Our programme is looking like this:

Concluding the Hortus Conclusus: A Summary of Findings on the Medieval Enclosed Garden

Study-Day: Friday, September 13, 2017 (9.30-5.00)

Council Chamber, Abbey Building, Singleton Campus 9.30-5.15


9.00: Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea): Welcome and Project Summary.

9.15: Theresa Tyers (Swansea): ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, the Fairest            Garden of Them All? The Gardens of the Countess of Artois and the Great Khan’.

9.45: Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea): ‘Gardens of Literary Delights: The Women of Helfta’.


10.30      Tea/Coffee

11.00: Godelinde Perk (Sundsvall): ‘Flourishing Women and their Gardens in the Devotia Moderna of the Low Countries’.

11.30: Hannah Lucas (Oxford): ‘The Orcherd of Syon: Horticulture and hele at Syon Abbey’.

12.30: Lunch and informal networking.

2.00: Trish Skinner (Swansea): ‘Overseeing and Using a Project Blog’.

2.30: Maria Zygogianni (Swansea): ‘“…as olde stories tellen us”:  Counternarratives in the Enclosures of the Knight’s Tale’.

3.00: Roberta Magnani and Liz Herbert McAvoy (Swansea): ‘Chaucer’s Spiritual Garden Spaces in The Knight’s Tale: Reassessing the Canon’.

3.45        Tea/Coffee

4.00: Postgraduate Roundtable: Presentation of Project Proposals and Discussion   (Maria Zygogianni; Emily Payton; Hannah Lucas; Syvie Jans)

4.45       Concluding Remarks

5.00        Drinks and dinner


A Welsh Physic Garden for the Body and the Soul

The garden – which is an order of the human soul and related to all its other orders – is an order of the whole soul and not of any half of it . . . The passion which the notion of a garden discloses in the imagination . . . derives not from superabundant fantasy but from the fullness of a vision of grief and affliction; from the need to catch one’s breath from the drama of the struggle with such a world.[1]

LHM writes: The tiny market town of Cowbridge (or, in Welsh, Y Bont Faen) nestles in the fertile, verdant hills of the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales, a far cry from the imagined industrial landscape still attributed to this region – and erroneously, at that. Indeed, Cowbridge itself is a well-kept secret, except for the local inhabitants of South Wales who know it for its architectural aesthetics, its privately-owned shops and boutiques, its street cafés selling good coffee – and even better organic food –  its small delicatessen store and picturesque location. Built on a first-century Roman fort, the remains of which lie buried deep beneath the village, Cowbridge, as it is seen today, burgeoned in the thirteenth century when its still existent town walls were raised (the town received its first borough charter from Richard de Clare in 1254).

The church of the Holy Cross in the centre of Cowbridge, with its eccentric architecture embellished over centuries, also dates back to this period.

Adjacent to the church lies the old Cowbridge Grammar School building, a resplendent testimony to post-Elizabethan architecture, with its towering chimneys and large mullioned windows dominating the lower end of Church Lane. Founded in the early seventeenth century, the school had close links with Jesus College, Oxford and, amongst others, boasts the poet Alun Lewis and actor Anthony Hopkins in its list of prestigious alumni.

For our purposes, the walled kitchen gardens across the lane from the school are of particular interest, hiding behind high, gated walls and virtually invisible to people traversing the lane. Once part of the Old Hall gardens associated with the school, it is now known known as ‘Cowbridge Physic Garden’, a sunny, sheltered space that provides a peaceful half-acre of medicinal gardens hidden away from the daily bustle of this prosperous market town.

The garden itself was originally laid out in the eighteenth century by the Edmondes family, owners of the hall, and follows a formal pattern within which a wider range of medicinal and culinary plants are laid out, collected into groups according to which parts of the body they are able to treat, and helpfully labelled up for the visitor. Along the walls, extremely healthy-looking espaliered fruit-trees bend towards the earth, laden with red-golden autumn produce, and, when I visited last week, families were picnicking beside them in the early September sunshine within this little hub of tranquility.

But it was not always thus. Whilst the gardens had found secure, practical use as a kitchen garden for the grammar school until 1975 (when boarding ceased), the last quarter of the twentieth century saw these gardens fall into the type of deep neglect and disrepair that often serves to erase traces of horticultural history from view – and even from cultural memory. Even as late as 2003, the gardens remained abandoned, tangled, strangled and overgrown, in Rudolph Burchardt’s terms standing ‘perplexed and helpless before the shrugging of the shoulders of its public servants and officialdom.’[2]

However, as is often the case within small communities, a group of local volunteers and enthusiasts turned their energies into a garden restoration project, resulting in the gift to their community – and to the history of that community – of this hidden space of health and well-being just off the busy main street. Their painstaking efforts have been recorded in a newly published book, Cowbridge Physic Garden: Celebrating Ten Years of Spadework.[3]

So, if you ever find yourself heading west on the M4, it is well worth taking a short detour into Cowbridge to experience the sights, sounds, aromas and tranquility of this ordered and superbly maintained garden space which, nestling between the old school and the modern cattle-market, is a testimony both to the local inhabitants and their determined preservation of the town’s important garden heritage. In the words of Tony Russell, writing about this garden as one of Wales’ finest : ‘Individual plants may ease an ailment, but collectively this garden is good for the soul.’[4]


[1]Adapted from Rudolph Borchardt, The Passionate Gardener (New York: McPherson & Co., 2006), p. 7

[2] Borchardt, Passionate Gardener, p. 58.

[3] Cowbridge Physic Garden: Celebrating Ten Years of Spadework, ed. Linda Osborn (Cowbridge: Cowbridge Physic Gardens Trust, 2016).

[4] Tony Russell, The Finest Gardens in Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2015).

Summer captured in a bottle

TT writes:

“A rose dreams of enjoying the
company of bees, but none
appears. The sun asks:

 “Aren’t you tired of waiting?”

“Yes,” answers the rose, “but if
I close my petals, I will wither
and die.”

Paul Coelho



Summer is almost at an end the nights are drawing in and days are becoming cooler as the early morning sun shines through a golden mist. In the modern western world there are now milestones for deciding whether summer is ending and autumn is beginning. The meterological system splits the seasons into three months so the end of summer corresponds with the last day of August. The ancient astrological one waits a little longer until, at the Equinox around the 21st of September and the length of the day and night is equal, Autumn begins. A more accurate and human-centred one is based on what we observe around us through our senses. Phenology, the study of changes that take place in the natural world, observes those changes through the seasons over years to tell us exactly where we stand in the year and nature’s long-term, ever-changing cycle. Nature held a vital role in the past, as lives depended on the seasons and their produce for medicine and food; and various methods were used to make the summer last longer….

Advice for drying plant material, the aerial parts, roots and seeds or making therapeutic oils or medicinal waters abound in later-medieval manuscripts. One eclectic collection even contains drawings to enable its readers to construct an earthenware alembic. These simple utensils were widely used to capture the fragrant molecules that recall the essence of summer and prolong the memories of lazy days and bring to mind the perfumes captured within the garden walls in the warmth of the summer sun. An early fourteenth-century medieval manuscript holds one of the keys to how we can prolong the perfume of summer in a recipe for making medicinal perfumed rose oil.








The ingredients are simple: a plentiful supply of fragrant rose petals, such as those of the old apothecary roses, sufficient olive oil and a glass preserving jar along with a modicum of patience.

The recipe is included in an early fourteenth-century manuscript connected to the family of Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) owners Manorbier castle in south-west Wales (MS Cambridge Trinity College O.2.5.)

Interior, Manorbier Castle, Pembs.

This household collection, contains a wealth of advice for fertility, and opens an intriguing window into medieval lives and household practice. To lend a dependable tone to one text which focusses on fertility the compiler attributed its contents to the teachings of two well-known authorities from Antiquity and has even added to these, the name of Bede: ‘Beda ly sage mire et Ypocras et Galien’ [Bede the wise physician and Hippocrates and Galen]. To further add to the range of material the writer has included more personal advice, to help the women of the family. This appears in the form of two remedies requiring copious quantities of fresh roses (fol. 106rb). The first remedy is given as a set of simple instructions that call for the use of two clay pots and the application of heat. These remedies and treatments, however, were not the result of mere copying by rote; as in the second remedy, the voice of this medieval writer can be clearly heard in the statement made of preferring one method over another:

In this manner one should make rose oil: Take some roses, that is the flowers, one pound or two, put them into a mortar, pound them and then put them into a glass vessel with two pounds of olive oil or [of it?] as much as needed for according to the quantity of roses used and then seal the vessel well. Then set it aside in the sun for eight days. On the ninth day strain the roses, and then put in the same quantity of fresh roses and put it again into the sun. Do this for eleven days, remove the roses and then store it away safely. This oil will cool all inflammations.[2]

With a disparaging tone, the writer adds that there are ‘others who do this more easily’ but his own judgment is that ‘the other [method] is more cooling’ (fol.107vb). The final ingredient here appears to be “patience”! But, will it work?

Following the instructions using organic, cold pressed, unfiltered olive oil to be as authentic as possible, the fragrant rose petals were packed into a preserving jar, pounded, and covered with oil. The jar was then left in the sun for eight days, the mixture was filtered through muslin and the process repeated. Testing the oil at the first stage demonstrated that it did smell of roses but the perfume was not long-lasting.



On the eleventh day, the oil was filtered, and with bated breath, the efficacy of the process was tested again. This time the fragrance was deeper and it lasted longer!








A substantial proportion of the fragrant and medicinal plants mentioned in CTC O.2.5 could easily have been cultivated in a sheltered spot within the walls of Manorbier Castle, such as the one pictured below, which was created, perhaps even serendipitously, by the addition of a new chapel to the castle complex in the second half of the thirteenth century.

Possible walled garden area, Manorbier Castle, Pembs.








The instructions for this recipe, and the composer’s plea for patience, are so clear in this manuscript that it raises the question of whether, in the early fourteenth-century, the writer had also been witness to, and tested, the fragrant, soothing rose oil to prove that the second method really was ‘The Best’!







[1] For a full discussion of this manuscript, see Liz Herbert McAvoy, Patricia Skinner and Theresa Tyers, ‘Family, Feud and Fertility at Manorbier Castle, Pembs., 1200-1400,’ Transactions of the Honourable Society of the Cymmrodorion 22 (2017), 8-25.

[2] En ceste manere deit home fere oyle roset Pernez lez rose (ment?) cest lez flors une livre ou .ii. si metez en un morter si triblez pus metez en un vessel de verre ov .ii. livre de oile dolive on en une solune coe que metez lez roses, si estupez le vessel si metez prendre a solail .viii. jours. Al ixme colez les roses si metez autretant frecche et metez regiers al solail. Icoe fetez deke .xl. jours. Pus si lez metez en sauf. Iceste oile refreide tute chalurs.

The Orcherd of Syon: Horticulture and ‘Hele’ at Syon Abbey

LHM writes: At the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon conference in Bergen in June, I was delighted to hear another paper focusing on the use made of horticultural hermeneutics  by another medieval woman writer, St Catherine of Siena, presented by Hannah Lucas as part of an MA project she had just completed at the University of Cambridge. Hannah is now about to begin a D. Phil at the University of Oxford and the HC team is pleased that she has agreed to do a guest blog based on her Bergen paper.

HANNAH LUCAS writes: The anonymous Middle English translation of St. Bridget of Sweden’s (1303-73) Liber Celestis, dated c. 1410-20, recounts God’s address to Bridget that the individual who does God’s will is ‘a gude tre’ [a good tree], who shall have ‘euirlasting plente, endeles hele and trew knawyng and sight of God’ [everlasting prosperity, endless health and a true understanding and sight of God].[1]

Saint Bridget of Sweden. Woodcut.
Wellcome Library, London.

If they defy God, then the ‘cheefe rote is broken’ [main root is broken] and ‘þan will þe tre fall’ [then the tree will fall] (420). Here, the tree’s flourishing depends on devotion to God, who will reward his subject with prosperity and ‘hele’, which is defined by the Middle English Dictionary in the first instance as denoting health: ‘Sound physical condition, mental health; healing, cure, [health] of soule’. Secondly, it signifies ‘a state of happiness or prosperity […] spiritual profit’, and finally, ‘salvation, spiritual strength’.[2]

These three classifications of physical and mental health, prosperity and salvation are repeatedly used in the Liber Celestis and reiterated by the Bridgettine rule – the Regula Salvatoris, or Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure – which similarly instructs novitiates to ‘procede nowe in the weye of helthe’ [proceed now in the way of health].[3]

St Bridget giving her rule to her followers (c. 1480)
© Trustees of the British Museum

My current research employs the concept of ‘hele’ to consider the experience of female devotion at the foundation of Syon Abbey. My thesis considers the Bridgettine collection of instructive and devotional texts which, in addition to official governance by the rule of St. Augustine, underpinned life at Syon. The guidance for the nuns provided by these texts is often remarkably compassionate in tone, inviting the reader to both spiritual and physical prosperity. While the rule of St. Augustine, for instance, insists that the reader ‘[c]arnem vestram domate’ [subdue your flesh],[4] the Syon monk Richard Whytford translated this passage as as ‘[c]orrect […] your flesshe and body’ (c. 1518, printed 1525),[5] a translation that hints at the therapeutic inclination of Syon’s approach to the body, rather than one of mastery.

This is expressed most prevalently by the texts’ use of imagery and metaphors of the natural world, which make central the concept of ‘flourishing’, to borrow Grace Jantzen’s terminology.[6] The origins of this concept are rooted in horticultural growth, related to the Middle English verb florir and the Latin florere, ‘to flower’, or the noun form, a ‘flourish’ – a mass of flowers on a fruit-tree. At Syon, the sisters maintained a close relationship with spaces of flourishing via the material landscape surrounding the Abbey, as well as the metaphorical representations of the natural world within their devotional texts.

In regards to the former, an early preoccupation with the natural topography is evidenced by the community’s removal within only a couple of years of its founding from the original Syon site on the Middlesex bank of the Thames to the present site of Syon House, in the parish of Isleworth. George James Aungier’s authoritative history of the monastery reveals the reasons for the move:

The said Abbess and Convent had presented their humble petition, setting  forth, that their aforesaid monastery was so small and confined in its dimensions, that the numerous persons therein […] were not only incommodiously but dangerously situated […] that in consequence thereof the said abbess and convent had chosen out a spot in the neighbourhood of their said priory, within the said lordship of Isleworth, more meet, healthful and salubrious for them to inhabit.[7]

This ‘dangerous’ situation may have been proximity to London’s ‘miasmas’, those unhealthy ‘vapours’ of the city which were counteracted by the inhalation of fresh, pleasant aromas, such as those from floral prophylactics.[8] While recent excavations of Syon have not revealed concrete evidence of the site’s horticulture, the remains of the Abbey buildings have been assessed as follows:

Suggested layout of Syon Abbey from archaeological study

[The buildings] to the north were conventual buildings used by the nuns. They mainly comprised large east and north ranges with cloisters arranged around a garth. The east range possibly served as the nuns’ dorter or infirmary. This building was adjoined to the west by a south cloister and to the east by an enclosed area with a well, probably a yard or garden.[9]


This presumption that the infirmary was situated beside the garden is convincing, considering the prevailing medieval tradition of healing gardens being planted within monastic precincts.[10] These enclosed spaces can thus be read as components in the Abbey’s biosphere; an enclosed space in which the sisters could cultivate ‘hele’, of body and soul.

The Syon literature reflects this encouragement to personal cultivation of health with its abundant allegories and images of flourishing. The Orcherd of Syon – a Middle English translation of Catherine of Siena’s (1347-80) Il Libro, or Dialogo (1378) written specifically for the Syon sisters – offers a programme of lectio divina [sacred reading] in which the anonymous translator engages with, but ultimately departs from, the original author’s more punitive model of devotion.

Adapting Catherine’s revelations into English, the translator applies horticultural allegory as a helpful framework, using imagery of flourishing and the natural world to advise the reader on how such reading might cultivate them to ‘heelþe’ [health].[11] Such adaptations include a ‘kalendar’ and a format that divides the text into parts, chapters, and subsections. The translator names these ‘xxxv aleyes’ [35 pathways], which act as part of a wider allegorical structure that figures the text as an ‘orchard’, through which the reader is invited to ‘walke and se boþe fruyt and herbis’ [walk and see both fruit and plants] (1) contained within. This textual orchard provides instruction on how best to reap the spiritual benefits of the saint’s revelations, just as the literal orchard may have existed as a therapeutic space for the Syon sisters.

The text draws explicitly on the same metaphors of cultivation and flourishing that we find in St. Bridget’s Liber Celestis and rule. Indeed, Annette Grisé surmises that the Orcherd ‘may have conceived of using the vineyard as the allegorical framework for his work from reading the Rewyll of Seynt Saueoure’. She comments on the widespread popularity of ‘organic allegories and structural allegorical frameworks’ in the period, which would have become known to Syon readers as their library expanded, citing in particular The Devout Treatise of the Tree and XII Fruits, which was read at Syon, and The Pype or Tonne in the Lyfe of Perfection, written by the monk and self-styled ‘wretch of Syon’, Richard Whytford.[12]

The translator may also have been inspired by Catherine’s text itself, which deploys horticultural imagery in the form of the familiar metaphor of the Church as a vineyard. She reiterates that all must ‘laboure in þe vyneȝerd of holy chirche […] in þe body of cristen religyoun’ [labour in the vineyard of holy church […] in the body of Christian religion], as well as insisting on the cultivation of one’s own personal ‘vineȝeerd’ [vineyard] of the ‘soule’, which they ‘may tilye and labore’ [till and labour] (164). The responsibility of such hard labour is consigned to the reader, who must therefore engage in active devotion in order to flourish: to ‘drawe out of þat þorn a roose’ [to draw out of that thorn a rose] (228).

The translator acknowledges the toil involved in this spiritual regimen, rendering this process within their own allegory as the consumption of metaphorical fruits. The translator’s prologue differentiates between fruits which might ‘seeme to summe scharpe, hard, or bitter’ [seem to some sharp, hard, or bitter], for example, and those which the reader ‘likeþ’ [likes] and ‘sauouren best’ [savours best], for ‘purgynge of þe soule’ [purging the soul] and ‘goostly cumfort’ [spiritual comfort] (1) respectively. The translator reiterates that regardless of bad taste, ‘þei ben ful speedful and profitable’ [the are both beneficial and profitable] (1), establishing a necessary remedy of reading, in which recreation and enjoyment are juxtaposed with labour. The reader is encouraged to discern between the two, a practice that is figured as part of the Syon spiritual regimen.

The translator’s interventions can thus be read as a response to Catherine’s devotional model, intended to assist the Syon reader in a personal flourishing. However, later editions of the text included a wider audience: printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1519,[13] the printed edition allows for the unenclosed but devout reader as part of its intended readership. Its colophon tells of how ‘mayster Rycharde Sytton esquyer | stewarde of the holy monastery of Syon’ [Master Richard Sytton esquire, steward of the holy monastery of Syon] found ‘this ghostely tresure […] in a corner by itselfe’ [this spiritual treasure […] in a corner by itself] (vi). According to this account, the text was subsequently printed so that ‘many relygyous and deuoute soules myght be releued and haue conforte thereby’ [many religious and devout souls might be relieved and have comfort from it] (vi).

The opening page of this printed edition features a substantially-sized woodcut, detailing a figure of Catherine receiving a vision of God.[14]

Woodcut of Catherine of Siena. Wellcome Images

The saint is situated in an expansive landscape of hills and trees, with the horizon punctuated by the spires of an urban settlement, this image is then bordered by decorative flora and fauna.[15] Just as at Syon, these textual surroundings can be read as places of flourishing – horticultural components that contribute to the text’s multi-faceted, therapeutic programme of spiritual cultivation.

This holistic regimen employs the natural world to encourage both recreation and labour as part of the overarching pursuit of ‘hele’, and provides practical and spiritual guidance on how to do so. Other texts in the Syon syllabus offer similar recommendations, such as the Myroure of oure Ladye, which though primarily a commentary on the liturgy for the sisters, speaks of the importance of a healthy disposition. This advice applies even to the sisters’ horticultural pursuits, as in the additions to the Bridgettine rule, which caution against excessive time spent outdoors, with a particularly pragmatic direction which leaves the reader imagining the unfortunate incident which might have necessitated such an addition: ‘she that schal schet the garden gate, schal knokke myghtly thervpon […] that no suster lye in the garden al nyghte’ [she who will shut the garden gate, shall knock strongly upon it […], so that no sister lies in the garden at night].[16] While a walk in the garden might be considered conducive to ‘hele’, being locked out clearly was not!


[1] Bridget of Sweden, The Liber Celestis of St Bridget of Sweden: The Middle English Version, ed. by Roger Ellis, EETS O. S. 291, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 420.

[2] The Electronic Middle English Dictionary, ed. by Robert E. Lewis (Michigan: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service, 1953-2001), available at <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED20307&gt; [accessed 3 May 2017], senses 1-3.

[3] The Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure and A Ladder of Foure Ronges by the Which Men Mowe Clyme to Heven, ed. by James Hogg (Salzburg: Institut Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik Universität Salzburg, 2003), p. 69.

[4] ‘Subdue your flesh’. La Règle de Saint Augustin, ed. by Luc Verheijen, Tradition Manuscrite vol. 1 (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1967), p. 421 [my translation].

[5] Richard Whytford, The Rule of Saynt Augustyne (1525), Early English Books Online, available at:

<https://eebo.chadwyck.com/search/full_rec?SOURCE=var_spell.cfg&ACTION=ByID&ID=99845918&ECCO=param(ECCO)&FILE=../session/1496911024_13014&SEARCHSCREEN=CITATIONS&HIGHLIGHT_KEYWORD=param(HIGHLIGHT_KEYWORD)> [accessed 29 May 2017], sig. b. iiv [my emphasis].

[6] Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998).

[7] George James Aungier, The History and Antiquities of Syon Monastery, the Parish of Isleworth, and the Chapelry of Hounslow (London: J. B. Nichols and Son, 1840), p. 79.

[8] Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synott, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 1. Cf. R. Palmer, ‘In Bad Odour: Smell and its Significance in Medicine on Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century’, in Medicine and the Five Senses, ed. by W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 61-68.

[9] Robert Cowie, ‘Syon House: Syon Park, Brentford, Middlesex TW8, London Borough of Hounslow: Birkbeck University of London Training Excavation 2004-2010, Post-Excavation Assessment’, project managed by Harvey Sheldon and Robin Densem (Unpublished Archaeological Assessment: Museum of London Archaeology, 2011), pp. 1-202 (p. 3) [my emphasis]. John Adams and Stuart Forbes have also briefly investigated the horticultural situation at Syon in The Syon Abbey Herbal, A. D. 1517 (London: AMCD, 2015).

[10] Cf. Carole Rawcliffe, ‘Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles’: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England’, Garden History 36:1 (2008), 3-21; Paul Meyvaert, ‘The Medieval Monastic Garden’ in Medieval Gardens, ed. by Elizabeth B. Macdougall (Washington, D. C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1986), pp. 23-54; Teresa McLean, Medieval English Gardens (New York: The Viking Press, 1981), pp. 13-94; Sylvia Landsberg, The Medieval Garden (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), pp. 34-44.

[11] The Orcherd of Syon, ed. by Phyllis Hodgson and Gabriel M. Liegey, EETS O. S. 258, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 62.

[12] C. Annette Grisé, ‘“In the Blessid Vineȝerd of Oure Holy Saueour”: Female Religious Readers and Textual Reception in the Myroure of Oure Ladye and the Orcherd of Syon’, in The Medieval Mystical Tradition: England, Ireland and Wales: Exeter Symposium VI, ed. by Marion Glasscoe (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), pp. 193-213 (p. 205 n. 31).

[13] STC 4815.

[14] Edward Hodnett, English Woodcuts: 1480-1535 (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 252, no. 862.

[15] For a further discussion of illustrations of Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden, see Martha Driver, ‘Representations of Saintly Women in Late Medieval Woodcuts’, in The Image in Print: Book Illustration in Late Medieval England and its Sources (London: The British Library, 2004), pp. 115-50.

[16] The Rewyll of Seynt Sauioure: The Syon Additions for the Sisters from the British Library MS Arundel 146, ed. by James Hogg, vol. 4 (Salzburg: Universität Salzburg, 1980), p. 192.

A Garden Island Paradise?

LHM writes: A family holiday on the channel island of Jersey last week introduced me to a good number of new gardens, all enclosed, and dating from both the Middle Ages and more contemporary times. Jersey’s temperate climate is fully conducive to a lush vegetation, including plants such as Allium, which grow like weeds at the roadsides, roundabouts and hedgerows – as opposed to those in my own garden in west Wales which only decide to flower every few years (this year is a good year and I currently have eight magnificent flower-heads in the deepest purple-blue).

As well as the many civic gardens dotted around the island and looked after with great care, the country roads were also often resplendent with flowers, my favourite one forming narrow avenues of enormous hydrangeas in almost every variation of blue, violet, pink and red. Again, the combination of warm sunlight and adequate rainfall allow these to develop into huge, full-blown shrubs adorning the small country roadsides all over the island.

Jersey’s medieval history is everywhere attested: even its political status still rests firmly on its eleventh-century loyalty to the Anglo-Norman crown – and it has castles in plenty. In particular, Mont Orgueil Castle towering above the fishing village of Gorey in the east is an enormous structure built into the pink granite cliff and dating from the beginning of the thirteenth century, when the island needed defending after King John’s loss of control over Normandy.

Mont Orgueil, Gorey

Built as a series of concentric circular defensive walls, the castle has a history of impregnability and today offers itself up to the visitor as a complex maze of rooms, passageways, tunnels and sudden walled spaces bathed in warm sunlight.

Garden at Mont Orgueil

A good number of these walled clearings were used as internal gardens during the medieval and early modern periods, and some have been given over to household herbs and other medicinal plants once more for the delight of the visitor.








Reconstruction of Wound Man in Wellcome Library, MS 290

Indeed, the curative nature of the herbs was emphasised by a giant, wooden reconstruction of the famous ‘Wound Man’ image in Wellcome Trust Library, MS 290, housed in an alcove just past the main gate of the castle.

Particularly prolific were the fennel plants, now going over slightly and filling the gardens with their instantly recognisable aniseed-like aroma as the gardeners cleared the drying stalks and piled them up on the cobbled paths joining each section of the castle. Elsewhere, outside the castle, the fennel grew wild near the cliff paths.


Herb garden at Hamptonne Country Life Museum

Another medieval building, this time a restored farm complex at the island’s centre, gave way to another partially walled garden outside the kitchen, full of a wide range of herbs and containing accessible labelling to point out the variety of uses.






Espaliered pear trees at Hamptonne

There was also a run of fruit-laden espaliered pear-trees laid out systematically against the old medieval wall, demonstrating most clearly how productive and space-saving this form of trained fruit production can be. The only problem here is that, whenever I spot an espaliered tree such as this one, I cannot get out of my mind the sharply observed poem by Alice Walker, ‘A Woman is Not a Potted Plant’, a section of which goes like this:

a woman is not
a potted plant
her branches
against the fences
of her race
her country
her mother
her man
her trained blossom
turning this way
to follow
the sun
of whoever feeds
and waters

As if echoing these thoughts, an impressive cockerel – and one that could, and did, give even the lordly Chaunticleer a run for his money – rooted around bossily, surrounded by a group of hens, some with small chicks learning to grub around for food beneath their mothers’ feet. If any other cockerel came near, retribution was swift and noisy, with the rival being chased out into the open field beyond the garden.

But this place is an example of restoration at its best, including exactly the right amount of reconstruction/re-enactment to accentuate visualisation without significant intrusion (there was, for example, a very well-informed ‘goodwyf’ in the kitchen prepared to answer visitors’ questions and talk them through how food was processed, bread made, etc.) and the entrancing little garden with its family of fowl helped to bring that part of the medieval past ‘to life’ in strangely direct ways – in spite of, or because of, its espaliered pear-trees!

Later, we visited a fragrant lavender farm with an even more fragrant distillery shed where the oils were being extracted and processed. If this wasn’t spectacular enough, little prepared us for what we would find in the adjacent field: Reg’s garden! Entered via a small gap in the hedge, we found ourselves in an entrancing, quirky, horticultural otherplace of the owner’s own twenty-five years of making. Centrally, there was a constructed lake with a wide, ten-foot or so waterfall, surrounded by flowery walkways and winding paths; trees in full leaf and shrubs with swaying blossoms. Sculptures lay hidden in the undergrowth, ducks and chickens wandered at ease, glass-houses containing vintage toys and railways appeared from beyond the foliage; and, in one hedged area, a ‘fairy garden’ where mothers hung out in the sunshine with their children who were sometimes dressed up as fairy-tale characters too.

Reg’s garden, St Brelade’s

This otherworldly garden has been constructed from scratch by Reg, who wanders around taking pleasure in his visitors and chatting to them readily about the garden’s construction. Reg charges no entrance fees; the garden appears in no visitor’s guide; one is led to it merely by coming serendipitously across a sign at the far limit of the lavender farm saying ‘Welcome to Reg’s Garden’ with a red arrow pointing the way. And then in you go through the gap in the hedge to find this exceptional otherspace of plants, insects, birds, water, fish, the breeze rippling up the surface of the water, and children’s voices.

Utterly entrancing. Eat your heart out, Foucault! This is the heterotopia par excellence.

But, unfortunately, a week is not a long time on Jersey (especially in terms of gardens and medieval monument visiting). We failed to find time for a trip to the fourteen acres of landscaped gardens attached to the medieval Samarès Manor in St Clement’s parish. Whilst dating from the 1920s in terms of design, nevertheless these gardens and their ancient manor house provide me with sound reasons for returning to this lovely island next year.

The Grand Tour: Gardens, Conferences and more Gardens

LHM writes: I’m just back from a three-week tour of medieval gardens – with the odd conference thrown in for good measure! First, Oslo, on my way to the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon conference in Bergen (June 22-24, 2017). In Oslo, I was very taken by a series of reconstructed gardens, not the least those incorporated into the breathtaking Oslo Botanical Gardens, pictured here on the left. Constructed to engage all of the senses at once, these gardens draw large numbers of the local population and tourists to bask and picnic amidst the flowery conglomeration of aromas and colours.

Perhaps most dramatic, however, was the so-called ‘Viking Garden’, conceived of as a Viking ship formed from raised beds planted with herbs and flowers, with informative interactive information boards identifying the plants and their (largely medicinal and practical) uses. Based on scholarly study of primary source material, the garden is far more than the mere theme-park it might first appear, however. Instead, it takes the visitor through the names, origins and functions of a whole range of plants cultivated within Scandinavian cultures in the early Middle Ages, encouraging the visitor to smell and touch (although not taste!) the plants and see the ways in which they were once put to use. This is reconstruction of the best kind: visually arresting, interpretive and informative, its story boards encouraging engagement and offering succinct information that is both accessible and easily digestible.

After Bergen, the Enclosed Gardens team, both past and present, headed towards Leeds for this year’s International Medieval Congress (July 3-6, 2017), where we were delivering one of the first sessions of the Congress (‘Strange Fruits in the Medieval Garden’). With Trish chairing the session, Theresa spoke first on the delights of the Picardian estate of Hesdin, introducing the audience to the Countess Mahout, the strong and creative owner of the large park and gardens situated there. Mahout, it turns out, had commissioned an early copy of the travelogue of Marco de Polo and the unusual figures and plants she produced at Hesdin may well have been inspired by this new narrative of exotic travels in the east.  My own paper focused on ‘strange’ grafting narratives in the writing of Mechtild of Hackeborn (d. 1298) and Gertrude of Helfta (d. 1302), both of whom adopted plant grafting as a concerted metaphor in their writing in their attempts to describe their unique visions of God – and their mystical fusion with him. This ‘strange’ literary practice was also examined by the project’s PhD student, Maria Zygogianni, in the context of Chaucer’s garden in ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which, so she persuasively argued, forms a queer and heterotopic space in the Tale, overlaying and informing a range of other spaces too, such  as the prison tower and the temple of Diana.

A chance visit to another ancient site of female spirituality after the conference – this time in nearby Knaresborough – had the odd effect of pulling together many of our recent ‘garden’ experiences, both material and intellectual. Here, in a steep cliff running alongside the river Nidd leading up to the now lost Priory, is to be found not quite a temple of Diana but a newly restored late-medieval shrine to the Virgin, the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, dating from 1408 and cut into the sandstone cliff. Its vaulted ceiling and stone altar testify to a sacred female-coded space used by pilgrims en route to the Priory – or else visiting the hermit reputed to have lived in a second cleft in the rock higher up the valley. Most arresting about this spot, however, was the newly planted gardens, packed full of Marian flowers and herbs, all helpfully labelled up, with their medieval uses also documented. A steady stream of children climbed the steep steps to the stony enclosure, no doubt attracted by its small doorway and window hewn out of the hard rock, along with a larger-than-life figure of a medieval knight in full armour also carved into the rock to the right of the doorway. Apparently,‘John the Mason’ constructed this shrine in thanks to the Virgin for curing his son who had been seriously injured by falling rocks on the cliff-face in the early fifteenth century.

My final foray into medieval garden architecture was at the medieval Carthusian ruins of the monastery of Mount Grace in northern Yorkshire, stumbled across purely because of having ignored the car’s Sat Nav! Here again, the materiality and spirituality of gardens come together in the spectacular remains of this once dynamic and internationally important charterhouse – and, moreover, the one that famously copied and preserved our only extant manuscript of  the complete Book of Margery Kempe (now British Library, Additional Ms 61823, about which Laura Kalas Williams has written – see below). The Carthusians were famous for their hermitic life-style – but also for their gardens – and their concerted support for women’s visionary literature. The works of Mechtild of Hackeborn and Gertrude of Helfta were both disseminated and preserved by Carthusian patronage, for example. Perhaps their concerted use of garden imagery and discourses of flourishing spoke resonantly to the Carthusian monks, much of whose lives were spent in their own flourishing gardens. As well as an enormous cloister garden, orchards and other green, cultivated spaces, each enclosed monk had his own walled garden at the back of his personal cell, although archaeologists have disputed that these were used for food production. Instead, it is claimed that the gardens were orchestrated to represent personal and secluded wildernesses for each monk, who could find there direct access to God. Most remarkable, however, was the fact that each cell and its L-shaped garden – at least at Mount Grace – had its own fresh water source, piped along narrow channels from the main well behind the monastery at the bottom of the hill – and also providing running water for the individual latrines found behind uniform doors in the garden wall farthest from the cell. Today, all these areas are merely turfed over, although the front gardens of the medieval guest-house (still in use today) were at their July best in the hot midday sunshine. If you ever find yourself near Northallerton, I would thoroughly recommend turning off the busy A19 into this tranquil, aromatic, still, contemplative site, have a picnic and buy some plants for your own garden from the sale outside the shop.

Today, I’m back in Swansea, looking at the neglected state of my own domestic walled garden and deciding on my best plan of attack to rid it of the super-weeds that have invaded it whilst I’ve been touring the immaculately conceived gardens of others!

Medieval and Tudor Gardens weekend, University of Oxford

LHM writes: Over the weekend of June 2nd Theresa and I enjoyed an interesting and informative study weekend, Medieval and Tudor Gardens, organised at Rewley House, Oxford, by the university’s Continuing Education department, attended by more than sixty people (https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/medieval-and-tudor-gardens). We delivered our co-written and co-presented paper first on the Saturday morning: ‘Unearthing the medieval walled garden: Greening and Healing Body and Soul.’ Our paper focused on the team’s research on healing remedies for fertility problems found in the early fourteenth-century manuscript, Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.2.5, which has close links with Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire (healing the body!) and the garden imagery everywhere apparent in the visionary writings of the thirteenth-century Helfta mystics, Mechtild of Hackeborn and Gertrude of Helfta (healing the soul!). The material elicited a lot of interest from a largely non-medievalist audience and stimulated some great questions and discussions, both after the session and in the bar that evening (where Theresa and I managed to get ourselves locked in after a 10.30pm closure!)

Other highlights include a very well-researched and information-packed paper by Rachel Delman entitled: ‘”Sche bare the key of this gardeyn”: Women and Gardens in the Middle Ages’. This paper filled in much of the material to which we could only allude or exclude from our own paper and it provided the listener with a dazzling array of literary sources for medieval gardens, particularly in English contexts. Spencer Gavin Smith’s archeologically-focused paper, ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’, was also compelling – and his lively, relaxed delivery (with no notes, I hasten to add!) kept the audience riveted, particularly when he suggested that the private garden below the queen’s latrine at the castles of Harlech and Dolbadarn would have benefitted greatly from this quick and easy source of fertilizer! Perhaps, then, it is little wonder that fertile roses and the courtly lady go hand in hand in medieval literature!

The pleasure of the trip was compounded by the fact we were staying on Washington Square, with its beautiful small fenced park, mature trees, mown grass, flowers, shrubs and students taking time out from the pressures of their examinations. And, for once, the sun shone.

Hofstra University: a Space for all the Senses

TS writes: Just back from the Berkshire Conference at Hofstra University, NY. The sessions – feminist, theorised, activist – were wonderful, but one of the real stars of the show was the glorious campus landscape, which greeted delegates with all possible shades of green and the heavy scents of jasmine and conifers as we emerged from the chill of air-conditioned rooms into what for New York was moderate heat and humidity. Hofstra is best known for its spring tulip festival, a nod to its Dutch heritage, but by early June these had long bloomed and been cleared away by the friendly and efficient grounds staff.

Exploring the campus with a Visitor’s Guide, it was a treat instead to find a small Sensory Garden tucked behind one of the large buildings, marked out with a polygonal trellis fence and featuring raised beds planted with an array of species to smell and touch.

At the centre of this cool, shady space (in the morning, at least) was a fountain, its gentle splashing providing a backdrop to the birdsong all around.

Exploring further, I wandered through the cathedral-like Pinetum, featuring over 110 varieties of coniferous trees reaching up and providing another sanctuary from the sun for those seeking it.

Beyond the green space, the campus also boasted a paved labyrinth, a replica of that at Chartres cathedral in France. Enclosed on three sides by buildings, the 40-foot-wide labyrinth encourages you to walk to its centre and ‘filter out the external world’ before working your way back out ‘with a better understanding of your own internal identity’. I found myself wishing that Hofstra’s version wasn’t quite so exposed: it’s hard to filter out the external world when the world insists on crossing the square straight through the marked-out paving maze. As the HC team has always suspected, an enclosed garden is a much better way to zone out…


An Old English Interlude: The Phoenix’s Garden as Heaven and Earth

LHM writes: Having recently attended the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MI, in May, I was really disappointed not to be able to attend one of the few garden-oriented sessions on the programme (I was chairing another session at the time!). The Idea of the Garden in Medieval Literature, organised by Shannon Gayk at Indiana University – Bloomington and sponsored by Indiana University’s Medieval Studies Institute, took place on Saturday, May May 13 at 3.30pm in Valley I Shilling Lounge. The HC team is therefore delighted to have received a guest-blog contribution from Evelyn Reynolds on her paper from that session, focusing on the significations of the garden imagery in the Old English poem, The Phoenix. Since the HC project does not cover material before 1100, we are particularly pleased to see the dialogue about medieval literary uses of gardens opened up for us in this way.

An Old English Interlude: The Phoenix’s Garden as Heaven and Earth

by Evelyn Reynolds

Despite the importance of medieval gardens as a way to think through basic binaries – binaries such as human/non-human, order/disorder, creativity/decay, life/death, permanent/transient – critics tend to ignore Old English portrayals of heaven as a garden. Scholars from Johan Huizinga to Barbara Newman have disparaged medieval heavens in general as static, totalizing, affectless, and alien. Regarding Old English particularly, Graham D. Caie calls Judgment Day II’s heaven “bland,” since the “perfect state… cannot be visualized” – though Judgment Day II, a long Old English poem, vividly describes heaven as a city-garden filled with heaps of red roses.[1]

Figure 1. Exeter Book: The opening pages of the Old English poem The Phoenix.

Another long Old English poem, The Phoenix, begins and ends with a garden. Against critics who claim that heaven cannot be represented, The Phoenix gives its audience an experience of heaven precisely by “extrapolat[ing] from earthly pleasures” – specifically, from the pleasures of the garden[1] Why? The Phoenix pictures heaven as a garden to suspend its audience in formal play. In this depiction of a garden, formal play holds the audience still in heaven, in eternity, during their present, transient scene of reading. As a result, The Phoenix’s garden makes claims about the relationship between eternal/transient, visible/invisible, now/future. Heaven and earth are not binary. Heaven’s joy is both apophatic and cataphatic; it is, in fact, inherent in earth, especially in the garden.

At the poem’s outset, its garden is simultaneously an earthly place, a Scriptural place, and a spiritual place. The poem folds time, so that present, past, and future coexist:

Hæbbe ic gefrugnen    þætte is feor heonan
east-dælum on    æþelast londa,
firum gefræge.    Nis se foldan sceat
ofer middan-geard    mongum gefere
folc-agendra,    ac he afyrred is
þurh meotudes meaht    man-fremmendum.
Wlitig is se wong eall,    wynnum geblissad
mid þam fægrestum    foldan stencum.
Ænlic is þæt ig-lond,    æþele se wyrhta,
modig, meahtum spedig,    se þa moldan gesette.
Ðær bið oft open    eadgum togeanes,
onhliden hleoþra wyn,    heofon-rices duru.
Þæt is wynsum wong,    wealdas grene,
rume under roderum. (1-14, emphasis mine)[2]

[I have heard that the noblest of lands, well-known to people, is far from here in the  eastern region. That region of the earth is not accessible to many of peoples’ rulers over      middle-earth, but it is far from sinning [ones] through the maker’s power. All that plain  is beautiful, gladdened with joys with earth’s fairest smells. That isolated land is unique, [its] maker noble, bold, abundant in power, he who established the earth. There a door of heaven’s kingdom is often open toward the blessed, revealing the joy of singing. That is a joyful plain, its forests green, spacious under the skies.]

In the present, on earth, this garden is “east-dælum” [in the eastern region], located in a particular quarter of the actual world. At the same time, this association with the east carries Scriptural or mythological weight, since the east was the Biblical location of Eden. Like Eden, this garden is inaccessible. Finally, this garden is a spiritual place, unique, where “heofon-rices duru” [a door of heaven’s kingdom] opens. The garden, therefore, folds times within its physical place: it is present and earthly, “firum gefræge” [well-known to people]; it is past and mythical, separate from normal experience; it is future, intersecting directly with eternity.

In addition to folding times, this opening passage uses concrete imagery for this garden – it has good scents, the sound of singing, and green forests. It can be smelled, heard, seen, and touched. Against Janie B. Steen’s argument, The Phoenix’s bliss is not “unimaginable”; rather, its heaven exists in a folded time that can be experienced by the audience’s imagination now.[3]

Anaphora characterizes the rest of The Phoenix’s description of the garden, from line 14 to the scene’s end at line 80. This anaphora, like the poem’s folded time, baffles critics, since the poem chooses a negative word – “ne” [not] – to repeat. Steen – in the same critical strain as Newman, Spearing, and Caie – reads this formal element of the poem’s garden as an instance of the Latin “inexpressibility topos,” in which “‘negative’ anaphora… enumerates absent pains in order to suggest unimaginable bliss.”[4]

Figure 2. The phoenix in its garden (from Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 70v).

The “ne… ac” [not… but] anaphora does not oppose heaven and earth as wholes, though. More precisely, it opposes aspects of the earthly condition to other aspects of the earthly condition in order to describe this earth/heaven place. Each section of repeated “ne” [not] invites imagination by representing concrete forces of transience – violence, winter. The audience can picture fire and rain, can imagine how sickness and rot cause pain. Yet the fact that The Phoenix uses “ne” [not] as the repetition word, as the marker of anaphora, erases these images before they appear in the reader’s mind. “[N]e” [not] precedes each absent object, as in the opening two lines: “Ne mæg þær ren ne snaw, / ne forstes fnæst    ne fyres blæst” [Nor may rain nor snow, nor frost’s blowing nor fire’s blast] (14-15). The poem seems to invite the reader to imagine the forces of change – rain, snow, frost, and fire – but syntax actually crosses out each of those images before the mind can picture them. Because “ne” [not] comes first, the audience encounters these forces of loss as themselves lost.

So, in this garden, transience itself is transient, gone before it even exists. With the repetition of “ne” [not], The Phoenix holds its reader still. These passages create the illusion of absorption in earth’s transient landscape – harsh weather, severe cliffs, dying bodies, rotting fruit – while syntax breaks that absorption. As a result, the poem implies that what is absent from this earth/heaven place is not earthly pleasures but whatever causes death. The garden is also the place of eternity.

At its conclusion, The Phoenix describes the New Jerusalem. Here, the forms of the garden reappear specifically embedded in eternity. This metonymy lets the poem echo its beginning and its end. Thus, repeated forms – imagery and anaphora – sustain the poem’s claims about earth and heaven’s mutuality, and about the ability of language to communicate heaven.

In lines 579 to 610, the poem incorporates imagery from the garden: fruitfulness and brilliance. First, “wæstmum geniwad,” translated “renewed in forms,” could also mean “renewed in fruits” (580). It is the same word as in the garden, where “[s]indon þa bearwas… / wlitigum wæstmum” [the woods are hung… with beautiful produce] (71-72), and where “[w]æstmas ne dreosað” [fruits do not decay] (34). Heaven is a place “in ead-welum    æþelum stencum” [in prosperity and noble fragrances] (586), as the garden is perfumed “mid þam fægrestum    foldan stencum” [with earth’s fairest smells] (8). Not only is heaven an earthly landscape, but in heaven humans become fruitfully incorporated into that landscape. As flowers unfalling and fruit undecaying weigh garden branches (71-80), so crowns tower above the blessed (603-604). As the garden trees are “gehladene” [laden] (76), so the heads of the blessed are covered with glory (604-605). For thirteen lines the poem rests on this imagery of an abiding crown that, like fruits, “æfre ne sweþrað” [never fades] (608).

Second, The Phoenix depicts heaven as brilliant. Christ embodies the sun, and people reflect that light: “þær seo soþfæste    sunne lihteð / wlitig ofer weoredum    in wuldres byrig. / Ðonne soðfæstum    sawlum scineð / heah ofer hrofas    hælende Crist” [where the true sun shines beautifully over the hosts in the city of glory. Then Christ the savior high over roofs shines on true souls] (587-590). Just as light fills the phoenix’s garden (33-34), so the resurrected shine in Christ’s presence “sunnan gelice” [like the sun] (601). Imagery of fruit and light calls back to the prologue; the prologue now calls forward to the New Jerusalem so that, again, heaven lives in the earthly garden, and the garden lives in heaven.

As well as imagery, the poem relies on anaphora during its description of heaven:

… þær se longa gefea,
ece ond edgeong,    æfre ne sweþrað,
ac hy in wlite wuniað    wuldre bitolden,
fægrum frætwum,    mid fæder engla.
Ne bið him on þam wicum    wiht to sorge,
wroht ne weþel    ne gewin-dagas,
hungor se hata    ne se hearda þurst,
yrmþu ne yldo.    Him se æþela cyning
forgifeð goda gehwylc.   (607-615, emphasis mine)

[… where enduring joy, eternal and ever new, [will] never end, but they [will] live in         beauty, covered with glory, clothed with ornaments, with the father of angels. Nor will            [there] be in that place anything to [make] them sad, [neither] fault nor poverty nor struggle-days,    [nor] the hot hunger nor the hard thirst, [neither] disease nor ageing. The     noble king [will] give them each of goods.]

Like the poem’s opening, this conclusion negates transience, not earth’s goods. Negation eats away sorrow, poverty, struggles, hunger, thirst, disease, and ageing, parts of earthly life that eat away humans. What hollows human lives turns into hollows within the text’s structure.

With its gardens, The Phoenix contradicts Johan Huizinga’s foundational claim that medieval literature argues for the “evil of everything material” until “[u]ltimately, there is nothing left but pure negation.”[1] In The Phoenix, the garden as fruitful permanence sets eternity in the mortal context. Thanks to folded time, negative anaphora, and imagery, this poem renders in form the tension between earth’s present, transient situation and its simultaneously present, eternal material. The poem claims that the garden is a foretaste of heaven, and that heaven encompasses physical characteristics of mortal life.


[1] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago, 1996), 254, 258.

[1] Barbara Newman, “The Artifice of Eternity: Speaking of Heaven in Three Medieval Poems,” Religion & Literature 37.1 (Spring 2005): 1-2.

[2]For text of The Phoenix, see The Phoenix in Old English Shorter Poems, vol. 1: Religious and Didactic, ed. and trans. Christopher A. Jones (Cambridge, MA, 2012), 18-63. Translations are mine.

[3] Janie B. Steen, Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 43-44.

[4] Steen, Verse and Virtuosity, 43-44.

[1] Graham D. Caie, The Old English Poem ‘Judgment Day II’ (Cambridge, U.K., 2000), 79.

Women, Landscape, Environment – and Pests

TS writes: Just off to the 17th Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders and Sexualities (@BerksConference) at Hofstra University, New York. The conference explicitly brings together history and feminist activism, and I am glad to see on the programme sessions that address women’s engagement with the environment.

Beyond Ecofeminism’ will explore ‘how women negotiate the relationship between space and identity through environmental justice organizing’, focusing on contemporary activism. ‘Invisible Death’ will use performance to draw attention to the biological destruction inherent in everyday pest control practices, and how women are implicated in these. Lindsay Garcia asks ‘Can we create a future that eliminates or minimizes animal death, creates healthy relationships and boundaries between pests and humans without reifying the oppressions of those who have been forced to live with pests due to circumstances out of their control?’

Both of these sessions are very present-centred, of course, and I will be asking whether their questions could be addressed through taking on board a longer chronological frame, bringing the knowledge of a ‘distant past’ to bear on present issues. This approach has been championed by Judith Bennett, whose own History Matters called for precisely this engagement between the medieval and the modern (although the environment did not feature greatly in that otherwise great book). Pests in the house and field, like weeds in the garden, are really only creatures ‘out of place’ – can pre-modern knowledge help us to cut down on chemical solutions in favour of working with nature? Watch this space….