Category Archives: Conferences

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!


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…


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….

Picnic in Paradise (well, Leeds…)

The HC team recently delivered its first collective panel session at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. As the conference theme was ‘Food, Feast and Famine’, we offered three takes on the garden as a source of spiritual and physical nourishment, for good or ill. Liz used Mechthild of Hackeborn’s striking imagery to explore the intersection between ‘Mysticism, food and sex’; Theresa examined the ‘Edible plants in Eden’, utilising paradises such as Mahaut of Artois’s gardens at Hesdin; and Trish rounded off with a paper on ‘Overindulgence’, asking whether you could have too much of a good thing, be that food, sex or sensory stimuli in the enclosed garden.

We were delighted to welcome a large audience to the panel, and in particular to meet Dr Annemarieke Willemsen from the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden, that city of course home to one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe.

The University of Leeds is doing its bit to promote the garden as a place of health and wellbeing too – the campus plays host to a rooftop garden cultivating salads for a regular market, as well as a garden in Chancellor’s Court where staff are encouraged to take a ‘sustainable lunch break’ in the open air.

The Rooftop Garden

The Rooftop Garden



These initiatives demonstrate the rediscovery of the garden as a place of pleasure, contemplation and well-being, something our medieval authors knew about only too well.

A Mediterranean Gardener goes North

TS writes: Just back from the Lleida International Medieval Congress, where I presented on the intriguing case of Count Robert of Artois’s use of southern Italian and Sicilian experts to help him make the garden park at Hesdin, NE France. That paper focused on the practice of grafting plants, and the team will be developing it for future publication. Some key questions emerged about the purpose of grafting, and also about its relationship, as a practice, with contemporary religious ideas. Was the combining of two plant parts to make an improved plant a legitimate action or did it fly in the face of God’s creation? I’m going to be exploring this further, since the creation and maintenance of gardens for pleasure would surely have included such horticultural experimentation and display.

Meanwhile, the city of Lleida itself offered numerous distractions, not least the atmospheric environment of the 15th-century former Hospital of S. Maria, in whose cortile sat this rather sad rose,

and the modern Camps Elisis, a carefuly-landscaped Elysian escape from the heat of the city, complete with fountains and parterres sculpted in concrete.

In search of more cool, I visited the splendid Museu de Lleida, which had treasures of its own – among which were this al-Andalusi perfume flask

IMG_0196and a gloriously ‘fertile’ mosaic from nearby El Romeral. The latter swarmed with bird motifs among depictions of familiar and strange flowers and fruit, bringing nature into what must have been a prominent and visible part of the Romeral villa when in situ.

The Lleida congress was a delightful opportunity to engage with Catalunyan, Spanish and Italian colleagues, and with work that deepened my understanding of the Mediterranean society from which John ‘the Apulian’, with his grafting skills, emerged. I benefited hugely from the generosity of their suggestions, and will be making the return journey next year.

Women and the Sacred, Bangor, 18 January 2016

Early 15th Century Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Angel calls the Birds to Eat
Early 15thC Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

TT writes: The collaborative Research Group “Women and the Sacred” (a scion of MEMO, Swansea and the School of English Literature, Bangor) met together at Bangor University this week with the aim of seeking out ‘Our Mother’s Sacred Gardens’: the results surpassed all expectations and proved to be a very fruitful one that included lots of garden metaphors! The day began with Liz Herbert McAvoy’s  paper that took as its starting point the quotation ‘For our Vineyard hath Flourished’ and in which she teased out vestiges of the gendered overwritten model of flourishing in representations of ancient gardens and vineyards. This was followed by a cornucopia of evidence taken from disparate sources by Theresa Tyers (author of this post!) based on a forage into the distant, and not so distant past, that provided evidence of vineyards, lone vines and female ownership along with the use of their fruit in well-being and healing. Elizabeth Clarke (University of Warwick) examined the beautifully melancholic early-modern poetry of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross, where again references to the Song of Songs were to be found along with garden imagery. Discussion continued over lunch (graciously provided by the organisers) re-convening with Sue Niebrzydowski’s (Bangor University) paper focussing on Chaucer’s garden ‘walled al with stoon’, and a number of exquisite images and representations of the Virgin Mary in the Hortus Conclusus. The garden as a place of contemplation came to the fore in Helen Wilcox’s (Bangor University) exploration of extracts from female authored early-modern poetry, in which the song of the lark was used as a personal reproach to a later riser, and fruitless trees, nipt blossoms and the lack of useful plants in a garden, all painted a picture of distress and failure. Despite the overwhelmingly sense of spiritual melancholy in the poetry examined, the arbour in the garden orchard finally proved to be a source of restoration and succour for the seventeenth-century female author.

The day was rounded off with a group reading of the late fourteenth-century Middle-English Pistil of Swete Susan. Here we found nightingales nesting in trees, parrots frolicking and any sense of seasons abandoned as an Edenic garden, of both delight and nourishment, was imaginatively presented to readers as the setting for a re-telling of Susanna and the Elders.

The event provided much food for thought. We thank the organisers for their warm welcome and for the tulips on the tables as a reminder of Spring on its way despite the snow on the mountains. We would also like to thank all of the participants for their insight and contribution to what turned out to be such a stimulating and productive day.

Gender and Emotion – in the Garden (GMS2016)

LHM writes:

There was an intellectually stimulating start to 2016 with the annual Gender and Medieval Studies group ( conference, held this year in Hull and organized most efficiently by Daisy Black.  Although the conference topic, ‘Gender and Emotion’ was not specifically on medieval gardens, enclosed gardens seemed to be popping up everywhere during the conference! Most notably, the walled garden made an appearance in the superb plenary lecture, delivered by Katherine Goodland (CUNY) on Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, a text full of medieval allusions and inferences, in spite of its post-Reformation credentials. Particularly interesting was the discussion about Horatio’s hanging in the play – from a tree (‘arbour’) in a private walled garden – that sets up comparison’s with Christ’s crucifixion, following his deliberation and prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just like its medieval precursors, the garden in Kyd’s play seems to be a place deeply haunted by its biblical associations.

Also focusing on the garden and other enclosures within the natural landscape was Amy Morgan (University of Surrey), whose queer reading of the fourteenth-century poem, ‘Sir Orfeo’, confirmed the strange liminal identity frequently taken on by the medieval garden. The orchard within which Heurodis’s body is appropriated by the fairy king is ultimately a ‘dangerous’ space that opens up ‘the touch of the queer’ and its transformative effects. Meanwhile, for Katrina Wilkins of the University of Nottingham, in her discussion of Aelfric’s Esther, the garden serves as the encoder of human emotion, absorbing such emotion into its descriptions in largely symbolic ways and thus relieving the text’s protagonists of their own expected emotional responses. Also recognizing the walled garden’s encoding of emotion, Efthymia Priki (University of Cyprus),  speaking on the Greek dream-vision text, The Tale of Livistros and Rodamne, read the visionary garden within this text as a deeply erotic space – but one within which the generated desire between lovers remains ultimately unfulfilled.

No doubt there were plenty of other gardens to be had in the papers I missed in those sessions parallel to the ones I attended. If so, I’ll very much look forward to their reappearance when the excellent research so apparent throughout the conference comes to fruition in published form.  It’s worth a reminder here, though, that, whatever your interests, this annual conference is one that no gender-minded medievalist should miss!  Keep an eye on the website for advance publicity of next January’s conference, to be held in Kent.

Botanicals in Bergen


LHM writes:

If you think it’s been raining in the UK this week, it hasn’t; at least not compared to the type of rain they get in Bergen. This is real rain: heavy, relentless and ubiquitous, just the sort that the extensive botanical gardens, now situated nearly 15 miles outside this pretty Norwegian city, thrive on. Ironically, it was too wet to trek out to see these during my recent trip to the university, to where I had been invited to present on the Hortus Conclusus research project at the Exploring the Middle Ages conference (November 25-7: However, the smaller botanical gardens attached to the grand nineteenth-century University Museum building in which the conference was held were a little more accessible during the brief moments when the rain let up a little.  In front of the museum, too, are a series of smaller, walled gardens made up of simple paths and low-growing green shrubbery and a few, regularly placed trees, now almost bare after the ravages of autumn wind and rainfall.

BERGEN%20GARDENIn summer, no doubt, these intermediary, walled garden spaces squeezed artfully between the cobbled street and the museum provide quiet areas for visitors to ponder over and process the extraordinary collection of Scandinavian medieval artifacts that form part of the museum’s collections, and to which we had special access on the final day of the conference. There was no sitting and pondering in the gardens to be had that afternoon, however. In fact, intense flooding of the main paths made them ultimately impassible, although I managed to exploit a gap in the rainclouds to photograph them before the floodwaters rose.  Fortunately, I’ll be returning to Bergen in the summer of 2017 for the final meeting of the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon network project ( and will look forward to seeing both botanical and walled gardens in all their splendour then.

Trade, Discovery and Influences in the History of Herbal Medicine Seminar, London, 14/10/2015

TT writes:

A brief background to the Herbal History Research Network. A small group of researchers came together in 2010 with the overall aim of promoting scholarly research in the history of herbal medicine and herbal traditions. One of their aims is to connect people who share common interests in researching the history of herbal medicine, and support their development of skills and access to resources. Founding members were medical trained herbalists but since then contributors to seminars have included a wide range of scholars across historical periods.

At the recent Seminar held at the Wellcome Trust’s offices in London an impressive range of speakers took the delegates on a whistle-stop tour that included visits to Rome, Siberia, the archives of the Russian Palace in Moscow, and to South America, by way of Portugal, Iberia, Amsterdam, Hamburg and northern Russia before arriving back at Kew to hear about their work on their International plant collection. Through the records of Ancient Rome Laurence Totelin explained the ways in which medicinal plants and materials were traded, by looking at the ways people knew (or didn’t know!) what they were buying. This included the intriguing fact that some of this plant material was transported in containers made from the plaited leaves of the Chaste Tree (Agnus castus – sometimes known as the women’s herb) which, raises the intriguing question ‘were the leaves then recycled and by whom’. Other papers examined written records to demonstrate just how far materia medica travelled to reach the hands of physicians, apothecaries and patients. It was shown that merchants very soon after their discovery in South America traded medicinal plants that could, despite frozen ports, eventually be used not only by English physicians in the Russian Palace but be sold on the markets of Moscow (Clare Griffin). The expanding pharmacological horizons of Anglo-Norman medicine in eleventh-century England was examined through a case study of an eleventh century manuscript (Debby Banham). While Anne Stobart explored some of the medicine found in household records by asking, “Just what were women in Early-Modern households using to cure their own and their family’s ills”? Richard Aspin and Mark Nesbitt both examined collections but of an entirely different sort. Richard Aspin examined three categories of records held in the extensive archives of the Wellcome Library by dividing them into three categories: the drug trade, physicians (prescriptions) and consumption (patients). Mark Nesbitt explained how, over time, Kew had added to their holdings of plant based material and their more recent collaboration with bio-chemists – for example using alkaloids found in the plant material that have a long shelf life and, fortunately, no ‘date before use’ stamped on them. The winning student poster came from Deborah Schlein whose PhD research focuses on the reception of Greco-Arabic medical knowledge into South Asian Unānī medicine, in this case she was looking at Turmeric (Curcuma Longa L.) that has travelled from its origins in southeast Asia, to India and the Middle East is known and widely known today as a wonder food with amazing properties. To sum up a day which had brought together a disciplinary group of people, who had sat in comfortable chairs as they toured around continents, ended with a simple question of how can we encourage more research to stimulate discussion and uncover valuable knowledge.

The HHRN would be delighted if you would like to join their discussion list just click on the link on our resource page to see how to join their discussion list!

Medicine of Words – and Pictures!

LHM writes: On 11 September I attended day 1 of the excellent Medicine of Words: Literature, Medicine and Theology in the Middle Ages conference. With a glittering array of speakers focusing on the intersections betweMedicine of Words 2en medieval medicine, literature and theology, the conference quickly established itself as innovative and dynamic, with especially memorable plenaries from Mary Carruthers, Denis Renevey and Vincent Gillespie. There weren’t many gardens featured prominently at the conference (except for the lovely grounds of St Anne’s College clearly visible out of the window behind the speakers in the auditorium) but there were plenty of enclosed, suffering bodies needing care and cure. Particularly interesting in their gendered approaches to care and cure were papers by Laura Kalas Williams (Exeter) and Greta Dinkova-Bruun (PIMS, Toronto) on the healing power of Margery Kempe’s ‘pain surrogacy’ and the Virgin Mary as medicine respectively. Also a memorable high point was a set of images presented in the fascinating paper by independent scholar Michael Leahy. This paper examined aspects of the Stockholm Roll, including some extraordinary images of finely-attired as well as naked bodies on display and showing off their wounds (frequently in intimate locations) requiring medical intervention. Clearly, some of these injured bodies, which were evidently inviting some kind of moral judgement from the reader, could have done with some quality ‘time out’ in the medieval walled garden to ingest its healing aromas, view its aesthetic presentation and feast on the curative properties of its plants!