Category Archives: News

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….


Infertility, garden intrigues and mystery manuscripts at Manorbier Castle

The HC team is pleased to announce publication of its first co-written article in the most recent edition of Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion. Here, the team explores the links between an understudied early fourteenth-century manuscript miscellany, the family of Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) and the medieval castle of Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, where Gerald was born in 1146.
We have argued that the manuscript, which contains a rich selection of medical and other texts, many to do with cures for infertility or the production of male offspring, was produced by and for some of Gerald’s descendants. We also suggest that it provides important new insights into the also little-known but very troubled history of the castle and its owners between 1200 and 1500.
Central to our discussion is a hitherto unrecognised garden space at the castle (below), formed accidentally when the two-storey chapel was added to the building in 1260. No doubt the ingredients for many of the recipes and ‘cures’ contained within the manuscript would have been grown here and in the surrounding lands and gardens outside the castle walls. 
The Garden Space at Manorbier Castle

The Garden Space at Manorbier Castle

However, these ‘cures’ seem to have been ineffectual. Although the evidence uncovered by the team suggests that the manuscript may have helped successive generations of the family to address a deepening inheritance crisis, that crisis erupted into a bitter dispute that ended in robbery, appropriation of the castle and its lands and, finally, murder.

Winter, Snowdrops and Dreams

TT writes:

On the island of Ynys Môn (Anglesey, Wales) there is a modern structure; a concrete path. At the edge of the concrete path, there is a haven: a tiny ‘enclosed garden’, a precious piece of bare earth where the eirlys ‒ the snowdrop flourishes and grows.


In that apparently inhospitable place this tiny shining herald of the coming spring, the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis (LINN.) grows. At the edge of its world, sheltered from the wind, it has forced its way through the stony ground to produce its pure white flowers tipped with delicate green, so that passers-by can begin to dream of spring, and gardens re-awakening after the winter’s sleep.

Snowdrops, common in gardens in the British Isles, were believed to have been imported in Roman times, and are often commonly found growing within the enclosed walls of former medieval abbeys, priories and churchyards. They are among the many migrants of the plant world to the British Isles, with their distribution pattern ranging from mid to southern-Europe, western Asia (modern day Turkey) and the Caucasus. The snowdrop flowers around the time of the medieval church’s festival of Candlemas, a festival of purification, the blessing of candles and light. Through time it has been given various local names that recall its earlier symbolic message of purity and virginity: Purification flower, Fair Maids of February or simply Fair Maids, Mary’s Tapers or Candlemas Bells.

Recent modern research has confirmed that the Snowdrop really does have dreamlike qualities. The active substance, galantamine, been used as an oneirogen, a dream enhancing supplement. Historically, the first evidence of the use of its memory-increasing properties is believed to come from Homer’s Iliad where, some scholars argue, Odyessus uses the snowdrop flower to combat the effects of his memory loss.(1)

The use of imagery was one of the key components of religious devotion that ran throughout all levels of medieval society used to explain to the laity the foundation of their belief. The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) is one of the most popular collections of stories and legends, full of imagery and metaphor, which was written by Jacques de Voragine (Iacopo de Varezze) in the thirteenth century. This collection of Saints Lives and Legends includes, among many others, a miracle story within a story, which reveals a dream-like state that occurred to someone just at the time the snowdrops were in flower.

Unable to hear mass on the ‘Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ as the household chaplain was away, the lady in Jacques de Voragine’s legend, prostrated herself before an altar in her private chapel which was, like many others, dedicated to the Virgin. She soon fell asleep in which state she had a vision: a vision in which ‘a right noble virgin crowned right preciously’ entered the chapel, followed by a great company of virgins and a (lesser) company of young men. After they had all sat down they were given wax candles:

At the last came this man to this lady aforesaid and gave to her also a candle of wax…and all the company of the virgins sang the mass’.(2)

However, all did not go well when, at the time for the Offertory of the candles to be given to the priest the lady refused to part with her treasure and, during the struggle which ensued, and being forced to hand her candle over, the candle broke in two. Immediately, the woman came back to her senses from her dream-like state, and thanked the Virgin Mary for allowing her to take part in the Feast of Candlemas despite the lack of a chaplain. Jacques de Voragine then explains to his readers, in his story within a story, that this lady retained her broken candle, as a precious relic, which brought about many cures and much healing in later years.(3)

This link between the snowdrop and purity continued through to the twentieth century. One writer in the Spectator in February 1947 discussed whether Galanthus nivalis may have been native to the Herefordshire Beacon, and Wrexham in Wales, where it grew particularly well. He suggests that this notion appears to be supported by an old custom, in his words, ‘surely mediaeval’, which he says was ‘peculiar to that part of the island’. This old custom linked the earlier church’s idea of purification with the appearance of the snowdrop by bringing into the house on Candlemas Day a bowl of the flowers to give the house itself ‘the white purification’.


Piercing its way through snowy and icy conditions, in enclosed gardens, priories and churchyards, or even at the side of a man-made concrete path near to the coastline of Ynys Môn, the pure white, the appearance of the ‘tri-leaved diadem’, the tiny eirlys can inspire those who see it: ‘To put much argument by. And solve a lifetime’s mysteries. (Walter de la Mare, The Snowdrop).



(1) Royal College of Physicians: ‘The Garden of Medicinal Plants’. citing A. Plaitakis / R. C. Duvoisin, Homer’s ‘moly’ identified as Galanthus nivalis L. Physiologic antidote to stramonium poisoning, Clinical neuropharmacology (New York Raven Pr.) VI 1983 1-5. Also used in treatments for dementia.


(3) The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, ed. John H. Arnold, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, 351.

Achievement prize for Hortus Conclusus postgraduate

The HC team offers many congratulations to Maria Zygogianni, postgraduate student on the HC project, who recently won the Ede and Ravenscroft Student Prize at Swansea University for her outstanding contribution to student life outside the usual academic studies. Although still in her first year of study for a PhD on enclosed gardens in medieval Romance talesMaria already has already co-organised a number of conferences and other research activities, being active both in the field of medieval studies and the Centre for the Study of Gender in Culture and Society (GENCAS). She has also had a paper on Chaucer’s ‘The Knight’s Tale’ accepted for the 2017 Leeds International Medieval Congress, for which she is again to be congratulated. The team is, of course, very proud of her achievements this year.

Time to take a break: September in the Garden

In his Le Livre de physicke, (a book full of advice for health and well-being) written in the thirteenth-century, Aldobrandino of Siena instructed that those ‘who knew to what extent they should work to stay healthy must also know when they should rest’. Nature in the garden in England in September is beginning to do just this!  The garden is now showing signs of knowing when to rest and recuperate after a season of hard work. It’s beginning to show that Nature has always had the sense to know that it is time to take some time out.

autumngarden2The signs are here.  Trees laden with apples that are beginning to fall, summer plants running out of the energy they need to grow and leaves beginning to change colour as the trees ‘close-down’ for the winter months. The light is changing and the temperature dropping. Morning mists after the previous day’s rain, combined with the moisture in the air, brings in the soft and downy milky-grey mildew, so that even if the peas and other susceptible crops want to carry on giving, they are doomed to failure as the mildew takes over and moisture-laden cobwebs festoon the plants. Looking closely, there are, nevertheless, still signs of growth. As if by magic enchanted purple tinted toadstools heroically push their way up through the cooling ground, appearing and disappearing in what, in Nature’s terms, must seem to her to be infinitely less than a blink of an eye.

autumngarden1Even though it is turning colder, any time spent in the garden as it begins to cover itself for the winter can still be a time of healing; but, as Aldrobrandino points out, it’s also time to cover your head in the night and in the morning. His readers are also advised that the autumn is a time to make sure that their food is light and nourishing so that it is easier to digest and avoid weakness that could invite noxious diseases (such as fevers) to invade the body: these could also drift in on the autumn mists and colder air. He cautions that they ‘should dress in September as they would in spring’ but advises that the fabric should be warmer. And, as for diet, the autumn menu includes, ‘capons, chicken, peacocks that are just about to fly, pork’ and drinking, ‘good wine’ – all of which was to be taken in moderation. Aldobrandino also thought that, at this time of the year, spending too much time thinking was Not A Good Thing!

Aldobrandino doesn’t specifically advise his readers that they should go out into the garden and look closely at Nature to enable their bodies to wind down and take a rest but here, at Swansea, the team working on the Enclosed Garden have been looking to see whether it does actually have health benefits. We would like to think that if only we could have chatted to Aldobrandino of Siena about keeping healthy through spending just a little of our precious time sitting or strolling in the garden, he would have been only too pleased to have added a special chapter into his thirteenth-century book of health advice. In this chapter he would have instructed all of his readers to stop for a few minutes, take some time out in a garden, and surround themselves with Nature.

Guest post – Pleasure in the Garden (1677)

HC is delighted to welcome a guest post from Dr Emily Cock, currently scoping some early modern gardening texts for us:
An alternative source of ‘pleasure’ in the garden popped up this week in the form of trick fountains in John Worlidge’s Systema Horti-Culturæ, or, The Art of Gardening in Three Books. This was first published 1669, and grew between editions from a straightforward husbandry manual to an extensive treatise on elaborate gardening.
In the 1677 edition, Worlidge provides ideas for a range of visual and aural tricks using “Water-works” and fountains, by which the garden owner could amuse himself and guests. Some used water pressure to make balls appear to hover in the air, or run over pipes to imitate a nightingale’s song. One set, however, with a Carry On-style sense of humour, is designed to startle ladies wandering through the gardens. In one trick, “Secret pipes may be under the Ground, the ends not appearing above it, that when any Ladies unawares or casually walk or stand over them by the turning of a stop-cock you may force the Water upright under their Coats to their sudden surprize” (sig. E5r). Another, which is illustrated below, features “A Statue of a Woman, that at the turning of a private Cock, shall cast Water out her Nipples into the Spectators Faces” (sig. E3r). While this may have amused the host, it is unlikely that the lady pictured felt similar pleasure!

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.

Nature’s Pharmacy

HC team really likes the recent blog post from the Wellcome Library, ‘Nature’s Pharmacy at Your Feet’ linked here and just nicely timed for the completion of our pilot on open, green spaces and well-being conducted for us by intern Sara Jones. More details of that as we get the results!

“And now for something completely different”: Bio-Science, Gilgamesh and Shakespeare….

It was April and the Hortus Conclusus team were faced with doing something slightly unusual – an invited lecture based on their research to a group of Bio-Science students – this was truly an interdisciplinary case of “When the Old meets the New”.

Using numerous images to bring the hidden Hortus Conclusus to life the team explained how their research was covering thousands of years as we outlined the range of sources we were using to understand the origins of gardens and their continued importance today. As we chased gardens through millennia the lecture touched on the evocative description of the imaginary garden in the creation story of Gilgamesh, one that reaches back into the mists of time, to later-medieval manuscript evidence of the traditional medicinal use of plants. The following day the lecture was followed-up with a trip to one of our favourite places the National Botanical Garden of Wales. The last time we paid a visit to the site it was wet and overcast (when it wasn’t raining) with most of the plants hibernating for the winter months but this time the sun shone and that indefinable sense of springtime and growth was in the air.

While being taken on a guided walk by one of the staff it was pointed out that cowslips growing in another part of the garden had, this year, begun to colonise the grassy verges of the main walkway leading into the gardens from the main entrance.


Many of the primrose family are reputed to have medicinal value and Cowslip (Primula veris LINN) is among them: from treating the complexion to being made into a soothing and slightly narcotic drink for the nerves its reputation is widespread. It appears in Anglo-Norman in one thirteenth-century manuscript (MS London, British Library, Royal 12 C XIX) where it claims that the remedy is one that was used and created by ‘Count Richard’ (Ref: Tony Hunt: Popular Medicine in 13th-century England , p. 68). As this remedy is for a boil or abscess that occurs in a very awkward place on the body it’s tempting to think that someone was having fun in attributing the origins of this remedy to the poor unfortunate, as yet untraced, Count Richard! Cowslips are also referred to by Shakespeare. In the voice of the Fairy, he had something to say about enchanting cowslips in a Midsummer’s Nights Dream:

The cowslips tall her pensioners be/In their gold coats spots you see

Those be rubies, fairy favours/In those freckles live their savours:

I must go seek some dewdrops here/And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone: Our queen and all our elves come here anon…


We would like to thank the Bio-Science students’ lecturer Aditee Mitra for inviting us to share our work with them and also for allowing us to share their trip to the NGW and have an insight into the work of the third-year biological science students.

A new gardener….

LHM writes:

The Hortus Conclusus team is delighted to welcome a new PhD student into the garden, thanks to the generous fees-only scholarship offered to the project by  the College of Arts and Humanities at Swansea University. Maria Zygogianni will join Liz, Trish and Theresa at the beginning of April to work on a doctoral project with the preliminary title, ‘Floral Utopias and Otherworlds: Representations of the Enclosed Garden in Chaucer and his Contemporaries’.  Maria has recently been awarded an MA in English Literature at Swansea, during which she undertook three modules on medieval literature (that clearly got her hooked!). Maria will be supervised by Roberta Magnani (Department of English Language and Literature) and Liz, with further assistance and guidance offered by Trish and Theresa. Her main focus will be on secular material, such as The Romance of the Rose and its intertexts, examining issues of gender, transgression and the supernatural, in particular.