Category Archives: Plants

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….

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.

Gardens in the Cultural Imagination

A guest post by Maria Zygogianni:

Fascination with the garden is inextricably linked with human nature. The enclosed garden is employed as the birthplace of life or the garden of the dead where life ends in mythology and religion. Supernatural loci, such as the Isle of Avalon, Eden, the Garden of Hesperides, straddle the real and the imaginary. Medieval geographers have tried to make these concepts tangible by associating them with actual geographical locations. According to Genesis, Eden is located between four rivers:

The name of the one is Phison (Ganges): that is it which compasseth all the land of Hevilath, where gold groweth. And the gold of that land is very good: there is found bdellium, and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gehon (Nile): the same is it that compasseth all the land of Ethiopia.  And the name of the third river is Tigris: the same passeth along by the Assyrians. And the fourth river is Euphrates. And the Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it, and to keep it (Douay-Rheims Bible).

Much to the frustration of explorers, such as Cosmas Indicopleustes, the discovery of the worldly Paradise eluded them. The hortus conclusus, in its many forms, has captivated the artistic imagination as well.

Figure 1. The Garden of Hesperides, 1892, Frederic Leighton, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]

Figure 1. The Garden of Hesperides, 1892, Frederic Leighton, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]

Frederic Leighton’s depiction of the Garden of Hesperides, a space of eternal bliss where the nymphs of the evening dwelt, highlights three features common to most of these Other-worlds; an apple tree, a strong female presence, and a snake/dragon.




While the most prominent figures of the garden in cultural history are religious, the secular garden has found its place in folklore, literature, and the arts as well. An international art project, THE GARDEN- End of Times, Beginning of Times, will be launched in the summer of 2017, in Aarhus, the cultural capital of Europe for 2017. THE GARDEN zone will cover the past, starting from the Baroque period, the present garden, in Aarhus city centre, and the future, along the coast and in the forest by the city. The project looks at the changing relationship between man and nature and the interesting choice of location seems to bring the garden in conversation with the landscape (the enclosed museum space, the urban city centre, the forest, and the sea).

Figure 2.Grandmother's Garden, 1869, Kristian Zahrtmann, Bornholm Art Museum, Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]

Figure 2.Grandmother’s Garden, 1869, Kristian Zahrtmann, Bornholm Art Museum, Public Domain [Wikimedia Commons]

The secular garden, still, remains an Other-world, a heterotopia. A heterotopia is a space real and imaginary, in and outside of society, which encloses people in crisis, such as a boarding house, a prison, or a home for the elderly.



The contemporary garden attracts individuals in crisis; the artists, the elderly, the youth. The Eden Festival, is such an example. This music festival aims to support artists, involve the young people and the community, bringing the audience in an otherwise overlooked area.  And their tagline captures the charm and danger of the garden-space:

“Sometimes you eat the garden, sometimes the garden eats you”

The secular garden is primarily a space of pleasure where one grows flowers or vegetable and fruit. A private and protected space, it is a common addition to the house and a source of inspiration for crafts and decoration.

Figure 3. Wall decoration, Kosmeteio Foundation, Athens

Figure 3. Wall decoration, Kosmeteio Foundation, Athens

The image left shows a mpanda, a wall-hanging carpet/blanket, common to Greek households, which was used to keep the house warm and decorate. Such wall-hangings would often depict gardens as a space of social gathering, with a female figure, or animals. Despite the apparently mundane nature of the garden, it remains an irresistible, but dangerous space. Rapunzel’s mother cannot resist the urge to eat a rampion from Dame Gothel’s garden and her husband sneaks into the forbidden garden to steal the plant. Caught by the witch, he promises to give her the baby and in exchange take everything he needs from her garden. The evil Gothel takes the girl and imprisons her in a tower in the middle of a forest.

The garden remains gendered in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle.  Joan Foster, the protagonist of the novel, is writing one of her costume gothics set in a manor with an impressive, albeit sinister, maze in the garden. Charlotte, the heroine, is magnetised by the labyrinth and cannot keep away despite the fact that the Redmond’s former wives all disappeared, and were presumably murdered, there. When she enters, she finds them thriving and well in the heart of the garden-labyrinth, explaining that in this Other-space they are free. Joan Foster’s heroine and Joan herself discover the feminine garden, a safe space that empowers them and shields them from the destructive, vampiric men in their lives.

Cultural representations of the hortus conclusus suggest the power of this feminine space and its influence on the artistic imagination. The commonplace secular garden is no less supernatural than its religious counterparts; through the lens of heterotopia, a space of transformation and liberation, but also destruction and imprisonment, the image of the enclosed garden has permeated both life and culture throughout human history.

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.

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.

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.

Weald and Downland Gardens

TS writes: In search of a break from copy-editing, I headed with Dr Emily Cock to the Weald and Downland Open-Air Museum in Sussex (PO18 0EU), which will be hosting a Historic Gardens Day on 10 July 2016. And what a treasure-trove of historic gardens the museum is! Six have been re-created, dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and we visited three in detail, Poplar Cottage, a 17th-century reconstruction of a working garden for a landless labourer,

the Walderton house, of a similar date but belonging to a rather better-off resident (not me….),


and the highlight of the visit, Bayleaf, a 16th-century farmstead house with a garden that can only be described as truly ‘enclosed’ by the flourishing mix of vegetables, herbs and trees being grown.


On what was a warm day, this space felt at least a degree or two warmer once you got through the gate and within its wattle boundaries. The garden had been recreated using Master John Gardener’s Feate of Gardening and a 16th-century cookery book, the Fromond List, and it was easy to get lost in the greenery of parsnips being allowed to grow for seed, and ‘weeds’ being left to provide a living mulch. I sat and contemplated the scenery whilst Emily took all these lovely pictures…..

Across the site, the gardens all had their accompanying bee skeps of various types, though apart from a lazy wasp there was not much sign of anyone in residence.


All in all, a brilliant piece of ‘pleasure, contemplation and cure’ in the Sussex Downs – highly recommended!!



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!