Category Archives: Sites

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…


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.

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!!



“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.

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.

Hortus Conclusus in Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire

LHM writes:

This month I’ve been doing a bit more work on Gerald of Wales’ Itinerarium Kambriae [Journey through Wales], thinking in particular about the enclosed spaces within the landscapes he observes and occupies. Such a task, of course, necessitated, a day trip to the ‘fortified villa’ where Gerald was born in 1145/6: Manorbier Castle on the south Pembrokeshire coast some sixty miles north west along the coast from my home in Mumbles. I wanted to see for myself once again his home, his local church and the extraordinary landscape that prompted Gerald to write, ‘In all the broad lands of Wales, Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far.’ Having made the same journey in 1913, Virginia Woolf apparently thought the same, making her decision to become a writer on the beach below the castle ramparts – at least according to her diary. It’s tempting to speculate that the enclosed, sublime location, wrapped around by hills and the open sea, the neat, domestic ‘feel’ of the enclosing castle walls and, indeed, the small circular cell-like rooms set into the thirteenth-century castle turrets may have played some part in this decision.


Having hit upon the sunniest day of the early autumn to visit, I could see that Gerald certainly had a point, in spite of his disingenuous apology for a biased view-point: ‘this is where I myself was born,’ he explains. And, indeed, the castle has changed little in layout since the thirteenth century, when the earlier twelfth-century structure was rebuilt in stone, with a chapel and crypt added to the main hall in or around 1270. That chapel, along with its domed crypt, is still there today.

Whilst the entire castle interior has been transformed over the years into a large enclosed garden (it is still a privately owned castle and regularly occupied), and is almost entirely grassed over for the convenience of owners, tourists and wedding guests, it is also abundant with flowering herbs and insect-attracting plants (a monarch butterfly landed on my chair whilst I was drinking my coffee in the sunshine!). Nevertheless, it was a small, seemingly insignificant triangular architectural space between the chapel and the outside curtain wall that caught my attention. It is an area that was clearly created accidentally upon the addition of the chapel to the main hall (to the left of the photograph): the need for the chapel to be aligned east had created a small walled area with high walls on all three sides.


This space, however, had clearly been appropriated immediately formal, private use, since its only access is through a large doorway from the main hall. Its high west wall still carries the clear traces of a dove-cote (or shelter for pigeons), and the whole space is overlooked by one of the large windows of the main chamber in its north wall – giving a perfect view also towards the sea over the curtain wall (also pictured). Surely this awkward and potentially redundant space must have been used as a serendipitous walled garden with its aromas, buzzing insects and cooing doves adding to the pleasures of a domestic residence so eulogized by Gerald. The likelihood of this was certainly strengthened by that fact that the stones, responding to the all-day sunshine in that confined location, radiated so much heat that they were physically hot to the touch. As such, this walled garden would have provided an ideal environment for the production and protection of its delicate plants – a type of thermally insulated greenhouse, but made of stone rather than the transparent glass with which we have become familiar.

Foraging and history at Anzy-le-Duc

Wandering around the Burgundian countryside peering behind walls in search of traces of medieval gardens the ancient priory church of Anzy-le-Duc seemed to appear from out of nowhere. Standing at the edge of the village overlooking a fertile meadow, this Romanesque church, with its Carolingian origins, is tucked away in the village and seems to sleepily sit there awaiting visitors. The church itself with an impressive Italianate bell-tower borders one side of an extensive enclosed garden with the former outbuildings of the Priory enclosing it to the West.

The village of Anzy is the site of Enziacum where, in the ninth century, a property was owned by Letbalt or (Letbalde) the Revenue Collector for Semur-en-Brionnais and his wife Altaric (or Altasie) from Poitiers. In 876 the couple gave their domaine to the then powerful Abbey of Saint-Martin d’Autun. A new Benedictine priory on the site came under the direction of pious monk who, through his care for the needy, later he became known as St Hugh of Poitiers. The first church was dedicated to la Sainte-Trinité, la Sainte-Croix et la Sainte-Mère de Dieu et Vierge Marie, it was surrounded by a hospice and monastic buildings. St Hugh died at Anzy-le-Duc around 930 and his remains were later buried in the crypt at Anzy. After his death his relics attracted so many pilgrims to the site that by the eleventh century a new church, the one that welcomes visitors today, was eventually built to accommodate them.

The gardens are no longer planted as they would have been in its heyday, now having extensive areas of lawn and easily kept borders, but it is not difficult to imagine the church and gardens alive with the coming and goings of pilgrims arriving to venerate the relics of St Hugh, many of whom would be bringing their hopes of cures or the easing of spiritual cares along with them on their journey. Behind the walls in the height of summer bees drunk with the perfume of healing herbs and plants would be busily collecting nectar to provide the honey with which many cures were made.

Although there was nothing edible or medicinal now to be found within the garden walls of the old priory, this area of Burgundy proved to be a pick-your-own haven for one of today’s super-foods packed with vitamins and minerals. It is found cited in medieval recipe collections, reputed to have been a cure for a myriad of ills, and a sure cure for ‘blastings by lightening or planets and burning of gunpowder,’ although the consumption of too much hindered fertility (Culpeper). Called Purslane, (Portulaca oleracea) it was found in Burgundy valiantly growing at the base of walls, spreading along verges and footpaths, providing green-stuff for cooling salads at the end of hot days.


Tiny wild thyme plants also studded the grassy areas at the approaches to medieval castles, such as at Berzé-le-Châtel, while marjoram, salad burnet and water mint rampaged along the dewy footpaths. Proof that what once flourished and was valued within the enclosed walls of medieval gardens, can still be found in the fertile pastures and countryside alongside Burgundy’s beautiful Romanesque churches.