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A Garden Island Paradise?

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

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

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

Mont Orgueil, Gorey

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

Garden at Mont Orgueil

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








Reconstruction of Wound Man in Wellcome Library, MS 290

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

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


Herb garden at Hamptonne Country Life Museum

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






Espaliered pear trees at Hamptonne

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

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

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

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

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

Reg’s garden, St Brelade’s

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

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

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

The Grand Tour: Gardens, Conferences and more Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medieval and Tudor Gardens weekend, University of Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Evelyn Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbs and spices for Margery Kempe

Dr Laura Kalas Williams, a postdoctoral researcher from of the University of Exeter, has uncovered the ‘mystery’ of a medical recipe bound inside the cover of the only surviving manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe.

Opening lines of The book of Margery Kempe. BL, Additional MS 61823

Opening lines of The book of Margery Kempe. BL, Additional MS 61823

Although the manuscript has been much consulted since it resurfaced in an English country house in 1934, this recipe has never attracted much attention. Now, however, its contents have been deciphered by Laura and colleagues at Exeter and Oxford as providing some kind of medical remedy. The ingredients used for this remedy –  sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, aniseed and fennel seed – are to be mixed together, heated then dried, to form a type of ‘lozenge’ for later consumption.

Laura points out that Kempe’s book documents many of the illnesses she suffered during her lifetime, including a long bout of the ‘flyx’ (excessive menstrual flow or else dysentery, documented in Chapter 56 of the book), and that the remedy may well reflect one of the cures she herself used.  Cures for the ‘flyx’, however, would have involved astringent medicines and Theresa Tyers has suggested to me that the remedy in the manuscript is more likely to have been used for digestive problems. This, of course, raises another whole set of fascinating questions which Theresa and I have been mulling over this week, returning to the chapter on Margery Kempe’s eating habits by Cristina Mazzoni in The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating and Spiritual Writing (New York, London: Continuum, 2005), pp 102-113, to help us.Women in God's kitchen

We’ve been discussing mainly whether the lozenge would have provided a suitable aid for those undergoing fasting, helping to maintain sugar levels etc. during the absence of food. Regular fasting was common practice during the later Middle Ages, both inside the monasteries and amongst the laity, but we have found no evidence to suggest that monasteries, at least, cut back on the consumption of sugar and luxury spices during this period. Indeed, even during the thirteenth century, the Durham Cathedral accounts show that the monks were consuming vast amounts of both sugar and saffron throughout the year!

Margery Kempe’s book is full of her own fasting anxieties (Should she? Shouldn’t she? When should she?) and, no doubt, digestive issues connected to on/off fasting were fairly common for her and for those others undergoing the practice in a somewhat haphazard way. It may even be that some of Margery’s fainting-fits were attributable to her lack of food, rather than ‘just’ her religious ecstasies. On one occasion, for example, whilst on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, Margery nearly falls off the ass she is riding as she succumbs to an ecstatic faint. Concerned for her health, two fellow travelers, one of whom is a priest, ‘put spycys in hir mowth to comfort hir, wenyng sche had ben seke’ [put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to be ill] (Chapter 28). Again, Theresa has suggested that the ingestion of pure powdered spices in such an instance is unlikely because, in this form, they would have been extremely unpalatable – especially for somebody in a faint. Instead, a sugary, spicy ‘lozenge’ of the type produced by this recipe (which would also have been far more portable for a pilgrim!), washed down with wine or ale, would have done the job of reviving Margery very well.

The remedy’s ingredients also speak to us of Margery Kempe’s locale and background: far from being based on ordinary kitchen-garden ingredients, the recipe combines familiar English garden herbs (fennel seed, for example) and items of some luxury (sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon), not readily available to the ordinary person in England via her/his own gardening or foraging practices. These were imported and costly goods, although they would, no doubt, have been readily available in Bishop’s Lynn via its busy port – and even more so to Margery as part of an important mercantile family. Indeed, Theresa has identified at least one Lynn family with the patronym ‘Spicer’ (one of whom had been a former mayor of Lynn, as had Margery’s father), suggesting commercial distribution of spices from abroad and likely family involvement. She has pointed me also towards an image in one manuscript of Aldobrandino’s Regimen depicting a woman heading off to an apothecary’s shop to buy spices. The one pictured here, however is from a French translation of a medical text by Mattheus Platearius, dating from the early fourteenth century.

BL, MS Sloane 1977, fol. 97v (Amiens, early 14th century). Courtesy of BL Open Access.

Margery may have been able to purchase her own spices from a shop similar to this one in Lynn, or else directly from the merchant who imported them. Whilst we have no way of proving that this particular recipe did originate from Margery Kempe herself, the manuscript association between this recipe and Margery’s book helps to augment what we already know about the type of elevated social status in Bishop’s Lynn into which she was born and the life-style she enjoyed, particularly before her conversion. And we have Laura to thank for that!




Laura’s findings have recently been published in a Guardian newspaper article ( She will also be giving a talk on Margery Kempe at this year’s King’s Lynn festival in July.

Recipes for Rest Harrow

TT has just contributed to the Recipes Project – see her post here.

Winter Wonderland

First of all, Happy New Year/Blwyddwyn Newydd Dda to all our readers! We’ve been a bit ‘dormant’ – like many plants – online recently, but that does not mean we’ve not been busy, as TT explains:

On a very wet, misty December day the Hortus Conclusus team had the chance to drive inland from Swansea to visit the National Botanic Garden of Wales situated at Llanarthne in the Towy Valley. We planned to look around and in particular to take in the double-walled garden and managed landscapes…

Louise Austin, Heritage Coordinator of the Regency Restoration Project, came with us to explore both the gardens and site. Although most of the plants were safely sleeping in the superbly well-kept walled gardens, the protection created by the beautiful, old brick walls had allowed one or two to keep some of their autumn colour. The pretty Hellebore orientalis, much showier than the simpler green varieties native to the British islands, had even put on small show but there were no signs yet of the true white Christmas Rose variety.

The ruins of the former Peach House were evocative of the Estate’s grander times and also gave us a glimpse of the ways in which heat had been cleverly provided to cosset the tender fruit trees. As we entered the double-walled garden we came across the Wintergreen (Gaultheria) bright with its pungent, beautiful holly-red berries.

Walking past waterfalls and lakes, former carriage rides and ditches we saw moss covered saplings growing close to the water. These even appeared as though at some point, when no-one was watching of course, that they might just uproot themselves and wander at will at night. The oak and beech leaves underfoot were slippery, in the winter-scented woods, as we made our way around. All of this provided a magical December setting for our guided ramble. After skirting the remains of the former landscaped lake, crossing bridges and passing by a chalybeate healing well

the land started to rise and we eventually climbed until we reached the enigmatic site of where once stood a medieval house. Sadly nothing remains to be seen, apart from a partial and phantom outline of a former terraced area, now lying in front of its seasonal backdrop of leaf-bare trees.

The stoic sheep ignored us (well almost) and munched away contentedly as we made our way through the flock, back to the stable area, where bowls of hot soup and sandwiches warmed us through. Just as we were leaving the heavens opened, and the rain came down in torrents – it’s no wonder that the fields, pastures and hills of this beautiful corner of Wales are so green and verdant!

We would like to thank the wonderful staff at the Botanic Garden for explaining their plans, their aims, and for guiding us around the site in its beautiful winter setting.