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 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/28/recipe-found-in-medieval-mystics-writings-was-probably-for-drugges-margery-kempe). She will also be giving a talk on Margery Kempe at this year’s King’s Lynn festival in July.


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.

Recipes for Rest Harrow

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

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’. https://garden.rcplondon.ac.uk/plant/Details/1534 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.

(2) https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume3.asp#Purification

(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.

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.