Tag Archives: gardens

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…

 

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.

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

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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….),

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

A new gardener….

LHM writes:

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

Postgraduate Studentship

LHM writes:

More exciting news for the Hortus Conclusus project: Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities has just agreed to fund a fees-only PhD scholarship to enable a doctoral candidate to be attached to the project. (http://www.swansea.ac.uk/postgraduate/scholarships/research/medieval-lit-hist-phd-pleasure-contemplation-cure.php).  Starting as soon as possible, the successful candidate will work closely with the team, being co-supervised by Dr Roberta Magnani and myself within the Department of English Language and Literature, and also receiving regular input from both Theresa and Trish. The plan is for the doctoral thesis to focus on gendered representations of the walled garden in romance and other secular literature, as well as within iconographic and medieval manuscript contexts. The team is therefore very grateful to the College for its strong support of the project and we are very excited about having a new researcher join us so early on.

Botanicals in Bergen

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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: http://www.uib.no/en/hf/90319/exploring-middle-ages). 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 (http://blogs.surrey.ac.uk/medievalwomen/) and will look forward to seeing both botanical and walled gardens in all their splendour then.

KCL Radio

TS writes: Last Friday Theresa and I had the interesting experience of being interviewed about the project (less than 2 months after its start!) by the delightful Francesca Allfrey of Kings College London Radio. Hear what we had to say when In Conversation airs on Wednesday 11 November 2015 between 9 and 10am. Visit the KCL site to access archived programmes.