Wednesday 8 February 2017

'Caterpillars, Cowslips and Candlemas Bells' by Karen Maitland

Snowdrops in Lothersdale Churchyard
Photographer: Tim Green
February is traditionally the month in which the first flowers would have blossomed in an English medieval ‘Mary Garden.’ These were snowdrops, believed to have been introduced to Britain by Italian monks. Snowdrops were also known as Candlemas Bells or Purification Flowers, because an old medieval custom was to remove any statue or image of Virgin Mary from the churches or private chapels on Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification (2nd February) and scatter snowdrops in the space where the statues had stood.

There are many different types of medieval gardens, but I always think the ‘Mary Gardens’ or ‘Our Lady’s Gardens’ must have been some of the loveliest, and would have provided flowers nearly all year round. Many medieval religious houses and manors included a special secluded garden, set apart from the others, which was stocked only with the plants dedicated to the Virgin Mary. These would include cowslips which were known as Our Lady’s Keys; WoodruffOur Lady’s Lace; VioletsOur Lady’s Modesty; and Lily-of-the-ValleyOur Lady’s tears.
Madonna of the Rose Garden. c1435

The Mary Garden would have a number of different white flowering plants which were associated with the Virgin as the symbol of purity, but it would also include sweet-smelling herbs such as rosemary because its flowers were said to have turned as blue as Mary’s cloak when she hung it on the bush to dry. Pennyroyal and thyme would also be in the garden because the shepherds were said to have perfumed the stable in which Mary lay with these herbs, and the Christmas rose which according to medieval legends either turned from black to white when Mary gave birth or sprang from the tears of a girl who wept because she had no gift to offer the baby. So even in winter, a Mary Garden, must have been a tranquil delight for the all the senses, as well as the haven for birds and insects.

In religious houses, Mary Gardens were made by monks or nuns assisted by lay servants, but in manor houses or wealthy households, this was often the garden that the lady of the house and her daughters would tend. They obviously wouldn’t do the hard labour of digging or fertilising, but they were taught how to plan the garden, give instructions to servants on when and what to plant and to do some of the day to day maintenance such as dead heading, pruning, collecting and drying seeds for next year’s planting.

Cowslips  at Waylands Smithy on  the Ridgeway
Photographer: James Broadbent
In Paris 1393, a young wife was advised to ‘plant wet and sow dry,’ in her garden, a saying I remember my great aunt teaching me as a child. Male farmers and gardeners were advised to walk on dug or ploughed land. If it ‘cried or made any kind of noise under foot’, it was too wet to sow, but if it made no noise ‘you should sow in the name of God.’ Another test for male gardeners was sit ‘bare-arsed’ on the soil to feel if it was warm enough to sow.

Seeds were often dressed with mixtures of urine, lime and even sulphur to discourage mice. Seeds were carefully collected, dried and stored, not only for use in the garden the following year, but the women understood that swapping seeds to produce a healthy garden was also vital.
'One seed for another to make an exchange
With fellowly neighbour seemeth not strange.'
But even in a garden dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Satan’s little imps were bound to make mischief and the servants would have been instructed to keep garden pests under control. A lady didn’t want her cut flowers or strewing herbs crawling with ants or caterpillars. So, sawdust was sprinkled round ants’ nests to discourage them, or to protect individual trees and bushes, a mixture or red earth and tar was used to ring the trunks to prevents ants climbing up. But in West Country at least, the servants wouldn’t have destroyed the nests. That was thought unlucky as ants were believed to be the souls of unbaptised babies. In Cornwall, ants were muryans or faery folk who went through a number of transformations, each time becoming smaller and smaller, the ant being their final form before they vanished from this world.
Christmas Rose, Black Hellebore
Photographer: Wildfeur

But the medieval gardener seldom wasted anything even if it was a pest, so in monasteries and nunneries which also had fish ponds and chickens, the servants would hang dead fish in the tree, and when they were covered with ants, take them down and toss them to the hens to feast on. In turn, these chickens not only provided fertiliser for the garden in the form of droppings, but also assisted with another vital form of fertiliser too, because the monks were bled for their health, usually four times a year, and blood taken from the monks was then put on the garden to feed the roses and fruit trees. To help them recover from the bleeding it was recommended they should be fed salted sage, parsley and chicken eggs. And during the three days’ rest after blood-letting, the monks were encouraged to sit in the gardens to recover their strength, especially in the Mary Garden, where the flowers and herbs would sooth their spirits and bodies.

To get prevent caterpillars from destroying plants in the wealthy houses, the servants would boil up a mixture of olive oil, bitumen and sulphur to paint the stems of the plants. In monasteries where labour was plentiful and free, boys would be sent out to pick caterpillars off at first light, or to shake the plants once the sun had gone down, so that the caterpillars fell off and being too cold to move would either die or be eaten.
Fly, Caterpillar, Pear and Centipede

Slugs and snails could also be hand-picked. But ash and ground-up shells, both of which were often used as soil dressing, also discouraged slugs and snails, and olive oil could be used on stems, if you could afford it. But there were probably far fewer of these pests in the medieval garden, because of the much higher number of birds, voles and shrews, encouraged in part by that wonderful mixture of herbs and flowers in Our Lady’s Garden. Maybe our medieval forbears, knew better than us how to keep nature in balance.


adele said...

I love this post. Thanks so much. Fascinating detail and as ever super illustrations.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Oh, lovely picture of cowslips - my favourites.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, so THAT's why it's helleborus niger! I always wondered. And I didn't know about rosemary either. Love rosemary flowers, they are so exquisite from close up, like orchids. A fascinating blog.