Spring is finally here with spells of sunshine, birds singing and flowers blooming! It’s the perfect time of year to explore medieval gardens and their many uses. Gardens during this period were highly practical and used to grow both food produce and medicinal plants. The British Library houses a blooming lovely collection of early medieval texts that reveal the activities of English gardens at this time.
Illuminated calendars often depict the labours of the months, scenes depicting the rural activities that were commonly performed in the months of the year. A calendar copied in the first half of the 11th-century (now Cotton MS Julius A VI) features line drawing miniatures of the late winter and early springtime activities of ploughing, cutting vines, digging and sowing, and the month of April is accompanied by a scene of Anglo-Saxon noblemen feasting on the fruits of the agricultural labours. Domesday Book records many vineyards in South-East England, but the quality of wine was poor and by the 12th century wine was imported from Bordeaux, the French territory under English rule following the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Instead, orchards gained popularity in England and apple cider was widely consumed.
Bottoms up: The Indicia sign for ‘beor’, beer or cider from an Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia, England (Christ Church Canterbury), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100r
Cotton MS Tiberius A III contains an Anglo-Saxon food list in the Monasteriales Indicia (ff. 97r-101v), an Old English sign language for use when Benedictine monks had to keep silence at Christ Church, Canterbury, including during meal times. This food list reveals the foods consumed by the monks at Canterbury and includes a sign for beor, a drink that may be the Old English word for beer or cider. To request beor at meal times, one had to make the following sign: Beores taken is þaet þu gnide þine hand on þa oþre, ‘you grind your hand on the other’, which might stand for pressing apples.
As well as vineyards, the herbal garden featured prominently in everyday life in early medieval England. Herbs and plants were grown for both culinary and medicinal purposes, to flavour food as well as being prepared for their healing properties. For example, the Old English herbal (now Cotton MS Vitellius C III) lists the chamomile plant, commonly used to flavour drinks, as being used to treat eye pain. This manuscript is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. It is an Old English translation of Late Antique texts on medicinal properties of plants, and each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal and instructions for preparing it for treatment of specific ailments. The manuscript also contains a work known as the Medicina de quadrupedibus (‘four-legged animals’), and includes a text on the medicinal properties of badgers.
Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), early 11th century, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v
A spoonful of honey makes the medicine go down: Recipe for oxymel from England (Bury St Edmunds), late 11th century, Sloane MS 1621, f. 64v
Honey is another foodstuff that was popularly used in medical treatments. An 11th-century English collection of medical recipes (now Sloane MS 1621) includes a recipe for oxymel, a herbal drink made by a mixture of vinegar of honey that was commonly used as a medicine. Bees were likely kept in England from pre-Roman times and the first written evidence of hive beekeeping is recorded c. 705 by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury and later bishop of Sherborne in his work De virginitate, with a reference to hives made of wicker. The British Library has several manuscripts of the prose version of De virginitate, including Royal MS 5 F III.
Never mind the buzzing: A depiction of beekeeping in the earliest extant manuscript of Clark’s Second-family bestiaries, England, c. 1175-1200, Add MS 11283, f. 23v
Beekeeping was widespread in early medieval England, with hives recorded in hundreds of places in Little Domesday Book which primarily covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Honey was also an essential ingredient in mead, the alcoholic drink most popularly associated with feasting. Mead appears in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which includes a gigantic mead-hall called Heorot. The British Library holds the only medieval manuscript copy of Beowulf (now Cotton MS Vitellius A XV), produced in Anglo-Saxon England in the late 10th or early 11th century. We hope you feel inspired to try growing your own medieval garden!
Opening folio, from Beowulf, England, late 10th century to early 11th century, in Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 132r
Le soleil rayonne, les oiseaux chantent et les fleurs commencent à éclore, nous y sommes, c’est enfin le printemps. C’est la période parfaite pour découvrir les jardins médiévaux et leurs multiples vocations! A cette époque, ils ont une dimension pratique et sont destinés à la production de denrées ainsi qu’à la culture d’herbes médicinales. La British Library abrite ainsi une riche collection de textes témoignant d’activités relatives aux jardins.
Les calendriers dépeignent le plus souvent les travaux de la saison et les activités rurales qui y sont attachées : labours, coupe des vignes, plantation des semailles.
Si les vignobles étaient nombreux dans le sud-est de l’Angleterre, la qualité du vin demeurait médiocre. Dès le XIIe siècle, le vin est ainsi importé de Bordeaux, alors terre anglaise du fait du mariage d’Henri II et d’Aliénor d’Aquitaine. Les vignobles anglais ne rencontrèrent certes pas de succès, mais il en était autrement des vergers, fournissant à la population un délicieux cidre. Le cidre et la bière constituaient les boissons les plus répandues, y compris chez les moines.
Les jardins dédiés aux herbes et aux plantes destinées tant aux soins médicaux qu’à la cuisine faisaient également partie du quotidien au Moyen Age. Ces usages sont décrits dans des herbiers, des œuvres répertoriant les qualités et les usages des différentes plantes. Les manuscrits médicaux sont également loin d’être exempts de recettes à base de plantes.
Le contenu de ces jardins vous a certainement donné des idées de recettes, mais en attendant on ne peut qu’en déduire et en conclure : « il faut cultiver notre jardin » !
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