Tall stoneware pot with pink foxglove


OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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Charter Landscapes: Fields, Gardens, and Plants
in Early Medieval England

King Edgar, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. Peter, presents a charter to Westminster
New Minster, 966 CE.

The early medieval charters of Britain date from the late 600s to 1066 and the Norman Conquest. Those that record gifts of land provide a unique view of the English landscape -- a landscape that includes gardens.

The earliest grants were to religious institutions; as time goes on, grants to lay people -- both donors and recipients -- are also included. Charters are usually in Latin, but later on they might also include sections in Old English. Land whose ownership is documented by charter is called bookland.

British historian Peter Sawyer has published a  useful, annotated catalog of these charters, which are now regularly cited by their "Sawyer numbers."


Charters involving land often had three parts:

  1. Opening: Typically penned in Latin for an elite audience of churchmen and aristocracy, the first section of a charter usually records the donor and the transaction. Many charters conclude this section with an anathema, calling down God’s wrath on anyone who would subvert the charter, such as this anathema from Sawyer 1527:

Se e is awende . Wende him god fro heuene riche into helle Witerbrogen bute he it e deppere bete . er his ending day

He that casts this aside . Cast him aside, god, from heaven's riches into hell's torment unless repents he this deeply . before his last day.

Charter granting Dodda life-lease of land at Bredons Norton, 1058 (British Library Additional Charter 19801)

  1. Bounds: The next section often gave directions for walking -- perambulating -- the boundaries of the land. As time went on, this part of the charter would be written in the vernacular, Old English, so that local people could readily identify the boundaries of a property. Surprisingly enough, the boundary landmarks cited in an ancient charter often persist in the landscape to the present day.

  2. Witnesses: Finally, many charters conclude with the signatures or names of the donor and the witnesses.

More than 1,500 medieval charters survive, some 200 as originals and others as copies made after the Norman conquest. The oldest charters date to about 670 CE.

Walking the bounds
It is the sections of the charters that deal with boundaries that provide information about the landscape in early medieval times. For example, Sawyer 664, drawn up for King Eadwig between 955 and 959 CE, documents the ownership of land at Olveston by the church of St. Peter in Bath. It begins:

is synd ara V hida land gemæru
æt alfestune

These are the five hide-land boundaries
at Alfestune

ærest on hring wylle of hring wylle duddingdene

first to round pool from round pool [to/in] Dudding valley

andlang denes on a ealdan mær dic

along valley to the old boundary dyke

andlang dice west on gerihte on smita pull

along dyke west right to muddy pool

of smita pylle west rihte on blaca

from muddy pool west right to shining [white water?] ford

of blaca forda innan hreodham

from shining ford into reed hamlet

of hreodhamme on cildes hammes west ende

from reed hamlet to Cilde’s hamlet’s west end

onne norð on gerihte to hreodwican
on a ealdan stræt and lang stræt to norðwican

thence north right to reed dwellings
to the old street
along street to north dwellings


The complete bounds described in Sawyer 644 provide a detailed snapshot of the lands surrounding Alfe's tun --the valleys (cumbe and dene), the shininig garden (hwita gærstune), meadows (lege), wells and hills and hollow ways (wylle and hylle and hola weg).


Enclosed fields
This and other charters describe a varieity of enclosed fields. Some is agricultural land; some are what we would think of as gardens. For each Anglo-Saxon term below, the Sawyer number is provided for at least one charter in which it appears:

  • Æcre - A cultivated field (S317)

  • Bed, bedd – To us, bedd suggests a garden, but in the charters the word is always associated with natural landmarks, such as withig bedd, willow bed (S590) and ælr bed, alder bed (S369).

  • Croft- A small, enclosed field, often surrounding a dwelling (S219)

Gunnora confirms charter to Mount St. Michel, 12th C
Countess Gunnora, wife of Richard I, confirms the 12th C. charter of
Mount Saint Michel.

  • Geard – Our words garden and guard both have their roots in geard, an enclosure, yard, garden, or court; later expanded to mean a dwelling, homestead, region, even country. The need to defend as well as demarcate enclosed fields is clearly felt in the charter descriptions. In a time when livestock was herded rather than fenced, protection for cultivated crops was important. (S1300)

  • Hæg, hage, hege – Can refer to either a hedge (and hedges were often used to provide both protection and boundary marking) or land enclosed by a hedge. (S1370, S201)

  • Lusgeard - Plant garden (S72); lus is Gaelic for plant.

  • Pearroc – Small enclosure, paddock, from the Welsh parwg. Bogeles pearruc, Bogel's enclosure (S482)

  • Splott – A plot or small portion of land (S669)

  • Teag – An enclosure, paddock (S103)

  • Toft - An Old Norse term that is found in later charters, and originally referred to the yard around a dwelling, eventually giving us "toft and croft" (S1448) on Mardingforð .V. acres & ane toft, to Mardingford, 5 acres and one toft (S1525).

  • Tun –This is a term whose ambiguity in the charters increases over time. Tun may have originally indicated a small property, such as a house, a homestead, an enclosure, garden, or yard. Then it came to indicate a field, farm, or estate, and eventually a village or town -- giving us names that survive to this day as Trenton, Leighton, etc.

    In the charters, tun is often used as a suffix to a person’s name -- Treadingctun, Tread's people's tun (S55); Cyrices tun, Cyric's tun (S345); Ordwaldes tune, Ordwald's tun (S469) -- which suggests it refers to a particular person's (or kin group's) farm or homestead. In the laws of Ethelbert, c. 600 CE, tun refers to enclosed land surrounding and belonging to a dwelling, a small group of houses on enclosed land, or a farm or farmstead. The word is also used as a prefix: tunewæorthe, farm enclosure; tunsteall, farmstead.

  • Wæorthe, worth, wurth, wierth, wyrth – Originally a fence, then an enclosed place, enclosed farmstead, enclosed homestead and surrounding land (S1483)

  • Wic - From the Latin vicus, dwelling place, village, farm, dairy farm; willering wic... cynemunding wic... udding wic (S214): Willer's people's place, Cynemund's people's place, Udd's people's place; orn wic ...hnut wic (S837), thorn place, nut place. Wic was often used for locations that were trade centers.

Guarding the land

The importance of enclosure, of guarding the land, is clear. Livestock roamed more freely in those days. Enclosure was most often accomplished by hedges or dykes, and sometimes by dykes topped with hedgerows. Dykes and hedges appear again and again in the charters, and their permanence over the centuries is part of the reason we can follow the  guided perambulations of some charters to the present day.


Dykes, hedges and fences
Hawthorn hedge in blooma; from Wikimedia CommonsHecg, heg, hege, hay
– Hedges are named as boundaries in hundreds of charters, with many permutations: cwichege, quick or living hedge (S140); rah hege, rough hedge (S367); hegæ  rewæ, hedge row (S463); hegethorn, haw- or hedge-thorn (S337). A glinde was also a hedge or fence:
on wican glinde, to the place's hedge (S108).

Hawthorn hedge -->


Latticework haec; from Wikimedia CommonsHæc, hæcce - Fences, of woven or latticed sticks (S558), are less frequent, but do appear.  A scidweall seems to have been a palisade or perhaps palisade with hedge, as in to ðan scid hæge (S920).


<-- A latticework haec

ADic, dices, dyche
- Dykes are also highly visible in the charters, made by digging a trench and then piling the excavated dirt up along one edge of the trench to make a wall. Dykes could be modest affairs, with trenches only a couple of feet deep and banks a couple of feet high, or they could be massive affairs with deep trenches and high banks, designed for defense as well as to mark boundaries. (S54, S1601)

Two terms that appear frequently in the charters, wyrtwal and wyrttrum, may also refer to dykes. Wyrt means plant and sometimes, by extension, a garden. Trum may mean roots, and wyrttrumas used in the charters (S274 and many others) may refer to the exposed roots of the banks of a tree-covered dyke.

is more ambiguous. Wal may also refer to roots, and so wyrttrum and wyrtwal may give us two words for the root-entangled banks of a dyke that is crowned by a hedge or trees. Or wal may be derived from weala or wealh, which means wall (as in wealh geate, wall gate (S786);
weala brucge, wall bridge, S500)
. In that case, wyrtwalan (in S284 and elsewhere) may refer to a garden wall. For a good discussion of these two terms, read "Wyrttrum and Wyrtwal," (pp 102-110) by A.H.J. Baines.


Gates and stiles
Ditches and hedges often require gates and stiles for access to the land they enclose, and these are frequent landmarks:

  • Geat, geate – gate, door; also dices geat, dyke gate (S677); hæcce geat, latticework gate (S960); hlid geat, hinged gate (S264)

  • Stigel, stihle – stile, sometimes with personal names, such as Grenmenes stigele (S276, S 916)

And finally, perhaps, gardens
Because terms like tun, weorth, wic, and hæg are so broadly defined, it is hard to pin down specific references to gardens.

Webster's Dictionary defines garden as "a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated." How does this differ from a farm "field"? We tend to use size as one of the defining characteristics when we identify a garden as opposed to a field, but this may be misleading, for we are dealing with a time when small fields were the norm, due to the limitations of technology. Applying modern notions of "smallness"  may be anachronistic (see also vernacular gardens).

Although it is difficult to identify gardens with certainty, some charter terminology can be interpreted as referring to gardens:

  • Gærstun - From gærs, grass or herb, and tun, enclosure. Charters S273 and S340 tell perambulators to go forth to Osmundæs gærstunæs hyrnan, Osmund’s wedge-shaped plant enclosure, most likely a garden. Likewise, eastweardne to Lulles wyrðe hyrnan, eastward to Lulle’s wedge-shaped enclosure (S911) suggests a garden; and charter S567 tells us to go up be streame on Occenes gerstun dic, up along the stream to Occene's garden dyke.

  • Setene - Can mean a shoot, nursery, plantation, or cultivated place such as a garden; the latter meaning is suggested in two charters, Ærest of Grim setene gemære, First to the boundary of Grim’s garden (S1323); and Crægsætena haga, Cræg's garden hedge (S864).

  • Wyrt – Plant or garden; S292 directs the reader to go suth to wirte, and as “plant” would not be a very useful landmark for this purpose, wirte probably refers to a garden. In other, non-charter Old English materials, wyrttun means garden.


Charters also cite orchards as landmarks to guide people perambulating the boundaries of a piece of property. Apples and pears alike were primarily used for making beverages -- cider and perry -- and vinegar. Other trees, often those that provide other fruits, or nuts, are also named in the charters, but we have no way of knowing whether these trees were wild or cultivated.

  • Archet -Orchard (S445)

  • Æppel tune, apelder-tun, weorth apeldre – Apple orchard (S621); individual trees were also landmarks: apeldre, apple (S491, S811); sour apple (S255); wogen apoldren, bent apple (S312)

  • Bæce – Beech tree (S90)

  • Bulca, Bulce, Buloce – Bullace or wild plum (S1036)

  • Elebeam – Olive tree (S552, S622)

  • Ellen- Elderberry (S145)

  • Hæsel Hazel nut (S424)

  • Hnutu – Nut tree; hnutu hyrste, nut tree thicket (S64, S376)

  • Orceard, ortgeard -Orchard, garden (S310, S1590)

  • Peru (S1322), piritun, pyrigan (S76), pyrtigan (S1590); pear orchard; pir graf, pear grove (S487)

  • Pomiriis (Latin) – Orchards (S10, S13)

  • Plum – Plum (S663)

  • Slah - Sloe, slahðor weg, sloe thorn way (S820)

  • Syrf Serviceberry (S60, S 461)

  • Thorn - Cited as thorne, thorn; hagthorne,  hawthorn (S437); or blake thornen, black thorn (S485), the thorn is the plant most often named in the charters, both as a forest tree and in hedges.

  • Wine, wines treowe - vine, vine/grape tree (S491); wingeard, vineyard (S491)

Food plants
The charters name a number of specific plants, among them these edibles:

  • Ate – Oats

  • Baerlic, bere, beore– barley (S202)

  • Bean - all sorts of pulse (S 293)

  • Berie, berige, beg – Berries, grapes; berigan cumb, berry valley, S229, S 567)

  • Brember, bremel, bremer – Bramble, blackberry; brembel cumbe, bramble valley (S469)

  • Cærsa - Watercress (S2555)

  • Cal, cawel - Cabbage, colewort (S461)

  • Corn – Grain (S1220)

  • Docce - Sorrel; ea docce, water dock (S455)

  • Hagga, hagathorn haguthornHawthorne (S1266, S1380)

  • Horte- Whortleberry (S705)

  • Hwæte - Wheat (S55)

  • Minte – Mint (S589); wurth minte, mint tun, mint enclosure or mint garden  (S1146)

  • Peos (S1026), pis (S425), pysere (S229) -  peas

  • Rames, hramson - wild garlic (S17999)

  • Ryge – rye (S55)

Wild ramsons; from Wikimedia Commons
Other plants

Many other plants are named; some may have been gathered in the wild, like the ramsons at left; others, grown in gardens. Plants such as those named in the charters and listed below were used for seasonings, medicinals, fodder, dyes, thatching, basketry, wattle and wickerwork.

  • Bogen - Rosemary (S655)

  • Brom - Broom; many cites in boundaries (S64.1); brom hlinces, broom lynchet (S316); brom teag, broom enclosure

  • Ceaggan – Broom, gorse; ceaggan cumb, broom valley (S389): ceaggan heale, broom hall (S461)

  • Croh - Crocus; croh hamme, crocus hamlet (S500); croh hæma (S1297); crohlea... croh wælle, crocus valley... crocus well (S1591)

  • Fearnige – Fern; fearn leage, fern place(S310); fearn beorhg, fern hill/barrow(S553)

  • Fleax, flex – Flax, linen; fleax æcyres, flax acres(S607); flex hammas, flax hamlet (S622)

  • Fyrs - Furze, gorse; fyrs leage, furze place (S440); fyrs garan, furze corner (S955)

  • Gagel - Myrica gale, sweet gale (S487)

  • Golde, gylde - Marigold, golden flower; goldewelle, marigold well (S80)

  • Gramine – Grass (S212)

  • Hassuc - Coarse grass; on ðone hassuc, to the course grass (S861)

  • Heopa, heop- hip, rose, rosehip; heope  bricg, hip bridge (S782)

  • Heortseges - Hart sedge (S1380)

  • Hlosmoc- Lusmoc, lady’s smock, Cardamine (S254)

  • Hocce – Mallow, Malva spp; hocce mære, mallow meer, (S909)

  • Holen, holig - Holly; swa in ymman holig, as far as into holly (S579); holen hyrst, holly thicket, (S464); holenbedde, holly bed (S573)

  • Hreod – Reed; hredo burnan, reed stream (S705)

  • Hymel, hymlic - Hops, hop trefoil, yellow clover, bryony; humeltun, hops enclosure (S219); hymel broc, hops brook (S786)

  • Ifig - Ifig bearo, ivy grove or barrow (S255)

  • Iw - Yew; iw cumbealde iw, yew valley... old yew (S857)

  • Lin – Flax or linen; lin leage, flax/linden place (S360)

  • Mæga - Chamomile, mayweed; on mæga ford, to mayweed ford (S663)

  • Netel, neatel – Nettle (S1165, S353)

  • Risc, rysc -Rush (S230)

  • Secg - Sedge; secg mere, sedge meer (S404)

  • Thistel – Thistle; thistel beorh, thistle hill/barrow (S668); thistel mere, thistle meer (S786)

  • Wad - Woad (S374, S179)

  • Wir, wire, wyrtriw - myrtle, briar, tendril (S60)

  • Wycan – Wych elm (S508, S892)

Landscape; from Wikimedia Commons

If you envision the landscape of Beowulf as ominously dark, wooded, and overgrown, spending a few hours with the Anglo-Saxon charters will give you a fresh perspective. Useful resources for exploring the medieval landscape include:

  • LangScape -The Language of Landscape searchable database of Anglo-Saxon charter boundaries provides translations, glossary, headword and text search.

  • Oliver Rackham. Ancient Woodland: Its History, Vegetation, and Uses in England (2003)
                             Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape 
    Illustrated History of the Countryside(2003)
                             The Last Forest: Story of Hatfield Forest

  • Ottaway, Patrick. Archaeology in British Towns from the Emperor Claudius to the Black Death (Routledge, 1992).


Early Gardens

Gardens of Iron Age Britain

Gardens of Roman Britain

Continental gardens

Church and monastery gardens

Castle and manor gardens

Gardens in the Domesday Book

Gardens of toft and croft


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