Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

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

  

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 Vernacular Gardens

 

The primary focus of Wyrtig.com is the “vernacular garden”; that is:

  • A small plot, rather than a field

  • Cultivated by hand, usually by the household that will use its produce

  • Primarily utilitarian, providing essential foods and seasonings, medicines, cosmetics, dyes,
    and plants used in social and religious practices

  • Reflective of local beliefs and attitudes

  • Innovative and adaptive because its produce is essential to the well-being of the household;
    this makes it a setting where gardening practices continually evolve in response to local
    conditions and demands

Looking at the plants most often named in early medieval sources, and at the garden descriptions that survive, it is clear that these gardens were highly practical. But even so, it is likely that then as now gardeners were sensible of the beauty, as well as the bounty, of their gardens. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski wrote in 1966, exactly as someone

...will take an artist's delight in constructing a canoe or a house, perfect in shape, decoration and finish, and the whole community will glory in such an achievement; exactly thus will he go about the laying out and developing of his garden… It is the right, honorable, and enviable thing to have fine-looking gardens and rich crops.

Coral Gardens and Their Magic

There is no reason to believe that medieval vernacular gardens would not have reflected a similar aesthetic. Indeed, we see this in the writing of 9th century gardener Walafrid Strabo, whose garden contained not just vegetables, but also roses and lilies; and Walafrid tells us that even though his homeland had no source of Tyrian purple, a luxurious red dye obtained from shellfish, it made up for this with its vivid red roses.

 
There is much that we can never know the early gardens of this period, no matter how carefully we parse archaeological reports, comb through the illustrations in illuminated manuscripts, or examine early charters, herbals, legal documents, medieval literature, and other written sources. The documents we have were not typically written by the gardeners themselves, nor by their peers, but come from elite sources such as religious houses and court records. In truth, a great deal of what we "know" about early medieval gardens is hearsay, common wisdom, accepted theory.

 

12th century portrayal of Adam delving while Eve spinsSome modern scholars say that early medieval gardens were the domain of women; others, that they were men’s work -– after all, it was Adam who delved while Eve spun.

Time and again, the Romans have been credited with introducing a plant that modern archaeology has shown to exist in Britain long before the appearance of the Roman armies.

Some say that early gardening practices and plants were largely developed by monastic gardeners and then shared with lay gardeners beyond the monastery precincts, a theory that runs counter to what we know from comparable but more recent practices in vernacular garden development, in which "herb women" and rhizomati, root gatherers, are a key source of plant materials and seeds, and garden innovations are shared among peers -- family, neighbors, friends -- rather than distributed by a central authority.

Understanding what we read in primary sources can be tricky; terms are often unclear, and defining from context is sometimes not possible. For example,

  • If an herbal tells us a plant is found in” a garden," does this mean it is cultivated there, or is it a common weed in gardens?

  • Do the hedges cited in charters surround gardens as well as fields?

  • If our name for a plant is the same as the name used in a medieval herbal, can we be certain that the two plants are identical?

If you like problem-solving, this is a fascinating field, and discussions about the vernacular garden can be found at:

 

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt

 

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