Virgins, Weeders and Queens: A History of Women in the Garden

Virgins, Weeders and Queens: A History of Women in the Garden

by Twigs Way

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752495781
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/01/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 507 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

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Virgins Weeders and Queens

A History of Women in the Garden

By Twigs Way

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Twigs Way
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9578-1


Weeders and Breeders


    Eve ...
    Rose, and went forth among her Fruits and Flowers,
    To visit how they prosper'd, bud and bloom,
    Her Nurserie; they at her coming sprung
    And touch't by her fair tendance gladlier grew.
    Yet went she not, as not with such discourse
    Delighted, or not capable her eare
    Of what was high ...

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

Eden, that illusory and much-sought paradise, forms a dual origin in Western culture for both the history of women and the history of the garden. Adam was created to till the ground and tend the trees of the garden, while Eve was his helpmate and, according to Milton's Paradise Lost, his equal in the tending of the sweet fruits and blossoms. The buds and blossoms 'gladlier grew' at her touch, and the nectarines and peaches refreshed her after her gardening labours. Eve named the plants, and knew each one. Every tree pleasant to the sight, every plant good for food and every herb that brings forth seed was in that garden, including (rather inadvisably on the part of the garden designer) the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Like a poisonous laburnum, swaying golden showers and nut-brown podded seeds over a children's playground, the tree of knowledge proved too much of a temptation. For as Eve pointed out, surely the gaining of wisdom is a good thing. Alas, as many women have subsequently discovered, a little wisdom can lead you astray from the paths of social acceptance, and it is but a short distance from the tree of knowledge to the gate out of the garden. To compound the misery of this earliest gardening couple, the goodly fruits and herbs were henceforth to be joined by thistles and thorns, and weeding was to join tending as their labours on earth. This ancient tale of the enclosed garden of paradise has echoed down the centuries, influencing our love of gardens. Rather more subtly it has influenced the history of women's relationship with the garden.

Restored as the original Eve into the Garden of Paradise, transfigured and transformed through the Virgin Mary, medieval women feature in endless illuminated manuscripts. Framed by rose arbours and turf benches, they are captured forever behind the locked gates of an enclosed virginal world. The Song of Solomon gives voice to this mix of passion and seclusion with its well-known verse: 'A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; A spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits.'

More worldly Eves also found themselves banished from the orchards, lest further untoward incidents led to a second fall for humankind. The flower garden with its scented blossoms, the hothouses with their childlike tender exotics, and even the weeds of the vegetable plots, all called for their attention; fruit trees, however, were strictly out of bounds. The Roman author Pliny, combining agricultural advice with rural myth, claimed that 'On the approach of a woman in this state [menstrual], must will become sour, seeds ... sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree.' William Lawson, perhaps mindful of Pliny's advice, was still separating out the gardens of flowers and vegetables from the orchard. Lawson's The Country Housewifes Garden contained instructions on all types of herbs and flowers mete for her garden, but fruit trees were firmly dealt with in a separate part when he published the whole as A New Orchard and Garden in 1618. Referring throughout to the gardener as 'he' in the main part of his writings, Lawson eschews any reference to the goodly housewife in the orchard, although, rather perversely, the instructions within The Country Housewifes Garden do assume that she has read the rest of the book. One can only hope for the sake of the fruit that she has avoided actually visiting the trees.

Horticultural writers of the seventeenth-century Commonwealth, such as Samuel Hartlib, Ralph Austen and John Beale, concentrated much of their writings on the necessity for new orchards to be planted throughout the country. Encouraging both the material fruits of shared labour and the spiritual fruits of a paradise on earth, Austen's Treatise on Fruit Trees Together with The Spiritual Use of the Orchard does not, however, go as far as to extend its commonwealth zeal to allowing women back among the fruit trees. Even in the nineteenth century most women writers confined themselves to the flower garden and greenhouse as Eve's unfortunate error echoed down the millennia. The flower garden was long regarded as the especial domain of the woman, a domain which in the medieval period both symbolised her virtues and echoed her virginity.

The hortus conclusus (literally enclosed garden) beloved of the medieval and Tudor periods appears in thousands of brightly coloured illustrations in Books of Hours, romantic texts and even the odd gardening manual. Reflecting the circumscribed lives of the women at whom the texts were often aimed, the garden appears walled or paled in, often set within a castle beyond whose boundaries we glimpse an idyllic yet unobtainable landscape. A turf seat, often with meadow flowers, is occupied by the central character of the text. Whether holy virgin, queen or courtly lover, they are shown seated demurely within their gilded and petalled cages. A fountain representing life and love springing eternal occupies part of the picture, perhaps flowing beyond the walls recalling the rivers running from Eden. Tables hold delicacies and fruits, representing the Last Supper or the unobtainable delights of lust depending on setting and symbol, while flowers hold further clues to the meaning of the picture. Lily for purity, violet for humility, wild strawberry for the Passion, and the iris of the Trinity. A garden or flower picture could be read as a book and did indeed 'illuminate' the text. An astoundingly wide range of plants symbolised virginity, from the obvious pure white of the lily to the rather more obscure foxglove where only the shape of the flower (sealed at one end) gives away the source of the symbolism. That all these might be grown within the hortus conclusus gave added emphasis to its sealed and enclosed nature. Lilies of course also remind us of Eve's departure from Eden, as they were believed to have grown from the tears that she shed on leaving that gardeners' paradise.

Books of Hours, used to remind their owners of the religious lessons of the days and the seasons, also indicate the crossover between religious and sexual symbolism. Noblewomen are portrayed sitting in enclosed gardens studying an illustration of the Virgin Mary, herself seated in an enclosed garden. This peaceful image, encouraged and promulgated by social and religious morality of the period, has long influenced our view of women's relationship with gardens in the medieval period. Closely connected with the cult of the Virgin, women in gardens (and women as garden plants) are also portrayed in the courtly love literature and illuminations of the court of the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most famous of these is the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose. One of the medieval world's 'bestsellers', this allegorical poem by Guillaume de Lorris expounded the whole art of courtly love. In the poem the lover is searching for his true love, which takes the form of a rose. He enters first an orchard and then a walled garden, the door of which is opened by Idleness in the form of a yellow-haired lady in a green dress. Inside the garden allegorical characters discuss with him the art of love as he continues his search for the elusive rose of perfection, a rose eventually found among the pricks of thorns and stings of nettles. Continually retold (not least by Chaucer), translated, and reproduced in a series of richly illustrated manuscripts, the Roman de la Rose offers us yet another vision of the link between the female and the garden. A French manuscript c. 1500 also tells the tale of a lover. Let into a walled garden by Dame Nature his task is to choose between three ladies in the shape of fleshy love, wisdom or courtly womanhood, each ensconced in towers within the walls of the garden.

Other tales of love and romance took up the theme of the garden as an arena for dalliance within the safety of the castle walls and soon the walled garden took on the same shades of meaning, as the shrubbery was to do in the Victorian period. A retreat in which the bounds of convention might perhaps be loosened or exchanged, where romance and reality merged. This romantic vision may be glimpsed through 'cutaway' walls and between rose-entwined trellises, as we peer into the private retreats of noblewomen of the period. Tranquil and pale as befits their status, they spend their hours in the garden in religious devotion, contemplation and needlework; at least that's how the illustrators of the period would have them appear. Idealised settings include flowery meads, turf seats backed with roses, pinks and hollyhocks gay in borders. Picnic tables, water rills, and the odd troubadour added sound and sustenance to the scent and colour of their caged world. We know from Master Jon Gardener's 'The Feate of Gardening' that real English gardens contained foxgloves, hollyhocks, lilies, lavender, roses and rue alongside the rather less symbolic thyme, chamomile and garlic.

Although both the plants and the gardens seen in the jewel-like manuscripts contained a strong element of symbolism this does not mean that they did not also represent a more earthly reality. Enclosed gardens of castle and manor house were also recorded in descriptions and, less poetically, financial accounts of the period. At Woodstock in 1250 the Queen's garden was ordered to be enclosed by two walls 'well built and high' by command of King Henry III. The Book of Hours owned by Anne of Brittany, and now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, shows Anne in her own garden, with its crenellated walls, turf seats and trellis. James I of Scotland first spied his future wife Jane Beaufort while she was walking in her garden within the walls of Windsor Castle. Looking down from the tower in which he had been imprisoned, the young James saw a fair garden, made fast within the tower's walls. Hawthorn hedges and green arbours protected the complexion of his lovely Jane, who walked as 'Cupides own princess' in her garden of flowers. James recorded the garden, and his love, in a poem which gives us a wonderful picture of these enclosed gardens at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Some gardens were more extensive than could easily be shown on an illuminated miniature. At her castle in Clare, Suffolk, Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady Clare (endower of Clare College, Cambridge in 1338), had a private garden securely placed within the castle walls. The garden was crossed by paths of flint, perhaps leading to and from the fountain that is clearly recorded in her accounts. In addition she had an 'aviary' in the form of a pheasant house containing a glass chamber, a house for deer, and a model sepulchre or tomb, perhaps modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Depending on one's viewpoint, Lady Clare was either an extraordinarily unfortunate or fortunate woman. Granddaughter of Edward I, she was married three times, but all of her husbands pre-deceased her, leaving her an extremely wealthy widow at the age of 28. Taking a vow of chastity she devoted herself to her estate and her family, although she gave generous gifts to religious houses and Clare College. Undoubtedly she would have appreciated the fine gardens that now exist at the college with their smooth grass, year-round colourful borders and enclosed tranquil pool. Her castle at Clare was recorded as having its gardens increased by a 'new paling about le Maydengardeyn' in the mid-fifteenth century by its then occupant Richard, Duke of York. Whether this was truly a garden for maidens, or perhaps a maiden (new) garden, must be speculation.

Undoubtedly for some women, in particular the nobility, the garden was a place to languish rather than labour; however, for others the reality of the garden involved less purity and more earthiness. A life at court was not the agreeable fate of the majority in the Middle Ages, or indeed at any subsequent time. Rather than having their hearts swelled among jewel-like flowers, the responsibilities of most women were rather the swelling of the stomach. Housewives were busy with sowing and raising in kitchen, herb and physic plots; weeding women laboured earning a poor but honest wage. These are the women who were not merely in the garden but were part of the garden, for whom the garden was a place of engagement and activity, rather than isolation and repose. Neglected in the sparkling books of romance, their story may be found in more prosaic books of instruction and accounts recording the day-to-day dealings of working women or worried housewives. Without them the medieval garden would have been a much poorer, and weedier, place.

Following her expulsion from the paradise of the weedless Eden, and subsequent heartless imposition of thorns and thistles on the world, Eve would have found herself carrying out that most basic of gardening duties – weeding. Equipped 'with such gardening tools as art, yet rude, guiltless of fire, had form'd, and angels brought'. It comes as no surprise to discover that the deity associated with weeding is, in fact, Runciana, a goddess.

Although this vital duty often fails to merit a specific mention among the numerous exhortations to the housewife to 'plant and tend', this may be regarded more as an oversight than an indication of lack of weeds. Fitzherbert in his sixteenth-century Book of Husbandry, stated that the housewife's garden should be weeded 'as often as need shall require ... for else the weeds will overgrow the herbs'. Almost 100 years later, in 1618, William Lawson extolled the seventeenth-century 'Eve' to take 'skills and pains with weeding the garden, with weeding knives or fingers'. William Coles also observed that even Gentlewomoen, if the ground be not too wet may doe themselves much goode by kneeling upon a cushion and weeding.'

Weeding was not only the duty of the meritorious housewife, but was one of the relatively few ways in which 'respectable' women, including undoubtedly the spinster and the widow, might earn a small income. The sturdy figure of the weeding woman plods through the history of the garden from the Tudor court to the Victorian kitchen garden. Consistently poorly paid and little regarded, these women had the merit (from an employer's point of view) of being able to carry out monotonous but intricate work for remarkably little reward. The restricted social position and financial precariousness of the single woman made them ideal for such positions. As early as 1354 women were employed among the gardening workforce at Rotherhithe (Surrey). Perhaps the most famous women weeders are those listed in the Royal Accounts of Hampton Court in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Here we learn of women such as Agnes March, Alice and Elizabeth Alen, Elizabeth Anmun, Joan Smeton, Annes Lewes, Jone Abraham, Margaret Cookstole, Katherine Wite and Agnes Norton. Their duties, paid at the rate of 3d a day, were the removal of charlock, cockles, convolvulus, dandelions, docks, dodder, groundsel and nettles. In addition they were to attempt to eradicate that very weed that Eve had been the cause of, the thistle. A further two women, Ales Brewer and Margaret Rogers, appear to have expanded their role beyond their weeding duties by selling strawberry roots, primroses and violets. These were collected by the bushel load (at 3d a bushel) and presumably indicate plants being collected from the wild to be planted in the gardens.

In the early fifteenth century the wife of William Bishop, gardener at Winchester College, had earned 4s by weeding, a considerable amount, although how many days she spent on her knees we do not know. A hundred years later, in 1515, twenty-two women were employed at York Place (later Whitehall), each earning what appears to have been the standard wage for the period of 3d. More weeding women appear in the accounts of Cardinal's College (later Christ Church), Oxford. In the spring and summer of 1530 Margaret Hall, Joan Fery and Agnes Stringer were all paid 3d a day, plus free bread, ale and herrings, for 'cleansing the garden' and 'rooting up unprofitable herbs'. Rather disturbingly, wages of weeders were still 3d a day at Knole (Kent) in the time of Charles I, although they could earn 5d a day for picking hops in the grounds. By the reign of William III wages at Hampton Court had increased to some 8d a day – although with a maintenance budget of £4,800 a year either there were an awful lot of weeders or some gardeners were getting rather more than their fair share. Picking light or difficult crops such as hops or peas was another task commonly allotted to women through the centuries. Women pea-pickers were recorded in a photograph in Country Life in the early twentieth century, and hop-pickers still worked in the Kentish hop fields after the Second World War.


Excerpted from Virgins Weeders and Queens by Twigs Way. Copyright © 2013 Twigs Way. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Weeders and Breeders: Early Women in the Garden,
2. Queen Bees: Royals in the Garden,
3. Gardening in the Wilderness: The Long Eighteenth Century,
4. Inspiration and Perspiration: Artists and Needlewomen,
5. An Antidote to Levity and Idleness? The Victorian Woman Plant Collector and Gardener,
6. By the Ignorant for the Ignorant: Women Write on the Garden,
7.V irgins in the Beds: Schools for Women Gardeners,
8. Geniuses, Spinsters and Eccentrics: Into the Twentieth Century,
9. At War and Peace: Women Turn the Earth,
Appendix: Gardens to Visit Created by Women,

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