A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: John Gardener

Come springtime, fingers are collectively turning green. Watermelons, fennel, parsley, gherkins, spinach, peas, and runner beans are sprouting on many a Dutch windowsill. Mind you, this is not some random assortment of vegetables and herbs. They are, in fact, growing from seeds that came with groceries from one of the country’s biggest supermarket chains. What I like about this marketing campaign is that the supermarket has set up an ‘online community’ where budding gardeners can share their troubles with experts. Whenever my faith in humanity is wavering, I scroll through these threads and, after reading serious cries for help such as “my courgette has roots but no leaves” and “my pea shoots are of unequal height”, I comfort myself with the thought that, in 2016, at least some of us still care about the fate of struggling seedlings.

Two pages of an online booklet distributed by the supermarket.

Two pages of an online booklet distributed by the Dutch supermarket.

While there probably wasn’t a collective craze for watermelon pips five hundred years ago, people were equally concerned with the well-being of their vegetable patches and kitchen herbs. I could illustrate this point by referring to Thomas Tusser, but since I already namedrop him in every blog post up until this date, I am consulting one of his less-than-famous predecessors: John Gardener. John probably could not write himself, however, as his advice was penned down by a poet who concludes his verse with the line “and thus seyde mayster Ion Gardener to me” (l. 196). I imagine John as of the experts on the supermarket boards, hiding behind an avatar and giving advice to anyone “ho so wyl a gardener be” (l.1). Nonetheless, John’s advice is quite blunt compared to the supermarket experts, who would never state that it is a ‘great folly’ to let your herbs grow too high (l. 135).

Besides a seasoned gardener, John is also somewhat of a walking herbal. In the following lines, he boasts his knowledge of an array of Irish herbs in (intermittently metrical) verse! By the way, all of these herbs need to be sown in April, so there’s plenty of choice for next year’s marketing campaign.

Having listed 87 plants, John reluctantly decides to call it a day: “Further-more wul y noȝt go, but here of herbys wul y ho” (ll. 183-4), implying he could go on all day if he wanted to.

"We'd better go, Humphrey's reciting that awful poem on Irish herbs" Tacuinum Sanitatis, ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644, fol. 9v.

“We’d better go, Humphrey’s reciting that awful gardening poem again” – Tacuinum Sanitatis, ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644, fol. 9v.

Reading John Gardener for the first time, it immediately reminded me of a poem by the late Drs. P, a singular Dutch poet who has has composed some of the most memorable metrical verses of the past century. His “Botanisch Twistgesprek” (Botanic Dispute) features two speakers debating the design of their back garden. One debater tries to overwhelm his opponent with obscure plant names, but she simply wants a garden gnome with a basket on his back (“Nee, ik wil een tuinkabouter met een mandje op z’n rug!”). The similarity between the two poems is, naturally, caused by the respective authors flicking through herbals looking for rhyming plant names. There is an excellent read-along rap version of the poem by Bruno van Wayenburg, which can be listened to here: With a bit of practice, perhaps I might once endeavour a similar tribute to John…

– Alicia M. Tyssen Amherst, “X.—A Fifteenth Century Treatise on Gardening”, Archaeologia 54 (1894): pp 157-172.
– “Groene Vingers voor Beginners

NB: This blog post was not sponsored. All rights belongs to their respective owners.


A Monthly Look at some Husbandry Books: Chaucer’s Chickens

This blogpost is long overdue. I spent the beginning of this month viewing some actual husbandry books in the British Library and I took part in the London Rare Books School. Expect a blogpost about my ventures into printing in due time. First things first, let me introduce you to my new avian acquaintances.


Meet Pertelote.

Last month, we finally decided to buy chickens for our newly built chicken run. I did not hesitate long before I picked a hen (no pun intended) and named her Pertelote, after one of the main characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest Tale. It is one of my favourite tales, not in the last place because it reminds me of Aardman’s Chicken Run. Sadly enough, my family were not pleased with my choice of name and forbade me to christen the rooster Chauntecleer. The poor creature is now named Poldark.

“This insomnia is killing me. I keep seeing roosters in the trees!”

While I watched the chickens scurry around I started to ponder their medieval predecessors. What struck me is the notable absence of chickens in husbandry books. The most logical answer I could come up with is that there was simply no need to waste valuable parchment on the most ubiquitous piece of fowl. In the middle ages, you needed only to ask your old nan for advice on, say, clipping wings. As Walter of Henley briefly mentions, chickens were the responsibility of dairymaids. So, even though the widow who owns the chickens in the Nun’s Priest Tale has some large farm animals, she is described a sort of dairywomen: “For she was, as it were, a maner deye” (NPT l. 2846). Come to think of it, this would make John Skelton’s Elynour Rummynge a dairywoman too. Sort of.

The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge: A Movie About Chicks and Beer.

The fact that chickens were female territory could explain the lack of chickens in husbandry books, which are generally aimed at a male audience. There are exceptions such as of Robert Grosseteste’s Rules, but this text deals with household organisation rather than husbandry. Thomas Tusser also attempted to write something for a female audience: A Hundred Pointes of Good Huswifery. Yes, this exists and it is is, in the writer’s own words, married to A Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandry.

It comes as no surprise then, that the first animals to appear in Tusser’s Huswifery are chickens. Unfortunately enough, there are no instructions for the keeping of chickens but instead we find a patronising lesson in timekeeping featuring a rooster who takes the role of alarm clock. Thus, it would seem, roosters did not only hold sway over their hens but they also ruled the lives of maidservants:


No comment here. For applicable advice on chicken-keeping we better move into reliable territory: Gervase Markham’s farm.

As usual, Markham is the first to provide well-informed instructions for the keeping of hens: “Some small thing hath beene written of this nature before [Markham refers to another, unknown printed treatise], but so drawne from the opinions of old Writers, as Italians, French, Duth, and such like that it hath no coherence or congruitie with the practise and experience of English customes, both their rules and climbes being so different from ours, that except we were to live in their Countries, the rules which are Printed are uselesse, and to no purpose” (Cheape and Good Husbandry, 1614). As we might expect from the ever-critical Markham, he provides ample examples of the silliness that pervades continental husbandry books: “To set Hens in the winter time in stowes or ovens is of no use with us in England, and though they may by no meanes bring forth, yet will the Chickens be never good nor profitable, but like the planting of Lemon and Pomegranate trees, the fruit will come a great deale short of the charges”. Remember how in the treatise I discussed last month, grafting exotic trees was seen as the pinnacle of sophistication? Well, Markham is only concerned with English agriculture and will have none of your fancy figs. He is more concerned with the wellbeing of livestock, and devotes most of his treatise to veterinary medicine. There are quite a few interesting remedies for chickens, such as the following three:

  • If your hens have sore eyes, chew on ground-ivy and spit it into their eyes
  • If your hens crow [this is very “vnnaturall” according to Markham] you much pull their wings.
  • If you do not want your hen to sit [sitting hens? inconceivable!], bathe her in cold water and thrust a small feather through her nostrils.

I just checked on my Pertelote: she looks zo fit als een hoentje (please forgive my desire to use Dutch expressions that do not translate well into English) so no need for the ground-ivy or cold water bath just yet…


Covered in Bees! A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: June

Disclaimer: the contents of this blog post are highly speculative. Close reading of Middle English can be contagious and may result in an addiction to literary analysis.

“Let’s go guys, Winnie’s having one of his off-days again” (London, BL Harley 3448, f.10v)

It’s June – days are getting longer and so are the to-do lists of medieval husbandmen. According to Thomas Tusser, the time is ripe for sheep shearing, mowing the meadow, and setting a hop garden. Roughly eleven centuries before him, Palladius, the grandfather of husbandry books, was also passing on husbandry advice in his Opus Agriculturae. His work remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and around 1420, “son, brother, and uncle of kings” Duke Humphrey of Gloucester ordered a translation of Palladius for private reading, known as On Husbondrie.

It feels slightly alienating to read Middle English instructions for setting up olive and sesame groves and growing pomegranates, all of which are not particularly suited to the British climate. Yet Humphrey, being a humanist collector, was typically interested in Mediterranean scientific literature. To satisfy Humphrey’s appetite for ancient knowledge, the translator freely wrought Palladius’ aureate Latin into rhyme royal stanzas while sticking to the original content. This makes for an intriguing mix of didactic, scholarly, and literary genres and what is more, there might be hidden political commentary in the text, as I will point out later in this blog.

“What the … am I doing? I’m covered in bees!”

To illustrate that On Husbondrie is no straightforward husbandry book, I will focus on a chapter on beekeeping which occurs in the month of June. In the original work, Palladius describes the practice of gelding (drawing bees out of their hives in order to collect honey) as follows: “Fumus admovetur ex galbano et arido fimo bubulo, quem in pultario factis carbonibus convenit excitare: quod vas ita figuratum sit, ut velut inversi infidubli angusto ore fumum possit emitter” (Palladius Liber VII sive Mensis Iunius, VII.2). Humphrey’s translator renders this as:

Erly, when they slepe in their stacioun,
With smoke of galbane & drie oxendonge
Bismoke hem in their beddis, old & yonge. (ll. 132–4)

While Palladius simply uses the verb excitare for “waking up” the bees, the translator pictures how the tiny workers, resting in their own little hexagonal stations, are brutally blown of their beds by foul-smelling smoke. If this is not a warning against idleness, I do not know what is. There is further allegory to be found in the passage, for the hierarchy within beehives lends itself easily for reflecting on human society. As Daniel Wakelin points out in Humanism, Reading, & English Literature 1430-1530, a political reading of On Husbondrie might be worth exploring. It must be pointed out that the allusions are indeed sketchy and it is difficult to establish what events might be referred to by the translator, but let’s just give it a try.

First, consider the following passage describing the ‘coronation’ of a new king bee (NB: queen bees were not recognised as such until the late seventeenth century). For those who are not familiar with Middle English I have modernised the language – a translation of a translation, if you will:

On Hosbondrie

In order to avoid overhasty conclusions, consulting the Latin text will be necessary in order to find out if translator added anything significant. For the Latin text visit ForumRomanum.org; an English translation by John G. Fitch can be found over here. Wakelin argues that the translator does not attempt to further allegorise potential nods to Humphrey’s political situation (for instance cosyns, oost, and regne) any more than is already present in the Latin text (45). Still, there are certain elements in the translation that diverge ever so slightly from the Latin source. For instance, consider the lines “Oon king ther is, or kinges beth accorded / That oon shal regne, and alle on hym be lorded” where the Latin reads “noris aut unum regem esse uniuersis aut reconciliatis omnibus manere concordiam” (Palladius Book VII: VII.6). Could the future tense in “the one that shall reign” in any way be significant? Perhaps some historical context will provide the answer.

“Bill and Jed and the invention of bee stinger fencing in 1431” (Paris, BN. MS. it. 131)

If the composition of On Husbondrie is correctly dated at 1420, the reigning monarch at the time would be Humphrey’s brother Henry V. In June of the same year, Henry married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of the French king. On 6 December 1421, their only son Jayden, no sorry, Henry again, was born. After his father’s death in August 1422, Henry VI ascended the throne at the tender age of nine months, making him the youngest monarch in English history. According to Henry V’s will, he envisioned Humphrey as regent of England yet his dying wish was vetoed by Parliament. However, when Henry VI came of age, Humphrey was assigned as Lord Protector of England, so he was in charge of the country after all.

This is, of course, a rough sketch of a far more complex political situation. Yet all of this matters for an alternative reading of On Husbondrie. Say the work was actually translated after 1420, for instance during Henry V’s illness. Then, the lines “Concord amonge this cosyns to repare / Among hem is a swete auctorite” (cosyns can mean both “kin” and “cousins”) could be read in a different light. The beekeeper, Humphrey presumably, must maintain the harmony and hierarchy in his hives, lest his cosyn Henry VI should be “translated” before his time.

If there is indeed a political veneer to the text, it would prompt several other questions. Could the rivalry between the various hives refer to the Wars of the Roses? Who, then, are the “other noble kings” that pose a threat to the infant king? As I said before; there is not enough direct evidence to prove any of this is really true. Yet, if we imagine Humphrey as a reader of the text (the translator makes it seem as if he actually revised the text himself) we may wonder how he would have interpreted the beehive.


Fitch, John G. Palladius: The Work on Farming. (Totnes: Prospect, 2013)
Liddle, M, ed. The Middle English Translation of Palladius De Re Rustica. (Berlin: Ebering, 1896).
Wakelin, Daniel. Humanism, Reading, & English Literature 1430-1530. (Oxford: UP, 2007).


A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: Do Not Touch the Cucumbers!

Gentle reader,

May has arrived – the soil is wet with your servant’s sweat and you are ready for a more refined occupation outdoors. Look no further: Thomas Hill will teach you “howe to dresse, sowe, and sette a garden” in his “Briefe and Plesaunte Treatise” from 1558. You will be fully instructed how to set up your own kitchen garden and on top of that, you will get these two a-maze-ing garden plans for free!

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What interests me most about Hill’s treatise is an encyclopaedic catalogue of garden herbs and vegetables. Reading through all the common herbs, I was surprised to find rocket among the list. The crop appears in Palladius, the grandfather of husbandry treatises, from whom Hill borrows heavily. Still, I doubt whether the sharp leafy green was widely cultivated in early modern England – it was not even a ubiquitous salad green in the 90s.

Moving on, Hill’s most curious advice can be found in the entry concerning cucumbers. Again, some of it stems directly from “the auncient husbandmen”. First, he advises steeping cucumber seeds in sheep’s milk and honey to make them long, tender, and white. Considering that ripe cucumbers are yellow and white cultivars exist, I suppose the ambition to create long white cucumbers is plausible. Palladius also has the solution to grow seedless varieties: dipping the seeds in savin oil infused with a herb called culix. According to the author, cucumbers hate this oil so much they will curl up when they are exposed to it. Besides, cucumbers are susceptible to mood swings and display signs of terror when it thunders (I’m not making any of this up, believe me). To counteract further demasculinisation of the unfortunate cucumber, Hill arrives at the following warning:

But you must take heede that wemen [women] come as syldome [seldom] to the place (where Cucombers and Gordes [gourds] growe) as may be (for in a manner) as theyr touching of them they slacke in their growynge, and they haue their floures [period] on theim, they flea [drive out] the yong ones with their loke.

“Will you stop groping the gourds!”

I must admit I find this image exceedingly hilarious yet equally painful. First of all, “theyr touching of them” makes it sound as if women regularly engage in cucumber caressing. Nowhere do we find any concern about fennel fumbling or sorrel stroking. ‘Looks can kill’, moreover, takes on a whole new dimension in this context. Those terrified little cucumbers, unable to withstand such overwhelming femininity. I’d think twice before discarding the unwanted garnish on the side of my plate!


Hill, Thomas. A Most Briefe and Plesaunte Treatise, Teaching Howe to Dresse, Sowe, and Set a Garden… (London: John Day, 1558).

Palladius. The Fourteen Books of Palladius Rutilius Taurus Æmilianus, on Agriculture. Trans.Thomas Owen. (London: J. White, 1804).


A Monthly Look at a Husbandry Book: Walter of Henley

April, a new month full of new opportunities – go on a pilgrimage! – or, if you are less of an outgoing soul – stir up some fallow lands!

Marginalia featuring a plowman on f.153v of the Gorleston Psalter.

Marginalia featuring a plowman on f.153v of the Gorleston Psalter.

Obligatory Chaucer reference: Check. Now, let’s get on with the husbandry book-related stuff. But wait: in my latest blog post I spoke of the dryness of March, and contrasted with the fecund nature of April it reminds me of… that’s right:

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, ll.1-2).

To provide some agricultural background to Chaucer’s famous spring opening, let’s look at one of the most influential sources on husbandry in the Middle Ages: Walter of Henley, a monk from the West Midlands who lived around 1240-1300 (Oschinsky 145).

According to Walter, “to fallowe it is a good seasone in Aprile”. Just to brush up your field knowledge: a fallow land has been left uncultivated for a year to allow it to regain its fertility. To fallow, in Walter’s meaning, is to plough the field and prepare it for a new crop. Having a successful harvest depends on various factors, and ploughing a fallow land is the first crucial step towards the successful start of a new agricultural cycle. No wonder then, that a major part of Henley’s treatise is concerned with ploughing. Walter is adamant about the benefits of the ox-plough over the horse-plough:

“Wille you see howe the horse costeth more then the oxe [I will tell you].” (c.38) – OK, Walter, we’re all ears.

What follows is a very elaborate calculation which leads to the obvious conclusion: let’s not waste money on horses with their fancy shoes and expensive oats – cows just eat grass! Also, when your horses are old they will have nothing left but their own skin! A cow, on the other hand, can be fattened and sold for the same price as he once cost you (c.41). Ka-ching!

You're doing it wrong! - A horse-plough from the Macclesfield Psalter, f. 77v.

You’re doing it wrong! – A horse-plough from the Macclesfield Psalter, f. 77v.

After describing the perfect soil for ploughing in April: not too wet, not too dry (really, Walter, do we need a book for this?) he offers a golden piece of advice: “But he which hathe muche to doe cannot have alle the good seasons” (c.42). Meaning: a farmer who has many things to do, cannot always do them in the right season.

I wonder how well this would work as an excuse for procrastination. Plowman: “Sorry, I know it’s the season for ploughing, but I simply had too much going on, like going on a pilgrimage with my mates the Nun’s Priest and the Cook, wearing a tabard, riding on a mare. You cannot have all the good seasons, you know”.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales.
Oschinsky, Dorothea. Walter of Henley and other Treatises on Estate Managing and Accounting. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971).


Marches Husbandry: Beware of birds!

A monthly look at a husbandry book pt. 1: March

March is the month for sowing and ploughing the fields – Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry

Since it’s the first month of spring, let’s pick a husbandry book and see what advise they have to offer. In this first installment of ‘a monthly look at a husbandry book’ I’ve chosen for Thomas Tusser’s 1570 edition of A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry, which contains the following rhyme:

Marche dust to be solde, woorth raunsomes of golde.

Got it? Neither do I.

Apparently, the line is a variation on a proverb first recorded in John Heywood’s Play of the Weather (1533): “One bushell of march dustis worth a kynges raunsome”. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs offers the following explanation of the saying: “the month of March is traditionally wet and blustery”, wherefore dust must be a precious commodity. The ‘kynges raunsome’ is explained by Thomas Fuller, writer of the Worthies of England (1662), who refers to it as “the £100,000 raised in 1193–4 to pay for the release of King Richard I, who, on his way home from crusading in the Holy Land, was being held captive in Germany” (ODP). As Tusser omitted this part of the saying, the reference to King Richard I had probably become obsolete during Tusser’s lifetime.

I sense we could do with a little more information on the present month. Thankfully, the extended version of Tusser’s husbandry book from 1573 offers a whole chapter dedicated to the month of March, with some wonderful tips and tricks for household and farm. Interestingly, many points of advice have an avian character:

“Kepe corne from crowe, with arrow and bowe.” (Do not try this at home)

“Saue chickens poore buttocks, from pye, crowe and puttocks” (I love how Tusser desperately wanted to use the word ‘puttock’ for obvious rhyming possibilities, while he could just have used ‘buzzard’)


“Away with yer, foul crows!” – Detail from the Luttrell Psalter – Additional MS 42130, f. 170v – Courtesy of The British Library

Lastly, the pinnacle of Tusser’s ornitophobic rhyming spree concludes his chapter on March:

“Kill crowe, pie, and cadow, rook, buzzard & raven,
Or els go desire them to seke a new haven.
In scaling [ascending] the youngest, to plucke of his beck,
Beware how ye climber, for breaking your neck.”

In all, Tusser’s advise for March seems to be: protect your chicks and seedlings by killing lots of hungry birds, but watch your own back when you’re destroying their nests if you want to make it until April.

“A peck of March dust is worth a king’s ransom.” The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs. Eds. Simpson, John, and Jennifer Speake. (Oxford: University Press, 2008) via Oxford Reference.