Chelsea Flower Show is upon us, and as always it seems to coincide with a flurry of growth in the garden. Is this the surge of spring, or the beginning of summer? Whichever it is, it makes me feel glad.
I planted some more sweet-peas in the greenhouse two days ago and they are already pushing shoots up above the soil. The radishes I planted outside on Sunday are already showing. The row I planted a fortnight ago are now visibly growing each day and starting to heart up. Even the basil, that had been very slow to germinate, has got a move on and is finally surfacing. I was so encouraged, that I planted two more pots of basil seeds that I had been given by Jemma (@J3mma1983) in a seed swop. These are Greek basil and purple basil. I’ve always avoided purple basil. Whenever I see it in big kitchen garden displays it looks weedier than the green basil. But that’s what seed swopping is all about. It’s about trying things you would not ordinarily risk planting. So far the purple basil has outgrown the green!
I know it is time to plant because weeds are starting with a vengeance. But my closed system of composting, recycling spent soil via the compost heap, is having a strange and rather wonderful effect on the weeds. All my weeds are vegetables! Instead of being plagued by mare’s-tail and couch grass I’m favoured with giant red mustard and Russian kale. These both make excellent micro-veg, so none of them are wasted.
The weeds tell us that the soil is warming up and that now is the time to sow outdoors. Like everyone else, I feel that I can’t keep up. There is so much to do. If I miss this window of weather, we’ll be into summer and the soil will be too dry to give tender seedlings a good start in life.
How wonderful this season must have been for the early mediaeval serfs who worked their land around here. The Doomsday Book records that Westminster Abbey (the owner of the land) had 19 villains and 42 cottars. At first, when I read this, I imagined a village. But the cottages, or more likely hovels, that these indentured farm-hands lived in must have been more spread out that a village implies.
It was the serfs, rather than the monks, who worked the land. In return for quite a large smallholding of between 1-5 hectares, villains would pledge a certain amount of time to working in the monastery farm. The rest of the time they worked their own land, selling the produce in local markets. The cottars would only have enough land for their own family needs. They were the lowest of the low in the farming hierarchy, but still expected to help with the monastery lands.
So while the monastery owned the cattle, the orchards, the wheat fields and the vineyards, as well as the bakery and the brew-house, peasants would have tended and profited from much of the arable land around me.
It is dangerous to romanticise the very hard life that they must have led, but on a spring day, if I had a few hectares to call my own, I think I could be happy. Ironically, because it was the peasants who tended the vegetable plots, the myth developed that vegetables were not as healthy as meat.
I got out my battered ‘O’level copy of Chaucer’s, Nun’s Priests Tale from the Canterbury Tales to provide a glimpse of what a cottar’s life might have been like. The poem was written in 1387, but in describing the poor widow, Chaucer describes a feudal system that had endured, unchanged for 200 years, since the Norman Conquest.
It is clear from the text that by the 14th Century, the link between rich diet and illness had already been made. The Nun’s Priest explains that the widow was healthy despite her poverty:
Overeating never was the cause of any sickness; her only treatment was a temperate diet, with exercise and heart's content. The gout never kept her from dancing, nor did the apoplexy bother her head. She drank neither red wine nor white; her table was served for the most part with white and black - milk and brown bread, of which she found no lack, with broiled bacon and at times an egg or two…
Translation Gerard NeCastro's
Other parts of the tale tell us that the widow has a sow, a milk-cow, some chickens and a proud cock called Chanticleer, who was partial to crowing among the cabbages. From the vegetables in her plot, surrounding her cottage, she would have made a pottage every day. Pottage is a stew, or something like a modern stock-pot. For the poor window it would contain a mixture of vegetables and perhaps a bone or two for flavour. The French word potage, meaning a rich vegetable soup, comes from the same root. I call my garden a potager which is today still a common France term for a vegetable garden. For me the term describes a garden used to feed us, rather than the English cottage garden, which has come to imply a rather more decorative affair. My garden, like that of Chaucer’s widow, is there to sustain us. I can imagine that she too would have relished the fresh young weeds springing up at this time of year, ready to enliven her diet. She would not have rooted out any edible volunteers, I’m sure.
The variety in a cottar garden would have been very limited. Many of the plants I grow, like tomatoes and peppers had not been discovered. The fine lettuces would not yet have been bred. Instead, poor people may well have harvested their seeds from weeds amongst the hedgerows. Even today, as I walked the dog through Regent’s Park, I noticed that all the native weeds at this time of year are edible. This morning I saw daisies. Their leaf rosettes are the forerunners of our lamb’s lettuce. The park is heavy with the down of dandelion seeds as they float through the air and there are nettles of every type. These are the direct descendants of the rural pottage that people could collect. Chaucer’s widow would have needed to concentrate on growing vegetables that would keep through the long winter, such as onions, turnips, marrowfat peas and beans. These are not wild plants in London. The seeds would have been saved from year to year, handed down from generation to generation. But she would not have been indifferent to flowers. The link between edible crops, flowers and their seeds had not been broken in those days. I think this is why, when we think of a cottage garden we think of flowers as well as vegetables.
In contrast, Westminster Abbey records reveal that the monks ate a breakfast of bread and ale very early in the morning. Dinner was served between 11.00-11.30am and supper served late in the afternoon. Both meals would have consisted of meat, eggs, bread, cheese, pottage and wine or beer. A monastery pottage might include more meat and eggs stirred in at the last minute. The cook reckoned on each monk eating five eggs a day. It makes me wonder what their cholesterol levels must have been like!
As time went on the pottage was dropped by the monastery. It was poor man’s fare. By the 13th Century it doesn’t seem that the monks ate anything like their five a day. The monastery garden would have been reserved for physic plants, grown to cure agues and maladies. And though the monastery owned orchards and nut trees, fresh fruit was a delicacy, reserved for feast days. The strict rules of Saint Benedict required the monks to abstain from meat on Fridays and fast days. But over the years it was agreed that offal and fish could be eaten on fast days – so a Westminster Monk might well have been as large and rotund as the mythical Little John in Robin Hood.
It seems that the wealthier you were in early medieval times, the more rich food you ate, and ironically the worse your diet became. No wonder the physic garden became such a mainstay of the religious life.
Even Chaucer, who was a courtier, far removed from the land, recognised this springtime feeling that I have today. The opening lines of the Canterbury Tales describe the effect that springtime brings to all creatures. (I’ve left this passage in the original Middle English, because it seems to sound so much better than in any of the translations. If you read it aloud to yourself, it will not be difficult to get the gist of what he’s talking about.)
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages)
shoures soote sweet showers, flour flowers, Ram the sign of Aries,
ye eye, hir courages their hearts
I’ve been enjoying the dawn chorus these last few days; small fowls making melody. I’ve been relishing this time of year and I’m sure that my feelings have been shared by gardeners in England, unchanged since farming began. Enjoy Chelsea week.