" And in the gardin at the sonne uprist She walketh up and down wher as hire list She gathereth floures, party whyte and reede To make a sotil gerland for hire heede".
Chaucer, Knight's Tale.
GREAT changes were taking place in England during the latter half of the fourteenth, and beginning of the following century. Trades and industries increased, and in like manner horticulture revived. During the years which had passed since the Norman Conquest, the conquerors and conquered had become welded into one nation, and this had not been effected peacefully. But we now come to a period when the battles were being fought on foreign soil, while the nation was enjoying comparative peace at home. In the country itself, the poorer sections of the community were gradually asserting their rights against the lords of the soil. There was a class growing up, of farmers who farmed lands, merely paying some yearly tribute in service, or in kind, to their overlord. Round these small farms and manors, gardens and orchards were planted, and thus it can be seen how such movements would affect the progress of gardening.
From incidental references in writings of the time it appears that the poorer classes chiefly lived on vegetables, as the following quotations from Langland serve to show :
" Alle the pore peple pesecoddes fetten * Benes and baken apples thei brou5te in her lappes Chibolles and cheruelles and ripe chiries manye." †
Again, he says, the poor folk:
" With grene poret and pesen to poysonn hunger thei thought." ‡
* Fetch. † Piers Ploughman. ‡ Ibid.
Also " Two loves of benes and bran Y baked for my children."*
In picturing the utter destitution of the patient Griseldis, Chaucer lays stress on the fact that she was dependent on vegetables for food, and being without a garden, had resort to the wayside herbs :—
" Whan she homward cam she wolde bringe Wortes or othere herbes tyme ofte The which she shredde and seeth for her livinge." †
At the beginning of this period there was great distress, as the country was swept by a scourge worse than war, the fearful plague known as the Black Death, As if to add to the horrors of the time, and the sufferings of the survivors, there were bad seasons, and many crops failed. Even what harvest there was, could not be gathered, labourers were so scarce. Doubtless many orchards and gardens suffered much from the neglect of those years. But in spite of this, they were increasing, and by the end of the fourteenth century, every small manor and farm could boast of a garden. For " that londe bereth fruyt & corn good ynoughe, that londe is well at ease as longe as men lyue in peas." ‡ This was certainly true, for while men lived in comparative peace, there was a revival in gardening and husbandry. This progress was again checked by the Wars of the Roses; and the next step in advance did not come till the restoration of peace in Tudor times.
In the Middle Ages, what we should now call the kitchen garden, was in most cases the only one attached to a house. The idea of a garden, solely for beauty and pleasure, was quite a secondary consideration. In early cookery-books, various recipes for serving up vegetables are given, though only a few of these dishes are vegetables cooked alone. But the wealthy, who could afford to get all the ingredients of these many recipes, had so much meat, and such an immense variety of game, cranes, herons, curlews, and other birds, besides those still in use, that they did not care for vegetables served separately, in any quantities, except on fast days. Gardens had chiefly to supply herbs for stuffing and flavouring, and these were freely used.
* Piers Ploughman. † Clerk's Tale.
‡ Trevisa, description of Britain in his translation of Higden's Poly-chronicon, cir. 1387 (printed by Caxton, 1482).
For example, the first recipe in one book* is for cooking a " hare in Wortes." It begins, " Take colys, and stripe hem faire from the stalkes, take Betus and Borage, auens, Violette Malvis, parsele, betayn, pacience the white of the lekes and the croppe of the netle; parboile, presse out the water, hew hem small.
And do thereto mele," and so on. Onions, leeks, and garlick were very largely used. Such mixtures as meat or fish cooked with pears or apples, spices and sugar, and to which, leeks ground small, porrettes minced, whole onions or garlick sauce is added, are by no means uncommon. The Sompnour, among Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, is a type of the class among whom this taste prevailed, " Wel lovede he garleek oynouns, and ek leekes".
All strongly flavoured herbs were popular in cooking, and every garden contained a good assortment. Fennel was one in very general use, and both the green leaves and also the seeds were eaten. As much as eight and a-half pounds of fennel seed were bought for the king's household for one month's supply.† And with the poor folk, it was chiefly used to relieve the pangs of hunger on fasting days. In Piers Plongliman, a priest asks a poor woman,
" Hast thou ought in thy purs? " quod he, " Any hote spices ? "
" I have peper and piones," ‡ quod she, " and a pounde garlike, A ferthyngworth of fenel seed, for fastyng dayes".
In an old medical MS.,§ it is said of this plant,
" Fenel is erbe precyows,
* * *
Good in his sed so is his rote, And to many thyngys bote.|| * * *
* Harl. MS. 4016, c. 1450. Printed Early Eng. Text Soc. Ed. by T. Austin.
† Wardrobe Acc, Edward I., 1281. ‡ Peonies.
§ Fourteenth century MS. preserved in the Royal Library, Stockholm. Extracts Archceologia, Vol. XXX. || Good.
Fenel in potage and in mete Is good to done whane yu schalt ete, All grene loke it be corwyn * small In what mete yu vsyn schall".
Mint was often used with fennel in sauces. Chaucer mentions them growing together :—
" Then went I forth on my right hond Downe by a litel path I fond: