A Garden of Earthly Delights

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There are times when you’re just in the right place at the right time.

It’s a funny thing. You might have noticed but most of me is pretty firmly rooted in the 17th century, almost all of the time.
I occasionally venture into the field of Dark Age re-enactment but it’s strictly domestic: half the time I’d be pushed to tell you what century I’m in, although I could probably tell you what I’m cooking while I’m doing it.
But anyway – I’m possibly less femme when I’m in Anglo-Saxon kit than when I’m in the 1640s, but, you know. That’s where we are.

And as you probably also know, for the last couple of years I’ve been rather idly working on a period herb garden. Which is coming on beautifully, thank you, and I think you’ve probably all heard about the various trials and tribulations of Russell Lovage, who came to me as a little sprout something like seven years ago and has refused point-blank to die on me ever since. (I’m very fond of Russell Lovage – yes, of course that’s why he’s called Russell, he is as grimly indestructible as the fictional version – and he has now rewarded me with a crop of little Lovagelings, most of whom will be going to loving forever-homes over the next few weeks.)
And I thought that was going to be it, that was going to be me swishing decoratively through the lavender bushes in a neat coif and a big skirt stooping to break a twig here and a leaf there, inhaling the scents of clove carnation and balm and considering my still-room….

And then someone asks if the re-enactment group we belong to want to be involved in planning and creating an Anglo-Saxon garden at Escot – Edcott, rather, I might say: the Anglo-Saxon village – to which the answer is HELL YEAH. I don’t love my fingernails that much.
It’s damp, it’s overgrown, it’s going to be hard work. I’m looking at a tray full of heart’s-ease – banwort, to the Saxons, and wild pansy to us now – that would love a new home in a shady wood, and obviously the Lovagelings, they could go feral out there. I’ve got woad seeds – though maybe they need to be renewed: I’ve had them for a while without the room to plant them.
I have visions of enough space to grow strewing-herbs: meadowsweet and woodruff and mint and costmary and probably fleabane to keep our little friends at bay when one is ankle-deep in rushes.
To be able to give our resident herbalist a sufficiency of exotic herbs to physic most ailments: tansy and feverfew for headaches and dill for colicky bellies and the nine herbs of power – Mucgwyrt, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and Attorlaðe (identified as cockspur grass (Echinochloa crus-galli) by R. K. Gordon; partially defined by others as betony (Stachys officinalis) and Stune, Lamb’s cress (Cardamine hirsuta) and Wegbrade, Plantain (Plantago) and Mægðe, Mayweed (Matricaria) and Stiðe, Nettle (Urtica) and Wergulu, Crab-apple (Malu) and Fille Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and Finule Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Cooking and washing and beautifying herbs – the pot-herbs, marigold and soapwort and nettle for cordage and wrapping cheese -the vegetables, Good King Henry and fat hen and purslane and ramsons, all the forgotten green vegetables that would have heralded spring to people who lived on what they could store and grow.

What it’s not going to be is my lovely, mannered, 17th century herb-garden – which exists and is real. It is an actual thing and I go out and cut things from it to use, and it has lovely things in it like primroses and violets for candying, and gillyflowers for scent. I suspect that the Edcott garden will be a much earthier, and probably swearier place, where a whisper is not the sound of a silk skirt on the gravel but is more likely to be the sound of a grubby small child wondering if parental eyes are still on the ripe strawberries.
(I am told there will be pigs. There will also, I feel, be sage – and this is not an idle threat – the first snout that uproots my Lovagelings is likely to find itself stuffed with an apple and spit-roasted. Just, you know, saying…)

It’s going to be fun, and a voyage of amazing discoveries. That’s all what I’ddo, if anyone were daft enough to give me free rein. Fortunately they’re not or we’d be knee-deep in lovage and mint, and if anything happens at all I’ll be being restrained and encouraged by friends with strong backs and common sense.
Watch this space. No – not that one: the green one, there.

Kitty, My Rib – the story of Katie van Bora

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Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn’t have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.

There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like – but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient…. right?
Well – some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant’s daughters – and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction – convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther – a man she had presumably never met formally in her life – and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn’t take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum – sorry, Martin, the only man I’m taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms – he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she’d have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it’s not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years – not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she’d been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that “It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace,” – she probably didn’t mind too much.

Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora – the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.