Holinshed's Chronicles, from which came most of the material for the Shakespearean plays, were published in 1577. One of Holinshed's collaborators was William Harrison, chaplain to Lord Cobham, who wrote the Descriptions of Britain and England for the chronicles. They have preserved for us a vivid and detailed picture of the England which Elizabeth inherited. This series will present a slightly abridged version in which the language has been modernised for clarity. In this extract Harrison deals with the herb gardens and orchards of England. As usual, he is not sparing in his criticism of those who deserve it!
Once we had taken Calais from the French, and our countrymen had learned the art of foreign trade (whereby they grew rich), they also began to grow idle. They therefore not only abandoned their former habits of hard work and frugality, but also gave themselves over to living in excess and vanity. Because of this, many of our home-produced goods were suddenly in short supply and very quickly disappeared entirely. Those foreigners living in out country, noticing our growing laziness and seizing the opportunity, began to import, from their own countries, those things that we increasingly lacked.
This only served to increase the idleness of our own people. For, finding ourselves being able to buy these goods at reasonable prices (as we supposed) from them, we thought it mere madness to spend either time or money in producing the same things here at home. And thus we became enemies to our own welfare, in the same way that our forefathers did when they constantly entered the wars and over-stretched our resources both at home and abroad. On top of this, the natural inclination of mankind to admire exotic things and hold ordinary and common things in contempt, has played no small part in bringing about this state of affairs.
In this way we have despised our own gifts of God growing here at home and held in great admiration every trifle and toy that is brought in from abroad investing them with I know not how much solemnity and worth until they too become as common as our own and are similarly, or even more, despised. I could give many examples but, since my purpose here is to treat of gardens an orchards, it is enough that I just mention just those that serve to illustrate my theme. By the word "garden" I mean to include all such ground that is turned with the spade in a man's hand, for that is the very essence of the word.
I have written before on the subject of wine which was produced in great plenty, here not only in the times of the Romans but, as I have seen learned from old records, also after the Norman Conquest. But yet, at this present time, no wine at all (or very little) in produced in this country. And I do not blame this on the nature of the soil but on the laziness of my countrymen.
Those herbs, fruits and roots that appear annually from seed and which were very plentiful in the time of Edward the First, and later, also came to be neglected. So much so that from the time of Henry IV to end of the reign of Henry VII the beginning of Henry VIII's reign there was little use for them in England. They were either ignored or were supposed to be fit food only for hogs and the beasts of the forest, not for humans.
However, in my own time, they have come back into use. This is not only amongst the common people but such things as melons, pompons [pumpkins], gourds, cucumbers, radishes, skirets [a species of water parsnip], parsnips, carrots, cabbages, navews, [rape or coleseed] turnips, and all kinds of salad herbs are now eaten as dainty dishes at the tables of delicate merchants, gentlemen, and the nobility, who annually import tons of new seeds from abroad. Nor do they confine themselves to these wholesome foods but in their quest for more delicacies they experiment with things that are very dangerous and harmful such as aubergines and mushrooms, as if nature had intended everything to be eaten or that the Lord had provided a remedy for everything poisonous!
In the past, hops were also plentiful in this land but we later stopped producing these also. And now that they are revived, where are any better to be found? What will produce a greater profit? The poles that support them are the only outlay required and since people are now growing their own ash trees that cost will also shortly disappear. Madder, too, used to grow here in abundance but was also allowed to disappear for a time. And again, now that it is being revived it is already bringing no small benefit to our country! So are a number of other produce which are now bought from us, where in recent times we, in our idleness, gladly imported these very things.
Now, if you look at the gardens which lies next to our houses it is plain to see how wonderfully their beauty has been enhanced. This is not only with flowers of great variety and in wonderful arrangements but also with medicinal herbs which have been cultivated here during the past forty years. In comparison with the present day, the gardens of the past were but dungheaps and laystalls to those that owned them. It is also wonderful to see the extent to which art can enhance the colours, abundance and size of our flowers. Our modern gardeners are so clever and learned that they can do almost anything they like with nature, almost as if they were her masters. It is also astounding to see just how many strange herbs, plants, and annual fruits that are daily brought to us from the Indies, Americas, Ceylon, Canary Isles, and all parts of the world. The like of these, although they are not suitable foods for us (because God has bestowed sufficient produce on every country according to her own needs), yet, for the delight of eye and the wonderful scents they bring to the nose, they are to be cherished. And God is to be glorified also in them, because they are his good gifts, and created to do man help and service.
There is hardly a single nobleman, gentleman, or merchant that does not greatly value these flowers, which even now begin to become accustomed to our soils so that we may almost count them as part of our own natural produce. In the same way they have no less respect or care for medicinal herbs which originated in other regions closer to home. The extent that I have seen in a single garden as many as three hundred or four hundred, if not more, of them, and the half of whose names, no more than forty years ago, were completely unknown to us.
But here I find some grounds for complaint, because we extol their uses so much that we deride our own native plants, which are, in truth, more beneficial and apt for us than those that are natives of other lands. Because, as I said before, every region has abundantly within her own limits whatever is needed and most suitable to those that live there.
What praise is heaped on tobacco in my own time! However, truth to tell, whether it is because it is not fit for the constitution of an Englishman or whether our soil alters its properties, it doe not do all that is claimed for it. Besides, our own common wood sage or blessed thistle are known to be both wholesome and powerful medicines if used properly. I could give many more examples such as sarsaparilla, mocha (senna) etc. but I will refrain from doing so because I wish to be brief. However, it is true that the great esteem which we give to imported and exotic medicinal compounds and drugs is he real reason why the knowledge and use our own home-grown remedies have for so long been ignored. And the proof is this, that the more ingredients that go into the making of any compound medicine the more uncertain will be its effects because the individual qualities and effects of the individual constituents are not thoroughly understood. Yet, so great is our constant thirst for new and strange drugs, which only benefit the physician and the apothecary, is not the least reason why our own simple remedies are trampled under our feet. Yet if we only recognised the beneficial powers of these and were able to apply them to our needs, they would be held in the highest esteem. And so, what are we doing with such Arabian and Greek stuff that is daily brought from the four corners of the globe? Places where the bodies of those that live there are of a completely different constitution to ours here at home. This things grow for good of the Arabians and the Geeks, not for us. Although they may, through skilful mixing, be made beneficial for us also, yet, to be more skilful in the preparation of these than in that of our own herbs is madness. To use foreign produce when our own might do just as well or better is madness enough but to denigrate our own and heap unbounded praise on the foreign stuff is the craziest thing of all. In fact, it is only a mark of ignorance or, at best, negligence and therefore deserves to be condemned.
Amongst the Indians, who have the most present cures for every disease of their own nation, there is small regard for compound medicines, and even less for foreign drugs because they neither know them nor can use them. But work wonders even with their own remedies. Her also we see the full effect of the different climate in action. For, whilst they will heal one another in a short time with the application of one herb, if a Spaniard or Englishman needs their help, the cure takes longer. Sometimes also they will need to use more than one medicine but their effects are completely understood because they are natural to the region and are used by men who have neither heard of or saw any virtue in drugs that come from other countries.
So too did Marcus Cato, the learned Roman, endeavour to deal in his cures of many diseases. He not only used such cures as were to be had in his own country, but he also examined and learned the forces of each of them. And he did this with such diligence that in his whole life he arrived at the absolute and precise knowledge of only a handful. But of these he wrote wit great knowledge and learning as would be clearly seen if his books had survived. Also, for the space of six hundred years the colewort was the only medicine in Rome for all diseases, so that his virtues were thoroughly known in those parts.
For my part, I have no doubt but that use of outlandish drugs had blinded our physicians of England in times past. Otherwise, the virtues of our herbs and cures here at home would have been far better known, and as well understood by us as those of India are to the practitioners of those parts. And therefore found to be more useful to us than the foreign drugs either are or can be. I will also add this, that even those plants which are most common because they grow everywhere, and most vilified because of their abundance, are not without some universal and special efficacy, if it were known, for our benefit. For God in nature has so arranged things that those most needed are the most plentiful and will serve for those general diseases that most commonly affect our constitutions. Great thanks therefore must be given to those physicians of our age and country, who not only endeavour to search out the use of such herbs that grow here but also to procure those that grow elsewhere, in order to acclimatise them so that, in time, they also will become useful to us as if they were natural to this climate and soil.
The chief workman or, as I may call him, the founder, of this approach is Carolus Clusius, the noble herbalist whose work has wonderfully stirred them up into this good act. For although Matthiolus, Rembert, Lobell, and others have progressed far in this subject, yet none have come near to Clusius, much less gone further in identifying and describing so many new herbs. I have no doubt but that if this man were in England for just seven years, he would reveal a number of herbs growing here of which our physicians and apothecaries are completely ignorant. Similar thanks must be given to our nobility, gentlemen, and others, for their constant nurture and preservation of such native and foreign herbs in their gardens. Because of this these plants will not only be available and preserved but their characteristics and medicinal properties will be made more familiar than they have ever been.
Our orchards are in the same state as our gardens which were never blessed with such good fruits and in such variety as they are at present. Besides having the most delicate apples, plums, pears, walnuts, filberts [hazel nuts] and various other planted within the last forty years, in comparison with which most of the old trees are worth nothing much, so have we no less numbers of exotic fruit, such as apricots, almonds, peaches, figs, corn-trees [cornelian cherry-tree] in noblemen's orchards. I have seen capers, oranges, and lemons, and heard of wild olives growing here, beside other strange trees, brought from afar, whose names I do not know. So that England was never better supplied with fruit nor has any nation in their own climate been more well supplied with these and other blessings from the most high God, who grant us the grace to use the same to his honour and glory! And not as instruments and excuses for further excess and vanity! Otherwise his displeasure may be kindled, and these benefits of his bounty will turn into thorns and briers to harass and punish us for abusing those he has bestowed upon us for our consolation and comfort.
We have here workmen who are expert in grafting not only the natural fruits, but also artificial mixtures, so that a single tree can bear many different fruits or the same fruit in different colours and flavours. They play with nature as if her whole workings were completely known to them. Hard fruits they will make soft, sour sweet and sweet even sweeter and delicate. They will even grow fruits without kernels or cores and will give them the flavour of musk, amber or sweet spices as they wish. Many discourses have been written about these methods and also on how to convert the kernels of peaches into almonds, or to make small fruit much bigger, to remove or add extra or necessary moisture to the trees, and other things to do with their preservation. This is done with no less diligence than our physicians normally show for our own diseased bodies, which to me does seem right strange.
Likewise, our gardeners treat their herbs, so that they are strengthened against extremes of weather, and preserved from decay and hindrance, so that some that were annual are now made perpetual, being taken up every year, and either preserved in the house, or, having the ross [scaly bark] pulled from their roots, are re-planted in complete safety. The careful way in which they water their plants with different solutions is a wonder to see, so that the apothecaries' shops now seem to be absolutely necessary for our gardens and orchards in many ways. Nay, even the kitchen itself has become so useful to them that even the very dish-water is not without some use amongst our finest plants. By these and other examples which I have not included, I am persuaded that, although the gardens of the Hesperides were famous for their delicacy in times past, if it were possible to have an impartial judge whose intimate knowledge of both allowed him to pass judgement, he would give the prize to the gardens of our days, and generally over all Europe.
Pliny and others speak of a rose that had three score leaves growing upon one button: but if I should tell of one which had three times that number, all in proportion, I know that no-one will believe me. And it would be no great matter if I were not. However, I have heard that such a rose was to be seen in Antwerp, in 1585 and I know of one who might have had a slip or stallon [cutting] from it if he would have invested ten pounds in its cultivation which would have been an uncertain venture and therefore best left alone in my opinion.
For my own part, good reader, let me boast a little of my garden, which is but small, and the whole area thereof little above 300 foot of ground. Yet, such has been my good luck in purchasing a variety of herbs, that, notwithstanding my small ability, there are very near three hundred of one sort and other contained therein, not one of them being common or usually to be had. If therefore my little plot, void of all cost in keeping, be so well furnished, what shall we think of those of Hampton Court, Nonsuch, Tibaults, Cobham Garden, and sundry others belonging to various citizens of London, whom I could particularly name, if I should not seem to offend them by such my demeanour and dealing.
Links to the other articles in the series.
Elizabethan England: The Social Classes
Elizabethan England: Watch and Ward
Elizabethan England: The Cities and Towns
Elizabethan England: Markets and Fairs
Note: Harrison's abridged text in the original Elizabethan language is available on-line at Bartleby