What did medieval people think of trees? Here are a few observations about the role trees played in the spiritual and cultural life of the Middle Ages.
What is a tree?
In his Etymologiae, the 7th-century scholar Isidore of Seville offers an early medieval definition of trees. He writes: “The term ‘tree’ (arbor), as well as ‘small plant’ (herba), is thought to be modified from the word ‘field’ (arvum), because they cling to the earth with fixed roots. The terms resemble one another because the one grows from the other. When you have cast the seeds on the ground first the small plant springs up, and when it is tended it grows into a tree, and within a short time what you had seen as a small plant you gaze up to as a sapling.” Isidore also adds some notes about various species. For example, the Palm Tree “is the symbol of victory, with high and handsome growth, clothed in long-lasting fronds, and retaining its leaves without any succession of foliage.”
Holy Trees among the Vikings
In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is the tree of life and can be found in Asgard. It is under this great Ash tree that the gods meet each days, and its branches and roots stretches out over all of the nine worlds, and extend up into heavens. One can find several animals living within the tree, including a squirrel, an eagle, and a dragon.
Trees were important religious symbols for the Norse. The 11th century chronicler Adam of Bremen offers this description of a holy tree near the Norse temple at Uppsala: “Near the temple is a great tree which extends its boughs far and wide, always green in winter and summer; of what sort it is no one knows. There too is a spring, where the sacrifices of the pagan are accustomed to take place and a man is immersed alive. For as long as he is not discovered, the will of the people will be granted.”
Tree of Knowledge
Medieval Christians also found spiritual significance from trees, starting with the trees from the Garden of Eden – Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which Adam and Eve ate the fruit, and the Tree of Life. An Old English poem describes them each, the former as “entirely black, veiled and dark; that was the tree of death, that bore many bitterness,” while the latter was “so very joyous, beautiful and radiant, lithe and praiseworthy.”
The Ordinalia plays, which were written in Cornish in the late Middle Ages, have the Tree of Knowledge as a kind of main character. The plays have Adam sending his son Seth back to the Garden of Eden, where he gets three seeds from the Tree, and the wood from these plants goes on to be used in Noah’s Ark, Solomen’s Temple and Moses’ Staff before serving as the Cross where Jesus Christ was crucified on.
Trees as Meeting Places
In his book, Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England, Michael D.J. Bintley explains that “trees in the Anglo-Saxon England marked meeting places where significant political decisions were made throughout the period, by both violent and peaceful methods.” For example, Bede records that Saint Augustine “called to a meeting the bishops and teachers of the neighbouring British kingdom at a place which is still known in the English language today as Augustinaes Ac (that is Augustine’s Oak), on the borders of the Hwicce and the West Saxons.” Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that just before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, King Harold Godwinsson gathered his army under an apple tree.
Tree of virtues and tree of vices
By the High Middle Ages, writers began to add diagrams showing the various virtues (such as humility) versus those that show vices (like pride). You could find these diagrams on opposite pages of a medieval manuscript, and even if you cannot read Latin you can tell which tree is which, since on a tree of virtues, the leaves point upward toward heaven, while on a tree of vices the leaves point downward toward hell.
The Medieval Almond
In his book, Nuts: A Global History, Ken Albala explains that “the real heyday of nut cookery occurred during the Middle Ages up to the Renaissance. No nut was more beloved than the almond, which featured in a remarkable array of recipes. Almond milk was a substitute for real dairy milk and related products during Lent and other fast days. For much of northern Europe it was an exotic and expensive import worthy of the royal tables and very clearly a mark of status, much like imported spices. Serving a dish laden with almonds or laced with almond milk was de rigeur for the fashionable medieval household.”
In medieval literature you can find lists of various trees. In a paper given at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Danielle Allor notes that Boccaccio, Chaucer and the author of Roman de la Rose all included poetic lines about trees – including oaks, elms and birches – offering short descriptions of each. For Chaucer, the list of trees that are included in his catalog are those that have some kind of use. For example, oaks are called “the builder oak” and is noted for its use in construction, while its acorns are eaten by pigs. Meanwhile, the author of the 13th century poem Roman de la Rose, it was the beauty of the tree that matter, and those that were too ugly would not be included in his list.
You can learn more about this topic in the book Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England, written by Michael D.J. Bintley and published by Boydell and Brewer in 2015.
Trees were of fundamental importance in Anglo-Saxon material culture – but they were also a powerful presence in Anglo-Saxon religion before and after the introduction of Christianity. This book shows that they remained prominent in early English Christianity, and indeed that they may have played a crucial role in mediating the transition between ancient beliefs and the new faith. It argues that certain characteristics of sacred trees in England can be determined from insular contexts alone, independent of comparative evidence from culturally related peoples. This nevertheless suggests the existence of traditions comparable to those found in Scandinavia and Germany. Tree symbolism helped early English Christians to understand how the beliefs of their ancestors about trees, posts, and pillars paralleled the appearance of similar objects in the Old Testament. In this way, the religious symbols of their forebears were aligned with precursors to the cross in Scripture. Literary evidence from England and Scandinavia similarly indicates a shared tradition of associations between the bodies of humans, trees, and other plant-life. Though potentially ancient, these ideas flourished amongst the abundance of vegetative symbolism found in the Christian tradition.