By Danielle Trynoski
Wondering what to plant in your garden this year? Take some advice from an elderly gentleman living in a big city!
In the late 1390’s, an older gentleman in Paris got married. The spouse? A fifteen year old young woman. Making the assumptions that 1) she would outlive him and 2) she was young, naïve, and in need of advice, he compiled a manual of behavior and housekeeping methodology for his bride so that she would perform honorably for her second husband and in effect, honor the first. There are three copies of Le Mesnagier de Paris (The Householder of Paris) surviving from the fifteenth century and it is referenced by many medievalists including Eileen Power. Tania Bayard’s translation A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century represents around one-quarter of the original text and highlights content relating to the household affairs and the spousal relationship. I think she finds much of the manual charming based on the concluding sentence of the introduction: “His teaching is as kindly as it is sensible, and much of it is as useful today as it was six hundred years ago.”
Bayard selected seven practical segments on gardening, and much of the advice is still relevant for those “green thumb” types today. The instructions start general and develop into something more specific. The householder can plant in wet weather, but shouldn’t sow as the seeds will stick to the wet rake. Water the garden in the morning or the evening, not in the heat of the day. Additionally, cut certain plants in the afternoon or evening including spinach, cabbage, or parsley because new young shoots could be burned by the sun.
In the late winter and spring, the gentleman points out how to grow and care for specific plants including sage (remove the dead branches and leaves during the winter), marjoram (savory AND sweet; however savory lasts only until the Feast of St. John the Baptist), and broad beans. The description on broad beans is more detailed: These should be planted at various times between Christmas and early March to ensure a continuous supply in case some freeze and fail to sprout. Once the sprouts beak above the ground, they should be raked. When the sprouts have six leaves, hoe them, then once beans form they should be picked, shelled, and eaten in relatively quick succession. March is suitable for planting raspberries, but they should be grafted when the moon is waning.
The text continues in this theme, listing specific plants and giving lunar or ecclesiastical landmarks to designate timelines. It offers recommendations for lots of produce including spinach, violets, gillyflowers, fennel, parsley, cabbage, sorrel, basil, squash, beets, borage, lavender, clary, and mint. Occasional maintenance tidbits are included, like how to eliminate ants (throw oak sawdust on the ant hill and moisture retained during the first rainfall will kill them or force them to move). Also, did you know that soil fertilized with cow or sheep dung is better than soil fertilized with horse manure? My 21st-century gardening father can verify that one! Something to do with nitrogen content…
While the contents of this kitchen garden are no doubt fascinating to nutritionists, botanists, and experimental archaeologists, it is a clear indication of the importance of the seasonal calendar even in an urban context. The schedule of the saints’ days is also a major player, so the interval between certain holidays must align with the growing cycle of specific plants. The family which produced and read this manuscript was obviously literate so held some wealth and status in fourteenth century Paris. Whether or not they knew of the Labours of the Months illustrated in rich prayer books and other medieval art, this household was still affected by the natural agricultural cycles and seasons.
Another major indicator of the food cycle of the medieval city is the lack of instructions on growing grain products. Clearly, the groceries listed here are “small beans” (pun intended) and the medieval dietary staples of barley, millet, wheat, and oats must be purchased from a vendor. There is no mention of this process in Bayard’s selection, yet contemporary cooking guides do call for primary grains. In a later section of Bayard’s translation, there is a selection of recipes which include bran and oats. The journey from wheat field to Parisian table is a topic for another article, however it’s interesting to note that lack of grain in the gentleman’s gardening tips and tricks.
If your garden is blooming and you’re eyeing something fresh, here’s another (ahem) cheesy tip from Le Mesnagier de Paris on something to pair with your salad:
Not like Helen, white,
Not like Magdalene, crying,
Not like Argus,
But without eyes,
And also heavy
Like an ox of size.
It resists the thumb,
And is covered with scales,
Not white, not weepy, but blind,
Firm, and weighty,
With a crusty rind.
Don’t you just love a good cheese with your vegetables?
Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and previous was the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.
A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century translated and edited by Tania Bayard
To learn more on the Medieval Calendar, check out this video from The Getty.
For more information on medieval gardening, explore these resources:
English Heritage blog post on growing your own medieval herb garden: http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/grow-medieval-herb-garden/
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters Garden Blog: http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/
Pennsylvania State University’s Medieval Garden: http://www.psumedievalgarden.com