Holkham Bible, BL Add MS 47682
Holkham Bible, BL Add MS 47682

After being featured on Freshly Pressed, I’m excited that I’ve doubled my follower count overnight. Welcome! Since prior to this most of my readers are from outside WordPress (my posts tend to largely be circulated via twitter amongst fellow academics), it was gratifying to suddenly get a flurry of likes and comments from WordPress users. So, thank you!

I didn’t have a particular blog post in mind today, but since so many of you were kind enough to subscribe, I figured I’d share a little snippet of some work in progress. This isn’t a piece about the Garden of Eden, despite what the illustration may suggest – but I was struck by the ripe fruit in the trees and felt it served as a colourful entrypoint into thinking about a domestic scene between father and son.

‘Sir, our father and I came together in the new orchard last Friday, and he asked me many questions of you, and I told him all as it was, and he was right sorry for the death of the child, and I told him of the good will that the Whigstons and Daltons have to you, and how I liked the young gentlewoman, and he commanded me to write to you that he would gladly that it were brought about and that you laboured it betimes…’

In June 1481, Richard Cely wrote a letter to his younger brother George, telling him about a conversation he had had with their father, Richard Cely senior. The Celys were wool merchants. We don’t know anything about the family prior to 1449, but by the 1480s they were well-established, owning property in the Essex countryside as well as amidst the bustle of London. Richard junior was writing to his brother at Calais, where George spent much of the year. This was because the Staple for the wool trade was based in Calais, which at this point was still an English possession. (Under the system of the Staple, the government required that all overseas trade in certain goods be transacted at specific designated market towns or ports, referred to as the ‘staple ports’. At these specified places, merchants, later to become Merchants of the Staple, were required to submit their goods to inspection, and to pay a levy to the Crown on goods for export to the Continent.) George and Richard may have spent much of their time apart, but from the Cely correspondence it’s clear that the brothers were close. Probably only a couple of years apart in age, in 1481 they were both in their early to mid-twenties. The brothers often served as each other’s ‘wing men’ in matters romantic and prospectively matrimonial; in this letter, Richard reported that he had met with the sister of a family friend, and judged that she was an appropriate marital prospect for George. Richard discussed the matter with his father, Richard senior, as they walked together in their new orchard, and Richard senior instructed his son to write to George to encourage him to pursue the opportunity. However, these men were not just talking about respectable marriage prospects, but also the death of a child. The child in question was George’s illegitimate baby by a woman who lived in Calais, and not only was Richard senior aware of the relationship, he was sympathetic to his son’s loss.

I’ve written extensively in my book about the Cely brothers’ relationship with their father, where I argue that this point in their lives the Cely sons were in a transitional life phase as they began to move from adolescence into manhood, their sexual behaviour and obedience to their father reflecting their place in the adolescent life stage, whilst their attempts to find wives indicate a shift toward attaining manhood. For the purposes of this post, though, I’m interested in the location of the orchard as a place for conversational intimacy. I’ve been having lots of thoughts about privacy, male bonding and familial discourse, which I’m thinking of turning into an abstract for this exciting conference on masculine landscapes. But it struck me that I didn’t have a clear sense of what ‘orchard’ meant in medieval English terms.

Teresa McLean writes in Medieval English Gardens that it specifically means a fruit tree garden rather than a garden that happens to have fruit in it, but from looking at various Middle English usages of the word it seems to me to be used to mean both a walled garden, often used for cultivation of herbs and fruit trees, and specifically a (usually enclosed) area set aside for the cultivation of herbs and fruit trees. This seems like a minor semantic difference, but it is important, I think: it’s an area that can happen to be used for cultivating fruit trees, or it can be primarily designed for that purpose. The difference between the two seems to me to be between recreation and utility. Are Richards Cely junior and senior walking together in an orchard purchased and intended primarily for the produce of fruit, either for domestic use or for sale, or are they walking in a garden where the trees are as much ornamental as useful? It’s impossible to know for sure, because not only are there no further references to the orchard in the letters, information on medieval orchards is also quite scanty. There is detailed historical/archaeological evidence for only a handful of medieval orchards (Sylvia Landsberg, The Medieval Garden), and often what information we have is about monastic orchards, which were, I imagine, much rather larger operations than that owned by the Celys.

What we do know is that medieval London (and the surrounding towns that would one day be swallowed by London) was crisscrossed with gardens and orchards. According to Christopher Dyer, the largest concentration of gardens in England was in the two miles south-west of London, from Holborn to Westminster (Everyday Life in Medieval England). So whatever kind of orchard the Celys had, you’re not to imagine them out in the deep countryside. Instead they were probably visiting somewhere within walking distance of their busy mercantile household in London. For medieval city-dwellers, gardens were not just a privilege but also a necessity, providing space for the growth of food. Rich officials and merchants had substantial pleasure gardens, but many ordinary townsfolk produced crops at, Dyer estimates, a far higher output than their rural counterparts. Restricted for space, city farmers were creative, and used limited plots to intensively produce crops as varied as onions and flax – crops that could be grown and harvested around other employment and so did not require full time care.

Nonetheless, orchards also appear repeatedly in medieval literature as locales for recreation and contemplation. The fifteenth-century mystical text The Orchard of Syon, for instance, suggests that in ‘this orchard, when you would be comforted, you must walk and see both fruit and herbs.’ Most of the Cely correspondence mixes business with pleasure, as details of economic transactions are knitted (or sometimes knotted) together with remarks about family life, social gatherings and romantic attachments. I find it hard to imagine the busy, pragmatic Celys keeping a solely-ornamental orchard; but knowing them as I do through their letters, I’m quite sure that even if Richards senior and junior went to visit their orchard for practical reasons, they would have taken the time to ‘see both fruit and herbs’ in a figurative sense at least, as they talked tenderly about someone who was beloved to them both.