What follows is my conference paper for the Gender and Medieval Studies 2020 conference, held at the University of Swansea.
The first time I talked in earnest about gender and orchards was in May 2015, at the panhistorical conference Masculinities in the British Landscape. It was an opportunity, I hoped, to get down a few ideas I’d had about masculinity and privacy and social bonds. Maybe it would kickstart the writing of an article. (Ha!)
One of my clearest memories of that conference is that I wore a pair of red sandals, sensibly flat; but despite their practical heel, my pregnant feet still swelled up in the mild May heat, and when I took them off the first night, the straps hadn’t just rubbed my skin – they had bruised it.
I have a lot of great memories of that conference alongside that painful one – of talking late into the evening with people I’d just met, brilliant sunshine over Harlaxton Manor, social connections made that endure to the present. That juxtaposition sums up something of my feelings about academia over the past few years: sometimes a poor fit, both by accident and by design, and sometimes feeling like the best possible fit. Sometimes – often – both at once, and there’s the rub.
What’s this got to do with outdoor space? Well, I started thinking five years ago about walking in an orchard, and remembered the old adage about not judging until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. What I really wanted to do was to be able to walk back and forth with Richard and Richard Cely, London wool merchants, father and son, in the orchard space they had bought and which they used to share confidences in the early summer of 1481.
In the years since, particularly in the last year or so, I have turned to thinking more about my own praxis as a historian. I’ve become interested in autoethnography, a research method that uses autobiography and anecdote to draw connections to wider social, cultural and political trends, and have also been inspired by #storypast, a reading group devoted to creative approaches to history. Last spring I came back to thinking about orchards again, and wrote a fragment of an article about medieval orchards, before putting it away when other work became more pressing. I thought I would return to it for this conference; but when asked to produce a ten minute position paper, I re-read what is an interesting but fairly conventional article draft and found it not the right fit. If I cut it down, it would be like Cinderella’s stepsisters hacking at their heels or toes to cram themselves into the glass slipper. Instead I’ve decided to talk a walk with three sets of late-fifteenth century men, who all went outdoors and shared a moment of male solidarity and bonding. This has proved to also be an uncomfortable fit, but for quite different reasons.
In June 1481, George Cely received a letter from his older brother Richard. Both men were at this point in their early 20s and were employed in the family wool business; Richard was in London with their parents, and George was in Calais. Richard junior wrote to his brother that he and his father had met in their new orchard, and talked extensively about George.
They always talked about George. When Richard was a boy, newly out of his uncle’s service, it was hard to come back to London with his northern qwhiches and ats and see George fussed over and adored by his mother; sometimes it was even hard to see him fussed at by their father, who fussed at everyone. George was fun in a way nervy Richard wasn’t. George danced; he made people laugh; they missed him when he was gone. Richard wrote to George about our friends, but if they weren’t George’s first they soon became his foremost. It’s hard to play second fiddle to your brother, harder when he’s younger, and hardest when despite all that he’s your best friend.
But he was all those things – a younger brother to be looked after, a friend to be protected – which was why Richard was walking in the early summer heat of a June afternoon in a London orchard, while his father sweated and fussed beside him. And because, even if they were – once again – talking about George, at least here in the ripening orchard, moving between the green spaces of trees, Richard for once had his father to himself. No servants, no messages, no noise from the street. Only the buzz of bees in their hives and his father’s persistent cough.
I told him all as it was, Richard wrote to George later, and that our father was right sorry for the death of the child. Not your child; not on paper, not even in a letter between brothers, because no correspondence is truly private in two busy merchant households or in the journey between them. There was no surety of secret in the Cely household, either, not even as they advanced in the world, expanded into a London townhouse and an Essex manor. Their homes were cluttered with apprentices and journeymen – and with women, servants and Richard’s mother. These conversations – about George, sometimes about their errant brother Robert, much more rarely about Richard himself – were conversations for men, moving through the privacy of the outdoors, matching strides.
Eleven months later the apple trees were blossoming in the Cely family orchard, and Richard wrote another letter to George. I need you here, he wrote; Em is pregnant. Their father was six months dead and Richard was the master now. He didn’t feel very masterful as he wrote to his younger brother about his rash Shrovetide night with their maid, and its consequences. But George would reassure him. George had done this twice over. He’d taken care of – God, what was her name? The pudding house slut. Margery. He’d know what to do.
Richard finished up with I will tell you more at your coming. He’d take George out to the orchard, away from the household and his mother and Em, and unburden himself. It might not be the same as talking to his father, but at least George was less likely to tell him off.
“In this orchard, when you would be comforted, you must walk and see both fruit and herbs” opined the Syon Abbey translation of Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue of Divine Revelation. At about the time it was written into what’s now called Pierpoint Morgan Library MS 162, Thomas Mull was urging his friend and master Thomas Stonor, an Oxfordshire gentleman, to give his son some comfort.
William Stonor tried hard to be the kind of son his father wanted, and was always left with the faint sense of being a disappointment. Bookish William, prone to fits of brooding, irritated his stoical father, and Mull had become their go-between out of affection for them both. Long service meant that in 1472 he could write in exasperation to Stonor senior – for God’s sake call him forth with you when he is at home with you, and let him walk with you, and give him words of good comfort – and then the final sting – and be a good father to him, as I certainly know you to be. William had dutifully found a lady his father would view as a good prospect for a wife, who was as virtuous as she was rich: which given she had 100 marks in land in her own right, and would have half the residue of her father’s estate after his death, meant pretty virtuous indeed. Mull, knowing he spoke Thomas’s language better than William could, carefully wrote up Margery Blount’s manifold attractions in a letter to Stonor senior, and William’s suit was permitted to proceed.
Mull should have seen it coming. Gentlemen were ten-a-penny, and an eligible woman like Margery Blount – heiress and widow both together, a fifteenth-century jackpot – would not hand themselves over in marriage to just anyone. She liked William, she made that plain; but she valued herself. Too highly, according to Thomas Stonor, who had offered in his opinion a fair jointure and was ruffled when Margery demanded more. Mull had gently warned William not to get his hopes up; but having found a rich lady that he liked who liked him back, sensitive, moody William had privately decided he was in love.
Mull knew better than to try to persuade Thomas Stonor to offer more in the marriage settlement; it was a fair price, because Thomas was always fair, though rarely generous. But William was crushed, and though he was irritated with them both, Mull was most frustrated by Stonor senior. William was twenty-three, and he might be a man but he was still a very young one, and his heart had been bruised for the first time. Stop being the patriarch and be his father, was the message in Mull’s letter to his master. Go outside, away from the house, its formalities and duties and obligations. Walk in the garden, and give him comfort.
But Thomas Stonor – who a few years previously in the wake of the loss of his own father had written to his wife Jane, calling her sweetheart and asking her to comfort me when I come home – was not the kind of man who found it easy to open his heart, not even to his son, not even amidst the trees and scented walks designed to bring solace to the spirit. William never wrote about Margery Blount again.
The same year William Stonor was brooding over lost love, a couple of hundred miles away in Norfolk Edmund Paston was writing to his older brother John. It wasn’t fair, he said pettishly, that his mother had insisted he dismiss his servant Gregory. He is as true as any living person, Edmund insisted, and was sorry that his mother was, frankly, being a prude. What had Gregory done? Nothing no single man hadn’t done, surely, which was swive a harlot under cover of darkness, on the edge of the Paston estate.
He’d just wanted a fuck, that’s all, and he’d done his best to be discreet, taking the woman to the old rabbit warren. And he’d gone at her fast, too, in the gloaming grey light of evening. It should have been one and done. It wasn’t Gregory’s fault that the two ploughmen had caught him up to the hilt in the wench. Or that the ploughmen had demanded their turn ploughing her – that was a good one, he’d tell it to Master Edmund – when Gregory was done. His arse had been hanging out of his breeches – better to laugh through that indignity and be a good sport. Any man would understand that. The pain of it was that the bloody mistress had found out, po-faced old sow; women had no idea of how hard it was to be a man, the things you need to do to save face. Now Gregory was out on his ear, though at least Master Edmund would assure him of a good reference. The whore? Well, she got paid for the night; she needn’t have fussed so much about it being three men instead of one. If you take coin to be tupped, expect to be fucked. (Master Edmund would like that one too.)
One sentence I lift here from that partially-drafted orchards article: in outdoor spaces related to, but distinct from, the interior domestic space, men may have been able to exercise a homosocial intimacy freed from some of the constraints of the regulated household. There may have been the possibility for emotional vulnerability, a blurring of hierarchical lines, an easing of social control; there may have been the kind of camaraderie that facilitated rape. All these examples feature negotiations in some way about women, and in all these cases the woman, despite seeming to be at the centre of those negotiations, disappears. Women are the impetus for men to talk to other men: to open their hearts, to tease and brag and bond. Mothers with lost babies, widows with self-worth, working girls: those aren’t the stories men tell each other. If I truly wanted to walk in their shoes, I’d call Mistress Blount a grasper, Margery of the pudding house a tart, Em the servant a slut – and the woman in the field at Paston, whether a sex worker by profession or not, a whore, of course.
The men’s miles are much easier to walk; the documents they’ve left behind, and centuries of easy stereotypes, makes these journeys mappable. But I think instead I will take their shoes off and go barefoot alongside their road, feeling out a hidden way with the memory of my swollen feet to guide me.