‘[W]ho so wyl a gardener be’: arboriculture in late medieval and early modern commonplace books

By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)

Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.

People of varying social statuses across fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English society were interested in trees, their produce and their maintenance, no matter how likely they were to have been involved in gardening of any kind themselves. Henry VIII kept a copy of Pietro Crescenzi’s printed agricultural manual Ruralia Commoda in his library at Whitehall, containing dozens of woodcuts illustrating the practices described within. Elsewhere, the country gentleman Humphrey Newton is said to have been ‘a man with a keen eye for trees’. In his commonplace book (otherwise containing an assortment of legal documents and recipes) he doodled a tall tree – which, incidentally, appears to have been deliberately pruned to create a thick canopy at the very top.[1] The London merchants Richard Arnold and Richard Hill seem to have taken an interest in the same arboricultural treatise when alongside their respective ‘chronicles’ of the city they copied up advice on planting and caring for fruit trees from ‘Mr Robert’, ‘Mr Richard’, and Aristotle.[2] Meanwhile, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey reproduced in full the doggerel verse of ‘Mayster Jon Gardener’, providing tips for planting and sowing trees and plants for ‘[W]ho so wyl a gardener be’.[3]

gardening 2

Common to the selection of most of these compilers is a focus on arboriculture as a means of increasing productivity and yield in trees, vines, and herbage. Of particular interest was the practice of grafting: that is, attaching the shoot or a bud of one tree to the growing stump of another, thus encouraging the two to grow together. This required plenty of specialised materials, including ‘a graffynge-sawe’, yet easy-to-follow treatises on the subject were ‘manyfold & so comyn’, according to Hill.[4] Grafting could ensure a larger harvest of fruit of the individual’s choice or alter the fruit to their liking: if one wanted to ‘make apyls redd’, for instance, they should ‘take a graf of an apple tree and graf it in a stoke of elme’. In the passages found in Arnold’s book, which was printed for a London audience, grafting was also presented as useful for best exploiting produce imported into the country: the foreign medlar tree would ‘bere welle yf he bee plantyd’, but ‘wyll bere the more plentuosly’ if grafted to a native hawthorn tree.[5]

These texts potentially reflect a rise in general interest in and practical knowledge of arboriculture. Just as historians have long recognised the capacity for commonplace books to have preserved lost cultural artefacts – poetry, recipes, maxims and mnemonics – so too do they provide something of a heritage for techniques such as grafting, which is still in use today. Certainly, where few of us would now be able to identify species of trees, let alone practice such techniques, directions for controlling and best exploiting the natural environment evidently formed some part of the burgeoning culture around the proper management of household and estate, both in the country and in the city, in the late medieval/early modern period.

Yet I am also minded to reflect on the place of arboriculture in our reconstructions of the physical and mental environments of these compilers and their contemporaries. Acknowledging that individuals from a range of social backgrounds chose to write about trees, even if simply as a source of produce, may begin to explain why the Henrician lawyer and minister Edmund Dudley selected the image of ‘faier and mighte tree’ with  ‘strong roots’ and ‘plentuous fruits’ (virtues for each of society’s estates) for his 1509 vision of the commonwealth rather than the better-known body politic or ship of state – a question many historians have raised when examining the text, and certainly one that came to my mind here![6] Though these observations perhaps deserve more detailed research, this connection is a reminder that commonplace books are valuable for what they can collectively tell us about broader intellectual trends of the time in which they were created, as well as being amongst the more compelling and quirky sources on hand for social and cultural historians.



[1]  Deborah Youngs, Humphrey Newton (1466-1536), an early Tudor gentleman (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008), 1.

[2]  Richard Arnold, The customs of London, otherwise called Arnold’s Chronicle, ed. Francis Douce (London, 1811), 164-70;  Oxford Balliol College MS 354, fo. cvii.

[3]  Cambridge Trinity College MS O.9.38 fos. 18v-20v.

[4]  Sir Anthony Fitzherbert, The Book of Husbandry (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), 87;  Balliol College MS 354, fo. cvii.

[5]  Arnold, The customs of London, 166.

[6]  Edmund Dudley, The Tree of Commonwealth ed. D.M. Brodie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 31, 32, 51.



Featured image: Woodcut of a man grafting a tree from the second book of Pietro Crescenzi’s Ruralia Commoda (Speyer, 1490)

Image in text: Drawing of a tree and a ‘papegaye’ from The Capesthorne Manuscript: the Commonplace Book of Humphrey Newton (1466-1536) of Pownall, Cheshire, 15th century – 16th century,  Bodleian MS. Lat. misc. c. 66 fol. 095v.  Photo: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

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