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Medieval Beans

Posted: Wed Apr 14, 2010 6:53 pm
by Brother Ranulf
I know some people on this forum are keen on growing authentic medieval crops and you may be interested in a bean variety I heard about today. It's the Martock bean, the last surviving example of a genuine medieval field bean and very fortunately saved as part of the heritage seed bank project. It was apparently a favourite variety of the Cistercians in the north of England as well as being grown in the west country and does well in clay soils. Details (and details of suppliers) are here: ... l&Itemid=9

It differs from modern broad beans in having smaller pods (about the same as a pea) and the pods grow upwards rather than hanging down. The beans can be dried (a medieval preservation technique) for use over winter in pottages, or they can be cooked fresh. I intend to find space for them in my 12th century garden this year.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:02 pm
by Christabel
Thanks for this! My garden is nearly all clay. so it might be a good match.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Thu Apr 15, 2010 6:05 am
by Brother Ranulf
I meant to post details of this website page for ordering the bean seeds: ... prod_MBB55

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Thu Apr 15, 2010 6:56 pm
by Motley
So this is a slightly random question but you got me thinking, I hope it is not too off topic.

You said you have a medieval garden? do you have any good resources on setting one up, what to grow where to get it how to grow it etc?

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Thu Apr 15, 2010 9:54 pm
by Brother Ranulf
Motley - when I first got the notion to start a 12th century garden I looked around for exactly the kind of things you asked about: period resources, what plants to grow and so on. There is practically nothing on the Interweb which is 12th century specific (as far as horticulture is concerned), so I started looking at more generic stuff, including a website on "Medieval and Renaissance Gardens" - see ... ardens.htm
- at least this starts to give an idea of how beds were constructed, the sorts of plants to aim for and different styles of garden.

This website has links to some useful resources (but notice that the 12th century is not mentioned):

Luckily I was familiar with the writings of Alexander Neckham, who proved to be very useful in getting a feel for formal gardens towards the end of the 12th century (see the posting on "When was garlic first used" for a quote from Neckham's De nominibus utensilium, setting out what he considered the essential plants to grow).

It seems that other people have experienced the same problems in finding period-specific resources: a few years ago I watched a tv programme which said it showed the reconstruction of a 12th century garden, exactly replicating the original planting scheme based on archaeological techniques, soil and pollen analysis and other scientific investigations. There were some strange elements that puzzled me so I contacted the people in charge - they admitted that most of the scientific analyses had proved "inconclusive", so they simply made it all up for the programme.
Don't ever believe anything you see on television , . . . :thumbdown:

It really comes down to finding little bits of information in many, many places and adding it all together. Many websites on the history of herbs or herbal remedies give lists of those used in the medieval period (although you have to be careful sometimes about whether you are looking at those available in the 11th/12th centuries or those available in the 14th/15th centuries). Some useful stuff has been published under "medieval food"; I have found a few period illustrations in manuscripts showing pruning, beekeeping, how seeds were sown and how weeding was done (the amazing weeding sticks!) and other bits of evidence.

Hope some of this helps.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Fri Apr 16, 2010 1:46 pm
by Captain Reech
Thanks for the tip Ranulf. As part of a new Derby based LH group I'm working on recreating a medieval (Late 15th Century timeline 1485) peasant garden. Basing the design on the Bayleaf Farm Garden at the Weald and Downland Museum. Waiting for an allotment (Research seems to suggest that the standard Allotment 'Rod' would be an appropriate size) at present but experimenting with the back garden. I'm using a three bed rotation system with one bed left fallow (Green manure and 'edible weed' crop).
Crop mix so far:
Onions, leeks and garlic (Leeks to be trimmed rather than pulled whole),
Peas (I'll be adding your suggested bean for variety!)
Turnips and carrots (White and purple)
Good King Henry, Chard, 'Coleworts' (Can't find a true Colewort seed so I'm substituting Collard Greens and Hungry Gap Kale) Rocket and White Mustard.
I've a Quince and two crab apple trees already but I think the Allotment will have plum and possibly pear provided I can find suitable self fertile varieties.

The Garden has currant bushes and I'm ever hopeful that the vine will decide it's somewhere warmer than Derby (Cadfael could do it in Shrewsbury!)

My partner has charge of the herbs (both medicinal and culinary). I'd love to know what you are growing.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Fri Apr 16, 2010 4:23 pm
by Brother Ranulf
Interesting point about vines - they were certainly being grown in England in the 12th century and I guess throughout the middle ages. English wine had a very bad reputation, however - one 12th century writer said that "English wine is drinkable, but only through gritted teeth . . ". He is not noted for being charitable about anything, so he may be a hostile witness/grumpy old man. The European climate was apparently going through a warm period at that time, so wine was being produced in the Midlands and even parts of the North.

Peter of Blois, who was a Frenchman who became archdeacon of Bath and then of London under Henry II, said that wine at court was "spoiled either by being sour or mouldy - thick, greasy, rancid, tasting of pitch and vapid . . ". I'm guessing he didn't like it.

I didn't mention my garden is loosely based on monastic gardens of the 12th century, so I grow beans, peas, radish, onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, turnips, chives, parsley, sorrel, salad burnet, lettuce, goosefoot and Good King Henry as veg, but not all of them every year and rotated as much as possible. The herbs fall roughly into three types: medicinal, culinary (or vegetable) and ornamental or otherwise useful things like roses and southernwood.

I currently have in the herb beds and in the ground all those included above, plus lavender, lady's mantle, hyssop, sage, rue, lemon balm, thyme, rosemary, horehound, mint, oregano/marjoram, sweet violets, winter savoury, soapwort, feverfew, horse radish, hops, marigolds, foxgloves and angelica. I am still trying to get rid of the :twisted: woad plants that keep appearing everywhere.

There is some heated debate about rosemary and marjoram; both were present in England earlier than the 12th century but some people claim they were introduced (or re-introduced) in the 14th century. Both appear in 12th and 13th century English herbals and are referred to in the writings of the time, so in some form they were present and being used in England without being "re-introduced" (as you can tell I don't subscribe to that theory).

Your peasant plot project sounds very interesting and I hope it all goes well.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Fri Apr 16, 2010 4:46 pm
by Captain Reech
Very interesting, thank you. I hope our experiment with Woad this year don't end up with another invasive weed! I've also laid an area to flax (Got to have a cash crop as well as my pottage!) Hopefully we'll be able to go from seed to cloth as part of the experiment.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Fri Apr 16, 2010 8:07 pm
by Motley

Thank you very much for the info you provided. Sounds like there would be room for a book there. :-)


Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Fri May 07, 2010 10:17 am
by Brother Ranulf
Much rejoicing and excitement here at "the monastery" yesterday when I discovered the Martock beans were poking their heads above the surface of the soil, just 16 days after putting the seeds in the ground - I just spent an hour constructing a non-medieval wire cage around them to keep away hungry birds and other destructive critters. :D

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Fri May 07, 2010 10:56 am
by Captain Reech
Congratulations, mine have not arrived yet but I am having some success with a Heritage variety Pea so I live in hope.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Tue Jun 01, 2010 7:35 pm
by GOK
How wonderful to find this thread!

My partner and I are reconstructing a mid-17th century peasant labourer's garden within the grounds of a local stately home. If you're interested, I have a blog: ... -results=7

(it starts at the post entitled 'Ketchup' and then continues for several pages. Please feel free to ignore the rest if you so wish - I'm not trying to drum up political or sci-fi support!).

My Martock beans are a few inches high at the moment, so I'll be planting them out soon. Because we're not there all the time, I have learned that it's sometimes better to start things off at home and then plant them out when they are of a certain size, as opposed to sowing in situ. We've lost a fair amount to wildlife and snow, which is pretty galling. Having said that, I do think the peas and beans are better off sown in the ground as they seem to be all the sturdier for it, but hey ho, it's a learning curve, so there's always something new to discover!

One thing I'm discovering is that even though I've been involved with growing food for several decades, there's a vast difference in what you can and can't do when you're not on-site. For most of the '90s I had a very large garden and was probably about 80% self sufficient, food-wise (it helped that was/am a vegetarian, as was my eldest son!); growing everything within site of my back door meant I could keep on top of things, weeds, pests etc. but what a difference when I'm only there at weekends! It's certainly made me re-think a lot of things I took for granted. I suppose it's not dissimilar to the challenges faced by that a real word?! :D

If anyone wants some, I have some Carlin peas here - am only too happy to pass some on, not least because it will be completely in keeping with the spirit in which they were given to me.

You might be interested in the Blogger Seed Network:

That's how I found my Carlins.

Brother Ranulf - I'd be more than happy to have loads of woad! I currently have three plants which I haven't yet planted out but I am hoping that by next year, they'll be firmly established up at Holdenby, and I'll have lots of it! I should point out that I run natural dyeing courses up at the permaculture project I'm involved with, so I can always use woad!

I wonder, would you gentlefolk be interested in seed swapping at all? It would be great if all of us who are involved with this kind of thing could pool our resources, don't you think? And if not seeds, then certainly experience, tips, advice and knowledge!

Captain Reach - I have a list of plants from 'A Feate of Gardening' from 1440 - it might be of use to you? If you PM me your email addy, I'd be happy to send it over to you.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Wed Jun 02, 2010 7:12 am
by Brother Ranulf
Mixed results for me with the Martock beans - as you say it is always a choice between starting things in pots or in the ground. I put my beans straight into our clay soil when they arrived and I built chicken-wire defences around them to stave off rabbits and pigeons (both are plagues of Biblical proportions in this area). Sadly the subterranean creatures, ants, voles and moles, ravaged about half the crop but the remaining plants appear to be growing well and thriving.

My angelica is now in its fourth and final year and currently six feet tall, producing large seed heads which I shall harvest and dry at the end of the summer - if anyone wants angelica seed around September time, let me know via a PM. The same goes for marigold, basil and borage.

The woad that keeps appearing is from small pieces of tap-root that are in amongst other plants and almost impossible to remove, so I simply pull off the leaves each time. So no actual plants available, sorry. IIRC, when allowed to grow they form a cabbage-looking bunch of leaves low on the ground in year 1 (when they are best for dyeing purposes), in year 2 they grow to 5 feet or more and produce billions of purple-black seeds.

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Wed Jun 02, 2010 8:16 am
by Captain Reech
Interesting to hear you have had good results on clay with the Martock beans, I also plant straight into the ground on heavy clay but I've only had about 30 percent succes rate this year. I'd be grateful for Borage seeds if you have them later in the year, my 3 year rotation system requires at least 2 plots fallow and, despite support for the project from the Allotment Association, I'm not too sure how they would react to two patches of self sown weeds which might threaten the plots of other growers so borage/comfrey mix at least looks like I'm cultivating the plots!

The dry weather has been good for me as I'm close enough to my plot to water daily but the two damp days in the last week have unleashed a plague of slugs. Anyone got any authentic tips on how to deal with these? (Elenna suggest fattening a Goose on the plot but I don't think the association would go for it!)

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Wed Jun 02, 2010 10:20 am
by GOK
Do you have any frogs there? :D Something I've been doing is cutting up all my scraps of wool into half inch (or so) squares (as in fabric, not yarn, although that might work as well) and mulching around the base of the brassicas. So far, so good! I also use the hair from my hairbrush and Kevin's hair and beard clippings. Of course, it will all eventually break down into the ground and hopefully help fertilise the soil too. I also try to make sure there are as few hiding places for slugs etc, particularly in the autumn. Leaf mulch is all very well but it's a haven for beasties!

Companion planting is another option, and sacrificial plants too.
IIRC, when allowed to grow they form a cabbage-looking bunch of leaves low on the ground in year 1 (when they are best for dyeing purposes), in year 2 they grow to 5 feet or more and produce billions of purple-black seeds.
Yep - and they are beautiful IMO!

Last year, I was horrified to discover my friend had uprooted all of the woad from our herb garden at the permaculture project we're both involved with! She said she'd completely forgotten what it was and why it was there, so thought it was a weed! :cry: I need to see if we've actually got any more growing and if so, place a large 'leave me alone' sign by it!

The three little plants I have at the moment are going to be the parents of next year's dyeplants.... I hope! I thought I'd have a woad plantation by the large lavender bushes - it can do what it likes there, and won't be a bother to anything else! :D

Re: Medieval Beans

Posted: Wed Jun 02, 2010 5:19 pm
by Captain Reech
There are frogs around but I think we're too far from the pond for them to patrol my little patch. I'll try the wool trick, thanks for the tip!