It’s that time of year, that lovely time of year when our eyes are drawn to new colours
in the landscape; the reds, whites, yellows and blues that have been missing. Just outside the front door at Myddelton Grange, our meadow is beginning to delight us with its twenty-five varieties of grass and its ever-increasing number of species of wildflowers. This meadow, the pastures and the woodland that surround us provide a significant catechetical aid.
It is easy to think that growing in matters of faith has to come from listening, reading scripture, books about theology and the saints and from spending time in church. They are important, of course, but we need to remember that for most of the history of the Church in Europe, its faithful were illiterate and alongside what they gleaned from the preaching they heard, they grew spiritually through imagery carved in stone, painted on church walls and through the symbols of salvation they found in nature, especially in wildflowers. This rich inheritance, this symbolic language in nature, is still available to us today.
It’s fitting that the countryside really begins turning our heads till we’re dizzy during May, Mary’s month. I remember as a child that I was usually the one who brought a sprig of May blossom, the hawthorn, to place before our family’s statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Mary has been associated with flowers from the time of the early Church Fathers, who saw her prefigured in passages from the Old Testament that used imagery from nature. She was the “rose bushes of Jericho” (Ecclesiasticus 24: 13 – 17) and “a rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley." (Song of Songs 2:1) There has always been a link but it wasn’t until medieval times that stronger associations between flowers and Mary were established and that hundreds of flowers were named after her.
By the twelfth century, St. Bernard was referring to Mary as "The rose of charity, the lily of chastity, the violet of humility, and the golden gillyflower of heaven". However, the earliest written record known to us of a plant actually named after Mary is "seint mary gouldes", the marigold, found in a 1373 English recipe for a potion to ward off the plague. St. Francis of Assisi played his part in the increasing popularity of naming flowers in this manner since he is said to have taken care never to tread on the any wayside flower, as it was a symbol of Mary. Another possible origin of the wildflower symbols of the Blessed Virgin may have been a number of "relics of the Virgin" brought back to Europe from the Holy Land by returning Crusaders. One collection of such relics, as described in Benedicta Ward's, Miracles and the Medieval Mind (1982), was taken on tour in England in 1113. Included among them was "Our Lady's Hair", pieces of which were reputed to have been preserved by St. John after Mary tore them from her head in grief at the foot of the Cross. Other relics on tour included what was claimed as a piece of Mary's cloak (mantle), and objects that were said to bear the dried traces of her tears and of her milk drops. Another famous relic of the Virgin of that era was "Our Lady's Slipper" (the Chapel at Walsingham may have been a repository for this particular relic). For all of these relics there are correspondingly named plants: Our Lady's Tresses, Our Lady's Mantle, Our Lady's Tears, Our Lady's Milk Drops and Our Lady's Slipper. This beautiful last named species was once widespread and fairly common in limestone areas of the country. Records from the 1790s indicate that bundles of Lady’s Slipper orchids were sold at Settle market. Today, it is so rare that it now grows naturally at only one guarded site in the country and that is in the Yorkshire Dales. As with this species, you will seldom find the full title of “Our Lady’s” flowers being used today. Prompted by the Reformation, the “Our” has been dropped and so we simply have: Lady’s Tresses; Lady’s Mantle and so on. In some instances, the name has disappeared completely and has been “secularised”.
One particular practice during the medieval period was the making of “Assumption bundles” that would be taken to church for special blessing on that feast day. It is thought that this marked a belief in the legend that all flowers had lost their scent and all herbs their healing powers at Adam’s fall but that these were restored after Mary’s Assumption, when her tomb was found minus her body, but full of roses and lilies.
Today, the nearest we come to such rites at Myddelton Grange is “bringing flowers of the rarest and blossom the fairest” to crown our statue of Mary during the month of May. However, the practice of making bundles on the Assumption still persists throughout Eastern Europe where girls collect bouquets and bring them to the church for blessings.
When flowers have such names with such associations, a walk in the countryside and the discovery of wild flowers takes on a different dimension: we are put in touch through nature with the story of salvation: without too much effort, our walk becomes a means of reflection and prayer. Medieval Catholics saw God in nature and saw nature (humanness) in God. All around were reminders of the God who had come among them and prompts to prayer and to prayer in action.
Take a walk about Myddelton Grange. Discover a tangle of (Our) Lady’s Bedstraw* growing in our wildflower meadow and in nearby Grange Wood and you are taken to the Nativity since this flower was said to have been in the manger. It bloomed when the child was laid upon it. Walk beyond the wood towards Ings Ghyll and find (Our Lady’s) Milk Thistle* whose Latin name, silybum marianum tells of its Christian meaning. The white veins on the dark green leaves of this flower represent breast milk which spilled while Mary fed her Son. Other “milk” plants are Lungwort* that has white patterning on its leaves, and was formerly known as Mary’s Milk Drops, and Dead Nettle (Madonna Milk)*, so named for its white flower heads. Follow a hedgerow and find Our Lady’s Seal (Black Bryony)* that was used to treat wounds. Many healing plants were honoured with the name of Mary, in whose hands the true healing of the world lay. Prominent among these is the marigold that has a long history of medicinal use. In the Middle Ages, this flower was used for intestinal problems, obstructions of the liver, jaundice, fevers, smallpox, measles, insect bites and snake bites, conjunctivitis, wounds, bruises, burns, eczema, boils, corns, warts and acne. Leave the hedge and come back to the wildflower meadow and take in the waves of Ox-Eye Daisies*, also known as Mary’s Star.The story told is that the Magi followed the star to Bethlehem but weren't sure where to go once there. They saw the ox-eye daisy growing, which reminded them of the star they'd followed. One of them picked the flower and the door to the house opened revealing the Holy Family.
Sometimes, a flower was described simply as a part of Mary: (Our) Lady’s Fingers (Honeysuckle); (Our) Lady’s Hair (Common Quaking Grass)*; Eyes of Mary (Forget-Me-Not)* and often, as an item of her clothing: Mary’s Gloves (foxglove)*; Mary’s Belt (Meadowsweet)*; Mary’s Crown (Bachelors’ Buttons)*; (Our)Lady’s Mantle*; (Our)Lady’s Smock* and (Our)Lady’s Slipper. We also find her name attached to domestic accessories as in Our Lady’s Thimble (Harebell)*; Our Lady’s Pincushion (Scabious)*; Our Lady’s Comb (Shepherd’s Needle) and Our Lady’s Candle (Mullein)*, and this can be seen as a way of reminding us that Mary was a simple, uneducated woman, that she was one of us with our everyday concerns. This, perhaps, is what is at the heart of this fascinating naming process; the down-to-earth-ness of our God; the awareness of a God who made himself human, who was born of a woman and who wants us to discover himself, his mother and redemption each day in the ordinariness of our lives which, if we look closely enough, contain so much beauty and grace.
* indicates that the flower can be found on Myddelton Grange land
Francis McCrickard - April 2010