Mazes and Labyriths, by W. H. Matthews, , at sacred-texts.com
THE mention of the word "maze" most frequently calls to mind a block of tall shrubs penetrated by a puzzling branching path, which terminates in an arbour or goal of some sort. But just as we have seen that the horticultural maze is far from being the sole form of expression of the idea, so we must now recognise that even in horticulture the well-known hedge maze is not the only type of verdant labyrinth.
The dwarf box, although a favourite material for de-limiting flower beds and edging paths, is merely a sub-ordinate or "accompanying" instrument, so to speak, in the gardener's orchestra. Yet we do occasionally see it employed as a soloist, executing its modest little arabesques between the strepitant choruses of the chromatic parterres on the terrace of some stately country home. In such cases we see a relic of the "knots" which formed an important feature in the gardens of our forefathers.
These devices were composed of various herbs or low shrubs and great ingenuity was displayed in their fashioning, amongst other forms being several varieties of labyrinths. The praises of the dwarf box in this connection were sung by John Parkinson, herbalist to Queen Elizabeth and King James the First. In his "Paradisus" he mentions it thus: ". . . Boxe, which lastly I chiefly and
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Fig. 72. Floral Labyrinth (De Vries).
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Fig. 74. Floral Labyrinth (De Vries).
above all other herbs commend unto you, and being a small, low, or dwarfe kind, is called French or Dutch Boxe." This plant, he says, "serveth very well to set out any knot or border out any beds, for besides that it is ever greene, it being reasonable thicke set, will easily be cut and formed into any fashion one will, according to the nature thereof, which is to grow very slowly, and will not in a long time rise to be of any height, but shooting forth many small branches from the roote, will grow very thicke and yet not require so great tending, nor so much perish as any of the former . . .," and so on, in typical labyrinthine prose. The use of dwarf box in this way was not, of course, a novelty in Parkinson's time. In fact it was used by the Romans to border their paths and the flower-beds of that little garden in front of the porticoes which went by the name of the xystus.
In the sixteenth century, however, the planting of dwarf shrubs and herbs in long narrow beds twisted into various complicated figures seems to have become very fashionable.
Where maze patterns were introduced, a simple, unicursal form was sometimes followed, but in many instances very elaborate mazes were executed.
In a few of our libraries are to be found copies of a curious book of garden designs by Jan Vredeman De Vries, entitled "Hortorum Viridariorumque Formae," published at Antwerp in 1583. In it are represented many extraordinary and even fantastic plans for the lay-out of gardens, including no less than nine in the form of labyrinths. Some of the latter are designated by titles of a descriptive or of a quasi-classic character, "La Roue," "Ionica," "Corinthia," and so forth. We reproduce a few of these designs in Figs. 72, 73 and 74. Several other horticultural or architectural books of about the same period also mention labyrinths or figure them in their illustrations, but it is not clear, in many cases, whether these are intended to represent garden mazes or the
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FIG. 73.—Floral Labyrinth (De Vries)
flower-bed labyrinths that we have just mentioned. In some instances, where the beds were occupied by shrubs, we have a sort of link between the garden labyrinth and the hedge maze proper. An illustration in a book of 1573 on the gardens of the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, dedicated to Catherine de Medici by the author, Stefano Duperac, shows four rectangular labyrinths, all of the same pattern. It is unlikely that in such circumstances they would all have been formed of tall hedges, and we may therefore judge them to have been of the flower-bed type or perhaps of dwarf box.
We find a reference to the herbal labyrinth in "La Maison Rustique," by Charles Estienne (Paris, 1573), under the heading of "Kitchen Garden Planning":
"Et sera bon dresser a ceste fin une planche de sauge . . . encore une de sariette, & hyssope, de cost, de basilic, aspic, baume, pouliot & une de camomille pour faire les siéges & labyrinthes, que l’on nomme Daedalus."
One of the best-known and most often quoted of the Tudor gardening books is that of Thomas Hyll, or Hill, whose work "A moste Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatyse Teachynge How to Dress, Sowe and Set a Garden" was published in 1563. It has a captivating charm, especially in the earlier, black-letter editions. In later editions the name of the author appears as "Didymus Mountaine" (Didymus = Thomas, Mountaine = Hill), and the book becomes "The Gardener's Labyrinth."
He published two figures of mazes, which we reproduce as Figs. 75 and 76. In the 1579 edition—"The Profitable Art of Gardening"—they are respectively placed at the heads of different chapters, the openings of which are worth quoting:
"Here by the way (Gentle Reader) I do place two proper Mazes, the one before this Chapter, and the other after, as proper adornments upon pleasure to a Garden, that who so listeth, having such roomth in their Garden, may place the one of them, which liketh them best, in
that voide place of the Garden that maye beste be spared for the onelye purpose, to sporte in them at times, which
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FIG. 75.—Herbal Labyrinth. (T. Hill, 1579.)
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FIG. 76.—Herbal Labyrinth. (T. Hill, 1579.)
mazes being workmanly handled by the Gardner shal much beautifie them in devising four sundry fruits to be
placed in each of the corners of the Maze and in the middle of it a proper Herber decked with Roses, or else some faire tree of Rosemary, or other fruits, at the discretion of the Gardener."
"And here, I also place the other Maze, which may be lyke ordered and used, as I spake before, and it may eyther be set with Isope and Time, or with winter Savery and Tyme; for these do wel endure all ye winter through greene. And there be some which set their mazes with Lavender, Cotton Spike, Majerome and such like. But let them be ordered in this point, as liketh best the Gardener, and so an end. For I doe not here set forth this, or the other Maze afore expressed, for any necessarie commoditie in a Garden, but rather appoint eyther of them (which liketh you best) as a beautifying unto your Garden: for that Mazes and Knots aptly made do much set forth a garden which neverthelesse I referre to your discretion for that not all persons be of like abilitie."
One would have expected to find some word concerning mazes in Lord Bacon's Essay on Gardening, but, strange to say, he makes no reference whatever to mazes or labyrinths. He abhorred topiary work. "I, for my part," he says, "do not like images cut out in juniper or other garden stuff—they be for children." Mazes he apparently considered unworthy even of mention.
Hill's square maze reappears, but with a tree at the centre, in another gardening book which achieved much popularity in the seventeenth century, namely, "A New Orchard and Garden," by William Lawson (i 623), afterwards published (1638, 1648, etc.), bound up with "A Way to get Wealth," by Gervase Markham. This is a quaint little publication which embodies amongst other things a "Table of Hard Words." "Mazes well framed a man's height," says Lawson (ch. xvii.), may perhaps make your friend wander in gathering of berries, till he cannot recover himself without your help." In the division entitled "The Country Hous-Wife's Garden" we
are told that "The number of Formes, Mazes and Knots is so great, and Men are so diversly delighted that I leave every House-wife to her selfe, expecially seeing to set downe many, had been but to fill much Paper; yet lest I deprive her of all delight and direction, let her view these few, choice, new Forms, and note these generally, that all Plots are square, and all are bordered about with Privit, Rasins, Fea-berries, Roses, Thorne, Rosemary, Bee-flowers, Isop, Sage or such like."
Let us hope that the Hous-Wife whose duty was to
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FIGS. 77, 78.—Maze Designs in Seventeenth Century Manuscript. (Harley MS.)
prepare and keep in order these "Choice new Forms" had plenty of time on her hands.
The two mazes included in a tiny book amongst the Harley Manuscripts (Figs. 77 and 78) were probably intended for flower-bed mazes. The book consists of a collection of 166 sketches of flower-beds, "knots," etc., and probably belonged to some seventeenth-century gardener.
These mazes, like most of the early forms, are of the "unicursal" type; that is, they have only one path, without loops or branches. It seems most likely that such mazes would be constructed either of flower-beds or of some low-growing shrubs, such as box. If constructed of high hedges the pattern would be invisible, except from
a superior eminence, and they would afford but a poor sort of entertainment to the visitor, who would have nothing to do but to follow the path until he came to a full stop, and then retrace his steps. Nevertheless there is no doubt that some of them were made in this way. On the other hand the flower-bed labyrinth was not necessarily unicursal, as we may see from the plans of De Vries.
The actual form of the unicursal type of labyrinth was,
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FIG. 79.—Maze Design by Adam Islip, 1602.
in all the earlier designs, whether circular or square, in very close agreement with the classic model, but in later designs monotony was avoided by means of some ingenious modifications. One of the earliest of these is shown in Fig. 79, which is copied from a very rare book called "The Orchard and The Garden," gathered from French and Dutch sources and published by Adam Islip in 1602. Fig. 80 shows one of several specimens which are given in a Dutch book of about half a century later, "Nederlantze Hesperides," by J. Commelyn (1676). It is
perhaps as likely, however, that these were intended as designs for a hedge maze, or "Doolhof," as the Dutch call it.
The box-edged paths of "Queen Mary's Bower" on the island of Inchmahome, by the Lake of Menteith, Stirlingshire, may mark the site of a former dwarf-box labyrinth. Tradition maintains that the maze was made for Mary Queen of Scots when she was staying there as
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FIG. 80.—Maze Design by J. Commelyn, 1676.
a child. The original maze-pattern, if such existed, is lost by reason of the depredations of relic hunters, who for many years laid the bower under contribution and so denuded it that it had to be entirely replanted some fifty or sixty years ago. The box shrubs with which it was repaired, however, are said to have been taken from the gardens of Cardross, where they had been reared from cuttings derived from the original bower. They have now grown to a height of several feet, and the bower no doubt presents a very different appearance from that which it had in the days of the ill-starred Mary.
It consists of a winding box-bordered walk leading to a central thorn-bush, the whole affair being oval in out-line, about thirty yards in circumference and surrounded by a paling. Close at hand, and enclosed within a square stone wall, is Queen Mary's garden, containing at the centre an old box tree which is affirmed to have been planted by the little princess herself.
Another Scottish relic which is said to mark the site of an old terrace maze is that near Stirling Castle, known since the fourteenth century as the "Round Tabill" or the "King's Knot."
There is a "Queen Mary's Bower," by the way, in the gardens at Hampton Court, but this is only a straight walk shaded by an avenue of pollarded elms, which forms a sort of verdant tunnel. It is situated at the summit of a bank rising above one side of the King's Privy Garden. An old tower planted with shrubs at Chatsworth bears the same name.
We shall have occasion to refer to "bowers" again later on, in another connection. The present mention of them forms a convenient transition from the subject of garden labyrinths to that of hedge mazes.