So Helen and I are doing a road trip around the Midlands for our honeymoon and today’s stop was Stratford-Upon-Avon. This is a town that can claim to be the birthplace of English culture, with Shakespearean echoes around every culture. So obviously, with me being an English Literature graduate, the things that struck me most were trees.
Specific trees actually. It’s said that the mulberry tree in Shakespeare’s garden was grown from a cutting taken from the gardens of the king himself, and that it was cut down by a subsequent owner who got sick of gawping tourists (he later did the same to the house itself). So far, so innocuous.
Then we ate mulberries at the house of Shakespeare’s daughter and wondered what the deal was with these trees cropping up everywhere. After all, it’s not like mulberries are that common in the UK.
I thought there might be a family story behind this, or some literary connection. Turns out the presence of these trees was far more political.
James I ruled England at a time when the world was changing. He was the first monarch over both England and Scotland, presided over the colonisation of the Americas, translated the Bible and faced the Gunpowder Plot. He was involved in the patronage of the arts and the hunting of witches.
So James is working in a period of transition, a liminal era when the modern world is starting to form but hasn’t quite arrived. It’s a time of doing new things. France, Britain’s big rival, is in a similar place, innovating new ways of boosting its silk industry. James decides that he wants a piece of the action and, in 1609, decrees that people should start growing mulberry trees, because mulberry trees attract silk worms. It’s a way of competing internationally, and so people, including Shakespeare, start growing black mulberries.
Unfortunately, silkworms only like white mulberries. The plan failed.
(Although the UK silk industry got a boost a few decades later when France started persecuting the Huguenots, resulting in a mass exodus of silk makers to London.)
So in a way, those trees of Shakespeare’s are emblematic of the age, a time when people were fumbling their way towards a new way of looking at the world, making mistakes, getting things wrong, but ultimately heading in the right direction. We went from a room in which medicine was all based around imbalances in the four humours to a garden in which the central tree was meant to usher in a new industry. The modern and the ancient, superstition and rationality, all rubbing shoulders at the dawn of a new world.
Not bad for a tree.