Turf Labyrinths: What they are & How they came to England.

Turf Labyrinths: What they are & How they came to England.

Today is the third blog of MAZE MONTH, following and concluding (for the most part) the history of mazes and labyrinths. Be sure to read the two previous posts (links below) before this one. This topic expanded beyond what I initially intended when diving into garden mazes —hence a whole month of posts— and I’ve had a fabulous time exploring this complex history.

Nevertheless, the main focus of this series was to shine the light on the historic turf mazes/labyrinths still in existence in England. Today I will be doing just that, starting with the historical evolution from solid labyrinths of stone to those created from natural, growing grass and verge.

History of the Maze

More Maze History, and an Exploration of the Purpose

NOTE: These maze-centric blogs are interspersed throughout the month with other topics, but it will be an A-MAZING month! 

MAZE MONTH CONTINUES!

Section of the Mappa Mundi world map with a labyrinth marking the island of Crete.
Located at Hereford Cathedral, c.1300
*click image for full history
Gilded roof boss of a labyrinth on ceiling of St. Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol, c.1390.

In England, labyrinth designs situated in cathedrals, churches, and chapels are almost exclusively dating from the late 19th century. Only two examples, the splendid gilded roof-boss in St. Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol and the tiny labyrinth on the Hereford Mappa Mundi are from the medieval period.

No need to fret over this sad dearth, however, because England IS unique in having a collection of the best-preserved examples of turf labyrinths!

Say what? Read on. . . . .

What is in a name?

I apologize for sounding like a broken record, but I must begin by briefly touching on terminology. To be clear, these unique formations are all designed as one continuous pathway looped and curved, and with no junctions, crossings, or dead-ends. In other words, they are proper labyrinths. Nevertheless, remember that for most of history, labyrinth and maze were essentially interchangeable, so the names of these centuries-old creations do not follow the modern rules. Even more confusing, there are many colloquial names for these turf structures. Most often they are called a mizmaze, a now obsolete word dating to the 16th century specific to these turf labyrinths. Other names include “Troy Town” and “Julian’s Bower” —both of which I shall expound upon in a bit.

How were they made? And. . . when were they made?

Turf mizmazes were/are formed by cutting shallow trenches into the ground surface, leaving turf ridges. For the majority, the walking path was the level grassy turf, although a rare few were designed with the lower earthen trail as the pathway. The patterns and sizes varied, although most did copy the Classical, or Cretan/Chartres design.

Due to the natural composition of a turf maze, the typical scientific dating methods are essentially useless. Historians must rely on documentation, which rarely exists, and other research techniques to arrive at a rough origination estimate. There is scant existing evidence to support turf labyrinths in England prior to the late Medieval period (13th to 14th centuries), with the exception of the names (covered further in this post) and the reality that turf mazes rapidly disappear if not maintained. Put another way, turf labyrinths may have been all over the place from as far back as the Roman occupation but no records remain to verify.

Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History (AD 77), when comparing Egyptian labyrinths to Roman versions: “…what we see traced on our mosaic pavements or to the mazes formed in the fields for the entertainment of children.” Historians cannot be certain, however the implication is of something akin to a turf labyrinth. Furthermore, as the Roman Empire colonized a good portion of Europe, including the British Isles, a reasonable argument can be made for the introduction being far older than suspected.

Historians DO concur the evidence supports that mizmazes in Europe were created as early as the 15th century, and that the bulk of those in England were created between the 16th to 17th centuries.

There are several poems and songs from the period which allude to, or even specifically name, mazes and labyrinths on grassy plains. A number of references within the works by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) also bear witness to the existence of labyrinths and turf mazes.

“The quaint mazes in the wanton green, for lack of tread are undistinguishable.” Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II Sc 1

“Here’s a maze trod indeed, through forth-rights and meanders!” Gonzalo in The Tempest Act III Sc 3

Once upon a time, whenever they were originally introduced, turf labyrinths were widely present throughout the British Isles, as well as the old Germanic Empire, Denmark, and Sweden. Vague references in old documents, local folklore, and place-name evidence support the existence of several hundred turf labyrinths spread across this broad swath of land. Sadly, the vast majority have long since been reclaimed by nature and forgotten. Presently, there are a mere three surviving in Germany, one in Sweden, and only eight in England. 

Throughout the rest of MAZE MONTH I will highlight each of the eight British turf mizmazes, but must pay homage to the other four—

(L—>R) Das Rad (The Wheel) in Eilenriede forest, near Hanover, West Germany, 1642
Schwedenring Graitschen in Thuringia, Germany, 17th century
Trojaburg Steigra in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, 17th century
Tibble Trojienborg near Anundshög, Sweden, 1764

 

Why were they made?

As with other ancient labyrinths and mazes, the purposes are speculative rather than clear fact. There is reason to believe that some turf mizmazes were for religious rituals of penance and contemplation, especially since many were located near churches. It is also evident from the previously mentioned old documents and local folklore that turf-cut labyrinths were popular entertainment features at village fairs and festivals.

Returning to the previous quote by Pliny from AD 77, “mazes formed in the fields for the entertainment of children” leave no doubt that outside labyrinths were enjoyed as a form of childish amusement. Comparatively easy to create, a simple turf labyrinth in a town’s common green provided years or decades of amusement, after which it could be let go to eventually disappear.

Additionally, the 16th century saw the beginnings of luxury, sculpted English gardens. The design of formal geometric gardens in this period often included mazes of various sorts. The tradition continued into the early 18th century, gaining in popularity with each passing decade. Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening, published in 1728, included several designs for mazes. Tragically, from a certain point of view, many of the original gorgeous gardens of the Baroque period no longer exist, whether due to constant changes in landscape design or neglect.

TROY TOWN and JULIAN’S BOWER TURF LABYRINTHS

Time to talk etymology again! Y’all know how I love delving into the origins of vocabulary, right? This time it is even more fun as these two common titles for turf mazes complete the circle (more or less) of labyrinth history as we are going back to ancient Greece.

Up front I have to note that what follows is a wildly truncated version of an intensely complicated and strongly debated history. Check out the links provided below if curious to dive deeper.

Many of the existing and long-since disappeared turf mizmazes in England and elsewhere were given names with “Troy” attached. Variations include: Troy Town, Troy, City of Troy, Troy’s Walls, Troy’s Hoy, and The Walls of Troy. The connection to the ancient city of Troy is obvious to surmise, but tracing the threads isn’t so clear cut.

Legends of the lost city of Troy have existed since the 8th century B.C. but were surprisingly not exclusive to Homer’s epic poems. In fact, in the Middle Ages, the Latin works by two purported eyewitnesses of the Fall of Troy were far more popular. Translated around the 5th century, one was attributed to Dictys of Crete, a warrior on the Greek side, and the other to Dares of Phrygia, a priest in Troy. Authenticity is questionable, but the point is that these two were considered reliable history at the time and spurred countless works of Troy romances in dozens of languages. Akin to Arthurian legends, separating fact from fiction is nearly impossible, but contemporary readers of Trojan literature weren’t concerned with such trifles.

One legend related to the genesis of mazes was that the walls of the City of Troy were constructed in a confusing and complex way so that any enemy who entered uninvited would become hopelessly lost. Portions of Troy have been excavated, of course, but as an enormous city that existed for over a thousand years, it remains impossible to be sure if any of the walls were a literal “maze” or if like the Palace at Knossos, the vastness of the city was interpreted as such. Whatever the facts of Troy’s walls, legends create the reality, as it were, providing a logical evolution to “Troy” being attached to mazes as well as other structures.

For example, a ruined castle located in Slesvig, Denmark first recorded in 1347 was named Trøyborgh, derived from the zigzag route across the moat into the center. All throughout Scandinavia, turf mazes bore names such as Trojabury, Trojburg, or Trelleborg —the etymology from Troy obvious, with derivatives of “burgh” meaning “fort, castle, or fortified place” added to indicate the place they were associated with.

In addition to the Troy-name examples in England, Welsh hilltop turf mazes (none of which still exist) were called Caerdroia, Caerdroea or Caer DroeaCaerdroia is a Welsh word meaning “a labyrinth; a maze cut by shepherds in the sward, serving as a puzzle” and the literal English translation is: “Walls-of-Troy.”

Unique design of a Troy-town maze once located at Pimperne in Dorset. John Aubrey, writing in 1686, says it was “much used by the young people on Holydaies and by ye School-boies.” Plowed over in 1730.

 

Another possible genesis is simply that legendary destroyed, ruinous, ancient cities were, in-and-of-themselves, seen as romantic and magical. Jericho, Nineveh, Jerusalem, Babylon, and Lisbon (to list a few) join Troy as names of turf and stone mazes. Many other mazes bear ruined city names from a regional locality. Troy, however, appears to have been far more common and numerous.

What appears to be the most plausible genesis is a blending of both. The Troy legend, as a historical fact not yet verified and via the plethora of romance literature, was important in the European Middle Ages. Steeped in myth as it was, people firmly believed it had existed and that descendants of Trojan refugees had founded nations in Europe.

“…nothing is more common among the Welsh than the belief that this island was first settled from Caer-droea.” Theophilus Evans, Drych y pryf Oesoedd, pt.1 (1740)

The origins of Julian’s Bower —historically the second most commonly applied turf labyrinth name— is even more complicated, believe it or not. The widely accepted theory, probably because it connects so nicely to the Troy Town variations, is that the name refers to Julius of Troy (the son of Aeneas, a Trojan warrior who appears in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid).

In England, there is only one remaining turf maze named Julian’s Bower, located in Alkborough. The only other surviving example is a stone maze named “Den Julianske Borg” located in Norway. Those recorded but now-gone turf mazes bearing similar names — Gillian’s Bower, Gelyan Bower, St. Julian’s — are likely nothing more than regional and linguistic variations, but the differences open the door to debates amongst historians. What is in agreement, as far as I could ascertain, is that “bower” does not signify a leafy arbor, but is derived either from borough (hill fort; fortress) as the usual place-association, or barrow (hill, earthen mound) from which the root bhergh- gives us borough.

 

L—>R: Troy Town (also Maiden’s Dance) stone labyrinth in Finby near Nagu, Finland
“Den Julianske Borg” (Julian’s Castle) in Vartdal, Norway
Troy Town at St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly

That wraps up the history summation of turf labyrinths.
I hope y’all have enjoyed reading these blogs as much
as I have researching and writing them.

PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS!

Return throughout the month of March,
for individual posts on each of the 8 turf labyrinths, and historic hedge mazes.

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