Is this a hop leaf I see before me? Worcester’s libraries & the history of beer.

A couple of weeks ago, the staff of the Shakespeare Institute Library enjoyed an Away Day in the historic city of Worcester, visiting the ultra-modern Hive, an innovative new venture in the provision of public/University library facilities and also, by contrast, the medieval Cathedral library, housing monastic texts dating back to Anglo Saxon times. The library was founded with the establishment of Worcester Priory in 680 and some of the earliest material there includes fragments of a bible given by King Offa of Mercia in the 8th Century. However, the first known instance of the Cathedral’s ecclesiastical and legal documents being organised and recorded in a systematic way was under Bishop Wulfstan in the 11th century.


Amongst the many fascinating texts held in the library are two official volumes of the charters and letters relating to Worcester Cathedral Priory, written in the various hands of the chaplains to the priors. Volume II covers the period 1301 – 1446 and, as well as all the expected documentation, it contains a ‘mystery’ drawing of a leaf, which has been the subject of much debate and conjecture in the past few months since it was discovered by trainee librarian, Tom Hopkins. The image is drawn in ink, on a full page of parchment, but is little more than a hand-drawn sketch. It looks as though the artist had the actual leaf in front of him and is trying to produce a faithful image – it is possible even that he has drawn around the leaf to make an outline, with the veins and other details infilled afterwards. There is an accompanying inscription under the drawing, indicating that the (unidentified) leaf was presented as a gift to the church, by one Thomas Hawkins of Icomb, in 1448. The presence of this drawing in an official record raises a number of interesting questions:

  • Why would someone make a gift of the leaf to the church?
  • Why was it considered important enough to record its image in the official record? There are no other images in the 479 pages of this volume, or, as far as it is known, any other similar volumes.
  • What kind of leaf is it? Was it presented as part of a living plant or simply as a single leaf? Initial research has led to the suggestion that this might be a leaf from a hop plant. However, if this is the case, it would pre-date the growing of hops in England by almost 100 years and would suggest that the leaf (or plant) had been brought from the continent. But this would have been quite a journey in 1448 – even by sea, the quickest route, the voyage from Flanders to Worcester via Bristol and the River Severn would have taken several weeks. Again, one has to ask the question – why would anyone do this? What was the significance of this plant?

Reynolde Scot 1574Although ale, brewed from barley and malt, had been a staple in England since at least the first century AD, beer brewed with the addition of hops, which improved both the flavour and its keeping qualities, was not introduced until around 1400, when it was first imported from Flanders. Such was the demand for this new improved beer that the hops themselves began to be imported from Holland around the middle of the 15th century. But, as far as we know, it was not until the 16th century that hops were first grown in England and indeed, one of the very first gardening texts to be written in English was a practical guide to setting up and maintaining a hop garden, published in 1574.
So again, one wonders, why is there a drawing of a hop leaf in the Worcester Cathedral records? According to John Gerard’s Herball (1597), hops also had medicinal properties and this does present an alternative hypothesis – that the plant was introduced as an addition to the Priory’s herb garden.

The other possibility of course, is that it is not a hop leaf at all! Comparison with images in 16th century herbals and books confirm, I would say, that it is some kind of a vine (botanically, the hop is a vine) – possibly a grape vine. But these were common in England at this time, so why painstakingly record it on expensive parchment in the Priory records? There are many avenues still to be explored and hopefully current lines of enquiry, including engaging the expertise of organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society, may shed further light on the mysteries surrounding this drawing and its significance.
In the meantime, it has provided a very interesting adjunct to what was already a fascinating and informative Away Day!

(For the latest news on this and other treasures at Worcester Cathedral Library check out their Blog).

Jill Francis, PhD – Library Support Assistant


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