Sunday 6 May 2012

Were Roman Imported Goods Vulgar?

Aristocratic Horse Chestnuts
My parents came from different social classes. I have an early memory of the argument between a member of each family over when to put milk into a cup of tea. The individual who lived in a council house said you poured milk into the bottom of the cup before adding the tea; the haut-bourgeois one insisted that you added the milk at the last minute.

As a result of this upbringing, until recently I thought that I was bilingual in class and cultural mores, at least in Britain. I prided myself on being able to handle complicated cutlery and discuss brands of handbag or breeds of horses, while feeling personally more at home in the co-op than the organic delicatessen.  

But then it happened. A friend who lives in a genteel village, where the Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) have sadly become diseased, asked me what the parish council should plant instead. Spotting a beautiful Sycamore through the window, I said brightly, ‘How about Sycamores?’ The shock on his face was palpable. ‘Oh NO!’ he said, grimacing as if I had suggested force-feeding his children Kentucky Fried Chicken. 
Lower-Class Sycamore

Aspirational Laburnum
Can someone please help me? It is not that I am unaware that horticulture and arboriculture are arenas of class conflict.  My posh parent told me that the Laburnum tree was a favourite of the nouveaux riches (because it is toxic or because it is ostentatious?) and that the Pampas Grass was only for the tiny garden yards of the working classes.

Proletarian Pampas
I had a hunch that the issue might be indigeneity. The Pampas Grass comes from the southern Americas, which in the mind of a middle-class Briton just might make it ‘vulgar’.  But the Horse Chestnut originally comes from the Balkans, where it was cultivated by the Ottomans. It was only introduced into western Europe in the sixteenth century. 

Medieval Shrine of Frideswide
Sycamore leaves, however, feature along with Oak, Hawthorn, Maple and Bryony on the Oxford shrine of the very English Saint Frideswide, which was built in 1259. Sycamore trees are mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was once a forester. 

Sensible Roman Gardener
The Sycamore was almost certainly introduced into Britain by the Romans, who were great gardeners but also sensible enough to know that this tree produces very strong and flexible timber.  Please can someone explain its class profile before I betray my lack of refinement any further? Can it really be that Roman imports are still regarded as vulgar?

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