David Allen

  • The Culture of Flowers by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 480 pp, £40.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 521 41441 5

In its salad days, late last century, the first wave of social anthropologists, headed by Tylor and Frazer, sat firmly in armchairs, speculated grandly and wildly on the strength of second-hand reports from missionaries and travellers, and wrote for a lay readership in works of captivating prose. Then came Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, total immersion in single exotic cultures and increasingly unreadable monographs addressed to fellow-professionals. And then, in or around the Sixties, well and truly purged of that earlier baseless generalising, the discipline suddenly sprang out of the jungle and began to speak to the outside world once more, armed with a wealth of insights into human behaviour grounded in first-hand observations made all around the globe. Out, in, out: a magnified version of the subject’s own rhythmic alternation between reading-up, fieldwork and writing-up. Perhaps there is a further phase yet to follow, when the professionals will return to the wilds en masse and again prefer to discuss their findings only among themselves. For the time being, we must be grateful that they are content to share them with the rest of us.

Jack Goody has already drawn on the newly-rich store of anthropological reference to produce wide-ranging, thought-provoking books on the relationship between the spoken and the written, the connections between cooking and social class, and the development of the family and marriage. He has now turned his attention to (in the words of the dust-jack-et) ‘the symbolic and transactional uses of flowers’. Another suitably vast theme, with almost limitless scope for another tour du monde. If he has allowed his enthusiasm for the hunt to run away with him (a discreet footnote on page 284 reveals that the publisher insisted on substantial cuts to what is still a hefty book), he has penetrated in the process to some very out-of-the-way country and cut a swath through an impressive range of libraries.

His point of departure is the anomalous absence of flowers in everyday life in Black Africa. In sharp contrast to Asia and Europe, on the whole they are neither grown there nor picked in the wild for ceremonies or adornment – except in some areas strongly influenced by Islam. They play little or no role in art or design and probably never have done, which may account, Goody suggests, for the oddly limited colour vocabulary in African languages. The lack of any tradition of floral crowns or garlands and the absence of indigenous perfumes provide further evidence.

Why should this be? Goody seeks the answer first of all, somewhat hesitantly, in the general lack of flamboyance of the tropical African flora. He then settles, more confidently and convincingly, on the shifting hoe cultivation that is the continent’s characteristic mode of agriculture. This can never have been conducive to the forming of garden plots, he points out, just as it cannot have encouraged the emergence of communities with hierarchies, which can develop only in conditions of long-term stability. The fact that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon are similarly flower-bereft, in conspicuous contrast to those of Mexico, who are the descendants of large-scale stratified societies, would seem to confirm this theory.

It is the existence of hierarchy, and thus of one or more upper layers of society that are relatively richer and more leisured, that Goody identifies as the critical factor. For the growing and gathering of flowers are necessarily part of the ‘culture of luxury’, activities which depend on going far enough beyond a subsistence economy to permit the diverting of crops to non-utilitarian ends, such as religion, gift-giving and, above all, beautification.

Shifting the scene first to Asia and then to Western Europe, Goody follows the trail through history. Significantly, it is in Mesopotamia, in that part of the world where advanced (non-hoe) agriculture appears first to have developed, that signs of the ‘culture of luxury’ are also first detectable. The word for ‘garden’ in Semitic is derived from one meaning ‘protection’, and here flowers were nurtured in exclusive, walled-in areas associated with the palaces and temples: ‘paradises’, the privileged retreats of the powerful and the wealthy, taken to their most glorious and extravagant in the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Persia was subsequently to become, and long remain, the floral fountainhead of Eurasia, diffusing the taste both eastwards and westwards. It was from there, ultimately, that the Romans caught it and in the Roman Empire it became especially deeply and widely established. This culminated in the development of techniques for forcing, which helped to reduce Rome’s heavy reliance on flowers imported from warmer climates.

The collapse of the Roman Empire in the west largely eliminated gardens. As with herbal lore, the knowledge of forcing survived at all only thanks to the Arabs and it was only with difficulty that the technique was discovered afresh when horticulture revived in the Renaissance. Early Christianity was a further fatal influence, for its cult of austerity and abhorrence of icons left scant scope for the use of flowers. This was one of a series of religion-inspired breaks in what is otherwise a story of regular advance.

The first indication of a revival in Europe came with the ‘return of the rose’ in the 12th century. The causes of this are elusive, but Goody concludes that they lay in the interaction of pressures from above and below, greatly assisted by Islamic influences. In England, though, it was only in Tudor times that the culture of flowers can be said to have staged a thoroughgoing comeback. In large part this was the work of immigrants from Holland, who were soon to make Norwich renowned as the country’s floral capital (as it was later to be the cradle of English field botany). It was in this period that commercial nurseries began to be established and the range of flowers in cultivation increased noticeably. It was to increase much further in the century following, as novelties poured in from the New World and the East. From the East, too, now came imports of floral printed cloth, which helped additionally to counter the adverse currents of puritanism; while increasing prosperity widened the market and expanded demand, especially for cut flowers, for bouquets and buttonholes and for decorating homes and churches. The century after that brought flower-beds to cottage gardens, specialist growers and sellers, and the flower show as an institution. In all of these developments Holland tended to be both trend-setter and pacemaker, surpassing every other country in the quantity of flowers raised and bought – as well as reproduced in paintings.

A special 19th-century phenomenon was the so-called Language of Flowers, the fashion for which is generally attributed to a book by Charlotte Latour published in 1819. Goody exposes this as a ‘paraliterary artefact’, a creation of the French urban bourgeoisie, whose modish romanticism inclined it to the notion that there exists a universal emblematic floral code, an ‘alphabet of the fields’, primarily for use between lovers. The fashion had one fruitful outcome for all the spuriousness of the beliefs on which it was based: it crossed the Atlantic and helped to transform the puritanical denial of flowers that had long prevailed there. Even today, Goody observes, the ritual use of these is poorly developed in America outside California – New England graveyards in particular are a byword for severity.

Further chapters carry the story into Asia. We are taken through the topics of garlands in India, the significance of flowers in Chinese culture and the New Year ceremonies in Taiwan, Guandong and its neighbours. One needs stamina to keep up with Goody’s globetrotting, positively Frazerian energy.