The Massachusetts Medievalist does a little pleaching to end the summer

This past weekend the Massachusetts Medievalist headed west to the Berkshires, where I learned an entirely new word (and did a number of other things, btw). Pleach: interlace, plait (Merriam-Webster). Etymology is from medieval French / Anglo-Norman.

“Pleach” came up during the garden tour at Edith Wharton’s stunning home The Mount, which was built in the first decade and restored in the last decade of the twentieth century (although the restoration is still somewhat ongoing). Here’s a shot of Wharton’s study, which she called her “boudoir,” a term I feel it would be best not to adopt in general discourse (as in, “come to my boudoir after class so we can talk about that some more”):

Edith Wharton's study

Our tour guide in the garden was spectacularly knowledgeable about everything: Wharton’s house, her life, her garden, her literary works, and her Pulitzer prize (1921 for Age of Innocence, in case you were wondering). He told us that some of the rows of trees in the main part of the garden (which looked like basic box hedges to my untrained eye, albeit hedges with trunks) were “pleached” to create the look of a box hedge on stilts. This image from The Mount’s website shows these pleached trees as a background to the French garden:

Image of Wharton's garden with pleached trees

The marvelous Oxford English Dictionary tells me that “pleach” can be both a noun and verb, although it’s been a verb for about 300 years longer—first recorded use in English c.1398 (by my man John Trevisa, whom most medievalists know as the Middle English translator of Higden’s Polychronicon). As a noun, its use is almost exclusively horticultural (“interlacing, intertwining…of tree boughs to form a lattice or hedge”), but as a verb it can provide a more metaphorical usage, with examples of pleached hair or even a pleached roof.

I’m more interested in the metaphorical use of this word, as I don’t plan on entwining any tree branches to form a hedge any time soon, but the idea of weaving together previously or seemingly separate items is enormously appealing right now. Perhaps we should start discussing pleached families or pleached communities, pleached musical genres and pleached child care solutions.

Please use the word “pleach” in casual conversation in the next week or so –

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