THE WARDEN PEAR
What is a warden (pear)?
There were rumours that the warden (pear) was introduced to England by Cistercian monks during the Middle Ages and that it took its name from Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire. However, although the Cistercians might have helped to distribute fruit trees around Europe during that period, pears were probably first imported by the Romans.
Medieval records show that ‘warden’ was in fact nothing more than a general term for a hard cooking pear, and the fruit was so common that the word ‘pear’ was usually superfluous. The name probably has its roots in the Anglo-Norman word warder, meaning ‘to keep or preserve’ and its capacity to last throughout the winter was one of its defining qualities.
Confusion set in during the 17th century, when horticulturalists started to give names to certain varieties of these hard pears. Lost varieties include the French warden, Spanish warden, Parkinson’s warden and Godboult’s warden, while surviving examples (the word warden now having been dropped) are the Black Worcester, Catillac and Uvedale’s St Germain. On the left are Catillac pears.
Further misconceptions have arisen thanks to the idea that ‘warden pears’ were named after the village of Old Warden. This is unlikely given that rather than having a fruity connection, the village name of Warden (recorded as Wardone in the Domesday Book) is a compound of the Anglo-Saxon weard and dún meaning ‘watch hill’, and that Quince Hill, the highest point in the village, was the finest lookout point for miles around.
The design of Warden Abbey’s arms explained
The arms of Warden Abbey have depicted three golden pears on an azure background since at least the middle of the 15th century and the design was deeply rooted in early Christian beliefs. Pears symbolised the abundance of fruit and life in the Garden of Eden and three was a significant number: God created dry land, grass and fruit trees on the third day; there were three persons in the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; three wise men brought gifts at the birth of Jesus; and three crosses stood on Calvary when Christ was crucified. Blue is traditionally associated with Mary, mother of Jesus who was held in high esteem by the Cistercians, and gold represented Mary, crowned as Queen of Heaven.
The arms of Warden Abbey figure in stained glass at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Tilty in Essex (left). The east end of the church was formerly part of Tilty Abbey’s ‘chapel without the gate’.
Learn more about the warden pear
To learn about the warden pear, including how it was used in medieval medicine, where it was mentioned in literature, how it was traditionally served and much more (including recipes to try at home), why not treat yourself to a copy of The Original Warden Pear by vineyard volunteer and OWHHS member, Margaret Roberts. For details, go to [insert link to publications page]
© M. Roberts 2018