Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade


On History

In the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur explores the necrobotany of the yew tree, “the tree of the dead”—found in churchyards across the United Kingdom, France, and Spain.

William Turner, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, 1808.

A churchyard was adjacent to a church; both held the bones of the dead. The three—the building, the ground, the dead—were conjoined by a common history that made them part of what by the eighteenth century was a given; if ever there were an organic landscape, it was the churchyard.

The long-lived European yew tree—Taxus baccata, the tree of the dead, the tree of poisonous seeds—bears witness to the antiquity of the churchyard and shades its “rugged elms,” and the mounds and furrows of its graves: The yew of legend is old and lays claim to immemorial presence. We are speaking here of two or three dozen exemplary giants, some with a circumference of ten meters, that have stood for between 1,300 and 3,000 years but also of many more modest and historically documented trees that have lived, and been memorialized, for centuries. At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand. Some were there when the first Saxon and indeed the first British Christian wattle churches were built; a seventh-century charter from Peronne in Picardy speaks of preserving the yew on the site of a new church. 

Just how ancient any given tree might be is, and was, a matter of controversy. Estimates depended on having two or more measurements of girth over a long period of time and then applying a formula that projected rate of growth back in time. These formulas were in turn derived from other serial measurements—so many feet in so many years—supplemented by girth measurements of trees whose age was known from written evidence. In fact, precise dating is probably impossible, and everyone acknowledged it. There are too many variables that determine a tree’s rate of growth to derive a reliable ratio for changes in girth per decade. But no one questions that yews live for thousands of years: “most trees look older than they are,” says the dendrologist Alan Mitchell, “except for yews which are even older than they look.” They have been an intimate part of the churchyard for time out of mind. They are trees of the deep past; their history vouches for the antiquity of the ecclesiastical landscape.

The nineteenth-century antiquarian Daniel Rock speculates that the yew tree in the Aldworth, Berkshire, churchyard may well have been planted by the Saxons. John Evelyn, the seventeenth-century diarist and writer on forestry, measured that tree; Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778–1841), the famous Swiss botanist, measured it again a century later and used the difference to calculate age/circumference ratios; Rock himself measured it in 1841 and noted that it had grown a yard in girth since it was noted in Beauties of England (1760). Scores of other ancient churchyard yews have their own well-documented histories. These are the celebrities of the species that give voice to the antiquity of the churchyard and its dead. Thousands of ordinary yews share in the aura of the species.

It is “beneath the yew-tree’s shade” that “heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,” as Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” puts it. Taxus baccata almost invariably casts its shadow where the dead are, on the south and west sides of the church. Like the bodies it watches over, it is rarely found on the north side, and then only in exceptional circumstances. Some believe, suggested Robert Turner, the strange, learned, and prodigious seventeenth-century translator of many mystical and medico-chemical texts, that this is because yews’ branches would “draw and imbibe” the “gross and oleaginous Vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting Sun.” They also might prevent the appearance of ghosts or apparitions. Unabsorbed gases produced the ignes fatui, the “foolish fire” like that which travelers saw over bogs and marshes, and these, in the context of churchyards, could be mistaken for dead bodies walking. Superstitious monks, he continues, believed that the yew could drive away devils. Its roots, he thought, were poisonous because they will “run and suck nourishment” from the dead, whose flesh is “the rankest poison that could be.”

But Turner’s fanciful claims about the yew’s ecological adaptation are a bit post hoc. The more basic question is why the yew was so intimately associated with the dead in the first place. And, like all questions that seek mythic beginnings, it is unanswerable. Or rather it has too many answers. The yew tree was sacred to Hecate, the Greek goddess associated with witchcraft, death, and necromancy. It was said to purify the dead as they entered Hades; the first-century c.e. poet Statius, much quoted by nineteenth-century folklorists, says that the oracular hero Amphiaraus, struck by Zeus’s thunderbolt, was snatched so quickly from life that “not yet had the Fury [who lived in a yew grove] met and purified him with branch of yew, nor had Proserpine marked him on the dusky door-post as admitted to the company of the dead.” Druids associated the tree with death rituals. In fact, it was the long pagan history of trees that caused the leaders of the Catholic Counter-Reformation to ban their planting altogether and motivated some—an early seventeenth-century bishop of Rennes was a famous case—to try, unsuccessfully in the face of popular opposition, to ban the yew in particular. Post-Reformation English clergy made no such efforts. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poets tell us that the yew leaf covered graves and anointed bodies. The fool Feste in Twelfth Night sings of his “shroud of white, stuck all with yew.” All this was commonplace in antiquarian histories. And so was the yew’s association with the story of Christ’s Passion—with Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday. Few trees were so rooted in the deep time of the dead.

John Burgess, Yews in a Country Churchyard.

In the early eighteenth century, a rival unburdened by a long history appeared in Europe: the weeping willow. It got to England from China via Syria because a merchant from Aleppo named Thomas Vernon gave one to Peter Collinson, the most important middleman in the global exchange of plants. He in turn gave the specimen to Alexander Pope for his gardens at Twickenham sometime in the early 1720s. There are variants to this story: Vernon was Pope’s landlord and so may have given it to him directly; it may have appeared in England a little earlier. But the weeping willow was undeniably new and foreign in the eighteenth century, and early ones like Pope’s enjoyed the attention paid to the new tree in town. Salix Babylonica [Carl] Linnaeus named it, mistakenly thinking it to be the tree of lamentation in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. / We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.” He can be forgiven his mistake. The taxonomy of willows is, as the leading expert tells us, “perplexing.” True Salix babylonica is fragile in cold climates and may now be extinct, so our modern weeping willow is one of its cultivars, Salix × sepulcralis, produced by crossing it with the European white willow, Salix alba.

The willow weeps and mourns perhaps because of its drooping leaves or because it was mistakenly called the tree of the ancient Hebrews’ lamentations. But however it got its name and whatever its precise genealogy, it is the horticultural opposite of Taxus baccata: shallow-rooted, short-lived, and without historical baggage until Alexander Pope made it famous. His villa was torn down in 1808, not a century after the weeping willow arrived, because the new owner was tired of tourists. The painter J. M. W. Turner painted its ruins and saw the famous tree, now a dying trunk, and wrote of it:

Pope’s willow bending to the earth forgot

Save one weak scion by my fostering care
Nursed into life which fell on bracken spare
On the lone Bank to mark the spot with pride.

Tens of thousands of scions were sent forth from Twickenham before the sad end of Pope’s tree.

Images of Salix babylonica or per
haps Salix × sepulcralis, the funereal
 willow, decorated the new commercial funeral announcements
 and mourning memorabilia of the 
eighteenth and nineteenth centu
ries; it shaded Rousseau’s grave at
 Ermenonville. Gloom,
 thought John Claudius Loudon, 
the most learned horticulturalist 
of the nineteenth century, was the
 natural expression of the yew tree, 
melancholy that of the weeping
 willow. Its drooping branches made 
it a natural sign of sorrow. Within a century, the foreigner without a history became the iconic tree of the parklike cemeteries of the nineteenth century. It was the tree not of the immemorial dead but of mourning, a tree not for the ages but for the three generations for which the dead can hope to be remembered.

Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

This is the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. © 2015 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.