Of Mazes and Labyrinths

The garden maze has made numerous appearances in a plethora of Regency novels. Often it is the setting for a clandestine romantic tryst or sometimes it is the secret meeting place for the villain and his or her henchman. But regardless of its use, the Regency garden maze was the end of a long tradition of mazes and labyrinths dating back to that very first one, at the Palace of Knossos, designed by Daedalus, in which Theseus vanquished the Minotaur.

A brief tracing of the path of the labyrinth and the maze from Crete to the English Regency pleasure garden …

Before setting foot on that path, it is important to know the difference between a labyrinth and a maze. As a matter of fact, until the late twentieth century, the words were used interchangeably and were considered synonymous. But during the revival which occurred at that time in many parts of the world, a distinction was made between a labyrinth and a maze. A labyrinth has a unicursal path, that is, there is only one path with many twists and turns, but by following it, the walker will ultimately arrive at the center. A maze has a multicursal path, which means that there are many dead ends and blind alleys that do not lead to the center and merely confuse the walker.

Legend has it that Theseus, with the help of a golden ball of thread given him by Ariadne, was able to slay the Minotaur and then escape the labyrinth with the other Athenian youths who were to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. That labyrinth was a place of evil, said to have been designed by Daedalus to contain the monstrous Minotaur under the palace of King Minos. The Romans adopted the labyrinth, as they did all things Greek, but their labyrinths were floor mosaics at the entrances to their villas, which they believed would confuse evil spirits and keep them out.

The Christians adopted the labyrinth, as they had done with so many aspects of Roman culture, and proceeded to Christianize it. By the middle ages, there were labyrinths in the pavements of the naves of a number of cathedrals across Europe, particularly in France, Italy and Germany. But for some reason, still unknown, no English cathedral ever had a pavement labyrinth in its nave. Perhaps the most famous, and one of the few surviving, church labyrinths was that in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. These church labyrinths were typically circular, all with eleven circuits on the route to the center. The number twelve was a sacred number in Christianity, thus eleven, being one short of sacred, was perceived as sinful. The labyrinth on the church floor was a symbol of the sinfulness of daily life, yet at the same time offered redemption, since, if one followed the path, regardless of its twists and turns, their faith would lead them to the center and to God. On Easter Sunday the labyrinth on the church floor was also symbolic of Hell itself. Interestingly, medieval church records show that the full complement of clergy at each cathedral danced on the labyrinth on Easter Sunday afternoon in remembrance of Christ’s successful Harrowing of Hell. Afterwards, they all enjoyed a lavish feast, a great treat after the deprivations of Lent.

By the Renaissance, beginning in Italy, the labyrinth had emerged from church floors into fields and gardens. Labyrinth pathways were outlined with stones in open rural areas, or actually cut into the soil of fields to create what are now known as turf mazes. The first labyrinths in gardens were of a low height, a combination of flowers and dwarf shrubbery planted in patterns, rather than using rocks or cut turf. By the seventeenth century, hedge mazes were growing in popularity. They were most often constructed on a very large scale, with walls of high, trimmed hedges over which not even a tall man could peer. These garden luxuries first appeared in the gardens of royalty and nobility across Europe, and monarchs were known to have competed with one another to construct the most lavish and complicated maze.

The maze in England did not fare well under Oliver Cromwell, once he had seized power. During his Protectorate, mazes and labyrinths were routinely destroyed by his men as they were considered frivolous and irreligious. The garden maze returned to popularity with the restoration of Charles II and remained in favor through much of the eighteenth century. The English garden maze encountered another enemy in the prolific landscape designer, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, in the later decades of the eighteenth century. Brown, a adamant proponent of naturalism, considered mazes unnatural, and had them ripped out at any estate he was employed to "improve." Fortunately, Brown was not able to destroy every maze in England, so that there were still a significant number of them intact in the gardens of the aristocracy and the gentry by the decade of the Regency, though they were falling out of favor. Few, if any, new mazes were built during the Regency or in the decades which followed it.

There were still mazes in Regency England, and though they were no longer as fashionable as they had been in the previous century, they remained popular with children and courting couples right through the decade. Some were neglected and allowed to become overgrown, but on most estates with a full complement of gardeners, they were kept trimmed and ready for the amusement of those who cared to enter. But should the author of the Regency you are reading suggest that the maze in which the hero and heroine are strolling was designed by Capability Brown, you will know they have not done their research, for Capability Brown destroyed many mazes in the years before the Regency, but he never built a single one. And we can only be grateful that a significant number of mazes escaped his depredation, as I, for one, have enjoyed all those romantic scenes in Regency novels set within the confines of a hedge maze in a verdant garden.

There is much more to be said about the history, development and use of both turf and hedge mazes in England. In the coming months I expect to post articles here about both of these alfresco amusements.

For further reading:

Bord, Janet, Mazes and Labyrinths of the World. New York: Dutton, 1976.

Fisher, Adrian, Mazes and Labyrinths. Princes Risborough: Shire Publications, 2004.

Lonegren, Sid, Labyrinths: Ancient Myths & Modern Uses. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2001.

Matthews, W.H., Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1922.

McCullough, David Willis, The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Pennick, Nigel, Mazes and Labyrinths. London: Hale, 2004.

Solnit, Rebecca, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2000.

Wright, Craig, The Maze and the Warrior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to Of Mazes and Labyrinths

  1. Kathryn Kane says:

    For anyone who might be interested, the ball of thread which Ariadne gave Theseus is the origin of the word “clue” in the English language. “Clew” in both England and Scotland meant a ball of yarn or thread during the Middle Ages. The word still has the same meaning in parts of Scotland to this day. Over time, the spelling of the word changed to “clue” when it was used with the meaning of a hint or key to the solution of a problem.

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