The question invariably arises about my choice of heraldry, and I’m okay with that. Using obscure images in your arms is a great way to be immediately and unmistakably memorable. The world of real and reconstructionist heraldry is awash in the “cool kid” charges. The flags that flutter across the fields of SCA and reenacting scenes have a surfeit of lozenges and chevrons, dragons and lions, castles and weapons. In contrast to all that, it’s hard not to notice a turnip, and to know exactly who it is bearing that charge. From a heraldic point of view… that’s kind of the exact point.
As clever as that makes me sound, I didn’t choose the turnip simply for its shock value. Among its virtues were the turnip’s inherent ties to medieval culture as an agricultural staple of pre-colonial Europe. It was an integral component to the progression of human civilization. For my part, being a poor artist, they’re relatively easy to draw when I want to put my mark on things. I can document their use in heraldry which tickles the inner history nerd. But, bottom line, as uninspiring as it sounds, I really just like turnips. And, there’s something naturally funny about a turnip.
So that’s the short answer. Read on for a deeper analysis on the infamous, but humble taproot of the hour.
On Turnips… the Unspoken Hero of Human History
The turnip, Brassica rapa var, rapa. It is similar to, closely related to, and frequently confused with other root vegetables such as rutabaga, yellow turnip, swede, jicama, yam bean; when I think turnip I’m talking specifically about the mostly white, bulbous root with purple-ish exposed top portion, long taproot, and greens. Turnips are a sub species of a massive genus of plant that incorporates a surprising variety of edibles such as kohlrabi, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, mustard, bok choy, and others. Though maligned and forgotten about in modern western society, the turnip was a familiar part of a medieval European’s diet; the potato of Europe long before the potato was a twinkle in Ireland’s eye.
For time immemorial the turnip itself was an invaluable staple of human consumption dating back to Ancient Rome. It was spoken highly of by Pliny the Elder, a noted Roman military commander, philosopher, and author who counted turnips among corn and beans as the most important vegetables. This lofty endorsement is owed, in large part, to the versatility of the plant both in use and in cultivation. Turnips are easy and inexpensive to grow and thrive in a variety of different soils inhospitable to other crops. Though they lack the starchy caloric punch that their usurper, the potato, has (which is why, in large part, the potato proliferated as the budget food for the masses) nonetheless turnips are a rich source of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
The entire plant is useful for human consumption, the greens and the root both being edible and high in nutritious content. Even though it is more palatable when cooked, turnip root and greens are digestible raw. Turnips also make valuable fodder food for animals, the nutritional value of both the root and the greens being as valuable to livestock as it is to humans. Another added benefit of turnip as animal fodder is the unique way in which a portion of the root grows above ground (which is, for those curious, why only the outside of the top of a turnip is colored. The purple pigmentation is a turnip-tan, which it received from the sun only on the exposed top of the plant). Turnip fields that are dedicated to pasture offer both greens and root material for grazing, eliminating the laborious and time consuming process of chopping up taproot for feed.
Crop rotation, an ancient agricultural process, required that farmers leave viable farmland to go fallow for long periods of time to disrupt the lifecycles of harmful pests and diseases, restore the pH and nutritional content of the soil, and a myriad of other ecosystem corrections that rendered the ground useful for cultivation again. In the fourteenth century farmers began to experiment and refine the process of seeding these fallow fields with fodder and cover crops in an attempt to derive a use from them. As populations expanded there was demand for more product, quicker yield, and an ever increasing competition for real estate between farmland and pastureland. The pioneer, the trailblazer of improved crop rotation was the turnip in lowland France. The growth of the turnip combined with cover crop meant land that was otherwise going unused was put to purpose during rotation. Adding livestock to these fields due to their use as pastureland coincidentally introduced manure into the soil; providing the added benefit of greatly reducing the time a field needed to go fallow before being viable for other farming again.
And the list goes on. Turnips can be left in a field over winter and harvested later if necessary, meaning a turnip planted is, by its very nature, a turnip stored for a season in an emergency. Even out of the ground they store and ship well, a trait they share with all other root vegetables. The turnip is also connected to some charming superstitions and folklore. Being from the earth they shared associations with the otherworld and spirits and death. Being cheap and convenient lanterns, they were the first jack-o-lanterns carved long before the pumpkin was discovered. Anyway, turnips are great, and those who say they don’t like them are wrong.
On Turnips… the Rare and Undervalued Heraldry
As I said before, the history nerd in me is delighted over the fact that turnips, though obscure, can be documented as heraldry of the time periods my impressions are geared toward. Also, though often maligned and forgotten about, considering that it was a prominent medieval vegetable means that it’s not much of a surprise that it shows up on heraldry. We have wheat and cows as symbols of status and wealth. Scotland is very proud of their prickly flower.
As for other Turnip enthusiasts…
Turnip heraldry in a window of the St. Andrew’s Church, Lammas
I could go on, but this post is already getting really long. So I’ll leave you with the most important Turnip device of all: