A Labyrinthine Library

The story of mazes and labyrinths is as long and tortuous as their plans might suggest, but the three thousand years or more of labyrinthine history have left some fascinating pages for us to study.

The first chapter of the story takes us back to the shores of the Mediterranean, during the middle of the second millennium bc, when the Minoan and then Mycenean cultures were building temples and palaces throughout Greece, Crete and the Aegean. One of the largest of these, at Knossos on the island of Crete, has entered legend as the location of the Labyrinth, in which King Minos imprisoned the ferocious Minotaur. The Minoans and Myceneans were the first Europeans to produce written records of their trading transactions, recorded on sun-baked clay tablets inscribed with an archaic form of the Greek language known as Linear B; and it is on one of these tablets from the palace at Pylos, Greece, that we have the earliest datable example of the distinctive labyrinth symbol. This is the forerunner of all subsequent labyrinth and puzzle maze designs.

This labyrinth symbol is found throughout the prehistoric Mediterranean region. Many examples, such as those carved on rockfaces, are extremely difficult to date, others found in sealed archaeological contexts are easier. But wherever they occur at this early time, the design employed is almost without exception the same. How could this fidelity of design occur when passed around in pre-literate societies unless there was some easy way of writing it down or recording it?

Although the archaeological record obviously favours the survival of non-perishable materials, there is little evidence for the need to record the full design of this early labyrinth design to allow it to be passed on to others. Indeed all the evidence points to the use of a shorthand transmission technique, whereby the central core – a cross, angles and dots – of the design is drawn first and the remaining concentric circles are simply connected to the points around it.

These early labyrinths are not mazes in the sense that most people would be familiar with today. There is only one pathway, leading from the entrance to the central goal. Although the original use and purpose of these labyrinth designs remains unclear, there is evidence that they were marked out on the ground as a pattern for sacred dances, and even as an exercise for demonstrating skilful horse riding.

With the rise of the Roman Empire, the labyrinth symbol undergoes the first of a number of changes and for the first time the need arose for a written medium on which to record the designs. The labyrinth became a favourite theme in mosaic pavements, and a number of designs were developed which were more suited to this new medium. For the first time these were too complex to be remembered by a mnemonic. Although no examples survive, contemporary writers record that mosaic designs were taken around the empire in copy books (usually on parchment or papyrus rolls).

While the majority of original copies of the literary works of Greek and Roman authors have long since been lost to war and vandalism, the hand-copied manuscripts of these texts produced in the scriptoriums of early Christian foundations and monasteries across Europe kept many important texts in circulation. Important among these were philosophical treatises and several of these used the concept of the labyrinth as an allegory for the complex matters under consideration. While these texts were slavishly copied onto vellum, word for word, the workers in the scriptoriums were able to append drawings and diagrams at key points to further illustrate the author’s point. A number of these surviving manuscripts from the ninth century ad onwards have labyrinths drawn in the margins or on the concluding page and these allow us to chart further changes to the labyrinth designs in use at this time.

By the twelfth century one particular labyrinth form was in popular use and started to appear – first in Italy – as a decorative element on the walls and floors of churches and cathedrals. The most influential of these, laid in the first decade of the thirteenth century and still surviving, spans the floor of the nave in Chartres Cathedral, France. Although contemporary evidence is scant, it is reputed that these labyrinths were walked through as a substitute for long pilgrimages after the enthusiasm of the Crusades had abated. Their careful placement within the geometric layout of the cathedrals suggests that they contain a wealth of coded information. It is known that some were the scene of symbolic games and dances; a ball-game known as pelota was played at Easter on the pavement labyrinth in Auxerre Cathedral, the labyrinth design clearly symbolising the tortuous path that the good Christian follows towards redemption, both in everyday life and on pilgrimage. It would surely have been seen as illustrative of the pattern of Christ’s own preordained life and inevitable fate, and in this role they would have served a contemplative purpose, an allegory of medieval Christian life.

Over the following centuries, many similar examples were laid in cathedrals across Europe. Here in Britain their place was taken by labyrinths cut into the turf, sometimes adjacent to churches and chapels, and at other times on village greens or hilltops. Most of these turf labyrinths have disappeared without trace, although eight examples still survive, from Breamore, near Salisbury, in the south of England, to Dalby in North Yorkshire. Other examples are known to have existed as far north as southern Scotland, especially around the Solway Firth. Practically all of these Medieval labyrinths are of the design that first appeared in those early medieval manuscripts.

It was during this period that labyrinths first found their way into the gardens of the nobility, and designs employed take their next major step: the transformation into familiar hedge mazes. Ironically, the first positive evidence for a hedge maze is the record of the destruction of one, in Paris, in 1431! However, it is clear that the concept was familiar c.1450, when an anonymous English author penned The Assembly of Ladies, a poem describing a low hedge maze and the efforts of a group of ladies to reach the centre. Surely this was a maze with a choice of pathways, or there would be no confusion about the correct path to take, but it is not until the early 1500s, with the advent of printing, that we have our first indications of the designs employed for these early garden mazes and labyrinths.

Unlike the flat, essentially two-dimensional, church and field labyrinths, where a choice of pathway is hardly ever encountered – indeed is pointless if the course of the paths can be followed by eye – the use of three-dimensional hedging materials allowed the multicursal maze to be developed from the unicursal labyrinth. The surprising feature of early depictions of hedge mazes is that many of them are in fact unicursal labyrinths! At best they are rarely more than simple adaptations of the widespread medieval labyrinth designs.

Many of the earlier garden labyrinths were clearly influenced by classical references and designed for contemplative exercise of both mind and body. Mazes increasingly came to be used as places of gentle entertainment, as somewhere to dally and engage in conversation, and, with the inclusion of shaded bowers and other features, as a place for romance. With full height hedges and more complex designs, they soon became a puzzle and a challenge, and an increasingly popular feature in gardens across Europe.

During the period 1550-1650 a number of influential examples appeared, from Italy and across to Spain, up through France, Germany and the Low Countries and into England. The advent of a number of early books on garden practice, from printing presses across Europe, soon disseminated new ideas, and more importantly, designs for garden mazes to a wide audience. Well known amongst these was The Gardener’s Labyrinth, by Thomas Hyll, first published in London in the 1560s, which influenced a number of garden maze and turf labyrinth designs. Of this initial burst of mazes unfortunately none remain, but the plans of a number survive and in recent years several examples have been recreated, including two examples in authentic settings at Chenies Manor and Hatfield House in southern England.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw hedge mazes continue to flourish and develop, with a combination of popular earlier designs with increasingly more grandiose decoration and complex designs. The famous example from Hampton Court, England, planted c.1690 is probably the best-known and probably the oldest true survivor from this period, but other examples from the early eighteenth century survive in France, Denmark and Italy.

They also spread during this period into Scandinavia, across to Prague and Moravia, and even as far as China. A splendid example constructed with high brick walls, small groves of trees and a central pavilion was built in the gardens of the Imperial Court at Peking, c.1766, but was destroyed in 1860. Although many of the mazes from this period have long since been swept away by changes in gardening taste, engravings and plans of the estates and gardens preserve the detail of the mazes, and have indeed provided valuable information for period restorations of several examples in recent years.

The nineteenth century saw something of a decline in the fortune of garden mazes in formal gardens, as tastes in landscape gardening changed. However, the rise of public parks and recreation grounds during this period provided a number of new opportunities for mazes, although the designs of these examples were rarely adventurous. It was also during this period that hedge mazes reached the Americas (New Harmony, 1814), Australia (Ballarat, 1862), and eventually New Zealand (Dunedin, 1911). Many of these use adaptations of the Hampton Court design, although the Italianate gardening style popular in England c.1830-50 produced a number of interesting and pleasing maze designs of which the recently restored example at Bridge End Gardens, Saffron Walden, and the splendid Somerleyton Hall Maze near Lowestoft, both in eastern England, survive.

In the 1820s Earl Stanhope, an eminent mathematician, designed at least three mazes, and the surviving example at Chevening House, England, shows the first serious application of mathematics to the design of mazes. Stanhope recognized that most mazes can be solved by the ‘hand on wall’ method of always turning in the same direction, because the vast majority of earlier maze designs, although multicursal, effectively only consisted of a single wall, albeit with numerous branches. Based on the medieval labyrinth design with a number of breaks in the walls at junctions, the Chevening Maze contains a number of totally discrete sections of hedge, stacked within a perimeter hedge, which most importantly is not in contact with the goal at the centre. This not only produced a maze which is difficult to solve, but also contains few dead-ends.

During the mid 1800s the rising interest in the study of history and the arts saw the first of a series of papers featuring mazes and labyrinths published in historical and architectural journals. A number of popular books on gothic architecture and ecclesiastic traditions likewise featured mazes and labyrinths. This influenced the likes of George Gilbert Scott and other prominent architects who started to place labyrinths in churches and cathedrals again (e.g. Ely Cathedral, 1870), as well as in secular buildings. Likewise, hedge mazes once more became a popular feature in gardens and pleasure parks, although it was not until the early twentieth century that the first book exclusively devoted to the subject was published.

W.H. Matthews’ Mazes & Labyrinths:Their History and Development, published by Longmans, Green & Co. in 1922, remains a much sought after classic to this day. A paperback reprint by Dover Books in 1970 has kept the book available to a wide audience, but good copies of the first edition are difficult to find – it took me many years to track one down for my own collection and I am always looking for further copies for fellow maze enthusiasts. Although well reviewed, the book was not a great success when it was originally published, but the Dover reprint has rekindled interest in the subject and led to the publication of a number of maze and labyrinth-related books in the 1970s and 1980s. The most important of these, Labyrinthe by Hermann Kern, a comprehensive catalogue of mazes and labyrinths from around the world was published in German by Prestel in 1982. After several reprints and revisions, it has now just been published for the first time in English, with significant updates and corrections.

This upsurge in labyrinthine publications parallels the revival of interest in mazes and labyrinths in the last thirty or so years. Mazes have become a popular feature once again in amusement and theme parks, often employing modern materials and technologies to produce deceptively complex puzzles within a limited space. A number have been constructed in the grounds of stately homes and gardens, either as period reconstruction or simply as a means to attract more visitors.

The last decade has seen increased interest in the more ancient labyrinth forms, with replicas of the medieval cathedral labyrinths being laid in churches and chapels around the world, especially in the USA, and many enormous cornfield mazes, often covering acres, have been created at various sites.

Labyrinths formed of turf and stone have become a popular theme with park planners and landscape artists – two such labyrinths are to be found in Scotland, in the Galloway Forest and Blackmuir Wood, near Strathpeffer.

In the last ten years there has been a real flurry of new books covering all aspects of the subject, from puzzle maze design to spiritual usage of the ancient labyrinth pathways.

saward.jpg The history of mazes and labyrinths is much like the twisting patterns of their pathways, always circuitous, often with seemingly intractable dead-ends, which suddenly turn out to be new roads to explore. The current revival is just another turn in this long and winding story.

Magical paths: Labyrinths and Mazes in the 21st Century by Jeff Saward is published by Mitchell Beazley.

Copyright Jeff Saward 2005.