There was a time, many years since, that I contemplated abandoning the study of history for some worldly, well-rewarded profession. The charm of academic study, with its long hours in dusty libraries, lonely responsibility, and limitless tangents had begun to pall in comparison to the phantom of well-remunerated, finite hours in warm offices, subject to authority and the company of others whose duties were as limited as my own. In time, however, such reasoning was overcome by events in a most unexpected direction.

I was in Duke Humfrey's, the vast hammerbeam Tudor hall housing manuscripts and incunables at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. In two days’ time, an article on the agricultural economics of Renaissance Germany was due to reach the Economic History Review, and I was struggling with its completion; it lacked, I felt, sufficient illustrative example of the impact and effects of good and bad harvests in mid-sixteenth-century Europe. To this end, I had ordered up several bound manuscript volumes from the period in question, and perused them slowly, searching for some spark of inspiration amongst the ballads and household accounts.

It was the area that first caught my eye. The ancient town of Speyer, on the banks of the Rhine, had been central to my researches, and the area now corresponding to Rhineland-Palatinate was in fact the subject of an entire chapter of my doctoral thesis. The newsletter I currently held was dated 1589, and it concerned five principalities surrounding the town of Speyer, whom following the Peace of Augsburg had chosen to demonstrate the continuance of alliances emerging from the Schmalkaldic League in a most unusual way. Enabled by a run of good harvests in the late 1560s, these city states had each chosen as an emblem a single flower, and offered as a point of honour never to allow the cultivation of those representing allied states within their boundaries. Yet they had also developed a system ensuring the continued loyalty and dependence of all parties: a language used for all official communication, involving and necessitating unpredictable combinations of all five flowers. All children born within these principalities were trained from a young age in the correct combination and distribution of these flowers, and all trade arrangements were conducted accordingly.

My attention was caught at once. How had I not come across these most unusual negotiators before in my studies of the region? Why had their alliance been dissolved? Having transcribed what little the newsletter contained, I returned immediately to the catalogues, searching for further information: my article, and indeed Economic History, quite forgotten.

I found nothing that day, not for many days after that. But my fascination would not leave me. I woke at night, alone in my single bed, beset with dreams of endless flowers, fields and fields; huge barns filled with cast-iron drums bearing thousands of blooms. I dreamed, too, of a girl, wet hair streaming down her back, her arms overflowing with petals. I dreamed of an orchard, in the morning. In the worst dreams, those from which I woke shivering and panting for reasons I could not fully define, the girl would turn, and see me, and drop her burden – and then, I would wake. I could see no reason for these dreams and, insofar as I could, tried to banish the memory of them from my waking life, even as I searched for some latter-day mention of those I soon dubbed the Cryptoflorists in library or archive. What little social life I had began to suffer, as I spent longer and longer hours travelling further and further afield, hoping that in some remote country house or small German town there might remain some relic of this strange yet wonderful alliance. I found little enough mention of flower cultivation in the region, given its often intemperate climate: most nights, I returned alone and exhausted to my small room, and read over and over again what little information the pamphlet had given me. On occasion, I was not alone; but even then, my mind was crowded with images of the girl from my dreams, and of flowers, falling.

Eventually, after some months of searching, I had a breakthrough. Having spent some fruitless days in Speyer itself, I had decided to visit instead the monastery at Frankenthal, and see what their archives might contain. I was lucky to have the assistance of an elderly brother of the house, one Matthew, who initially observed my somewhat unconventional request with disapproving eyes. We worked in silence: myself perusing the catalogues, he fetching volumes at my direction. Some hours later, exhausted and despairing once more of any further information emerging, I rested my head briefly in my hands. Matthew made some enquiry as to my wellbeing. I cannot to this day determine what possessed me to do so, but I answered him, in all honesty, speaking of my dreams and my inexplicable desire, and as I answered, I wept. He spoke nothing, simply gazing at my ruin with impassive eyes; as I began to mutter apologies for my lack of self-control, he nodded to me, turned, and vanished, bidding me await his return.

Breathless and somewhat confused, I obeyed. Some twenty minutes passed, during which I strode the small room in which I had been left with increasing desperation, ashamed of my inexplicable indignity, and more and more convinced of the unlikelihood of his return; and were it to occur, of the emergence of anything productive. How wrong, in my impatience, I was proven. When he emerged from some inner sanctum, Matthew clutched an old, leatherbound book, battered and brown, yet gleaming. Before he would agree to let me examine its contents, he swore me to silence: his house had been charged with the safekeeping of the histories contained therein, and only my solemn promise upon the Bible and the volume itself that I would keep their revelations secret eventually convinced him to surrender it to my eager eyes. It is only now, many many years from that cold, grey day in Frankenthal, that I can bring myself to reveal even a fraction of the stories I learned on that long-lost afternoon – and even that only because a letter has now reached me through my university to inform me that some years after my visit, Matthew had died, and in his last illness, had specifically requested that after forty years had passed, the story of the end of the Cryptoflorists be made public at last.

The story, then, is this. As the tide of war swept across sixteenth-century Europe, tensions began to emerge amongst these practitioners of Cryptofloristry. Whilst the old alliance was maintained, it became increasingly fragile, the religious differences that shattered so much of Old Europe taking their toll on the formerly easy relations between principalities. Gradually all social intercourse ceased, friends and families even amongst the middling sort finding themselves divided. Whilst the supply of flowers, one to the other, and the exchange of messages continued, their content and context became increasingly hostile. Matters came to a head with the concerted attack of Maillé-Brézé in 1635: the Asterion, Maiglochen and Dianthan families standing firm against the invaders, while the Rothenbergs and Gerbers instead took the Frenchman’s part. The alliance was shattered, each principality calling for wholesale destruction of the blossoms hitherto symbolising their unity.

It was at that crucial point, though, that resistance began. Younger members of the ruling families, despairing of their elders’ bloodlusts, took to secreting vessels of their particular blooms in greenhouses and orchards deep in the countryside, lest the fortunes of war be such that reconciliation once again became possible. In communicating these intentions and the wish for some future accord, this resistance movement continued to use flowers as previously; the only difficulty being that crossing from one state to another was now fraught with danger. It was on just such a mission that Atanas, scion of the Asterion, crossed at first light one morning into the Rothenbergs' territory, in his arms a message of peace. And there, in the orchard where the roses were grown in secret, he first laid eyes on Estella, daughter of the Rothenberg house. Their love, flickering first that morning and swiftly growing to a flame, was both fierce and forbidden. On beds of blossoms he laid her down. With marriage out of the question, they planned instead to flee, and start a new life together elsewhere, growing the flowers that had brought them together, passing on the story of the Cryptoflorists and their destruction to their children. But in their passion, they had become careless. The very morning of their departure, the Asterions sent spies to follow Atanas. Finding him in the Rothenbergs' orchard with a cart piled high with blooms, they tore Estella from his arms and dragged him away, confining him to jail and strengthening instead the barrier between the two states. As they forced him, bound, across a cart, his last sight was of Estella, on her knees amid the fallen flowers. When, many years later, the approach of the Nine-Years’ War brought the principalities into allegiance once more, it was agreed that Cryptofloristry be forgotten, in favour of more traditionally Machiavellian communiques; Atanas sought Estella, only to find she had died some years since, the much-loved widowed matron of a city hospital and the mother of an only daughter. This daughter had Atanas’s eyes. He lived just long enough to see her married; roses and chrysanthemums carpeted the church as she walked up the isle, and as a wedding gift he wrote out the story of the Cryptoflorists and the Cryptofloricon, the lexicon of their codes. It was this book that Matthew had shown me in that library at Frankenthal, the story of his family, the story of his life.

Therefore I must dedicate this, a young student’s compilation of my notes and my memories, to Matthew: to the last Cryptoflorist, in gratitude.