Medieval gardens

I spent much of today foraging for stones to adorn my pond. It is frowned upon, not to mention probably destabilising, to remove capping stones from nearby walls – even your own walls- to turn them into lovely big flat pond topping stones…so I shall have to wait until a) I can get on to a well known builder’s website without having to queue virtually for hours or b) collect them myself when this is all over – which ever comes first. Or c) start a quarry in the field on the other side of the stone wall which I have definitely not disturbed in any way, shape or form.

But back to history. Did you know that in 800 AD (ish) Charlemagne drew up a list of plants that should be grown in every town? He required 73 herbs to be grown as well as roses and lilies. The list together with the other twenty or so horticultural requirements can be found in The Capitulary of Charlemagne. Capitulary is word I’m likely to misspell which means exactly the same as charter. As well as the lilies and the roses he also identified flag iris (soon to be found growing near my pond despite the risk of the roots puncturing the liner.) He listed medicinal herbs, fruit and nut trees; vegetables; salads and teasels – for combing wool as well as madder for dyeing it.

Unsurprisingly Charlemagne’s list is an important one in our understanding of medieval gardening. Floridus writing in the eleventh century also gives some insight and then there’re wonderful manuscript illustrations depicting all sorts of garden flowers. What is interesting is that many of them were there simply because they were lovely. By the beginning of the twelfth century gardens were beginning to be advocated as a backdrop necessary for the fashion of courtly love. Clearly the Romans had gardens and monastic houses required gardens for physic and for the monks to have a plentiful supply of food. The garden as a statement of courtly love was something very different.

On one hand an enclosed medieval garden may have afforded the kind of privacy that was difficult to find within a busy castle, not to mention making a statement about the wealth of the aforementioned castle owner. The concept of privacy and gardens very naturally leads to thoughts of Adam and Eve and associated sinfulness – it is possibly not surprising that the garden saw the introduction of seats for canoodling at this point in the form of raised turf hillocks – preferably studded with pretty flowers. And before we get too carried away with the image, the whole concept of courtly love was that the lady was unattainable – so whilst temptation might be present vis a vis privacy and comfy lawn hillocks, a knight and his lady simply do not demean themselves with comedy of the Carry On kind. Carnal desire is renounced in order to find God – essentially humans are part of the natural cycle but can rise above it. The garden became part of a larger scheme – of the kind with which art historians are familiar. The symbolism of the garden in art became the rationale for actual gardening if you follow Barnett’s hypothesis.

By the thirteenth century there was even a manual that covered raised turf hillocks:

Between the level turf and the herbs let there be a higher piece of turf made in the fashion of a seat, suitable for flowers and amenities; the grass in the suns path should be planted with trees or vines, whose branches will protect the turf with shade and cast a pleasant refreshing shadow.

Piero de’ Crescenzi, Liber ruralium commodorum (1305-09)

And there are certainly a great many turf seats depicted in medieval art – either being occupied by lovers or the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted as hortus conclusus – i.e. seated in an enclosed garden metaphorically being an enclosed garden, an allusion taken from the Song of Solomon in the psalms. It was another way of illuminating her purity. She is able to be in THE enclosed garden – Eden- because she is without sin. I’m not sure I’ve explained it very well but I’m sure that you get the gist.

Anyway the concept of the raised turf bench remained a popular one throughout the medieval period.

I shall content myself with my old wooden bench which is more than adequate for sitting in the sun with a cup of tea whilst surveying my increasingly manicured garden…incidentally how long before a frog and a dragonfly arrive to take up residence?

Innes, Miranda & Perry, Clay. Medieval Flowers

Barnett, Rod. “Serpent of Pleasure: Emergence and Difference in the Medieval Garden of Love.” Landscape Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, 2009, pp. 137–150. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43323842. Accessed 22 Apr. 2020.

4 thoughts on “Medieval gardens

  1. Good read.Hope you can buy your flat stones.Walls cannot stand without capping and through stones. In my gardens here excavated so many stones that I dry stone walled for plants a 50 foot run 5 feet high with two wooden A frames and lines. For free. Cow pasture it all was now 6acres of England in gardens. Working every day on it. Clay in the far corner may hold water with paddling down clay one hopes into a big pond with rose gardens and walks. All in my mind as yet. I think Charles the Great who is Charlemange I have as ancestor and found he is the source of the legend of King Arthur. The round table ,the sword ,the customs of court are all taken from Charles rule. Arturious was a Roman who did not go home at end of Empire and so ruled as King.

  2. Yes, a very good read. I’ve got hold of Charlemagne’s original list and I’m thinking of adding a few additional plants to the rosemary, sage, parsley and mint that we normally grow for the table in our own garden. Charlemagne (or his scrivener on his behalf) will have had no difficulty in translating the Old Frankish (Charlemagne’s first language) word “gardin” into the Latin word “horta” for the purposes of the Capitulary, but it’s interesting that most Romance languages, which are derived normally just from Latin have two words for a garden: giardino, jardin or jardim for a recreational garden, eg for courtly love ; and orto, horta or huerta for a vegetable garden or a market garden.

    • I must admit to skimming through the list – I’ve not had a great deal of luck with caraway although I have seen it growing happily in the Lake district. Maybe I was too kind to mine. I would like to grow madder as well to create my own dyes. I should add that I’ve never ever been able to grow parsley – I have no idea why. I think that the Germanic languages are able to compound more effectively and thus reduce the need for many different words. It’s an interesting thought.

Leave a Reply to John Hearnshaw Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.