Medieval gardens

(Post first published on The History Girls blogspot.)

Last month, my post looked at various aspects of food and eating in the 14th century, the period of my current fiction series, using a few descriptions from my novels as a shortcut to the evidence I have gleaned over my relatively brief time as an historical novelist. Food and meal-taking are good vehicles for showing the lives of historical characters, helping to put them in context, to differentiate the life styles of people of diverse stations, and to bring a sense of authenticity to the historical world one is creating.

Gardens too are an interesting differentiator of class and circumstance, and both real-life gardening and reading about medieval gardens are favourite pastimes of mine. In a novel I have written but not yet published, the “garden” runs through the book in different guises, as a central motif, and helps to draw the book’s various threads and storylines together. But gardens feature in all my novels – almost inevitably, as they are all set largely in rural medieval England. In today’s post, I am going to review some of what I have learned so far about medieval gardens and again use a few examples from my work as the “evidence”.

In my unpublished novel (The Nature of Things), the garden is used both as a vital element in the lives of my principal characters and also as an affirmative metaphor for the hope that can come out of even desperate struggle and tragedy – a symbol of the continuity of life.

The novel spans the entire 14th century, with its calamitous periods of the Great Famine of 1315-17, the plague (“Black Death”) of 1348-50, the Hundred Years War of 1337 onwards, and the so-called Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381, not to mention everyday poverty, illness and untimely death. Between them, the voices of the seven principal (fictional) characters tell the story of the century through the narratives of their own lives. But the voices also bring a sense of continuity, as each character is linked with the one before and/or after. And the metaphor of the garden, with its (typical, if not infallible in the direst of circumstances) unceasing cycle of life, reinforces the concept of continuity.

The garden metaphor is introduced at the very beginning of the novel by an omniscient narrator. The garden is both the Garden of Eden, Paradise, God’s glorious bounty, and also man-made gardens, sources of both physical and spiritual nourishment. The point is also that, in the context of the “calamitous” 14th century, in a garden can be found life, death and renewal. Every year, no matter what happens in terms of weather, or God-inspired or man-made disaster, life will begin again. In principle at any rate, there is always continuity, always renewal…

The metaphor is given a physical presence in the novel by a fictional 13th century book of plants, The Nature of Growing Things: Plants, Herbs and Trees, passed down from character to character from the first to the last. (A gardening book at that time, and its title, would most likely have been in Latin, but for reasons of narrative simplicity I chose to have it “written” in English.)

The Nature of Growing Things is fictional, but three of the novel’s parts include “extracts” from it, which are in fact my re-workings of various real mediaeval texts about gardening and garden design, taken from a 13th century book on plants by Albertus Magnus, a French 14th century guide for housewives, and others [see Note]. I include a few of these extracts in what follows.

In the novel, each of the seven characters has some sort of association with a garden. For the first three characters, the garden is essentially the basic provider of food. For the next two characters, the garden is more decorative than functional. For the final two characters, the idea of the simple domestic garden expands to become “nature’s garden”, to orchards and forests – trees as vehicles of continuity.

So, to consider the different types of garden in a little more detail…

For William, a priest, his garden is a source of food and medicine, but also one of spiritual joy. For Agnes, his niece and the daughter of a peasant farmer, it is a vital source of subsistence that she sees severely threatened during the famine of 1315-17. Her husband, Richard, is also from farming stock but becomes an archer and joins the king’s war in France. There, despite his own rejection of the farming life, and his commitment to the king’s cause, he recognises only too clearly what it will mean to the French peasantry when their gardens – the lifeblood of their existence – are devastated by the English army in its brutal chevauchées.

All these gardens are essentially peasant plots: they are a vital source of food, the sort of food that goes into making pottage: onions, cabbages, turnips. Beans and peas, also pottage ingredients, eaten fresh or dried for use throughout the year, might be grown in the garden but often more likely as a field crop. If there was space, fruit might be grown – apples and pears, medlars and cherries, perhaps.

Herbs were also grown in a peasant garden, as William says,

to add savour to my food and make remedies for injuries and ailments

Tacuin_Sauge36
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Sage
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I think that a peasant housewife might well understand both the value of herbs as taste-bringers and their properties as simple everyday remedies, as described in the gardening book…

“A syrup of violets is a good remedy against the pleurisy and cough, and also fevers or agues, especially in young children. Apply the petals of Saint Mary’s Gold (marigold) to painful stings to soothe them… Wormwood is a bitter herb…that cures the stomach ache and a constipation of the bowel… It also repels fleas…”

I wonder if any of those remedies worked! Sadly, when William and his adopted daughter seek a cure for his ailing wife, they are unsuccessful…

Emma has sought advice from other women in the village and has come home with recipes for cures. We pick mint and balm and camomile from the garden, and make them into medicaments and potions for Alys. But nothing worked.

Our present-day understanding of what constitutes a “cottage garden” assumes many flowers as well as vegetables, fruit and herbs. William says,

I also cultivate a few flowers – columbines, periwinkles and lilies – for their beauty and my education.

But he is a priest – and in truth rather an educated, intellectual one at that, probably having more in common with the 18th century “parson-naturalist” Gilbert White, of Selborne, Hampshire, than the typical 14th century parson! – and he allows himself a few aesthetic and intellectual elements in his garden. Whether the average 14th century peasant went in much for flowers, I am not entirely sure. But I suspect that, like William, at least some would have grown a few flowers, for much the same reason as William, if not expressed as such. On most peasant patches, the flowers would have been grown among or around the vegetables and herbs, whereas in the larger plots of wealthier gardeners, there might well have been a “vegetable garden”, a “herb garden” and a “flower garden”, all neatly divided up (into “rooms” as we would now say…). Ideally, keeping flowers and vegetables separate was the aim, according to the gardening book:

“Have two gardens, one for flowers and one for porray… Not that the flower garden can have no herbs and the potager no flowers, but keep them separate for the most part, else your flowers may be affronted if you intermingle them with onions and leeks…”

“Porray” was essentially the ingredients for pottage.

However, at the time of William’s story, the first decade of the 14th century, much of England was suffering from severe overpopulation, with a resulting dearth of land. So, he says,

…in the village, they have no time for beauty or education: every last square foot of soil must be planted with something that can be eaten. Yet, these days, the village gardens are no longer large enough to provide all the onions and cabbages and turnips that are needed, for there are so many mouths to feed.

Tacuinum_Sanitatis-cabbage_harvest
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Cabbage harvest
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Agnes’s story takes place partly during the Great Famine, 1315-17, which occurred during a period of appalling weather and dreadful harvests, and the luxury of growing flowers no longer seems appropriate. Her mother, Marjory, a peasant of the wealthier sort, feels obliged to help her neighbours in their time of suffering. She has a large plot and grows lots of onions and leeks, cabbages, “worts” or “porray” of many kinds, turnips, beans and peas, all essential ingredients for the daily pottage. She has also grown flowers amongst her vegetables, using her brother William’s book The Nature of Growing Things as her guide on what to plant. But, when the famine severely threatens some of her poorer neighbours, she determines to sacrifice the frippery of flowers to help prevent them starving.

Ma nods. ‘Flowers are a folly. Folk need beans and onions. I don’t want to dig them up, but it’s our Christian duty to help our neighbours.’

‘It’s a shame,’ I say. Though in truth the garden brings little joy these days, for the plants are struggling to grow in the cold and claggy earth.

We sit in silence, gazing at the beds where yellow primroses and creamy honeysuckle, blue periwinkle and purple iris should all be in flower.

‘Bless those lovely blooms that have defied the rain,’ says Ma, pointing to a few brave flowers open in search of sun and honeybees.

They dig up most of the flowers apart from a couple of rose bushes.

When the ground’s been cleared, we dig it once again, turning it over in the hope that, with even a feeble sun, the soil might dry out a little and warm up enough to receive the seed Ma’s carefully saved. We leave it for a day or two – days mercifully dry and almost warm – and then we sow: onions and leeks, turnips and cabbages, peas and beans. Ma’s face is downcast as she carefully places each seed in straight and well-spaced drills.

‘The ground’s still cold,’ she says, shaking her head.

‘But warmer than it was,’ I say, trying to be cheerful. ‘Surely God’ll bless your garden, Ma, and won’t deny the seeds their chance to grow?’

She smiles. ‘You’re right, Agnes. We must place our faith in His Divine Providence.’

Two weeks later, little shoots are poking up above the soggy earth. Now all we have to do is guard them from torrential rain and biting winds, and Sir Giles’s doves, and pray the sun shines often – and warmly – enough for them to thrive.

Marjory puts her faith in God, the vegetables do continue to grow and she distributes what she can to her starving neighbours. Though, in the end, there simply isn’t enough to spare…

Tacuin_Poireau28
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Leek harvest
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the fourth story, Peter, son of Agnes and Richard, who remakes himself as a merchant, re-experiences, if unconsciously, his great-uncle William’s pleasure in a garden’s beauty when he visits Genoa, in Italy. He brings home his discoveries to his new wife, Joanna, a merchant’s daughter, and she becomes a passionate creator of Italian-style “paradise” gardens in Southampton.

The grandest of the villas are outside the city, up on those glorious hillsides, though Giovanni has a smaller house, quite close to the sea. But, though it’s small, it’s surrounded by the loveliest of gardens, bounded on all sides by a high wall. Walkways criss-cross from side to side, enclosed by arbours heavy with jasmine and roses, whose heady fragrance fills the air on summer evenings. And in the very centre is a white marble statue spouting water into a delightful pool.

[Peter] sketched an outline of Signor Alberti’s garden on a small fragment of parchment, and I was thrilled by the wondrous depiction he conjured up.

‘Could we have a garden like that here?’ I said, full of excitement already for turning our bare little plot into such a lovely paradise.

He laughed. ‘I’m not sure we could have marble fountains, my love. But rose-covered pergolas and a flowery mead, yes, perhaps we could.’

In this type of “paradise garden”, I am alluding to the idea of the hortus conclusus, meaning “enclosed garden”. The idea of the enclosed garden is related to the worship of the Virgin Mary, with references in medieval poetry and art, depicted in painting and manuscript illuminations from about the middle of the 14th century. It became popular as theme in garden design. In my novel I am not ascribing any religious feeling to this design of garden but rather using it to illustrate that wealthier people can afford to make gardens that are essentially for pleasure.

“Pleasure gardens are devised for the satisfaction of both sight and smell…so, around the lawn should be planted every sweet-smelling herb, such as rue and sage and basil, and all sorts of flowers, such as violet and columbine, lily, rose and iris.”

“In the middle of the garden there should be a meadow, the grass deep green, spangled with a thousand different flowers, violets and periwinkles, primroses and daisies… And also, perhaps, a clear fountain in a stone basin in the centre of the lawn, for the pureness of the water gives great refreshment…”

Some such gardens might become quite elaborate and Joanna, with time on her hands as the wife of a wealthy merchant, lets her imagination take flight in her creation of the sort of structures that might enhance her garden’s sense of mystery and privacy:

But I have had a notion for some time to create within the garden a covered walkway: a tunnel made from willow or hazel and planted with vines and white roses. At its centre, there would be a secret shady arbour with a soft turf seat, and more roses of yellow, white and deepest red and sweet-smelling honeysuckle to clamber over.

I smile to myself as I wonder if such a shady structure is quite needed for our English summers, but I like to imagine my garden is in Genoa, with the sun and the warmth and Peter’s arms enfolding me.

Tacuin_Roseter34
Tacuinum Sanitatis, Roses
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Joanna encourages her servant Tom, who to her delight expresses his love of trees even as a child, by first employing him as a gardener on her estate and, later, helping him to become a carpenter. Later still, Tom’s passion for all things arboreal inspires even Susanna, a child of the city and a former prostitute whom Tom takes as his wife. She initially has little interest in trees or gardens but at length understands their place in the world. Tom first shares his knowledge and love of gardening with her (and her sister Ali), but Susanna is delighted when his enthusiasm expands to the establishment of orchards and – when he has the time and money to do so – woodland.

Whilst Ali and me work in the garden, Tom’s making a start on an orchard.

‘Seems to me you’re trying to create your own little manor out here in Saint Mary’s,’ Ali says one day, as we help him plant his first few apple and pear trees. Her eyes are smiling as much as her mouth.

He grins again. ‘You know I’ve always loved trees.’ He turns the soil back into the hole he’s dug for the last of the apples and treads it down. He stands up and gazes along the row we’ve planted.

‘Looks good, doesn’t it?’ he says, and Ali and me agree. Then he points to the far edge of the field, to a small patch of woodland that came with the land he bought. ‘I’m going to plant a lot more trees down there too. More oak and ash and walnut, good for making furniture.’

‘Your own little forest,’ I say.

He nods happily. ‘Of course, I’ll not see the trees I plant full grown, especially the oaks.’ He turns the corners of his mouth down a little.

But the important thing about the trees is what they mean for their descendants, in their case an adopted son. Susanna says,

‘It seems so sad you’ll never see these trees full grown.’

But Tom shakes his head. ‘They’re for the future,’ he says, putting his arm around me. ‘For Peter. He was brought to us for a reason, and he’s our future.’

‘It’s time I taught him all about the trees. The ones we’re growing here for timber, and those in the orchard.’

And Susanna then brings the story around full circle when she urges Tom also to hand on to their son The Nature of Growing Things, confirming both the continuity of nature and the connection provided by the gardening book from the start of the story.

In my novel series, the Meonbridge Chronicles, I have used similar ideas of both peasant gardens and the type of hortus conclusus imitated in the gardens of the wealthy. My purpose is the same as in The Nature of Things, both to illustrate everyday life and to point up the differences between people’s lives. Other types of gardens have yet to find a place in my writing, among them perhaps the truly devotional gardens of a monastery or priory. Maybe in a future book…

Note:

For my gardening book “extracts”, I reinterpreted Albertus Magnus’ words from a passage I found in John Harvey’s Mediaeval Gardens, and rewrote passages from several pages of both Frank Crisp’s Mediaeval Gardens and Eileen Power’s edition of The Goodman of Paris (Le Ménagier de Paris), A Treatise on Moral and Domestic Economy by a citizen of Paris c.1393.

I have found Medieval English Gardens by Teresa McLean most interesting and enlightening, though of course there are many others.

The illustrations for this piece come from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval handbook mainly on health which was based on an 11th century Arab medical treatise. It describes in detail the beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants, and is wonderfully illustrated.


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