Medieval English Gardens

Medieval English Gardens

by Teresa McLean


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Medieval English Gardens by Teresa McLean

From castle to cottage, nearly every medieval dwelling possessed an enclosed plot for growing herbs, food, and flowers. This illustrated survey of gardening lore from the era between the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance reveals a wealth of ancient secrets. Drawn from obscure sources — scraps of parchment from account rolls, charters, surveys, and registers — the book provides hitherto inaccessible knowledge about the plans, organization, and common uses of gardens in the pre-industrial world.
Both an excellent work of scholarship and a fascinating read, the book examines the location, ownership, purpose, layout, overall appearance, fashions, and workmanship of English gardens. It further explores the gardens' colorful and fragrant contents, describing castle gardens, pleasure gardens, lovers' gardens, and secret gardens. Other subjects include infirmary gardens, herbariums, kitchen gardens, and flowery meads in addition to the cultivation of orchards, vineyards, and beehives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486781198
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 07/16/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Teresa McLean was educated at the University of Oxford and pursued research for her PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge. Her many books include The English at Play in the Middle Ages, Men in White Coats: Cricket Umpires Past and Present, Metal Jam: The Story of a Diabetic, and Seized: My Life with Epilepsy.

Read an Excerpt

Medieval English Gardens

By Teresa McLean

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1980 Teresa McLean
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-79494-5


The Monastic Garden

According to the Old Testament, the Lord God made a garden in Eden, where he walked in the cool of the day. He created Adam and Eve to dwell there with him, and let Adam name all the different trees and plants for him. When Adam and Eve were cast out of this Paradise they were condemned to cultivate the earth by the sweat of their brow in order to live; medieval pictures of the expulsion from Eden usually show Adam carrying a spade, and Eve a hoe or a distaff. From then on, man had to work the land to live. The purest and most divinely aspirational way of doing this was gardening, because it recreated the paradise he had once shared with God.

It was therefore the perfect occupation for Christian monks and nuns, who devoted themselves to a life of prayer, supported by manual work. Thus medieval monastic gardens are the obvious starting point for this book, and their English history the obvious subject of its opening chapter. In order to appreciate these gardens it is necessary to look back to the origins of the monastic life and the place of gardening within it. The principles of monastic gardening were established right at the start of the monastic movement.

The First Christian Gardens

The first Christians to devote themselves entirely to the religious life were the third-century Egyptian cenobites, who retired to the desert to live solitary lives of prayer. They were also the first recorded Christian gardeners, so that Christian religious gardening is as old as the oldest form of Christian religious life. The Egyptian cenobites lived off bread brought to them by villagers, water, a supply of which was the only material requirement they made of their cave homes, and a few plants which they grew in the enclosures they made out- side their caves. This is how St Jerome (AD 342-420), a desert cave dweller of long standing, began his instruction of a young man about to take up the same life: 'Hoe your ground, set out cabbages, convey water to the conduits.'

It was another desert hermit, St Antony, who founded the first Christian monastery, and it is no surprise to find that he was also a gardener. He was born in lower Egypt in AD 251, of wealthy parents who died when he was about twenty years old, leaving him to take care of his younger sister. He decided that the best way to do this was to put her in a house of maidens, perhaps the first Christian nunnery, and then he retired to the desert outside his village and devoted himself to a life of prayer and spiritual reading. When he was thirty- five he cut himself off still further from his home, crossing the Nile to live high up on the slopes of a remote mountain, where he stayed for twenty years, alone but for a man who came to bring him bread every six months.

Yet it was while he was here, in his most austere retreat, that he made a little garden, which has been described for us by the Palestinian hermit and friend of St Antony, St Hilarion: 'These vines and these little trees did he plant himself; the pool did he contrive, with much labour for the watering of his garden; with his rake did he break up the earth many years.' Antony probably gardened to give himself some physical occupation rather than to grow food, which he seems to have regarded as an unavoidable necessity. One day, when he was feeling depressed, an angel appeared to him in a vision, plaiting mats out of palm-tree leaves, and said to Antony: 'Do thus.'

In this way the balance between prayer and work which characterizes Christian monasticism was born, and it was brought into the world when St Antony founded the first Christian monastery in the Fayum in AD 305. At first the monastery was a handful of scattered cells which he visited periodically. Later, he brought them together into one place, though the monks continued to live in individual cells, engaged in a combination of prayer and work, particularly gardening, that has never been displaced as the monastic ideal. Significantly, the two men venerated as the patron saints of gardening were both early Christian hermits who lived out that combination.

The earlier of the two is St Phocas, a contemporary of the Egyptian cenobites, who lived outside the gates of Sinope, on the Black Sea, in his little garden, where he grew vegetables for the poor, and flowers. One day he was visited by some strangers, whom he invited to stay the night. A savage persecution of Christians had recently been raised, and Phocas's guests told him that they were soldiers and had been sent to find the Christian, Phocas, and slay him. Late that evening, when he had said his prayers, Phocas went out into his garden and dug a grave. The next morning he told his guests that he was Phocas, took them out into his garden, and stood by the grave he had dug. They cut off his head and buried him there, amid his flowers. St Phocas is always portrayed with a spade.

The Middle East was the first area to which the monastic movement founded by St Antony spread. Within a century it had reached Europe, where an Italian nobleman named Benedict gave up his studies at Rome and retired to the solitude of Subiaco to become a monk. There the roseto – little rose garden – of St Benedict, whose flowers delighted his senses and whose thorns he used to mortify his flesh, is still preserved. Eventually he withdrew to the heights of Monte Cassino, on the borders of Campania, and in AD 530 founded a monastery there.

It was at Monte Cassino that St Benedict wrote the first monastic Rule, which for 600 years was the one and only Rule of western monasticism, except for the Celtic. The Rule was written for one monastic house, governed by an abbot whom the monks elected for life, and independent of all control save that of the Rule and of God. The monastery was a spiritual family living apart from the world in order to serve God without distraction, under the leadership of its father abbot. It extended hospitality, medical help, teaching and alms to those nearby, but it was essentially self-contained and self-sufficient.

The necessaries of its life were the familiar ones: water, a mill to make grain, and a garden, in that order. They were to provide the bread and wine, vegetables and fruit, and fish and eggs for special occasions, which Benedict prescribed as the diet for his monks. Benedictine monasteries farmed land for grain; they dug fishponds to supply them with fish, which quickly became a major item of the monastic diet; they kept bees and they grew fruits and vegetables, vines, flavouring and healing herbs and plants yielding dyes, inks and incense.

The first monasteries were built along the lines of Roman villas, which were self-contained farmhouses, like mini villages, enclosing vegetable gardens near the outbuildings, neat little flowerbeds, shady walks and trees around the front of the house, and a colonnaded, fountained courtyard, called the atrium, at the heart of the complex. It was a design conducive to the keeping of gardens. The most striking thing about the ground plan of the perfect Benedictine monastery, which was drawn up at St Gall, near Lake Constance, Switzerland, in the ninth century, is the number and variety of its gardens (see Fig. 1). It is a diagram of an ideal, not of an actual foundation, and it amounts to an extended Christianized edition of a Roman villa estate with a wealth of gardens.

At the centre is the cloister garth, divided into four squares, with a savina (holy water stoup) in the middle, fringed with grass and flowers. The cloisters were the main arteries of community life, and the garden they enclosed was one of peace and repose, often planted with flowers, and sometimes containing statues of saints or of the Holy Family. At other parts of the complex a school, hospital and guest-house also have cloisters, descendants of Roman peristyles, around their courtyards, but there is no indication of what was planted in them.

There is a hospital or 'physic' garden next to the doctor's house and the drug store. It is quadrangular in shape and planted with roses and lilies which the plan calls 'herbs both beautiful and health-giving', with sage, rosemary and other 'kitchen herbs' in sixteen little parallel beds. On the other side of the hospital, to the south, is the cemetery, planted with rows of fruit and blossom trees, between which are the monks' graves, with a cross in their midst. It is an almost architecturally planned garden and has the 'ordered regularity' beloved of classical designers and poets.

Next to this garden, in the south-east corner of the plan, is an oblong, simply marked 'Garden'. It is bigger than the physic garden, but laid out in the same style with eighteen parallel beds, planted with vegetables ranging from the medieval favourites – onions, garlic, leeks and shallots, in the first four beds – to parsley, chervil, coriander, dill and poppies, which we would distinguish as herbs or flowers.

At both the east and the west end of the church there is a semi-circular space, open to the air, labelled 'Paradise'. The word 'paradise' comes from the old Persian Pairidaeza, meaning enclosure. There had been parks or paradises, with pools of water and shady trees, in Persia and all over the Middle East from time immemorial, and the word entered Christian Church history as the name for the porticoes adjoining the oldest Byzantine basilicas, planted as gardens. The Moslems took paradises with them to Sicily, whence they were taken to northern and western Europe by the Normans.

A lot of medieval churches, particularly in monasteries, had paradises, which were enclosed places for meditation and prayer, planted with flowers. They were nearly always at the east end of the church behind the high altar; it was rare to find a paradise at both ends, as in the St Gall plan.

The St Gall plan is a blueprint for perfection, but it shows how vital gardens were considered to be to that perfection, and the records of real monasteries bear this out. A ninth century poem, written in Germany shortly before the St Gall plan was drawn up, leaves us in no doubt that monastic gardening was thriving in Europe at this period. Its author, Abbot Walafrid Strabo of Reichenau Abbey, also on Lake Constance, was a gardener, and his poem is called Hortulus (The Little Garden). The subject was obviously a very popular one, for Hortulus was a bestseller throughout the Middle Ages. Walafrid wrote it for a monastic public with a pretty good knowledge of gardening; his own knowledge was excellent and was based on first-hand experience. This is a real gardener's poem which might have been written yesterday, and begins:

Though a life of retreat offers various joys,
None, I think, will compare with the time one employs
In the study of herbs, or in striving to gain
Some practical knowledge of nature's domain.
Get a garden! What kind you may get matters not.

Walafrid goes on to say that his kind was a little courtyard garden, facing east, and plagued with nettles, so that 'armed with mattock and rake, I attacked the caked earth.' He goes on to describe how he prepared the soil for seed-sowing by turning, breaking and raking it, and digging in manure. The bulk of the poem is made up of a list of the herbs Walafrid planted, each accompanied by an account of its uses.

Whether English monks were gardening as keenly as Walafrid at this period we cannot tell. The records simply do not exist. There is just one British gardening tradition that we can trace, and that is the Celtic one. Strictly speaking, it does not belong in the story of English gardening, since it is above all an Irish tradition, but for nearly three hundred years before the Benedictine St Augustine of Canterbury brought Roman Christianity to Britain in AD 597, Celtic monasticism was unchallenged there.

Celtic Christianity was inebriate with love of nature. The remote huts to which its saints retired were not in the wastelands, like those of the Egyptians, but 'facing the south for warmth, a little stream across its enclosure, a choice ground with abundant bounties which would be good for every plant', as the seventh century Manchán of Liath, or one of his ninth-century disciples, described his ideal retreat. God was experienced through nature, which was the garden he had given man for that purpose, and which the Celtic anchorites lived off and celebrated in rhapsodically sensual poetry.

Even so, the monks still enclosed little garths round their huts. They made clearings with wells and pools and added one or two homegrown vegetables to their supplies. So there were some sort of rudimentary vegetable gardens among these Celtic cenobites, and probably in the big Celtic monasteries too, and in the Anglo-Saxon monasteries that began to reappear after the ninth century Viking invasions.

The other patron saint of gardening, besides St Phocas, was a Celtic hermit. His name is St Fiacre, and he was an Irish or possibly a Scottish prince in the seventh century who went to join a monastery near Meaux. Wishing to cut himself off from his roots still more, Fiacre got the abbot's permission to live in a solitary dwelling in the forest, where no one would know him. The abbot offered him as much land as he could turn up in a day, to surround his hut. Fiacre wasn't Irish for nothing, and he managed to enclose a large area by turning up an outline with the point of his staff, instead of driving his farrow with a plough over all the ground. He then cleared the ground, built an oratory in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a cell for himself, and made the ground into a garden. He spent his time cultivating it and praying.

For the history of monastic gardening, St Fiacre's emigration to Gaul – one of many such moves that brought Ireland into contact with the Continent – is important, for it was an Irish nobleman, who had joined a monastery in County Down and then gone with St Columban to evangelize the Franks, who founded the monastery of St Gall in the sixth century, where three hundred years later the plan of the ideal monastery was drawn up.

How much the Benedictine and Celtic gardening practised on the Continent influenced Anglo-Saxon England it is impossible to say. England's contacts with the Continent were mainly through English monks who went there as missionaries. Boniface in the eighth century received letters from home asking for more books on simples (medicines) and complaining that it was hard to get foreign herbs, so there was enough horticultural contact to make the monks in England feel they wanted more. Any such hopes were dashed by the Viking invasions, which extinguished monastic life in England until its revival under the Abbot-Bishop Dunstan and King Edgar in the middle of the tenth century.

We have only two hints of monastic gardening in the tenth century: a grant of a vineyard at Pathensburgh in Somerset to Glastonbury Abbey by King Edwy, and mention of the first identifiable gardening abbot: the Anglo-Saxon Brithnod, Abbot of Ely in 970. According to the Ely chronicler, Brithnod was 'skilled in planting gardens and orchards around the church, considering this to be a fit and venerable place for the shade of trees.'

He was making a kind of wooded paradise. One of his two monks, Leo, helped him to lay out these 'gardens and orchards elegantly, and he planted choice fruit trees there in regular and beautiful order', and he also planted shrubs. There was something of the landscape gardener about Brithnod. He laid out his gardens thoughtfully, and with some technical skill, for the chronicler says: 'In a few years the trees which he planted and ingrafted appeared at a distance like a wood, loaded with most excellent fruits in great abundance, and they added much to the commodiousness and beauty of the place.'

Benedictine Gardens: The English Beginnings

It was the Norman Conquest that brought English monastic gardens to full bloom, and to our notice, for it brought about a Norman takeover in the English Church. Normandy was a land of abbeys. England became one in the century after the Conquest.

All Benedictine abbeys were built according to a basic pattern, which was designed to accommodate the three basic constituents of Benedictine life: liturgical prayer, private prayer and spiritual reading, and manual work. To appreciate fully how gardens fitted into that pattern, and how numerous and varied they were, it is necessary to envisage it.


Excerpted from Medieval English Gardens by Teresa McLean. Copyright © 1980 Teresa McLean. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 11

1 The Monastic Garden 13

2 'For the Enjoyment of Rest and Quiet': Gardens in Cities and Towns 59

3 Castle, Palace and Manor House Gardens 89

4 Love Gardens 120

5 'Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower' 139

6 The Herb Garden 172

7 The Vegetable Patch 197

8 Orchard, Fruit and Tree Gardens 224

9 Vineyards 249

Bibliography: Primary Sources 273

Secondary Sources 277

Index 285

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