The medieval garden is a fascinating topic of exploration. Delving into historical accounts from the medieval era offers us valuable insights into the cultivation of food, providing a glimpse into the world of medieval gardening. This journey allows us to uncover the garden’s distinct style, its evolution over time, and its deep importance during the 11th to 15th centuries in Europe.
In this evolving period of the medieval period, the pleasure garden extended its charm beyond the elite and found its way into the lives of burghers and, perhaps, even peasants. This shift marked a significant departure from the notion that gardens were primarily utilitarian in nature. The idea that a garden should serve not only a functional purpose but also provide delight and enjoyment gradually evolved over many centuries. It reflected a changing perspective on the role of gardens in society, emphasizing their potential to bring beauty and joy to people from all walks of life.
Types of Medieval Gardens and Their Features
During the later Middle Ages, as calendars started to depict the transition from peasants engaging in laborious tasks like digging, ploughing, pruning, and clearing shrubbery to scenes of people planting flowers, a transformation was evident. The pleasure garden, which had been an integral feature of elite households for a long time, began to take on a new role. What initially started as a practical concept transformed into something that also served as a means to beautify the surroundings.
These gardens served various functions, including kitchen gardens, infirmary gardens, cemetery orchards, cloister garths, and vineyards. In the kitchen gardens, a wide array of crops were cultivated, including vegetables like fennel, cabbage, onions, garlic, leeks, radishes, and parsnips. When space permitted, peas, lentils, and beans were also grown.
The layout of these gardens typically consisted of rectangular plots with narrow pathways in between, facilitating the harvesting of crops. To keep animals at bay, wattle fencing often surrounded these beds.
Infirmary gardens featured a rich assortment of herbs, including savory, costmary, fenugreek, rosemary, peppermint, rue, iris, sage, bergamot, mint, lovage, fennel, and cumin, among others. A Herber was a combined herb and pleasure garden, while a Hortus Conclusus was an enclosed garden symbolizing a religious allegory. A Pleasaunce was referred to as an expansive, elaborate pleasure garden or park. Interestingly, the word Paradise itself originated from a Persian term for a walled garden.
An essential feature of medieval gardens, whether big or small, was their enclosure. These gardens were invariably surrounded by various types of barriers, including pole fences, hedges, banks, and ditches, as well as structures made of stone, brick, and wattle. Wattle, in this context, refers to a construction technique involving a kind of basket-like framework crafted from materials like willow withies and osiers, which were woven around stakes embedded in the ground.
Role of Medieval Gardens
The medieval garden held a massive role in the lives of people during the Middle Ages, going beyond the boundaries of wealth and social status. From nobility to peasants, everyone recognized the utmost importance of cultivating food. Herbs, vegetables, fruits, flowers, and cereals were the very heart of medieval existence, gracing the gardens and making their way into the kitchens of medieval households. These gardens were more than just a source of sustenance; they were a testament to the era’s deep-rooted connection with nature and agriculture.
As life and lifestyle changed with time, so did the medieval gardens. Medieval dwellers and their customs evolved as they were exposed to different cultures. This also brought a change in what they ate and how they ate. With time, out-of-door dining also became popular, marking a change in the way medieval gardens were designed. During this period, medieval gardens started having places to sit under the trees, and furniture and outdoor seating arrangements were added to provide a proper dining experience. To further aid this lifestyle, medieval gardens started planting trees that were not just useful but also provided proper shade.
Different techniques to facilitate gardening and horticulture also evolved. This was to make sure that the gardens were equipped to grow what the owners wanted in terms of their food choices. Different vegetables, some even brought from other parts of the world and thus not natural to the environment, were grown. This required more horticultural techniques. Sunken beds were seen in medieval Islamic gardens. Techniques like pollarding and coppicing were used to grow the trees taller and bushier. Pots made of clay and ceramic were used to further beautify the gardens. This also allowed the cultivation of certain plants for extended periods.
Cultivation Through the Seasons
Cultivating a medieval garden was a labor-intensive process, involving various tasks such as planting, nurturing, tending, and harvesting. Furthermore, each season of the year posed its own set of unique challenges.
During the medieval spring, a crucial task involved sowing seeds and nurturing the plants and bulbs from the previous year. Effective soil management and preparation were vital for the success of all plants. This meant clearing weeds and enriching the soil with essential nutrients.
The primary source of natural nitrogen, and a tradition still in practice today, was the use of manure. Surprisingly, the practice of spreading manure to enrich the soil for food cultivation was not a medieval invention; it has a history dating back at least 8,000 years, and it’s a technique still used today.
Medieval gardens were at their most vibrant during summers. Flowers were in full bloom, and herbs, fruit, and vegetables thrived. However, the garden workers had no time for rest during this season, as daily attention was needed. Their main task was to maintain the right level of moisture in the soil. To achieve this, most medieval gardens had their own wells. In cases where wells were absent, gardens were typically situated near a stream or river because water, then as it is now, played a crucial role in effective garden management.
Autumn and Winter
Autumn was the season of harvest in medieval gardens. It involved a variety of tasks, such as picking fruit from trees, gathering herbs and flowers, and uprooting garden vegetables. As winter drew near, medieval people devoted a significant portion of their time to preserving fruits and vegetables for long-term storage to ensure a reliable source of nutrition.
To sum up, medieval gardens offered a captivating fusion of functionality and visual appeal, underscoring their vital role in the daily life of that historical era. These meticulously nurtured environments served as more than just sources of sustenance; they also provided spaces for contemplation and aesthetic pleasure. These gardens encapsulated the values and concerns of medieval society, seamlessly blending the pragmatic with the poetic aspects of life during those times.