14th October 2014

Roman and Medieval Gardens

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need". Many might agree with Cicero's sentiment, but what did he mean by a garden? In his talk James Bond explored the nature of the Roman garden and traced the development of some of its features through Arabic and medieval practices to modern times.

One of the chief problems facing the garden historian is its impermanent nature, which means that little trace is left once it returns to nature. Archaeology can show us little more than some hard features, which can be difficult to interpret and occasionally plant remains. Some records exist in the form of writings and works of art but they need to be interpreted with caution.

The earliest evidence for the Roman garden dates from the relative peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire. wealthy individuals established villas and we know that these included gardens. The best evidence comes from the frescoes commonly found in Roman villas, which show cultivated blooms and fruit trees. Fences, walls and statuary create a sense of perspective and birds evoke the outdoor world. Attempts have been made to reconstruct Roman gardens based on the archaeological remains of tree roots and the outline of beds, but there can be little certainty about the plants employed. Were the niches in the bed outlines used for seating or statues? In Britain Fishbourne is a well known example, and the layout of Silchester also suggests the presence of gardens.

It is clear that techniques of propagation were well understood. Many cultivated plants were introduced to Britain by the Romans, including many fruits and herbs. The fabulous codex vindobonensis, a beautiful book produced in the Eastern Empire containing 400 illustrated pages of plants and dating from the year AD 512 shows a deep understanding of the'plant world.

As monastic life developed in the Middle Ages such works were copied by the monks though the accuracy of the illustrations often suffered from the monks' unfamiliarity with the species depicted. There is a detailed plan drawing of the Monastery of St Gall dating to about AD 820 which shows the importance given to growing food crops and herbs for the infirmary.

A rather later plan (c1170) of Canterbury shows the irrigation system for the Priory and depicts a 'herbarium", whose precise role in unclear. It may have been used for growing medicinal herbs, or as a meadow or possible even for poisonous plants.

Further evidence of medieval gardens comes from illustrated manuscripts and even pictorial window glass showing tools and techniques.Again Canterbury is a case in point.

Meanwhile another strand of garden design was emerging in the Arab world where there was perhaps a greater emphasis on the garden as a leisure area - a place of pleasure, sometimes secret with a featured gate. Here the emphasis was on an enclosed space surrounded by high walls with prominent rills fed by aqueducts. Raised beds often completed the picture.

The classic example is the garden of the Alhambra palace in Granada which dates to the 13th and 14th centuries, but earlier examples abound from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain.

Similar trends are seen in the European medieval garden. Manuscripts from France and the Low Countries depict walled gardens with elaborate tracery gates, raised beds bisected by cruciform paths and fountains operated by gravity. There were also grassed areas which appear to have been seen as meadows rather than lawns. They were created by killing the natural growth with hot water and then laying meadow turves of the required type.

The sumptuous illustrated manuscript known as the Duc de Berry's Book of Hours, as well as having many fine paintings of horticultural activity, shows examples of walled gardens in Paris and Dourdan which are actually detached from the main structure of the building which they serve.

A rather crude representation of a garden in a window of St Augustine's Abbey shows a wattle fence with a gate and a single plant in the middle - the only known illustration of a Medieval English garden!

Anecdotal evidence of medieval gardening comes from Romsey Abbey where the Abbess gave shelter to the 14 year old Christiana, last survivor of the Saxon Royal family, who was being hotly pursued by King William Rufus. The legend specifies that she was sheltered in the Rose Garden. Evidence of an archaeological nature comes from the preservation at the same site of undecomposed box clippings, suggesting their maintenance as formal hedging.

Another tale of secret gardens is that of Rosamunds's Bower at Woodstock, which Henry 11 supposedly had made for clandestine trysts with his mistress Rosamund. His Queen Eleanor found out about it and having penetrated the surrounding maze offered her rival a choice between a dagger or poison. In the seventeenth century John Aubrey described a walled garden at Woodstock with striking similarities to an Arabic water-garden. Could this have been the site of the Bower?

Kenilworth too had a detached garden. Indeed it was so detached that it could only be reached from the castle across a lake by boat. Named the Pleasaunce it dates from the time of Henry V and was specially constructed with entertainment and pleasure in mind.

James mentioned a number of other British sites with archaeological evidence of medieval gardens from the relatively Spartan plots associated with Carthusian monasteries at Mount Grace in Yorkshire, Witham and Hinton Charterhouse to the non-defensive moated gardens at Peterborough, Waltham Abbey and Wookey Court, where saffron was grown. Also getting a mention were Windsor, Farleigh Hungerford and Tintagel.

On a final speculative note, James suggested that the introduction of Arabic ideas of gardening might owe quite a lot to contact between the Normans and the Islamic world following their establishment of the Kingdom of Sicily.

As ever, James was remarkably generous with his examples and illustrations, more than I can do justice to here. If you wish to follow up his work on our own Country he is the author of "Somerset Parks and Gardens: A Landscape History". published by Somerset Books 1998.

Peter Johnson