by Judith Arnopp
Most of my novels feature at least one scene with a woman in a medieval garden. It may not be a key moment in the book but I like to illustrate how intricately linked high status women were to their gardens.
The ideal of the garden was initially evoked in King Solomon’s Song of Songs and it is there that we see the first links between the enclosed garden and womanhood.
The tradition slowly expanded to incorporate the story of the Fall from Paradise and
The Cult of the Virgin Mary, until the motif expanded into secular love poetry.
Medieval literature depicts noblemen striding about the world, galloping into
battle in the service of the king, embarking upon arduous pilgrimage and living and
breathing upon a vastly dangerous, stimulating stage. These men are shown to be
invincible, self-assured and in control and there were few limits placed upon them.
The women in this literature are portrayed very differently; they rarely travel,
they never fight and are usually to be found within the vicinity of the castle walls. Their role is to marry, provide heirs and be an asset to their husband. Life for most medieval woman was closeted; we see them safe within the walls of the castle, sewing, strumming musical instruments, listening to minstrel’s songs or to tales of courtly-love.
illustrate this. We see women sitting among the flowerbeds, sometimes planting
and maintaining the gardens or, more often, we find them in a lovers tryst. Other
times they are shown sitting in the shade of a tree listening to a minstrel’s tales and, paradoxically, the stories they are listening to are of other women also dwelling within the safety of their own gardens.
But these fictional women were not always as ordinary as they seemed and many of them faced complex difficulties. They were invariably highborn, young and fair and most of them expressed a personal desire that, because they were subject to male authority, could not be fulfilled.
Chaucer managed to depict the plight of these women so empathetically that there can be little doubt that he was conscious of their plight. Even when projecting
patriarchal prejudices through the mouths of his male narrator he managed, not to
indoctrinate, but to reveal how flawed male expectations were.
In The Merchant’s Tale May is married to a decrepit, selfish old man or higher status than herself. Her needs and wishes are not considered by anyone and only the narrator takes the time to reflect upon what her reaction may have been to the consummation of her marriage. Her husband, Januarie, builds an idyllic garden in
which to make love to her and the following scenes are a horrific inversion of the
story of Eden. The walls that enclose May in the pleasure garden lead her to make
dramatic and hair-raising choices but, instead of condemning her infidelity, Chaucer
chooses to ultimately reward her with the ‘maisterie’ that, according to the tale told by the Wife of Bath, all women desire.
Emelye in The Knight’s Tale is similarly captive within a garden, and its walls serve to serve as a prison cell. She expresses the wish to follow the goddess Diana, to run freely through the woods, to hunt and remain chaste forever but she is not given the choice to do so. Hotly pursued by Palamon and Arcite who fight in mortal combat for her hand, Emelye is instead given as a prize in the male game of war.
Throughout The Canterbury Tales the garden becomes a place of imprisonment, the lovely grounds in The Franklins Tale and The Shipman’s Tale become places of sexual transaction and solicitation. In The Merchant’s Tale the garden becomes a place of sexual violence and adultery. Also The Parlement of Foules revisits this idea of feminine entrapment and the question is; why does Chaucer pick the garden, a place of peace and beauty, as the scene for feminine suffering?
In every way the woman and the literary garden are parallel; they are both fertile, they are both fragrant and decorative and they are both controlled by a male
gardener. Left to their own devices they will go wild. In both art and literature the garden wall sometimes encompasses an area so vast that the garden is more like a
park. This is a metaphor for the wider boundaries placed upon medieval women, even
those that seem to have escaped male rule.
Eve, the first female transgressor, was sent from the safe walls of Eden on a journey that was to lead her female children to other gardens. The Virgin Mary,
made perfect by the idealisation of man, is painted within her wattle walled garden,
a perfect flower of femininity, the fertile, unflawed mother of the perfect child.
Wherever we look in medieval art we find women and gardens, walled gardens that
secure and encumber the feminine tendency to stray from the path of moral rectitude.
Women must remain in the garden and those few that do escape into the world, perhaps to go on pilgrimage like the wife of Bath, the Prioress and the second
nun, can only do so because they have managed to escape from the bounds of
Even these empowered women, the female pilgrims, are subject to limitations upon their freedom, the nuns are answerable to the male authority of the church and
the lusty, unrepentant Wife of Bath must, unless she wishes to lose her independence
by remarrying, remain chaste.
A medieval woman was monitored for signs of wildness just as a garden was and this provided Chaucer with the perfect allegory. A garden, cultivated like May and Emelye, is a controlled environment where the gardener maintains constant vigilance in case his flourishing flower beds should run rampant and wild seeds take
There is a wonderful example of a medieval garden at Tretower in Powys and is well worth a visit. Please visit their Website.