Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Medieval Garden

by Carol McGrath 

In the medieval period the world was a quiet place.

Robert Lacey writes in his book, The Year 1000,  'Yet in the year 1000 hedgerows actually had a sound.' He points out that you were able to hear baby birds chirping in their nests, and that the only mechanical noise you would ever hear in a medieval village would come from the blacksmith's bellows, the church bell or the cogs clanking around the water mill.

And the peaceful medieval village
Lacey reminds us that in the countryside bees buzzed and wood pigeons cooed. Towns were so small in the early eleventh century that these would be sounds one might hear there also.

Of course, another peaceful place was the medieval garden. Medieval gardens begin with Charlemagne circa 800 and the period of the medieval garden ends in England circa 1500.

Medieval Gardens
Here are a few ideas concerning gardens and orchards in the middle ages.

Firstly orchards are difficult to find evidence for, never mind their planting plans. There is evidently detailed evidence for three or four orchards. One is Llanthony Priory,  Gwent in 1199. It contained twelve acres with 400 and more trees.

A second was the cemetery orchard on the Swiss, ninth-century, St Gall monastery plan. This orchard was home to around thirteen trees, planted between the tombs of dead monks.

Another orchard is Rosamund's Bower, Everswell where a hundred pear trees were planted by Henry III in 1268.

And finally we have plans for the orchard in the curia at Cuxham which contained 139 apple trees. Orchards were valued for the joy of the blossom and for scent and shade and, indeed, their produce.

The Herber

The Herber or small enclosed garden was generally square and it might have four borders placed around a small lawn. Sometimes they were half bed and half lawn and the beds could be filled with aromatic herbs. The culinary herbs would have belonged to the utilitarian garden. Herber meant any small enclosed flower garden.

This type of garden came into its own during the twelfth century and could be found in enclosed castle sites. Small herbers romantically might be placed beneath the bed chambers of royalty and nobility as has been evidenced at Windsor, Arundel, Marlborough, Gloucester and Nottingham castles.

A walled Herber

The pleasure garden was a park-like garden, generally walled. One might find there diverse trees and wild creatures such as hares, stags, rabbits and various little creatures. It might have a timber-framed summer palace where a king and queen might relax. Rows of trees ran in rows down from a palace so that the animals could be observed. These gardens also contained rivers and pools for fish and fowl. I imagine they must have been beautiful gardens.

Somersham Palace Cambridgeshire, a residence of the bishops of Ely, contained a pleasure garden during the fifteenth century. But on a smaller scale many English manors had such gardens during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  In addition to farm buildings, Cuxham had an eleven acre garden containing spinneys, coppices, river, fishpond, a nut garden and vegetable areas as well as two dovecots.

A later pleasure garden, possibly Italy

Finally the kitchen garden contained food and medicinal plants as well as plants for strewing on floors, making hand waters, chasing insects and general household purposes.

The kitchen garden was filled with brassicas such as kale, leeks, parsley, leaf beet, and root crops such as parsnips. Beans and peas were grown to be eaten as a green vegetable although they were grown generally as a field crop and dried. Garlic, chives, bulb onions, hemp and flax were grown in the kitchen garden as well as in vast quantities. Popular herbs were hyssop, parsley and sage. Salad plants included borage, marigold, heartsease, langdebeef and poppy.

Even the plants in the graveyard could be used for salad

So with the month of March heralding the arrival of spring and the medieval winter finally loosening its grip a cycle of cultivation could indeed get under way.


The Year 1000 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger
The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg


Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, a novel set in the eleventh century to be published by Accent Press in May 2013.

And the kitchen garden


  1. Wonderful post. I learned how to garden when I was in England and constructed an herb garden. I tweeted.

  2. Thank you. The reconstructed herb gardens are really lovely.


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