Now this is a wonderful subject for discussion and one that many history books do not cover. Medieval gardening played an important role in the life of people who lived in 11th-15th century Europe. Whether rich or poor. noble or peasant, the cultivation of good food was of significant importance to them.
The most important produce grown by people in that period consisted of cereals, vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers. Growing cereals such as barley, rye and wheat was regarded more as farming than gardening. Click here to read about the different cereals used for making medieval bread. Other than cereals, it was herbs, vegetables, fruit and flowers that formed the essence of the medieval diet. Their proper cultivation meant that families could enjoy a reliable and relatively varied source of sustenance.
Planting, growing and harvesting vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers absorbed a large amount of time and energy from the medieval population as a whole. Each season presented a different challenge – sowing in spring, cultivating in summer, picking and harvesting in autumn and preserving in winter. A peasant with perhaps just a little land available to them would concentrate on growing herbs and vegetables to help make the family’s staple food of potage. A noble or landowner with more land and workers available to them could grow everything from fields of wheat (much prized for the pure white bread it made), flowers (for salads and household decorations) to vast fruit orchards (for desserts, salads and making fruit wines).
Medieval Garden Plants
There were esentially 4 types of produce cultivated:
- Vegetables – from bogbean to broad bean, cabbage to calabash, squash to squirting cucumber!
- Herbs – all the herbs we know today plus many more since forgotten, eg. artemisia, dittany, hyssop.
- Flowers – some grown for ornamental use, others for salads and medicinal potions.
- Fruit – the most common being apples, pears, quince, rhubarb and elderberry.
Gardening in medieval times was not widely documented for a long time and it was thanks to people such as Sir Frank Crisp that we have a better understanding of the subject. Although a lawyer by profession, he was a great gardening enthusiast and paid for and developed some special gardens of his own. His greatest historically relevant contribution, however, is perhaps his highly detailed personal study of medieval gardening, published under the title “Mediaeval Gardens”.
Many castles had their own gardens and orchards although most are sadly long gone. Thankfully, however, there are a few ‘new’ medieval gardens around the world which have been specially cultivated for people to visit and enjoy. One such garden, and in our view amongst the best in Europe, is in the small medieval village of Bazoges-en-Pareds in The Vendée. The garden is split into sections each devoted to a type of use, eg. for the table, medicinal, etc. What makes the Bazoges medieval garden special is the quality of the plants, the care with which they are laid out and cultivated. There is even a grapevine canopy under which to sit by a water fountain and look out at all the marvellous plants and fruit trees. Hundreds of bees, butterflies and insects can be seen and heard here during the summer months. The location of the garden is also very special, adjacent to a medieval donjon (castle keep) which has been really well preserved. Visitors are allowed and you can walk up the many, old stone steps to the top. There you can enjoy magnificent views down onto the garden and beyond to the surrounding French countryside.
Click here to enjoy a gallery of photographs of the Bazoges garden.
If France is not an option for you to visit then there is a notable garden in the United States: The Penn State Medieval Garden. Developed by the Department of Plant Science at The Pennsylvania State University in 1998, the purpose is for plants to be grown and documented in order to develop informative data sheets. All credit to the University for taking on such an imaginative and unusual project.