Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/A Note on Mediaeval Gardens

Of Six Mediæval Women  (1913)  by Alice Kemp-Welch
A Note on Mediaeval Gardens



No one can study French mediæval lore, or Gothic cathedral, or Book of Hours, without realising how great a love of Nature prevailed in the late Middle Ages. The poems tell of spring, "the season of delight," of gardens which suffice "for loss of Paradise," and of birds "with soft melodious chant." In the dim stillness of the cathedral, Nature is expressed in infinite variety. Foliage grows in the hollows of the mouldings, and sometimes, as at Chartres, even the shafts, as they tower into the gloom, end in half-opened leaves, suggestive of spring, of hope, and of aspiration. Many a sunny façade shows us scenes of rural life—sowing, reaping, vine-dressing, and so forth—fashioned as a calendar in stone, and many a peasant must have rejoiced as he saw himself and his occupation thus represented in effigy. Fortunately for the poor toiler, the Church not only taught that "to labour is to worship," but further honoured work by thus representing it at the very entrance to the sanctuary, so making it, as it were, the "open sesame" to higher things.

In Books of Hours and illuminated MSS., before the complete border of flowers, birds, and small grotesques was developed, we find ornamental flourishes, like the growth of ivy and hawthorn, splendidly free in design, and painted with evident joy even in the minutest bud or tendril. Everywhere may this love of Nature striving for expression be seen. But we must turn to the poems and romances if we would fully realise it in all its simplicity and truth, since it is in these alone that we get at the actual mediæval feeling unalloyed with all that we ourselves have, perhaps unwittingly, read into it.

"All hearts are uplifted and made glad in the time of April and May, when once again the meadows and the pastures become green." So says one of the old romancers. And this joy in returning spring seems to have pervaded mediæval thought and expression. Little is this to be wondered at when we call to mind the long dreary winters spent in cold and ill-lit castles, or in dark, draughty houses and hovels. Before glass, long regarded as a luxury, came into general use in dwellings, the only protection from rain and cold consisted in wooden shutters, or movable frames with horn slabs (necessarily small), or varnished parchment. In truth, the only warm, bright place was the chimney corner, and here, as near as might be to the
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Photo. Macbeth.


French, 14th Century, Brit. Mus.

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Photo. Macbeth.

Harl. MS. 4425, Brit. Mus.

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blazing logs, the long days of winter were spent in chess-playing, broidery, lute-playing, and love-making, the monotony of this only occasionally broken by the arrival of some wandering minstrel who sang of war and love, or of some packman laden with sundry wares prized of womankind. But in winter such wayfarers were rare, and life was, perforce, one of boredom and discomfort. Thus there was exceeding joy when "woods and thickets donned their rich green mantling of resplendent sheen."

It is generally of springtime in a garden—a garden of green glades and alleys, fruit-trees and flowers, such as was very dear to the mediæval soul—of which we read. The Roman de la Rose opens with a description of a garden, hemmed round with castle wall—a pleasaunce within a fortress—and planted with trees "from out the land of Saracens," and many others, to wit, the pine, the beech (loved of squirrels), the graceful birch, the shimmering aspen, the hazel, the oak, and many flowers withal—roses and violets and periwinkle, golden king-cups, and pink-rimmed daisies. The poet describes with careful detail the design of the garden:

The garden was nigh broad as wide,
And every angle duly squared;

how the trees were planted:

Such skilful art
Had planned the trees that each apart
Six fathoms stood, yet like a net
The interlacing branches met;

and how "channelled brooks" flowed from clear fountains through "thymy herbage and gay flowers."

The debt which the mediæval world owed to the East is shown both in the fruits and the spices which are described as growing in the garden, and in the pastimes said to have been enjoyed in its cool shade. We read of pomegranates, nutmegs, almonds, dates, figs, liquorice, aniseed, cinnamon, and zedoary, an Eastern plant used as a stimulant. When the poet would tell of dance and song, he goes by

A shaded pathway, where my feet,
Bruised mint and fennel savouring sweet,

to a secluded lawn. Here he sees one whose name is "Gladness":

Gently swaying, rose and fell
Her supple form, the while her feet
Kept measured time with perfect beat: ****** While minstrels sang, the tambourine
Kept with the flute due time I ween. ****** Then saw I cunning jugglers play,
And girls cast tambourines away
Aloft in air, then gaily trip
Beneath them, and on finger-tip
Catch them again.

In every garden there was a fountain or sheet of water with a small channelled way carrying the water to the castle and through the women's apartment. Sometimes these waterways were made use of by the lover as a means of communication with his beloved, as we read in the romance of Tristan and Isolde, where Tristan, to apprise his mistress that he is at their trysting-place in the garden, drops into the water small pieces of bark and twigs, which are quickly carried to the chamber where Isolde is waiting and watching. And one eventide a perilous encounter befalls. Tristan has been banished the Court, for evil tongues have whispered in King Mark's ear of his love for Isolde, and have further whispered of secret meetings in the garden, beside the fountain. Now near the fountain is a pine-tree, into which King Mark resolves to climb, and perchance to discover the meeting of the lovers. As daylight fades, Tristan scales the wall, and hastens to throw into the water the little signals for his lady. But as he stoops over the pool he sees, reflected in its clear surface, the image of the king, with bow ready bent. Can he stop the floating twigs as they are hurried along on their mission? No. The water carries them away out of sight, and Isolde must come. She comes, but Tristan does not go to meet her as was his wont, but remains standing by the water. She wonders at her lover's seeming unconcern, but as she approaches him, suddenly, in the bright moonlight, she, too, sees in the water the reflection of the king, and the lovers are saved.

A pine-tree is so often mentioned as a special feature in a mediæval garden that one is led to think that its use may either have been a survival from the days of Tree Worship, seeing that the tree was sacred to Adonis, Attis, and Osiris[2] (all, perhaps, varying forms of one and the same divinity), or have been suggested by some northern Saga. It makes its appearance in the Chanson de Roland, which has come down to us in a thirteenth-century form, incorporating the earlier Epic of Roland, probably composed towards the end of the eleventh century. In this we find mention of it when Charlemagne, after he is said to have taken Cordova, retires to a garden with Roland and Oliver and his barons, the elder ones amusing themselves with chess and tric-trac, and the younger ones with fencing, the king meanwhile looking on, seated under a pine-tree. Later in the day tents are set up, in which they pass the night, and in the early morning Charlemagne, after hearing mass, again sits under the pine-tree to take counsel of his barons.

In the Roman de la Rose, the fateful fountain of Narcissus is described as being beneath a pine-tree, which is represented as being taller and fairer than any that mortal eye had seen since the glorious pine of Charlemagne's time, showing that here at least the poet is making use of tradition.

But to make our way into a mediæval garden, and see all that grows therein, we must needs get within the precincts of the castle, for inside its fortified enclosure the castle, like a small village, was self-contained. And this was
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Photo. Brückmann.


Fifteenth Century. Stephenson Clarke Collection.

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no easy matter, if we may judge from the vivid description to be found in Huon de Bordeaux, a poem concerning a Bordelais lord of the ninth century. After sundry adventures, Huon sets out on a journey to Babylon, and seeks an audience with the Emir. He tells of his arrival at what he describes as the castle, and how, after long parley with the porter, the drawbridge is let down and the great gate opened, and he finds himself in an arched way, with a series of portcullises showing their teeth overhead. After further parley, and further opening of gates, he enters a large courtyard, and goes thence into the garden, which is planted with every kind of tree, aromatic herb, and sweet-scented flower. In the garden is a fountain with its little channelled way, supplied with water from the Earthly Paradise. This description may seem a little fantastic, but it is only the poet's way of telling us what we might ourselves experience if we would go in imagination to some thirteenth- or fourteenth-century castle, and seek to gain admittance.

Sometimes the garden was within the castle fortifications. It was then necessarily circumscribed, and would, more or less, be laid out with formal pathways and stone-curbed borders, also with trees cut in various devices (a reminder of Rome's once far-reaching influence), and a tunnel or pergola of vines or sweet-scented creepers running the length of the wall to form a covered walk for shelter against sunshine or shower. But where the garden was without the fortifications, but yet within the castle enclosure, as was always the arrangement if possible, opportunity was afforded for wooded dell and flowery slope, as well as for the orchard with its special patch for herb-growing.

The herb-plot was one of the most important items in a medieval garden; for here were grown not only herbs and roots for healing, but also sweet-scented mint and thyme for mingling with the rushes strewn on the floors. Sometimes the rushes themselves were fragrant, and such, lemon-scented when crushed, may even to-day be found in the neighbourhood of Oxford, probably growing in the very place which at one time supplied many a college hall with its carpet of fresh green.

In the larger gardens might also be found labyrinths and aviaries, with bright-plumaged birds from the East. Here, too, were often enclosures for wild beasts, much prized by the lord of the castle, to whom they may have been proffered as peace-offerings, or as friendly gifts from some neighbouring lord. Strange beasts were royal gifts; for kings, we read, made such offerings to each other. Even as early as the ninth century, Haroun al Raschid sent an elephant to Charlemagne. It was brought to Aix-la-Chapelle by Isaac the Jew, and survived its long walk seven years, and it would be interesting to know by what route it journeyed thither in those days. These private zoological
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gardens may possibly account for the comparative accuracy with which the early miniaturists painted such beasts as lions, bears, and leopards, which otherwise they might have had no chance of studying.

One of the greatest delights of the garden was the bower in which the warm months were passed. Here meals were taken, and merry pastimes enjoyed, as long as daylight lasted. Hither came tumblers and dancing-girls, and sometimes performing animals. A poor captive bear would be made to stumble over the rough roads for miles in order to go through its grotesque antics before some joyous company of dames and gallants. But spring and youth was the time to be gay, and nothing came amiss to these light-hearted folk.

The bower was also the "privy playing place," and all care was taken to make its leafy screen grow close and thick. Perhaps one of the most interesting references to a green arbour—interesting because of the romance which was the cause of its mention—is in a poem by King James I. of Scotland, telling of sad years in prison, which ended in love and liberty. James, whilst still a young man, was imprisoned in Windsor Castle, and writing to solace himself with something more tangible than the mere contemplation of his beloved one, and to while away time, describes the garden with "herbere green," which he saw through the barred window of his prison-house. Leaning his head against the cold stone wall, by night he gazed at the stars, by day at the garden. And weary and woe-begone as he was, he says, "to look, it did me good."

Now there was made fast by the tower wall
A garden fair, and in the corners set
A herbere green, with wands so long and small
Railed all about: and so with trees close set
Was all the place, and hawthorn hedges knit
That no one though he were near walking by
Might there within scarce any one espy. ****** So thick the branches and the leafage green
Beshaded all the alleys that there were,
And 'midst of ev'ry herbere might be seen
The sharp and green sweet-scented juniper,
Growing so fair with branches here and there,
That, as it seemed to any one without,
The branches spread the herbere all about. ****** And on the slender green-leaved branches sat
The little joyous nightingales, and sang
So loud and clear, the carols consecrat
To faithful love.[3]

This "garden fair" was the scene of the romance which solaced this royal prisoner, and helped him to bear his irksome lot, and to be able to exclaim, after nearly eighteen years' captivity a captivity since boyhood:

Thanks be to the massive castle wall,
From which I eagerly looked forth and leant.

Looking from his window he espied, notwithstanding "hawthorne hedges" and "beshaded alleys," Lady Johanna Beaumont (whom he wedded on his release) walking in the garden. Neither poet nor historian tells how they found
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Photo. Brückmann.


To face page 185.

means to communicate with one another, but tradition, which is sometimes twin-brother to truth, has handed down the story of a go-between who conveyed missives and tokens.

In the accompanying picture we see a corner of a mediæval garden, hemmed round with castle wall. In it the artist has adapted an everyday scene to a religious purpose, by giving my lady a crown, and the baby an aureole, to suggest the Holy Mother and Child, whilst one of the gentlemen-in-waiting is provided with wings, so as to make him more in harmony with such saintly company. But this is only what might have been seen on any bright morning in late spring or summer, in some castle pleasaunce. My lady reads a book, whilst her maidens amuse themselves, one holding a psaltery on which the child tinkles, to its evident delight and wonderment; another, with a perverted sporting instinct, seems to be trying to catch fish with a ladle (note the usual little channelled way, on which a bird is perched, refreshing itself), whilst a third is picking fruit. The three squires are doubtless talking of the chase, for, in my lady's presence, love would hardly be their theme. And all around are beautiful flowers—roses, lilies, and irises. Over against the enclosing wall is the usual bank of earth, faced with wood to keep it the necessary height, and planted with many flowers. This raised portion enabled those in the garden to get a view over the surrounding country, and to have a point of outlook in case of attack. It also served as a seat; for at intervals, between the flowers and sweet-scented herbs, portions were covered with turf.

Of all the flowers in the garden the rose "red and pale" was the greatest favourite, and many different sorts were planted there. To so many purposes were they put, and so great was the demand for them, that large quantities of roses frequently served as the payment of vassals to their lord. They were used for strewing the floor at the wedding-feast, or at the entertaining of some great baron. The fresh petals were sprinkled over the surface of the water in the bath, and were distilled to make the rose-water with which the knights and ladies washed their hands and faces when they left their much-curtained beds. Further, they were specially prized for garlands, the making of which was one of the favourite occupations of the ladies of the Middle Ages. Dante, who sums up the spirit of the Middle Ages from the simplest reality to the sublimest ideal, alludes to garlands and garland-making as amongst the joys of the Earthly Paradise. In his poet's vision of the pageant of the Church Militant he sees the last company wreathed with red roses, emblems to him of Charity or Love. Boccaccio, in a more mundane atmosphere and a less august assemblage, also introduces us to this mediæval love of garlands. In a preamble to one of his tales he gives a dainty picture of the manners and pastimes of the gay folk of his day. Of the merry
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Photo. Macbeth.

Harl. MS. 4425, Brit. Mus.

To face page 186.

company, which his fancy makes to quit plague-stricken Florence for the country, where they tell stories to prevent monotony, he relates that, after dining in the cool shade, and before the story-telling begins, "the gentlemen walked with the ladies into a goodly garden, making chaplets and nosegays of divers flowers, and singing silently to themselves." Both sexes wore them on festive occasions, and in summer young girls wore no head-covering save a garland. The knight at the tournament decked his helm with a chaplet of some chosen flower, deftly woven by the fair one in whose name he made venture; and many a merry company, wreathed with flowers or foliage, rode forth on May-day, with trumpets and flutes, to celebrate the festival.

Another favourite flower for garlands was the cornflower, as we learn from the poets, who tell of ladies dancing the carole (a popular dance in which all moved slowly round in a circle, singing at the same time), their heads crowned with garlands of cornflower. Violets and periwinkles, and meadow flowers, white, red, and blue, were also gathered to indulge this pretty fancy.

The gillyflower is another flower frequently mentioned. This name has been applied to various flowers, but originally it belonged to the carnation, and was used for such in Shakespeare's time. In the Roman de la Rose it is called the gillyflower-clove, thus definitely defining it. One of its virtues, according to an old writer, was "to comfort the spirites by the sence of smelling," and also "to be of much use in ornament." But indeed most flowers were not only used for chaplets, and for strewing on the floor, but were also painted on the chamber walls, and embroidered on the hangings, to serve in winter days as sweet memories and as sweeter hopes.

Apparently the earliest records of gardens, after Roman times, date from the ninth century, and are mostly to be found amongst monastic archives. A garden was an important, and even essential, annex of a monastery, not only because of the "herbularis" or physic garden, from the herbs of which the monks compounded salves and potions for the wounded knight or the plundered wayfarer who might take shelter within its protecting walls, but also because of the solace which the shady trees and the gay flowers brought to the sick, for a monastery was generally a hospital as well. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, speaking of an abbey garden, gives a charming picture of one of these cloistered pleasaunces for the sick and the aged. He says:

Within the enclosure of this wall many and various trees, prolific in various fruits, constitute an orchard resembling a wood, which, being near the cell of the sick, lightens the infirmities of the brethren with no moderate solace, while it affords a spacious walking place to those who walk and a sweet place for reclining to those who are overheated. Where the orchard terminates the garden begins. Here also a beautiful spectacle is exhibited to the infirm brethren: while they sit upon the green margin of the huge basin, they see the little fishes playing under the water and representing a military encounter by swimming to meet each other.

This warlike note seems strange and almost discordant in the midst of the peace of the cloister; but many, before seeking shelter there, had been doughty knights, and St. Bernard, man of the world as he was, would realise that even this mimic warfare might bring diversion to their tranquil seclusion.

What a contrast to all this joy in the Middle Ages in gardens and flowers are the sober reflections of Marcus Aurelius! Philosopher as he was, he would have us learn from plants the lesson of cause and effect, the continuity of life. He says:

The destruction of one thing is the making of another; and that which subsists at present is, as it were, the seed of succession, which springs from it. But if you take seed in the common notion, and confine it to the field or the garden, you have a dull fancy.

It is with a sense of relief that we turn from the thoughts which a garden suggests to this stoic, to those not less profound, though perhaps more simple, of a Chinese writer of the fourth century:

Ah, how short a time it is that we are here! Why then not set our hearts at rest, ceasing to trouble whether we remain or go? What boots it to wear out the soul with anxious thoughts? Let me stroll through the bright hours as they pass in my garden among my flowers.

Printed by R. & R. Clark, Limited, Edinburgh.

  1. The quotations from the Roman de la Rose are taken from Mr. F. S. Ellis's translation, published by Messrs. J. M. Dent & Co. in the "Temple Classics."
  2. J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, 1906.
  3. King's Quair, verse 31 seq.