Urban gardens in medieval cities
The typical view of medieval life is of poverty and subsistence living. A world in which peasants scratched a living from patches of soil while aristocrats lived off their work. In fact, although medieval life could be hard, it was not without pleasure and beauty, and during the medieval period, the modern pleasure garden gradually developed.
Having gardens for pleasure was not a Medieval innovation, of course. There are records of such gardens in antiquity, where ancient Greeks or Romans relaxed in landscaped areas. And while the idea of maintaining a garden may have remained beyond the reach of the poorest, it became increasingly common during the Middle Ages.
Medieval pleasure gardens started, broadly speaking, with religion and royalty. Monasteries maintained herb gardens and vegetable plots, providing medicine and food. And for the noble classes, the garden was a symbol of power. Being able to maintain land purely for leisure was a powerful display of their wealth.
Of course, space — and money — in cities was at more of a premium. But even then, a city centre would appear almost rural to modern eyes. With small populations, the middle classes could afford good-sized plots of land within the city walls.
Medieval trade was also expanding, bringing with it increased wealth and less need for self-sufficiency. By the 15th century, gardening had become a pastime for the middle-classes. The planting would still have been largely practical, growing seasonal produce, and planting trees and vines for their fruit. But there was increasingly a trend towards gardening for its aesthetic and leisure value.
Girona Cathedral gardens
El Museu d’Història dels Jueus courtyard, Girona
Indeed, as the period progressed gardening rivalry started, with neighbours seeking to outdo one another. With trade routes spreading around the world, and seeds and bulbs becoming a commodity, there was competition to cultivate rarer and more exotic plants. The private garden was slowly moving from being a functional plot of land, feeding a family, to an indicator of status.
With the increasing use of the garden for display purposes, gardeners paid more attention to landscaping. Medieval gardens were a mix of practical garden design and geometric layouts. Emulating monastic gardening trends, city gardens would tend to be laid in aligned rows, regardless of the flower or crop, and consist of squares for each use. Many would not look dissimilar to chessboards, with squares of vegetables, flowers, and herbs neatly laid out.
There would be other ornamental, but practical, touches. Raised turf seats, for example, might sit around the walls, but these would also provide a base for planting that did not risk being waterlogged. Larger gardens would include trees, usually with the dual purpose of providing shade and fruit. Some would even boast water features with ponds that could be stocked with fish, providing both amusement and food for the owner.
The late medieval city garden might look a little unusual compared to today’s trends, but if transplanted to today, most people would think little of it. By the time the Middle Ages came to an end, the modern concept of a garden was firmly established.