...in which I share some of my favorite medieval research resources and methods for the benefit of others interested in also writing about the Middle Ages

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Medieval Gardens

When plotting out my novel, Loyalty’s Web, there came a time when I wanted an exchange between my hero and heroine to take place in a castle garden. I had just recently purchased a book entitled Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, and although my novel was set in a portion of France called Poitou, I worked on the assumption that, as far as medieval gardens went, castles gardens in medieval France were unlikely to be significantly different from castle gardens in medieval England.

Medieval English Gardens is chock full of information on gardens in the Middle Ages…their history, their variety (monastic vs. city vs. castle/manor gardens), and descriptions you can draw on to create your very own, imaginary medieval garden for your novel or short story.

As I’ve stated before, my purpose with this bog is not to review research books in detail, but to share with you how I used a particular book for my particular needs in writing Loyalty’s Web. For the purposes of my scene, I knew I did not need information on monastic or city/town gardens, so I turned immediately to “Castle, Palace and Manor Gardens” (Medieval English Gardens, beginning on p. 89). Within this chapter, I limited my research to those sections which dealt with gardens from “the period of the Conquest to the late fourteenth century”, since that was the time range in which my novel was set. (In other words, why read the chapter on “Late Medieval Pleasure Gardens”, until I decide to set a novel in that particular time period? I may read more just for “fun”, but for research purposes, I prefer to focus on information that pertains most immediately to the time and setting my novels are placed in.)

Here are some of the things I learned from the above chapter and sections, which I was then able to weave into my scene (and I do recommend using a red pencil or high lighter, to make quick reference easier when rechecking one’s facts—and regardless of what your mother told you about writing in books, don’t be afraid to make notes in the margins! They’ll be worth their weight in gold to you later.):

“The fact that they used turf lawns [in gardens] does not mean that they were bare of flowers. They may have been planted with small flowers—violets, daisies and periwinkles, to make the ‘flowery meads’ so beloved in the Middle Ages.” (Medieval English Gardens, p 94)

“Apart from the orchards and vineyards which were outside the walls of many castles, it was usual for there to be either no gardens at all in a castle or else just pleasure gardens.” (Medieval English Gardens, p. 96)

One castle built “a dove-house at the corner of the herb garden….its purpose was to enhance the herb garden’s pleasant appeal, for the cooing of doves was a popular medieval delight full of symbolic importance for romantic and religious love.” (Medieval English Gardens, p. 105)

“Gardens were walled, fenced, hedged and palisaded…so there was a good deal of stonework, carpentry, hedge-making, locksmithing and painting to be done in the making of them, and more of the same in the making of their mounds, fountains, benches, railings, paths and raised beds. (Medieval English Gardens, p. 106)

This information, combined with information on rose gardens in the section on” Medieval Roses and Rose Gardens” (pp. 164-171) under the chapter, “Many a Fresh and Sundry Flower”, culminated in the following two paragraphs in Loyalty’s Web (p. 146)

A shaft of sunshine broke through the hovering clouds and the roses danced their tangled heads against the breeze in what remained of the Lady Gwenllian's pleasure garden. Though spared devastation from the siege by its remoteness from the curtain walls, it had nevertheless been much neglected these eighteen months while rebuilding had gone forward in the outer bailey. The stables, the barracks, the forge, all had had to be raised again almost from scratch, so thorough a job had Gunthar's fiery missiles done. The orchard and herb garden had been maintained for their usefulness to the castle's occupants, but save for mending the dovecot, damaged by a winter storm, Laurant had insisted the roses would have to wait.

The bushes had grown shaggy and tall, climbing over the low, enclosing walls, and would have choked off the gate had Heléne not kept a path well pruned. She loved it here in the wild bower it had become, where no one ever seemed to venture but she. She did not mind that the benches were peeling, that the flowery mead had become a confusion of disordered weeds, or that the fountain had gone dry. The trill of the nearby doves usually soothed her nerves while she plied her needlework or immersed herself in one of the rare books she cajoled her father into buying. But on this grey, dismal morning both lay neglected, the former on the dusty plank beside her, the latter in her lap.

With the treasure trove of information on medieval gardens contained in Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, you, too can create a perfect (or even, as in Loyalty’s Web’s case, an imperfect) garden for your medieval characters to enjoy!

Sadly, as is the case with many of my favorite research books, Medieval English Gardens no longer appears to be in print. It can be worth the search for a used copy, though. I have found copies listed on the following sites (a little Googling will lead you to further options):




(United Kingdom)

(United Kingdom)

Next time: Medieval English Gardens, by Teresa McLean, Part II. I’ve only scratched the surface of the usefulness of this book, so be sure to return to medieval research with joyce in two weeks!

Note: Speaking of which, due to a scheduling conflict, beginning in two weeks I will be posting new blogs on this site on the first and third Thursdays, instead of Wednesdays, of each month. My next post will appear February 21st.

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