The Landscape Guide

Castle gardens in the middle ages

It was not only in the great monasteries that people cared for roses and other flowers. Even a hundred years later much of the joy in feast and garden appears in the poems of Fortunatus. The French kings were concerned to lay out lovely gardens. Ultrogote, wife of Childeric I., was famous for the rose-garden she had planted by her palace. The garden at the old royal castle at St. Germain had a great reputation.

But in the stormy days of the next centuries the haughty nobles had to relinquish many of their gentler manners and customs. They were compelled by the unrest and insecurity of those days to strengthen their places, and contract them into a smaller compass. Nothing remained of the fine buildings of Bishop Sidonius’ time except the defensive parts of the walls and the towers of the keep, the stronghold with its dependent farm-buildings about the inner court. The noble owners were obliged to build their castles on almost inaccessible mountain-tops, where there was very little space, or else down in the plain with wide moats; and in neither case was there room to have a garden. Moreover there was not much inclination for peaceful cultivation of the ground, and the men brought in from the chase everything that was wanted in the kitchen.

In spite of all this, however, the garden was not entirely absent from the old castles. 

The ladies were the gardeners, for they had been taught by monks how to plant healing herbs among their vegetables, so that they not only got extra dishes and green food for the table, but were also able to help the sick and wounded in castle or village. In the season of flowers, they enjoyed the beauty of many colours, and the gay young people no doubt used to weave garlands for themselves and their companions. The garden was put near the windows of the women’s quarters, so as to be under the eye of the lady of the castle. It was good to see the garden from above, for it lay like a many-coloured carpet, small and delightful to behold. It was not often possible to walk straight out from the women’s rooms into the garden, which was generally set apart and enclosed, and they went out of the house by a “very narrow” door (Fig. 128).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Quite as often the garden was close to the mansion, with a staircase leading down to it, as in the garden where the lady Iwein was wont to stroll. So too we find the charming garden of lilies and fountain in the picture of “Civitas Dei,” enclosed near the belfry (Fig. 130).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 Places of the sort are also to be found in the French castles of the Middle Ages, like Vincennes (Fig. 129).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

 Boccaccio (and Geoffrey Chaucer following him) allows the fair Emily to wander around in the garden right under the eyes of the prisoners in the keep. Of course we have scarcely any information about the planting of castle gardens in the early Middle Ages, but about the year 1000 Notker tells of “flower gardens where roses, marigolds, and violets grow.”

At an early date tree-gardens are mentioned also, and we hear of their being enclosed by a wall—” round the tree-garden goes a very high wall,” or "before the house a tree-garden lay, and round it a high hedge.” The tree-garden which is described by Hartmann von der Aue in Erec has neither fence nor water, neither walls nor trenches, and is simply a garden of enchanted. beauty, like the one in Laurin’s Rose- Garden, which has only a silken cord instead of a wall for protection. (This pretty idea, however, seems to show that some wall was necessary.)

The garden of trees was the special "pleasaunce” of the Middle Ages, the pleasure-ground. Fruit-bearing trees came first, but we know, from Charlemagne’s Capitulare and from the trees in the burial-ground at St. Gall, that it was not only fruit-trees that were planted, but a medley of trees desired for their shade and their beauty. The Latin fable, called “ Ecbasis Captivi,” describes a noble garden wherein grew an oak among flowers and herbs: it gave its shade to the sick king, and a pure clear stream flowed purling through the garden.

In Parsifal there are found in the Schlossberg garden, together with the fairest flowers, fig-trees, pomegranates, olives, and vines. And what a part does the lime-tree play, especially in Germany! It is not confined to the tree-garden, but is also the glory of the castle court with a lawn and a fountain. It is the proper tree for social life and parties, and it also stands out in the pasture-lands. Its branches are extended widely, supported on pillars, with a seat below; often there are benches actually in the boughs; sometimes the whole tree is surrounded by a barrier, as we still see it round the lime-tree at Michelstadt.

n the garden itself people liked best to sit on the smooth turf seats, which mostly ran along the walls and were either propped up with bricks or stood alone (Fig. 131).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


In the same way they sat about at games or in conversation, or for weaving wreaths. They sat on the grass (Fig. 132), for here the flowers were not set out in beds, but grew scattered about anywhere on the grass.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


As early as the tenth century there is a Psalter which shows the meeting of the two Maries with Christ in a flower-meadow of this kind, and they tread on a fine carpet of growing flowers.

At a later time they were not content to have only one garden, but had several, separated  from one another by lattices or gates. In the Roman de la Rose we have a pretty picture of separated gardens (Fig. 133).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


In the middle of the flowery part is the fountain, which keeps the lawn from getting dry and bare; out of the tank starts a narrower canal, which waters the rest of the garden, and flows out through a trellised gap in the wall. Behind an avenue of trees a trellis overgrown with roses is seen in the background. Yet another separates this garden from the next, which is full of flower-beds. These are mostly bordered by stone walls, as in the Brussels picture (Fig. 138); but in the David picture (Fig. 149) there is only a little wooden paling to border the earth. The paths between the beds were hard and sanded, very nicely and evenly kept. When indeed the garden was to be particularly ornamental, the beds had tiles round them, as we can see in the charming little garden beside the dwelling of St. Hieronymus in the Brussels picture (Fig. 138). In this miniature we also see that there is a clipped tree in one of the beds, and a little well in another. Very frequently these trees were set in the middle of flower-beds, and cut so as to make three wreaths (Fig. 134). This favourite form was used for the tree at the Festival of Spring on May Day, and artificial fruits were hung on the crowns as an attraction to the dancers (Fig. 135).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


The arbour is of very great importance in the gardens of the Middle Ages. It was known to the ancients in the form of a pergola or trellis-work, covered with green, possibly supported on posts, and very attractive, but in gardens of that early date not so necessary; for the portico gave a convenient shelter against sun or bad weather in the larger gardens, and in the smaller ones at private houses there were generally buildings all round. But now the garden was mostly a thing set apart, and needed a real shelter in the open: roses and honeysuckle covered every sort of arbour and kept off the hot sun (Fig. 136).
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


A very slightly-built summer-house was enough in which to hide with a faithful lover. Also the walk leading to these bowers could be used to stroll about in (Fig. 139). A rose-tree was often grown “so broad and thick that it can give its shade to twelve knights together; wound round evenly and bent into a hoop, yet taller than a man; under the same thorny bush there is golden mullein and lovely grass."

There were other and more substantial summer-houses like those known to the ancients, so that it was possible to eat and sleep in them, as in Pliny’s little arbour at the hippodrome. The poet Lydgate seems to have been thinking of that kind as the scene of the adventure in The Nightingale. It was in a garden with flowers and grass all round, and shady trees. This garden was entered by the little narrow door mentioned before, and was placed in front of the knight’s house, “ where the air is better and fresher than elsewhere,” There “ the host has built a high arbour to sit in every day in summer time; when he eats, he finds the food tastes very good.” Meals in the open (Fig. 137) were extremely popular. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


The Brussels picture shows a strongly made arbour, open to the air, and the scholar who is studying there can go for a change down into the front garden by a small flight of steps, 2nd there sit awhile on the stone stool, and carry on his learned meditations (Fig. 138).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Another feature appears very early in the gardens of the period, and this, too, was meant for retreat or for domestic enjoyment—the maze or so-called labyrinth. When this first found its way into gardens is uncertain. The name carries us back to the palace of Minos at Crete: the story goes, that no one could find the way out of its numerous rooms without a guide, and in common speech the Greeks used the word in that sense. The symbol for it was a figure like a circle or a hexagon, within which were a great many lines crossing each other, and arriving at a point in the middle from which they led out again to the circum ference. At Pompeii, for instance, there is a sign of this sort, and beneath it the words, “ Hic habitat Minotaurus."

In the early Middle Ages the Christian churches adopted the same figure as a symbol, and it was marked in stone on the floor of a church and used by penitents. But we are far from sure as to the date when these mazes appeared in gardens. In one kind there were paths between hedges taller than a man, so that anyone wandering about and taking a wrong turn could not see over and set himself right.

We first hear of a labyrinth in England in connection with Henry II., who is said to have hidden the Fair Rosamond, his beloved, in the woodland retreat at Woodstock; but the earliest authorities of the fourteenth century only speak of a "House of Daedalus,” where he kept her hidden away. But at this time the garden labyrinth cannot have been unknown. We learn that when the English envoy, Bedford, had the Hôtel des Tournelles in Paris replanted to make room for his huge elms, he “ had to have the hedges of a labyrinth, called the House of Daedalus, taken up.” Later on, no large garden was complete without its labyrinth, and in the design of any ground-plan the pattern of the old pre Christian maze was for a long time preserved.


Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see