The Landscape Guide

Oriental influence on medieval gardens

In the twelfth century the art of gardening took a most important step forward, for the whole spiritual life of the West was astonishingly uplifted. We are now at the time of the crusades (1095-1291). Christian soldiery beheld Eastern gardens of a splendour beyond their wildest dreams. Medieval poets listened to their tales, and from now onward they sang of the East, which was the darling theatre for the adventurous knight-errant. Gladly do we try to depict these distant scenes, and the tale of Herzog Ernst is pleasant enough:

Near by they came to a valley in a garden near the hall; it was very roomy, and therein stood many cedar-trees rich in leafy bowers; they found two rivulets also that rose there and flowed through the grounds, winding as they pleased, and as the master had planned who made all by his skill. They found a bath too, bright and clean, wrought of green marble, well walled in and overhung with fifty high branches; the streams were brought therein by silver channels. Much water ran out in silvery course from the thicket, and flowed around the castle, in straight or curving line around the whole castle. All the paths were of white marble, all bridges made where men should walk.

Such things as are here described modestly enough (and plainly based on observation of what was found at home with the mere extra ornament of cedar-trees, precious metals and marble) were as a matter of fact painted in far richer colours in the accounts that the envoys brought back as eyewitnesses of all the magnificence in the houses of the caliphs, hitherto anxiously concealed from strangers and foreigners. Of course. Oriental influence, at any rate Byzantine, had already left some traces, as e.g. in Charlemagne’s work at Aix, where the pineapple fountain—which in the first instance was placed in front of the royal palace at Aix, spurting out water between its leaves—was in fact a direct imitation of the same thing at the king’s palace garden at Byzantium. Charles owed to his friendly relations with the Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid the possession of certain curious plants, which he first acclimatised in his garden by the palace court, and then inserted into the Capitulare as an addition to the list.

The embassies sent to the Byzantine court were henceforth very numerous. In the year 968 the Bishop Liutprand of Cremona saw the imperial palace at Constantinople, and gave a detailed account (already mentioned) of the throne with the golden tree and the singing birds, which later, in the thirteenth century, made such a deep impression on the poetry of the West. 

In the year 1167 the whole German Embassy was received in audience by the sultan at Bagdad, and its members were only too sad that they were so quickly rushed through these scenes of magnificence. But still they did see the open courts with pillars, and walls adorned with fretwork, and golden garlands hanging between them. They admired the costly mosaic of the floors, the splashing fountains in crystal basins, the animal-cages with strange foreign beasts, and the wonderful birds with brilliant feathers.

The domain of Frederick II., extending from Southern Italy to Germany, must have felt the effects of the East more than any other country. We hear that he had hanging gardens on the buttresses of his palace at Nuremberg, and also a park (destroyed in 1494). These things betray the Oriental influence. Frederick always encouraged horticulture, of which he was very fond, and he insisted that his procurators and counsellors for the Crown lands should supervise the gardens and the castles, and should see to the nurture of the foreign plants that he had acquired through his alliances with Saracens and Spaniards.

Nothing seems to have interested the poets so much as the story of the golden tree, of which we have seen traces so often in Asiatic gardens. In Woifdietrich there is a detailed description of this tree, which by now had become a linden, adorned with precious stones: “ right through the trunk passed three golden pipes, which gave out the sweet voices of full many birds, and thereto two little trumpets made with all diligence.” Again in Titurel the Castle of the Grail has a golden tree with singing birds; by its side stand four golden angels, making a fine gesture with one hand, and holding a sackbut in the other. Who could fail to recognise an Arabian picture here?

When artificial music has once made a start in mediaeval poetry, every single thing has to produce a sound—first the vine-shoots, then birds, which (in the Rose-Garden, by Laurin) are actually to be found astray in the helmet-crests of great enchanters. Even the lions of the imperial throne at Byzantium make their roaring heard in the German poet’s woods, as e.g. in the Krone of Heinrich von dem Tuerlin, Laurin introduces other ornaments of Arabia into his Rose-Garden, crowning the roses with precious stones, which peer out from the green foliage. This was all only enchantment, which can scarcely have been imported from actually existing gardens; but on the other hand it was probably through Oriental influences that costly baths were set up in the gardens, found very often in the pictures of the time (Fig. 139). 

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It was now a matter of necessity for ladies to refresh themselves by bathing their feet before a meal (Fig. 140).
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In the first half of the thirteenth century garden description received a fresh impulse in France from the Romaunt of the Rose of Guillaume de Lorris, and with this story he gave the form of the love romance to the later Middle Ages. The theatre of the love-scene proper is the garden, just as it had been in old Greek romances. And when we remember how frequent was the interchange of Byzantine and Western literature, and how the Byzantine romance borrowed its subjects from the Western Hero- Sagas, and dressed them in its own raiment, it is surely more than natural that, vice versa, the West should now become the theatre for love romances, for which the East has lent its traditional garden.