The Landscape Guide

Romance of the Rose - and Gardens

[Extracts from the Romance of the Rose are on the CD]

Shakespeare and turf seats
Garden of  Love
Albertus Magnus and medicinal garden plants

Even earlier than Guillaume de Lorris the scene of several Latin and French love tales was laid in a garden, but it was his Romaunt of the Rose that fixed and incorporated the traditional descriptions, in which successors scarcely ever made any alteration even in details. It matters but little that (in accordance with the feeling of the time in Western poetry) not only the individual persons who act a part in this dream-romance are allegorical figures, and must be regarded as personified qualities, but the different parts of the garden are intended to have an allegorical meaning. The description itself adopts the purely traditional form, but all the same it is realistic; and whether we are reading one of the ancient descriptions, or this, the earliest in the vulgar tongue, the type remains the same. [See extracts from the Romance of the Rose]

The medieval garden fountain has to be the centre of the piece. It is as clear as crystal, its waters flowing over silver pebbles, ever fresh and always glistening. In Guillaume de Lorris’s poem, Romance of the Rose, there is a well of peculiar importance (Fig. 141), that has on its edge two crystals, which show all the colours of the rainbow when the sun goes down. (In Eustathius it is the variety of colours in the marble columns which cause the reflection in the water.) 

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


Guillaume de Lorris says one of the crystals is a magic mirror, so that you can see half the garden in it, and if you look up, there is the same picture to be seen again. Achilles Tatius once described it in a far more realistic fashion, saying that the mirror of the square tank was so bright that you saw the whole garden in duplicate

But Guillaume de Lorris, in spite of his touches of magic, is thoroughly realistic in other respects; and although the wall too is painted in the colours of allegory, it is still a real garden wall with a little entrance gate. It encloses a garden which is a perfect square, fine trees overlook it, and in them birds sing beautiful songs. The trees are set at exactly equal distances, they are tall, and their tops are interwoven so that no sun-rays can get through. Squirrels play about in the branches, and on the thick grass. Clear streams, and wells that have no frogs in them, are here, and the banks are made pretty by brightly-coloured grasses and lovely flowers. The special features are as true to type as ever, though it may be that now and again the towers for defence are planted round with roses (Fig. 142).

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


When the garden poet can sing no further praises, he tries to enhance the effect by exalting it all into the infinite, though he confesses that words fail him to describe the beauties of Paradise. But he will not have his account too meagre, and so borrows once more from ancient story, and gives an endless series of trees and flowers. 

Virgil supplies a long list, and Ovid too; and the later classical gardening authors have a real passion for such lists: Seneca, Lucan, Statius, Claudian, all accept the same with hardly any changes, and clearly indicate the path whereby Guillaume de Lorris proceeds to re-spin the thread and give it to us again. So if we are familiar with one garden only, we find we know them all, whether they are in French imitations or come from England, where this story was most influential.

It is easy to see that Chaucer in his Romaunt as well as Lydgate in his Love’s Chess-(Cheker)board (which is very like a translation) gives the garden-part word for word. 

So when Chaucer, in his Assembly of Fowls, steps into that wonderful garden, he begins with the same list of trees, quite unconcerned as to whether English soil can produce them, and goes on to the usual twists and turns of the old pattern. But still, now and then there are fresh features, independently observed. In William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, for instance, he says that the garden was large, that all the paths were shaded by flowering branches, and that the turf seats were new, and all the walks strewn with sand (Fig. 143). 

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


Turf seats must have had to be renewed often, for they are soon worn out. Again in the delicious English poem of perhaps a later period, The Flower and the Leaf, there is an arbour like a room. The roof and walls are cut out of a hedge, as thick as a castle wall, and quite even, “ as smooth as a plank”; the seats inside are newly turfed with thick, short, freshly cut grass.

These traditional descriptions did not immediately further the ends of horticulture, but indirectly they exercised an important influence, because of their illustrations. Artists could not attempt much from the ordinary general descriptions given in the books that they were to adorn with miniatures, and they could not seek refuge in the poets’ subterfuge, that the beauty of their subject was beyond all words; so they took actually existing gardens as models. We owe our clearest conceptions of the gardens of this period to the miniatures painted for the Romaunt of the Rose and its imitations, and also for the prayer-books, which in the North maintained the traditional forms of the Middle Ages right through the whole of the fifteenth century. The love-gardens of the painter answer to the love- visions of the poet, and (‘without being exact illustrations of these) provide garden back grounds for love scenes and for merry parties. In Orcagna’s “ Trionfo della Morte “ in the Campo Santo at Pisa, the gentlemen and ladies—whose sturdy love of life is so very near to death—are seated on stone seats under a wall in the shade of lovely trees (Fig. 144).

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


Almost a hundred years later, near the middle of the fifteenth century, there is a copperplate engraving (one of the very earliest known) which represents a Garden of Love as in part an open pasture or perhaps a flowery meadow, in the middle of a park with a brook running through it. The people sitting on the grass have railings to lean against, and the centre piece is a hexagonal table with refreshments laid out (Fig. 145).
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 There is another table like it in the beautiful garden where the Queen of Heaven is sitting, deep in her book, on a chair beside the table (Fig. 146), while high above at the back of her are lovely lilies, roses, and irises; her attendants are happy in the garden, some with wings and some without, playing with the child Jesus who sits on the flowery mead, or carrying fruits in woven baskets, or drawing water from a marble trough; others are discussing philosophy. A high white battlemented wall hides the heavenly company from profane eyes.

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


Another result of the close alliance with Eastern civilisation was the awakening of the desire for knowledge in the Christian world. Moorish Spain was now friendly with the lands of the North, because it had become customary for learned men to study medicine and mathematics at the Spanish universities. A good knowledge of plants was one of the first necessities for medicine, of course, and in the thirteenth century Albertus Magnus was the true pioneer, with a scientific work on the kingdom of plants; and though many fantastic errors are mixed in with some of the details, this study did lead him to the original sources of learning in the East. He had moreover seen a great many things, and observed them to good purpose, and had made all sorts of experiments in his own garden.

The most remarkable story about his gardening art is told by the chronicler de Beka in the middle of the fourteenth century. On 6 January, 1249, he says, King William II. of Holland (King of the Romans) was travelling through Cologne, and Albertus Magnus received him in his monastery and made him a great feast. He caused the utmost amazement among his guests, because in mid-winter he was able to show them in the cloister garden fruit-trees bearing ripe fruit, and other flowering growths, which he had brought out by the application of gentle heat.

How far this tale rests on firm foundations it is hard to say after the lapse of centuries; but it is not impossible that Albertus Magnus had learned from the ancients (or still more likely from Oriental sources) how plants could be artificially trained, and had been fortunate in his experiments. At that time Cologne enjoyed a great reputation for skill with flowers and gardens. Cathedrals (as well as archbishops) owned magnificent gardens. Engelbert II. at his estate at Bonn kept lovely grounds, where he had not only a large cage for lions, but also many unusual plants. How great was the general interest of the burgher- folk in these, is shown by the following anecdote: Engelbert in 1258 had quarrelled with the city, and had to flee to Bonn, but his councillors were clever enough so to infatuate the foe with accounts of the magnificent plants in the Bonn gardens, that they were trapped by the offer of a peaceable inspection, and paid for the gratification of their fancy by the loss of their freedom.