The Landscape Guide

Town gardens in the Middle Ages

Public parks in the Middle Ages
Italian gardens

In medieval towns it was not only the great nobles who set store by beautiful gardens The burghers began more and more to care about gardens. Every now and again there is heard some very early rumour bearing on this subject, as for example about the praise given to gardens in the city of Paris by the Emperor Julian when he was on his journey to the North. The particular commendation is due to the fact that Parisians used to keep vines and figs round their houses, and protected them through the winter with coverings of straw. But this is an exception, for it is not till quite late that we hear of any horticulture in the Northern towns. 

At first gardens were just vegetable plots in front of the town walls, and the produce was sold in the horticultural  markets. In 1345 the private gardeners of the great nobles and gentlemen of London had a quarrel with the alderman, because the noise of the market at St. Paul’s Churchyard annoyed the inhabitants and passers-by. Naturally there arose at an early date a trade guild of gardeners. A Roman document is known (1030) about a Gardeners’ Company, and at that time the Northern towns were not much behind Italy. Fruit orchards and vineyards were carefully laid out and kept up, and any injury done to them was severely punished. Indeed, after the peace of 1187 anyone in the Kingdom of Germany who injured orchards or vines suffered the same penalty as for arson—proscription and excommunication.

Inside, the towns developed very slowly from want of space; and it was only when they were attached to the larger houses that one found more important gardens, taken from the space for building (Fig. 147).

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 Sometimes medieval town dwellers were able to have small gardens in the streets alongside the wall, or at the side of houses which faced towards the river, as so often in Paris with the more important houses. They had more freedom in the suburbs (Fig. 148).
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 Thomas à Becket’s biographers William FitzStephen, shows himself full of pride over the surroundings of medieval London. On all sides, he says, outside the houses of the citizens who live in the suburbs, there are gardens planted with trees, very spacious and most pleasant to the eye.

Still earlier Landulf describes the beauty of Milan, and though, to be sure, this is rather a matter of imperial buildings, a castle, a play-house, and hot springs, he particularly praises the gardens, "green as God's Paradise, beautiful with lovely trees arranged in divers ways.”

The gardens of village houses in the Middle Ages naturally developed in a finer way and at an earlier date than those in towns. In the songs of wandering minstrels we often hear of the peasant’s garden. There was generally a plot of ground in front of the house, serving hospitable ends. Peasants met there as in an arbour to drink together, and the plot at the back was used for kitchen stuff.

It is a more important matter, that from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward the towns laid out public parks, where people of leisure could meet and enjoy themselves. Near the end of the thirteenth century the public grounds in Florence were getting larger, and a statute of 1290 orders the extension of the “pratum commune” . This plan was carried out four years later by the purchase of old houses which were then pulled down. The name has remained in the Via del Prato, At the same time it was quite the usual thing in Tuscany for the smaller towns also to have some of their streets laid out as promenades; and a statute ordering a Prato for Siena in 1309 shows what was aimed at in these public walks. It says that they are first of all meant to increase the beauty of the town, as a pleasure resort for the inhabitants and for foreigners: Siena ought to have places of the kind like other towns where they have been made and presented by the merchant class, in order that strangers coming from outside can enjoy the amenities of the city. The Prato before the Porta Camollia was laid out in the same spirit, and a place of this kind was bound to have a pretty large circumference, for annual markets were held there, and also reviews and horse fairs.

The name indicates that it was chiefly wide meadow flats traversed by shady avenues, but it must have also included other places of an ornamental kind, and in 1297 the Florentines decided to add a large artificial lake. Also the Prato della Valle at Padua shows by its size even now that it must have been a sort of public park or common for the townspeople. Still the style of the central ornamentation which we see nowadays was only adopted in 1770, for in that neo-classical period it was made on purpose in the shape of a perfect oval, in reference to the Colosseum as model. The plantation in the middle, adorned with statues, makes one think of the plane-grove at Sparta, because of the moat that runs round it (Euripus), crossed by four bridges which are also decorated with outdoor statues.

Again in the Prado at Madrid and the Prater at Vienna, both name arid style have preserved for us examples of the public pleasure-gardens enjoyed by the townspeople in the Middle Ages. The first public garden in Paris was in the district of St. Germain des Prés, and bore the name of “ Le Pré aux Clercs.” The wealthy townsmen of Paris used to meet there in early days.

A great advance in the development of gardens for the people is due to establishing Brotherhoods, both lay and clerical. They were highly approved of by the great of both kinds, and were constantly remembered in rich legacies and gifts. One Florentine document of 1208 tells of a present of three pieces of land "nel corte di Ganglandi ai poveri,” and from then onwards there are a great many documents of the sort. Though in these cases we are once more dealing almost exclusively with useful gardens whose produce was to be bestowed on the poor, it is still the fact that the Brotherhood of Archers (in Northern France and Belgium) were very helpful in the promotion of horticulture. The character of these Brotherhoods was half military and half religious: their patron was St. Sebastian, and naturally they were in high favour with the rich and great, for whom they trained good marksmen; and by them they were endowed with valuable privileges. They built fine club-houses with large gardens, and had their shooting-stands set up in them, and it soon came about that the rest of the townsmen assembled there for recreation and amusement. At Boulogne a place of the kind with shooting stands was called “Courtils aux pauvres” —a similar expression to the one mentioned before in the Florentine document—and here we must take it for granted that there was a garden for the people. 

Other sports grounds were provided, and especially for ball games, which developed in the fifteenth century, chiefly in England. Later they spread all over the Continent in the form of football, croquet, and lawn tennis, and when people had more room these games were introduced into private gardens with properly laid-out squares and courts.

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Although in the thirteenth century it was as yet impossible to say that any one of the western European countries strikingly excelled the others in gardening, in the fourteenth Italian gardens are clearly in the lead. Italian  towns began to show more and more a spiritual and political independence, and among them stands Florence, growing with marvellous speed. The historian Villani, fired by the splendour of the Jubilee Year 1300, which assembled round the Pope all the nations of Christendom, made up his mind to write the story of his own town and bring it up to date. This he did in the proud consciousness that his native Florence was a rising city, whereas Rome was declining. In the wonderful picture he gives of the flourishing condition of the town, country houses and gardens play no unimportant part. He says that there is scarcely one Florentine, gentle or simple, who has not a finer house in the suburbs than in the city itself; he adds, to be sure, that they are sometimes foolishly extravagant and expensive. The suburbs of Florence became so wonderful to look at that a stranger who had never lived there and was coming in from outside, might mistake the costly palaces, the towers, the walled gardens, for the actual city itself.

In these rich men’s villas the talk was no longer of vegetable plots with fine produce, but little by little there grew up the idea of a truly artistic garden fit for princes and nobles. The councilor and learned explorer Petrus Crescentius of Bologna was writing his great book about husbandry almost contemporaneously with Villani. Herein he draws a sharp distinction between the small gardens of from two to four yokes, and those of kings and other rich men. The first are merely for use, and their produce should not go beyond the Geoponica and other ancient writings: a hedge of sloes or red and white roses is to go round as a screen, and in front of this there should be a trench. There should be planted rows of apples and pears, and in the hotter parts palms and citrons, also mulberries, cherries, plums, and other trees, such as figs, nuts, and almonds, all separated from one another in carefully-made even rows, but between them vines may grow. The rest of the ground may be laid out as grass meadow, which will show after the rains a growth of grass that is tall but not good, and this can be cut twice a year, to keep it in better condition; also in certain parts they could set up pergolas to serve as a kind of pavilion.

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He demands quite a different plan for the gardens of the rich, who may take twenty yokes or more—as much as they like—and enclose it with a high wall. Towards the north there should be a thicket of tall trees where wild beasts are kept. To the south they should build a very beautiful palace, where the king and queen can spend their time, whenever they want to escape from serious thoughts and to get refreshment and happiness. Crescentius, with a careful eye to the Italian climate, chooses this spot so that there may be pleasant shade close by, and so that the view into the garden is not spoiled by the blazing sun. He further asks for a fish-pond, and an aviary near the palace. In other parts of the garden more shrubberies can be put, and the tamer animals kept in them. But he is very emphatic in his injunction that avenues of high trees are not to be allowed to block the view from the palace to the thicket at the end of the garden, and so prevent people from seeing the animals that are kept there. He makes a longer business of the building of summer-houses, which have to be made simply of trees, with various passages and rooms, so that they can be used in damp weather as well as in dry. He recommends making the divisions with cherries or apples, or perhaps planting willows or elms, which one can train over stakes, poles, or rods, till roof and walls are completed; then dry wood can be used to finish the structure, and a vine trained thickly over. The garden can also be much beautified with evergreen trees, but here he must have a strict arrangement, and different kinds must be kept apart, so that they may be all flawless.

In another place Crescentius recommends the clipping of trees, and says that gardens and trenches may be encompassed by green trees shaped and cut out like walls, palisades, turrets, and embrasures. In spite of the fact that we have talk of plan and order, we detect an effort after picturesque form, which prepares the way for the early Renaissance. Crescentius wishes to be a teacher, and to give practical advice and leading; this object he attained not only in Italy, but also on the far side of the Alps, where his book was soon known and widely circulated, in Germany, France, and England.

Hand in hand with this scientific treatment of building on the land went the intro duction of foreign plants. In Italy people soon began to lay out gardens of wonderful herbs with a view to their use in medicine; and this practice must have been prevalent in Petrarch’s time, in the fourteenth century in Italy, for then the reputation of Italian plant-lore was so great that its professors were summoned abroad: and so it came about that Angelo, the Florentine, laid out a botanical garden for Charles IV. at Prague.