05.02.12, Landsberg, The Medieval Garden

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Alison Taufer

The Medieval Review baj9928.0502.012


Landsberg, Sylvia. The Medieval Garden. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Pp. 144. ISBN: 0-8020-8660-8.

Reviewed by:
Alison Taufer
California State University

Originally published in 1996 by Thames and Hudson, Sylvia Landsberg's The Medieval Garden was reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 2003. In this accessible and beautifully illustrated study, Landsberg covers a wide range of medieval garden topics both historical and practical. Landsberg is a garden historian and lecturer who has designed re-creations of English medieval gardens, based upon detailed research of gardening practices in western Europe from the twelfth through sixteenth centuries. The division of her study into two parts, a historical description of medieval gardens and a presentation of contemporary re-creations of medieval gardens, reflects her background in both history and design.

Although her interest is primarily English gardens, Landsberg includes a significant amount of historical material from the Continent. As Landsberg notes, given the paucity of medieval texts devoted to garden practice and design, documentation of medieval gardening practices must often be gathered from other sources. Because of the lack of documentation, Landsberg relies, perhaps a little too often, on conjecture as well, drawing her conclusions from available references. Landsberg includes illuminated manuscripts, paintings, etchings, and woodcuts as illustrative evidence of the kinds of gardens that were cultivated during this historical period. For written descriptions of garden design practices, she turns to the De vegetabilibus et plantis, (ca. 1260) by the German Dominican Albert Magnus, and the Ruralium Commodorum Liber (1305) by the Bolognese lawyer Piero de Crescenzi, as well as to poetry, medical texts, and cookbooks.

Landsberg's historical discussion begins with what she considers the earliest influences on medieval European gardening practices. Through their conquest of southern Spain, the Arabs introduced Persian-influenced garden designs, medicinal plant lists translated from Greek to Arabic and then to Latin, and the concept of the garden itself as a place of healthful repose and refreshment. Another early influence, Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis (ca. 800) prescribed estate styles and plantings for monasteries and aristocratic households within his empire, thus establishing a certain agricultural and horticultural unity throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Northern Italy, and Austria. After acknowledging these early influences, Landsberg focuses primarily on gardens from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Her study ends in England ca. 1500 when Renaissance features began to appear in garden design.

Landsberg's historical discussion includes a detailed description of the various types of gardens common in western Europe during the Middle Ages, including the herber or small enclosed garden, typical of the gardens that appear in the background of fifteenth century Flemish portraits of the Madonna and Child, the orchard, the vineyard, the aristocratic pleasure or hunting park, the kitchen or utilitarian garden, with its food and medicinal plants, and the monastery garden, which often contained all of the above. Landsberg describes the uses and typical designs of these various gardens, the varieties of plants grown in them, and horticultural practices such as crop rotation, irrigation, fertilization, and woodland management. Much of her information here is based upon manuscript illustrations and paintings from the period, as well as hypothetical plans drawn from archeological evidence.

Landsberg then turns her attention to specific garden features that were found in medieval gardens, particularly aristocratic pleasure gardens. She describes the construction, various types, and functions of walks and arbors, benches and other seating, plant beds, meads, fountains and ornamental pools, coppices, boundaries and fences, moats, fishponds, and dovecots. Again, Landsberg must rely on poetry, painting, and manuscript illustrations for most of her examples, although some garden features, such as the fish-breeding pond at the twelfth-century St. Cross Hospital at Winchester and the fifteenth-century moat at Bodiam Castle in Sussex, still exist and are open to public viewing.

Landsberg's discussion of plants typically found in medieval gardens constitutes the next section of her history. Drawing upon the research of J.H. Harvey, she includes lists of cooking and medicinal plants as well as ornamental plants, orchard and nut trees, native hedging, woodland trees, and shrubs. She notes the difficulty of accurately naming medieval plants, given the widespread use of vernacular and local plant names during the Middle Ages and the fact that Linnaeus' classification system has only been in use since the mid-eighteenth century. Because of J.H. Harvey's research, medieval garden plant names now can be equated with Linnaean names, giving us a fairly accurate sense of what plants were cultivated during this period. Landsberg also includes in this section a description, based on series of anecdotes from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of the use of medicinal plants at this time.

Landsberg concludes the historical portion of her study with a discussion of medieval gardening practices. She provides descriptions of typical garden tools, garden layout and measurement principles, and propagation methods. As in the preceding chapters, her narrative is graced with the inclusion of period illustrations and poetry, such as a translated passage depicting the ceaseless task of weeding from Walahfrid Strabo's charming 9th century "Hortulus":

But this little patch which lies facing eastIn the small open courtyard before my doorWas full--of nettles! All over My small piece of land they grew, their barbsTipped with a smear of tingling poison.What should I do? So thick were their ranks...So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattockAnd dug up the sluggish ground. From their embracesI tore those nettles though they grew and grew again.
Landsberg's skillful interweaving of medieval texts such as Walahfrid Strabo's into her own narrative underscores the universality of the garden experience and is one of the most delightful elements of her book.

The last third of The Medieval Garden is devoted exclusively to the present day re-creation of the English medieval garden. According to Landsberg, there are no surviving remains, plans, or foundations of medieval gardens remaining in England. The garden designer must therefore turn to documentary sources in order to re-create, rather than restore or reconstruct, a medieval garden on a historical site. Landsberg defines re-creation as "a pastiche, in which a period garden may never have existed on the site, but where enough in known about other gardens of the time to assemble a jigsaw of the most common features." (8) She offers examples of a number of these re-creations, including her own designs, such as the late thirteenth-century royal castle herber at Queen Eleanor's Garden in Winchester and the fifteenth-century kitchen garden typical of a yeoman's homestead at Bayleaf, Weald, and Downland Museum in Sussex. Landsberg includes detailed written and illustrated descriptions of how these various gardens were recreated and the rationale behind the decisions made in the process of re-creation.

After offering examples of garden re-creation, Landsberg includes practical advice on how a present day gardener may construct a medieval garden. Those who wish to create a medieval garden using authentic materials and construction methods probably will be disappointed with this final chapter, since Landsberg offers numerous short cuts and compromises. For example, Landsberg suggests that the gardener consider using concrete blocks camouflaged to look like whitewashed, medieval stone ashlar and garden center ready-constructed softwood trellises instead of authentic split oak lath. Landsberg supplies border planting diagrams, but rightly points out that contemporary gardeners, used to long-flowering plants unknown in medieval Europe, would not be satisfied with the transient beauty of a medieval garden, which would have peaked within a few weeks in June. She offers compromises for the contemporary gardener based upon the use of as many historically authentic plants as possible, primarily flowering perennial herbs, which remain fragrant even when not in bloom. Landsberg's instructions for hardscaping elements such as a trellised herber, an exedra, a vine arbor, and a tree seat do not supply sufficiently detailed construction information or plans to scale and therefore are not particularly useful.

Landsberg concludes her study with a number of lists that include both historical and design resources. She offers addresses of sites where examples of coppices, dovecots, flowering meads, and other typical medieval garden features can still be seen. Some of these locations are re-created medieval gardens, others are priories and castles open to visitors. Although most of the gardens are in England, she includes a few from France, as well as the Cloisters Museum in New York. Sources for oak lath, willow rods, coppiced hazel poles, and other difficult to find period garden items are also listed. Her annotated bibliography of books and articles on medieval English gardens is particularly helpful.

Landsberg's The Medieval Garden is heavily indebted to the scholarship of J.H. Harvey, a fact that she acknowledges in her introduction. Harvey's Mediaeval Gardens (1981), still considered the definitive text on the subject, provides exhaustive plant lists, based upon extensive research, in which he equates medieval plant names with the names of plants still available in the twentieth century. Harvey draws his information from medieval English building documents and various horticultural texts such as a late fourteenth century English translation of the eleventh-century poem "Macer Floridus," which includes a list of medicinal plants, the fourteenth-century English Henry the Poet's description of his "Square Garden," a fourteenth-century poem by John Gardener, which contains plant lists and practical gardening details, and the plant lists of Friar Henry Daniel, a fourteenth-century physician botanist. Much of Landsberg's information on medieval English gardens is drawn from Harvey's book and his various other articles. In a sense, Landsberg's text can be viewed as a shorter, more accessible distillation of Harvey's immense scholarship, much of which is no longer in print. This does not lessen the importance of Landsberg's contribution to our understanding of medieval horticultural practices. The Medieval Garden offers to a wide audience, including scholars of literature and cultural studies, garden historians, and garden designers, a valuable introduction to the garden practices of the Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Alison Taufer

California State University