Gode Cookery Presents
Tales of the Middle Ages
True stories, fables and anecdotes from the Middle Ages


An observer of English society today would likely notice the cultivation of gardens, an activity for which the Medieval tradition is also evident. With gardening, it is not always easy to distinguish between pleasure and utility. Any space in which people were deliberately cultivating plants we can call a garden, and we might go on to categorize the kitchen garden, where some vegetables and herbs might be grown for their edible produce as well as for building and fuel or as habitat for animals which could be hunted; the physic garden, wherein would be planted various medicinal herbs; or the aesthetic garden, developed largely for ornament and pleasure. Yet we must not be overly rigid about categories, because to the gardener a plot of ground might blissfully intermingle recreational, aesthetic, and practical purposes. One of the things most appreciated about the flowers in a garden was their sweet fragrance. Because Medieval gardens were frequently enclosed, the fragrances of flowers and herbs were confined and concentrated.

A description of an enclosed garden comes from the pen of Reginald, a monk of Durham, who wrote the Life and Miracles of St. Godric. Godric, who died in 1170, was a hermit at Finchale a few miles from Durham. In the Life, a square garden is described surrounded on all sides by a hedge. At the centre of the garden (where in other gardens one might expect to find a fountain, pool, or special tree or plant) there was a desk upon which rested a book from which a man was reading. The garden is described as being laid out on a quadrangular plan, suggesting that it was divided into four quarters, each of which was an area of planting, and that the quarters were marked off with some sort of dividing boundaries. Such qualities as aroma, especially if concentrated in an enclosure, together with visual beauty and practical use, gave value to garden plants.


Among the useful garden flowers might be mentioned those of the artemisia family. Southernwood's (Artemisia abrotanum) hair-like leaves were used to relieve fevers and wounds and, when dried, the plant was valued for its aroma. The ability to purge a person of worms and poisons was attributed to wormwood (Artemisia absinthum), which was also respected as a cure for constipation and stomach discomfort, to say nothing of its value as flea repellent (shared by pennyroyal, one of the mints, but not a garden flower). Wormwood has a bitter taste, unlike mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which was used to add flavour to drinks. The tansy flower was thought to be an insect repellent, but the entire plant is aromatic and bitter to the taste, and all parts of the plant were variously used in cookery. Another useful flower was the marigold, named St. Mary's Gold to honour the Virgin Mary. Marigolds were used both as a medicine, against stings and pestilence, and in cooking, as a bitter spice. The blue iris, still a greatly appreciated flower, had many uses. The iris root made a decent ink and, when dried, had a sweet aroma, reminiscent of violets. Iris leaves could be used in making mats, patching thatched roofs, or like rushes in covering floors. Furthermore, the iris was not only fragrant and pleasing to the eye, but yielded a dark blue juice that was used for spot removing, as a salve for teeth and gums, and as an ingredient in a dye for cloth. Beautiful, useful, and sweet-smelling, it is no wonder that the iris was a favourite flower.

Another useful and favourite flower was the periwinkle. Periwinkle garlands and wreaths could easily be woven because of the long, supple stems, and the plant grew low, making it a useful and attractive ground cover. Medieval English people were not attracted to lawns that aspired to the appearance of the modern golf course. They liked flowery meads of scythe-mown grass, fragrant herbs, and flowers like violets, daisies, primroses, and periwinkles, which acted as a summons to walk, dance, and lie among the visual beauty and enveloping aromas. Violets were popular, but were appreciated for more than just their fragrance. They were associated symbolically with humility, freshness, purity, and innocence, and thus came to be associated with the Blessed Virgin. Products of the kitchen were sometimes garnished and coloured with violets, while the petals had a medicinal use as an emetic and purgative, and the oil could scent a bath or soothe the skin. Like periwinkles, daisies were made into garlands and crowns, and were welcomed in gardens. The bright freshness of the daisy is suggested by its name, which comes from the Old English daezeseye or eye of day. Among the varieties, the large ox-eye was the favourite. The primrose was also popular, and was appreciated in a part, as it still is, because of its early appearance in the spring. The primrose was also very useful. It could be made into wine. The leaves were used on wounds to ease pain and on the skin to avoid blemishes, and they were eaten to ease muscle aches. The petals were also eaten for pain relief, cooked into tansy cakes and pottages, and floated in comforting baths.

The gillyflower, ancestor of the carnation, was another flower respected for its usefulness and attractiveness. It was used in cooking as a spice because of its aroma and clove-like taste, and was used to cover the bitter taste of some medical potions as well as a flavouring in wine and ale. The gillyflower apparently came to England with the Normans, and by the fourteenth century was to be found in the colour of flesh pink, crimson, and white, while by the next century there was also a clove pink variety, the one with the most assertive aroma and colour. The peony, thought of today as simply an ornamental flower, had additional uses in centuries past. The seeds were used in flavouring meat, or were eaten raw to warm the tastebuds and stabilize the temperament; they were also drunk in hot wine and ale before retiring at night to avoid disturbing dreams. The pink, red, and white flowers of the Paeonia mascula can be seen today essentially as they were centuries ago on the island of Steep Holme off the north Somerset coast at the site of an Augustinian priory which existed only for a few decades in the thirteenth century. The conditions on the island were clearly better for the peonies than for the Augustinians. Less spectacular by far than the flower of the peony was that of sweet woodruff, which can conclude our sampling of useful flowers. It was frequently used for garlands, with its fresh, sweet fragrance and white summery colour, and also to add subtlety to drinks, while the leaves, so scented that they were known as "sweetgrass," were strewn when dry on floors and packed with clothes as a freshener.

Flowers were not required to be useful to be appreciated. Luke (12:27) said: "Think how the flowers grow; they never have to spin or weave..." Some flowers were enjoyed for the pleasure alone which they provided. In a flowery mead, it will be recalled, we would encounter mown grass in which were periwinkles, daisies, primroses, violets, gillyflowers, or whatever else gave colour and fragrance.

Ornamental gardening was flourishing in England by the late eleventh century, and may well have been of earlier origin. The general story of a pleasure garden began, apparently, with high ecclesiastics who arrived from Normandy in the reign of William the Conqueror. The story of English royal gardens and parks begins with the Conqueror's son, Henry I (reigned 1100-35). Henry I had a pleasure garden laid out to complement the castle his father had built to control the Thames Valley at Windsor, and there were other pleasure gardens established as well, although no details about these royal pleasances have survived. Later kings continued the practice. Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) devoted considerable resources to the building of pleasure gardens at the Palace of Clarendon, his manors of Guildford (Surrey) and Kempton (Middlesex), Winchester Castle, Gloucester Castle, Nottingham Castle, and others. Henry III's patronage of things beautiful extended far beyond his rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. When kings like Henry III led the way in the creation and development of pleasure gardens, the powerful and wealthy figures of the secular and ecclesiastical aristocracy followed. There exists, for instance, an account from this era of the garden at Holbern belonging to the Earl of Lincoln.

An old tradition states that the Romans named the most north-western target of their imperialism Albion because of the white roses found growing in Britannia, but it is not in fact certain whether the Rosa alba was present when the Romans arrived or if they imported it. In any case, throughout the Medieval period the white rose was available as an English garden favourite. Eleanor of Provence, who became the wife of Henry III in 1236, used a white rose as her emblem, and her son Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) took as an emblem a rose with almost gold-coloured petals and a green stem. Edmund, Earl of Lancaster (died 1296), a younger son of Eleanor and Henry, adopted a red rose, the Rosa gallica, following his marriage to Blanche of Artois (died 1302), granddaughter of Louis VIII of France, whose emblem it was; and thus the red rose became the emblem of the house of Lancaster. Red roses, like white, were to be found in England throughout the Medieval period, and were no new introduction at the time of the marriage of of Blanche of Artois and Edmund "Crouchback" in 1275. Richard, Duke of York (died 1460), used the white rose as a favourite badge, and it was taken up by his favorite son Edward IV (reigned 1461-83). The red rose was evidently not used as a badge by the Lancastrian king, Henry VI (reigned 1422-61), who was supplanted by his kinsman Edward IV. The catchy title "Wars of the Roses," for the intermittent civil and dynastic conflict of the 1450's to the 1480's between the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York, was not invented until the eighteenth century, but the idea went back at least to the "Crowland Chronicle," which was completed in the 1480's, and the two roses as symbols of the rival dynasties was given a wider audience in the Temple Garden scene in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part I, Act II, scene iv. The first Tudor king, Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509), employed the propaganda symbol of a combined red and white rose to represent himself as unifier of the warring factions of Lancaster and York. The Tudor rose remains a very familiar symbolic flower.

The third rose generally cultivated in late medieval England, along with the red and white, was the damask rose. It will probably never be known if the pink rose of Damascus was brought to England by merchants, monks, pilgrims, or crusaders. Along with cultivated roses mention must be made of the native wild rose, the Rosa rubiginosa, known also as the sweet briar or eglantine, which has a lovely smell, is a good climber for walls and fences, and was used in the making of mead and various medicines. Actually, Medieval cultivated roses would look fairly wild to the modern eye, accustomed as it is to the products of scientific breeders. The flowers of Medieval cultivated roses were smaller, more open, and more fragile than today's roses, and they were more delicate of fragrance. The Medieval rose plants were more like rambling bushes than modern roses, and the thorns were longer and more plentiful, an even more noticeable presence. It was when the rose petals were dried and powdered that they had the most powerful fragrance, and it was usually the petals of the red rose that were used in the making of rose water, rose oil, rose preserves, petal garnishes, and rose sugar. It was the custom to employ roses as symbols of the Holy Spirit, and to scatter them in churches for this reason. The practice was associated with festivals when roses would have been in bloom, such as that of John the Baptist (24 June), St. Peter (29 June), and the moveable feasts of Whitsun and Corpus Christi (which fell in May or June).

The lily ranked with the rose as a special flower, and to the Medieval mind roses and lilies were the devotional flowers without rival. The lily was associated with the Virgin Mary. The Venerable Bede (died 735), the glory of Northumbrian monastic culture, knew the Madonna lily as an emblem of the Virgin Mary, the white petals representing her bodily purity and the golden anthers the light of her soul. The lily was an ancient fertility symbol, and it suited the Mother of God. An association of the Virgin Mary with The Song of Songs also suggested itself to many Medieval minds: "I am the Rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys." The Biblical Rose of Sharon may have been the crocus or the narcissus, and the lily of the valleys could have been the Palestine anemone, but that is of no importance for Medieval symbolism. The lily represented purity, innocent beauty, and chastity, a neat parallel for the virgin birth of Christ. It is worth recalling as well, that the central image of The Song of Songs is that of a garden. This means that the example of sensual literature most widely known to Medieval people was centered upon a garden.

Excerpts from: Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval England by Compton Reeves. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The recreated German Medieval Garden of the Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Greenwood, South Carolina


Tales of the Middle Ages

© 1997-2004 James L. Matterer

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