A friend with a small, shady backyard and, until recently, not the slightest interest in gardening, last month raced out and bought a tomato tower and enough seeds to plant several acres. the bite of the garden bug is not easily itched away.
But it takes a book like Medieval English Gardens to bring to light how very long the complaint has been with us. The gardens of England are fairly well documented after the 1550s. John Gerard produced his famous Herball in 1597 and 32 years later John Parkinson published Paradisi in Sole , Paradisus Terrestris , the first of many texts that would serve as guides to what was what in Merrie Olde English gardens.
What Teresa McLean has done is to reconstruct an earlier period through plans for monasteries and castles, chronicles, paintings, poems and account books with their lists of seeds bought and produce sold, of sums paid out for garden labor and buildings.
The gardens of medieval England are most easily seen in the monastic cloisters, some few of which survive today (though not intact): plots for vegetables and flavoring herbs like parsley, coriander and dill near the kitchen, beds of medicinal herbs near the infirmary, orchards with fruit and nut trees, and perhaps a pleasance planted with fragrant roses and lilies, flowers whose pleasing scent was enhanced by their symbolic connection with the Virgin Mary, a fitting place for an abbot to stroll.
To a much greater extent than today, flowers were viewed not merely as objects of delight but as things to be used. Southernwood soothed fevers and wounds; wormwood repelled fleas and was recommended as a cure for stomach ache; mugwort was used to flavor brews and wines; tansy, when not repelling ubgs, was used to flavor cakes, omelettes and sauces; and marigold, written in medieval records as St. Mary's Gold, had not only the virtue of association with the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the ability to act as an antidote to pestilence and painful stings.
While some things have changed, others have not. Rosemary was used as a medieval hair conditioner just as it is today. And the ladies of pre-Clairol England were no more content than their present day counterparts to let their hair remain its natural color. Leeks, walnut shells and saffron were used to dye medieval locks, though the latter must have been used only by the very rich since saffron was as expensive then as it is now. The medievals, with the same tendency we have todlay of attributing virtues to the costly, held that saffron made people happy, so much so that one or two people were said to have died of laughter after taking it. (The only death ever actually laid to the spice was that of a German who was burnt to death when he was found to have sold saffron in an adulterated form -- a kind of consumer action frowned upon today.)
Everyone who could find a plot of land had a garden, whether it was simply a small patch to grow the ubiquitous onions, leeks, garlic and beans or extensive enough to hold a vineyard, though even then those who could afford it preferred to import their wines from France.
An account book shows a 13th-century householder stocking up for the planting season by buying one new spade and one new hoe, and the carnation (known then as the gilly-flower or sops-in-wine) still edges the garden path, but despite such constancy, the English garden has not come through the years unchanged.
In The Pleasure Garden, Anne Scott-James and Osbert Lancaster trace the fashions in gardening, showing how the practical and cloistered gardens of the Middle Ages gave way to the Tudor preference for such frivolities as the knot garden, designs picked out in plants, sand or gravel. Simple turf seats and flower arbors were forced to share space with an excess of statuary, fountains and mounts. And nothing amused the wealthy landowner more than to catch his guests with the water surprise, a booby trap which drenched the unsuspecting. By the end of the 17th century, the English garden had fallen under the influence of the French style, formal vistas extending over such a distance that one landholder enlisted his neighbors and his neighbors' land to complete his grand design.
The reaction to so much formality was to return to the "natural" landscape, as interpreted by landscape architects whose widly romantic notions led them to include partially ruined temples and an occasional hermitage. Scott-James points out that the task of finding and interviewing hermits for the position could not have been easy.
Amusingly illustrated by Lancaster and written with a light touch, The Pleasure Garden is a good introduction to the history of the English garden. Medieval English Gardens is much more specialized, a book for the ardent gardener or historian. For them lies the comfort of knowing we are not the first generation to be duped by claims for wonder fertilizers. In the 15th century, one writer was promising that if you sprinkled your peach tree with goat's milk, lo and behold, it would bear pomegranates.