SPEAKER: After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of feudalism in Britain, gardens of pleasure or beauty were replaced by the piety of the monastic garden. The medieval "hortus conclusus," or enclosed garden of rectangular walls of brick or hedging, derived from the Roman courtyard villa, along with the habit of strolling around it. Unlike villa gardens, however, the monastic garden focused on honoring God and regaining paradise through cultivation-- symbolically, as with the rose and lily; and for sustenance, with vegetables and fruit; and for what was called "physic," with medicinal plants.
Surviving records of the idealized monastery show a large group of buildings with a church at the center and then several gardens-- a kitchen garden, an infirmary garden, and a cemetery with fruit and nut trees. As John Harvey explains in The Mediaeval Garden, the hortus conclusus exemplified a human society based on transcendental and spiritual motives. Material values were kept firmly in second place. This attitude certainly carried through to the gardens of the monasteries and nobility alike and did not change until the 14th century, when the wonderful luxuries, sophisticated hydrological technologies, and long vistas of Hispano-Arab gardens in Spain and Sicily came into the reach of the noble classes in Britain.
One continuing thread that unites the Roman, monastic, and palace gardens is the use of the wall to enclose the garden. In each period, it symbolized a different relationship to the outside world. To the Romans, it kept out street noises and smells and thieves, as well as a natural world that was treated with indifference in its unaltered form. To the medieval monk, it defined a cloistered existence focused inwardly on pious matters, secluded from the warring countryside. To the medieval nobility, the wall protected the family and defined a life of courtly, highly symbolized ritual within the garden.
In all periods, however, the walls allowed the owners to cultivate a life within the garden that could be lovely, indeed. In de Vegetabilibus et Plantis, Albertus Magnus writes, "pleasure gardens are, in fact, mainly designed for the delight of the two senses, these sight and smell. About the lawn may be planted every sweet-smelling herb, such as rue and sage and basil, and likewise, all sorts of flowers, as the violet, columbine, lily, rose, iris, and the like."
Throughout the medieval period, the study of plants was the singular domain of the physician, who studied them for their purported medicinal values. The invention of the printing press in the 1430s, which allowed for the reproduction and distribution of plant images, led to the development of botany as a scientific field.
No longer was each plant subject to various artists' interpretation of their form and features. Rather, practitioners of the newly formed field of botanical illustration could develop meticulous renderings of particular species. And these drawings could then be reproduced in manuscripts for everyone to use as references. By 1530, the first Herbal with accurate drawings and standardized plant names had been published by Brunfels.
A second critical technological development was the invention of the herbarium for storing pressed specimens of plants. This allowed early plant explorers, sailing in greatly improved two- and three-masted schooners, to preserve samples of newly discovered plants that did not survive long journeys over the seas. These two tools-- scientifically accurate herbals and preserved specimens of exotic species-- were essential to the advent of the first botanical gardens in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The earliest botanical gardens on the continent were in Padua, Italy; Leiden, Holland; and Montpelier, France. These were followed in 1630 with the opening of the Oxford botanical garden for "the glorification of the works of God and the furtherance of learning." While the role of the Oxford garden in the latter goal, supporting learning, may be easily understood, its fundamental role as a religious sanctuary may be less obvious. To comprehend this connection, it's necessary to understand the prevailing religious beliefs of that period.
As explained by John Prest in The Garden of Eden, there was at that time-- the late Middle Ages-- no intellectually credible alternative to the account of the origin of the world given in Genesis. Therefore, for both the religious leader and the common layman, the concept of the Garden of Eden was not simply allegorical or ideal, but real and recreatable. The question, then, was how the garden would be recreated.
For some, it could be realized through the beauty of plants alone. Edward Hyman's The English Garden reflects on all that God had created on earth, but goes on to state "what God had not done was to combine deliberately in a single master work all the triumphs of form and color of which his art was capable." In other words, the Garden of Eden used the tools of God's creations, but put them together in a human creation. This theory of the creation of the Garden of Eden and its potential recreation in human design gave way to a search for the true garden somewhere on the unexplored globe.
As explained by John Prest, "when it turned out that neither East nor West Indies contained the Garden of Eden, men began to think instead in terms of bringing the scattered pieces of creation together in a botanical garden or new Garden of Eden. Since each family of plants was thought to represent a specific act of creation, that scholar would understand God best who found room in each pulvinus, or garden bed, for each genus."
Interestingly, these early botanical gardens, rather than mimicking the wildness and randomness of nature, were extremely symmetrical and ordered. Typically, they were divided into four quadrants to represent the four known continents and with representative plants of each continent in the individual beds. This order and symmetry also supported the use of early botanical gardens for scientific study.
As Prest said, "like an encyclopedia, it was a book laid out in pages which were printed or set for reference. It had the advantage over a book in that the plants were real and took precedence over a herbarium of cut, dried, or mounted specimens because the material was alive." Still the early botanical garden was not public in the way we expect today. This was long before the concept of liberal universal education was popularized. And access to these walled gardens was limited to the few and the privileged-- the priest, the physician, and the botanist.
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Americans have traditionally looked to the British for direction on landscape design and plant selection. Notable British landscape designers such as Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, William Gilpin, and Gertrude Jekyll have left a legacy not only in England but across the ocean also. If these people and subjects intrigue you, I invite you to accompany me on a virtual tour of English garden design that starts back in the days of the Roman occupation and progresses to the eclectic gardens of today. Throughout, you will learn about how people, wars, inventions, and global exploration affected changing tastes and styles over the past millenium.
This video is part 2 of 5 in the A Brief History of English Garden Design series.