Tuesday, November 15, 2011



Wyrtig OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants; On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312.

Vernacular Gardens

As we explore the gardens of Britain and France during Roman and early medieval times, our primary focus is on "vernacular gardens" –- the gardens of cottage and village. A vernacular garden is defined here as being:

  • Small

  • Cultivated by hand, usually by members of the household that will use the garden's produce

  • Primarily utilitarian, providing essential foods and seasonings, medicinals, cosmetics, dyes, and plants used as part of social and religious practices

  • A reflection of local beliefs and attitudes

  • Innovative and adaptive, because its produce is essential to the wellbeing of the household; it is a setting within which gardening practices continually evolve in response to local conditions and demands

Then, as now, garden design, even in such vernacular gardens, could reflect a sense of aesthetics. Indeed, we see this in the writing of 8th century gardener Walahfrid Strabo, whose garden contained not just vegetables, but also roses and lilies. Strabo tells us that while his homeland has no source of Tyrian purple, a dark red dye obtained from shellfish, it makes up for this with its beautiful red roses.


As Bronislaw Malinowski has written, just as someone takes


…an artist's delight in constructing a canoe or a house, perfect in shape, decoration and finish, and the whole community will glory in such an achievement, exactly thus will he go about the laying out and developing of his garden… It is the right, honourable, and enviable thing to have fine-looking gardens and rich crops.
                            Coral Gardens and Their Magic

There is much that we can never know the early gardens of this period, no matter how carefully we parse archaeological reports, and comb through the illustrations found in illuminated manuscripts, early charters, herbals, legal documents, medieval literature, and other documentation. The written records we have were typically not written by the gardeners themselves, nor by their peers, but come from elite sources such as religious houses and court records.

Some modern scholars say that early medieval gardens were purely the domain of women; others, that they were "men's work" -– after all, it was Adam who delved while Eve spun.

Time and again, the Romans are credited with the introduction of new plants, a conclusion frequently contradicted by modern archaeology.

Some say that early gardening practices and plants were largely determined by monastic gardeners and then shared with gardeners beyond the monastery precincts –- a theory that runs counter to what we know from comparable but more recent practices in vernacular garden development, in which "herb women" were a key source of plant materials and seeds, and garden practices were typically shared among peers — family, neighbors, friends.

Terminology is tricky; terms are often unclear, and defining from context not always possible.

If a herbal tells us a plant is "found in" a garden, does this mean it is cultivated there, or is it a common weed in gardens?

Do the hedges cited in charters surround gardens as well as other fields?

Does the use of a plant name we attach to a specific plant today mean that the medieval writer is actually looking at the same plant?

If you like problem-solving, this is a fascinating field in which to delve!