Judith Arnopp
Historical Fiction Author

                 Women and Medieval Gardens

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Judith Arnopp

Gardening arrived in Britain courtesy of Christian monks who brought with them exotic plants, medicinal herbs and the horticultural knowledge required to cultivate them.  After the Norman Conquest gardening continued to grow in popularity and gardening practices and plants were imported into Britain via Queens Eleanor (of Provence, Aquitaine and Castile).  Henry II’s domain stretched from the borders of Scotland to the south of France so, as far as the nobility were concerned, ‘Englishness’ was not a factor.  Many of the plants detailed in the surviving literature and art of the period were introduced by returning crusaders who introduced into their own gardens both design and planting features from the countries of Islam.  Early monastic houses kept productive herbal/medicinal gardens for practical use and, later in the period, ‘Mary Gardens’ were introduced by emerging monastic orders celebrating the inviolate mother of Christ.  The definitive aspect of the gardens of the nobility was that they were intended for pleasure alone.  A garden set aside simply for leisure purposes provided a graphic statement as to the wealth and status of the landowner.  From various literary manuscripts it is apparent that women in particular came to spend much of their time in these exterior spaces; they provided a safe environment for them to exercise, take the air or to enjoy the stories of minstrels.[1]  Bocaccio’s The Decameron is set within the safety of a garden, where the inhabitants, both male and female, shelter from the contagion of the plague.

‘You mark that the sun is high, the heat intense, and the silence unbroken save by the cicalas among the olive trees.  It is therefore the height of folly to quit this spot at present.  Here the air is cool and the prospect fair, and here, observe, are dice and chess.  Take then you pleasure as you may be severally minded; but, if you take my advice, you will find pastime for the hot hours before us, not in play, in which the loser must needs be vexed and neither the winner nor the onlooker much the better pleased, but in telling stories, in which the invention of one may afford solace to all the company of his hearers.’ [2]

            An idea of what a medieval garden may have been in reality can only now be accessed through archaeological and historical research.  Apart from a few Hispano-Arab ones there are no extant gardens from this period and the famous reconstructions at Winchester and Tretower Court in Powys have only been made possible by a combination of archival material, representations in art, needlework and literature of the period.[3] 

Several recurring features enable the modern historian to be fairly certain of what were fashionable medieval garden accessories.  Cruciform paths, rose covered arbours and turf seating, fountains and fruit trees dominate both the historical and literary record and illustrations of them are preserved within splendid illuminated manuscripts. 

Every social class gardened; Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale illustrates a peasant’s garden, enclosed with a wooden fence with growing herbs to accompany the poultry that the widow is raising for her table. 

 ‘and in our yeerd tho herbes shal I fynde                                                            

The whiche han of hire propretee by kinde

To purge yow bynethe and eek above…’ (4141) [4]


‘of lawriol, centaure, and fumetere,

or elles of ellebore, that groweth there,

of katapuce, or of gaitrys bery,

of herb yve, growing in oure yeerd, ther mery is; (4153)[5]

Account books from medieval manor houses and castles show expenditure on gardens or orders for fruit trees or the hire of labour for the installation of ponds or the erection of garden walls.  ‘The earliest recorded royal gardens in England predate Albertus’s treatise and belonged to Henry 1 (1100-1135), who dedicated land at Windsor Castle, at Woodstock near Oxford and at his manor Kingsbury by Dunstable to ornamental pleasure gardens and parks,’; in April 1251 a stable for the king’s horses was ordered to be constructed ‘outside the King’s castle there, near the King’s garden.’[6]

Gardens belonging to the upper middle classes became the domain of the lady of the house, a place where she could relax and take the air protected from the hubbub of daily life.   The poetry and artwork of the period offers almost full-colour insight into the medieval garden but the question has long since been raised as to whether medieval poets were writing about actual gardens or whether medieval gardens were inspired by the poets.[7]

The symbolic nature of garden design reflects the domination of the medieval mind by religion and the church.  It must be remembered that man’s expulsion from Paradise was very real to the pre-Darwinian mind and the creation of Edenic-like gardens illustrate the desire to regain what was believed to be lost.    Explorers and scientists were keen to determine Eden’s exact location.  An early map of the world now preserved in Hereford Cathedral is one of many illustrating Eden’s location as being somewhere in the middle-east.  In this example Eden is an island just above the inhabited world and below the Christ of the last judgement.  The tree of knowledge is clearly marked complete with serpent and Adam and Eve are in the process of eating the forbidden fruit. The four rivers flow from the foot of the tree marked with the names Pison, Guijon, Euphrates and Tigris.  Encircling the garden is a wall with a closed and fortified gate. The island is shown as continuing to exist but it is inaccessible to man.[8]  The Genesis story was absorbed not only into geographical and theological studies but also into literature.

 In the Christian representation of the Hebrew bible’s Song of Songs, the earthly garden and human sexuality intertwine to stand metaphorically for the virgin womb, the enclosed womb giving birth to the fruit that is Christ.  The Hortus Conclusus (enclosed garden) of Solomon’s Song chapter 4.12 provided inspiration for medieval gardens, both the early sacred representations of the Mary garden where every flower grown had a symbolic meaning and the later profane gardens like those from Romance of the Rose and Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.  These literary gardens, like the actual gardens of the nobility, provide a fascinating insight into the medieval mindset; the connection between women and the manner in which the garden is portrayed as a woman’s space is a recurrent theme in both patristic and secular literature.

Many literary sources depict women safely enclosed within the walls of the castle garden and the legend of Henry II’s mistress Rosamund Clifford kept in a bower at Woodstock was also born of this tradition.  Although the truth of the Rosamund story is now firmly obscured by myth and fable, the concept of a woman kept in a garden for the king’s sexual delectation bares unmistakable parallels with May in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.  Rosamund’s story is perpetuated throughout history, embellished and altered variously; sometimes she is an Eve while Eleanor plays the serpent, and sometimes she is a tragic victim.  The story that was accepted as historical truth for a long time was taken from Ralph Higden, a monastic historian of Chester; the historian John Stow (1525–1605) later embellished this account;

‘Rosamond the fayre daughter of Walter lord Clifford, concubine to Henry II. (poisoned by queen Elianor, as some thought) dyed at Woodstocke [A.D. 1177] where king Henry had made for her a house of wonderfull working; so that no man or woman might come to her, but he that was instructed by the king, or such as were right secret with him touching the matter. This house after some was named Labyrinthus, or Dedalus worke, which was wrought like unto a knot in a garden, called a maze; but it was commonly said, that lastly the queene came to her by a clue of thridde, or silke, and so dealt with her, that she lived not long after: but when she was dead, she was buried at Godstow in an house of nunnes, beside Oxford, with these verses upon her tombe:—

Hic jacet in tumba, Rosa mundi, non Rosa munda:
Non redolet, sed olet, quae redolere soles.

"In English thus:

The rose of the world, but not the cleane flowre,
Is now here graven; to whom beauty was lent:
In this grave full darke nowe is her bowre,
That by her life was sweete and redolent:
But now that she is from this life blent,
Though she were sweete, now foully doth she stinke.
A mirrour good for all men, that on her thinke."[9]

Rosamund’s story, so bound up in myth that we can no longer discern the truth, resonates with the medieval garden tradition: the female kept within stone garden walls, her life subject to the whims of an authoritative male figure.  It is paradoxical that, in his pursuit of Paradise which, as we know, was lost to man by the actions of his feckless wife Eve, medieval man should come to find women so indispensably integral the garden’s perfection.  The high-status specimen wife essentially becomes an enhancement to the perfection of his high-status home and garden.

In medieval poetry the woman in the garden is often alone; often she is watched and in many cases her sole presence is to facilitate the sexual needs of her dominant male.  Elizabeth Auspach in her book The Garden as Woman’s Space in 12th and 13th Century Literature develops this idea:

Pleasure gardens and ladies share three important features. In the first place, both women and gardens are mothers, a notion that is safeguarded by their common association with the earth.  Both are bearers who respond to the ministrations of man.  Second, both gardens and women are ornamental and serve to delight the senses.  This is the sole source of power a woman has in relation to her lover and her husband, since any ascendancy that a woman might have over man is rendered suspect, men were constantly being counselled against uxoriousness, for a woman can indeed become a snare to her own husband.  She has the power to hold him under her sway by virtue of her enchantments, a thought that made the Father’s of the Church very uneasy.  Third, women were prone to wander, which meant that they had to be watched and kept under control.  Both garden and woman must be restrained so that neither of them becomes a whore.  The garden may do so metaphorically, by becoming a forest or jungle.  The woman may do so quite literally, by giving herself to someone other than her husband, or if she is unmarried to someone other than her father wishes.’[10]


This dissertation will follow the curious journey of the garden enclosure from a spiritual representation of Mary’s virgin womb, through a place of objectification of women and a place for sexual transaction to a place of sin and excess.  The crenelated garden wall that protects the woman from the harmful exterior world also serves to restrict the unacceptable aspects of her nature and protects the outside world from her uncontrollable tendencies toward corruption and sin. Chapter 2-3 of Genesis, the Song of Songs, the poetry of Chaucer and The Romance of the Rose will provide the basis of my research as will a selection of medieval art. 
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[1] For a selection of manuscripts illustrating the social importance of gardens see:  Sylvia Landsberg,  The Medieval Garden (London: The British Museum Press, 1995) and  Anne Jennings, Medieval Gardens (London: Bath Press, 2004).

[2]  Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (St.Ives: Penguin Books, 1995), p.23

[3]  Landsberg (1995), pp. 101-130

[4] ‘and in our own yard I shall find those herbs

    which have a natural property to purge

    from top to bottom,’

[5] which might be spurge laurel, cantuary,

  and hellebore, or else fumitory,

  for all of them  grow in our garden here;

  or catapuce, buckthorn, or herb ivy,

  all growing in our yard so prettily.’

[6] Laura L. Howes Chaucer’s Gardens and the Language of Convention (Gainsville Fl.: University  Press of Florida, 1997), p. 24

[7] See Pearsall and Salter (1973) for further illustration of this point.

[8] For more on the historiography of Eden see Delumeau (2000) For more on the mapping of Eden see F. Plaut, ‘Where is Paradise? The Mapping of a Myth’ The Map Collector 24 (1984)

[9] Stowe, Annals of England, ed. 1631, p. 154.

[10] Elizabeth Auspach The Garden as Woman’s Space in 12th and 13th Century Literature (Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), p. 7