Friday, April 17, 2009

The Medieval Lawn

Cuxa lawn with English daisies (2003) Virgin and Child with Four Angels, ca. 1510-15 Bellis perennis

Above, from left to right: English daisies introduced into the garth garden in Cuxa Cloister some years ago; a realistic representation of the garth of a Carthusian monastery by Gerard David; the English daisy, Bellis perennis.

The sight is in no way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass kept short. It is impossible to produce this except with rich and firm soil; so it behoves the man who would prepare the site . . . first to clear it well from the roots of weeds, which can scarcely be done unless the roots are first dug out and the site levelled, and the whole well-flooded with boiling water, so that the fragments of roots and seeds remaining . . . may not by any means sprout forth. Then the whole plot is to be covered with rich turf of flourishing grass, the turves beaten down with broad wooden mallets and the plants of grass trodden into the ground . . . . For then little by little they may spring forth closely and cover the surface like a green cloth.

Albertus Magnus, De Vegetalibus, translated by John Harvey in Medieval Gardens, 1981.

This famous passage, which was to be repeated verbatim in the following century by Pietro Crescenzi, is an eloquent testimony to the importance of turf in the medieval garden. A grassy enclosure or lawn was a feature of both monastic and secular gardens. In the article “The Medieval Monastic Garden” (Medieval Gardens, ed. Elisabeth MacDougall, 1986), Paul Meyvaert cites the twelfth-century cleric Hugh of Fouilloy, who considered that the green lawn of the cloister not only refreshes the eyes, but also brings the eternal paradise before the minds of beholders.

John Harvey considers a drawing of a game of bowls, dating to the reign of Edward I, to be the earliest representation of a large and truly leveled lawn, comparable to the lawn at the Palace of Westminster laid down in approximately 1239. The site was leveled with a roller, and turf was later laid down and mowed. Sylvia Landsberg notes that turves could be purchased by the thousands, and that in July of 1272, Eleanor of Castile paid one of her squires to perform nightly watering of two cartloads of turves, newly laid in a pleasure garden in June (Medieval Gardens, 2003).

While a pure and velvety sward might have been the ideal in some situations, medieval lawns may more often have been of the flowering type—a type that was certainly deliberately created in some if not all contexts. The flowering mead or meadow was an important element of the pleasure park. The locus amoenus, or “pleasant place,” of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which many poems and romances were set, included both flowering meadows and groves, and both are included in medieval representations of Paradise.

Even when and where great pains were taken to exclude them, dandelions, plaintains, and daisies would have sprung up, as they do now. Whatever the gardener may have felt about them, they are lovingly and minutely depicted in many paintings and tapestries.

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (4)

  1. thea mcginnis Says:

    how would a vast lawn be maintained during those times? Not sure how they would mow them, to get such a precise cut.

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Thea,

    We aren’t sure. A large expanse of lawn might be scythed or grazed to keep it short; grazing has obvious advantages, as the grass would be fed at the same time. It is a little less certain how small lawns like those planted in an herber or a cloister garth would be managed; neither of the options above seem practical in that context. Shears, perhaps? Sheep shears are still used for edging lawns. Labor was plentiful. The lawnmower was not invented until 1830.

  3. Gargoyles Says:

    That IS weird thinking about how they maintained lawns back then…

  4. Lionel Smith Says:

    Are there any references you know about the use of clover as an alternative to grass in medieval lawn? There are some subtle hints that this might have been a practice in Southern Europe during the medieval period.

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