Between the level turf and the herbs let there be a higher piece of turf made in the fashion of a seat, suitable for flowers and amenities; the grass in the sun’s path should be planted with trees or vines, whose branches will protect the turf with shade and cast a pleasant refreshing shadow.
—Book VIII, Chapter I: “On small gardens of herbs.” Piero de’ Crescenzi, Liber ruralium commodorum (1305-09). (See Catena, the Bard Graduate Center’s Digital Archive of Historic Gardens and Landscapes for more information.)
Above: Honor Making a Chaplet of Roses, ca. 1425–1450. South Netherlandish. Wool warp, wool wefts; 93 x 108 in. (236.2 x 274.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1959 (59.85). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
Turf benches were among the most distinctive features of medieval gardens, and are depicted in many paintings and tapestries. Such benches may be rectangular, circular, L-shaped, or U-shaped; the U-shaped type is known as an exedra. Regardless of their shape, the benches were usually constructed with low-walled frames made out of brick, wood, stone, or wattle (woven willow). The frames were then filled with soil and the surfaces were topped with turf. Turf seats were placed in the middle of the garden or against one of its walls, and were sometimes incorporated into the enclosure. Arbors or trellises were sometimes built into the seat to provide shade and shelter, while circular benches were constructed around single trees.
Not all turf benches were constructed within a frame; some had grass growing on all sides, as seen in the tapestry shown above. The same plants and flowers that grow in the lawn are shown growing in the turf of the bench. It’s important to note that although the grass growing on this turf bench looks perfectly even on all sides, it would actually be very difficult to achieve such uniformity, since not all sides would have equal exposure to the sun. It is hard to match the perfection of a painted image when working in three dimensions in a re-created medieval garden.
In medieval depictions, turf benches are usually occupied by the Virgin, or by a pair of lovers. While figures are often shown sitting on the bench, they are sometimes shown seated on the ground, leaning back against the bench. In the example above, the allegorical figure of Lady Honor is seated on the grass in front of a turf exedra.
The simplest form of turf bench, and the easiest one to replicate, is the four-walled rectangular frame with turf growing only on the top of the bench. Such benches are very common in representations of medieval gardens, as in the view through the window in The Annunciation:
Above: Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (possibly Hans Memling, active by 1465, died 1494) (Netherlandish, 1399/1400–1464). The Annunciation (detail), 1465–75. Oil on wood; 73 1/4 x 45 1/4 in. (186.1 x 114.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.7). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
This example is especially interesting because the benches that border the paths serve not just as seating, but also enclose the interior of the garden. Many of the same plants growing on the little flowering lawn in the foreground also grow amid the grass of the bench. The bench near the back wall of the garden is used to display the potted topiaries tended by the woman gardener.
Turf benches are often included in re-created medieval gardens, such as Queen Eleanor’s Garden at Winchester Castle, designed by Dr. Sylvia Landsberg. The garden was named after Eleanor of Provence and her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile. Such a garden would have been used as a private retreat; the turf bench has been fitted into an intimate space that invites conversation and relaxation. The trellis surrounding the turf exedra is covered with red and white roses.
The turf bench is such a distinctive feature of the medieval garden that we would like to construct one here at The Cloisters. There is only one site that seems suitable, and that is at the back of Trie garden. This garden is planted as a single field of herbs and flowers, and is meant to evoke the millefleurs tapestries in the collection (e.g., the Unicorn in Captivity, and The Lady Honor tapestry itself). A bench framed out of cedar boards faced with wattle and planted with turf and small wildflowers would complement the design of the garden and allow visitors to see an important medieval garden feature.
We are renovating Trie garden this spring, and a space for a turf bench will be included in the new design. I’ll keep you updated as we develop our plans. In the meantime, consult Dr. Landsberg’s book, Medieval Gardens, and try constructing your own medieval turf bench!
Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981.
———”Sweet Repose.” Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. 120.10 (1995): 626–628. Print.
Landsberg, Sylvia. Medieval Gardens. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
Paul, Martine. “Turf Seats in French Gardens of the Middle Ages (12th–16th centuries).” Journal of Garden History. 5.1 (1985): 3–14. Print.