While rosemary was a familiar herb of the Mediterranean littoral in antiquity, the date of its introduction into Northern Europe is uncertain, and it was not grown in England until the fourteenth century. The thorn apple, Datura metel, did not reach Europe from India until the fifteenth century, although it is mentioned in Islamic sources at an earlier date.
Much as architectural elements from different periods and locales in medieval Europe were transported to New York and integrated into a single modern building, the herbs, fruits, and flowers growing in the gardens were transplanted, traveling across time and space to their home at The Cloisters.
Many of these species had journeyed across Europe and Asia for centuries before coming to North America, some arriving with the first settlers. The plants found on our lists of medieval species, compiled over the course of seventy-five years, would certainly not have grown together in any one garden of the Middle Ages, but grown together here, they reconstitute the medieval plant world, and give reality to the past in the same sense in which the building and the art collection do, although we know far more about medieval art and architecture than we do about medieval gardens.
In re-creating the medieval plant world at The Cloisters, we take often fragmentary evidence from literary, documentary, archaeological, and artistic sources of Greek, Arabic, English, French, German, Netherlandish, Italian, and Spanish provenance, dating from the fifth century to the beginning of the sixteenth century, and integrate them as best we can, while keeping up with recent research and refining and expanding the collection.
For the stories of a small selection of the almost four hundred species known and grown in medieval Europe, and the architectural context they inhabit, I invite you to view a Sunday at the Met program presented at the Main Building last month in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of The Cloisters Museum & Gardens:
See Met Media for more videos related to medieval art and The Cloisters.