The last couple of posts have been about summer activities in the Middle Ages, from the hard labor of harvesting crops, to the diversions of games. There was another summer pleasure for those in the upper classes of medieval society; recreational gardens. Not every garden was planted strictly for food or herbs, nor even for meditation as some of the monastic gardens were. Some were kept purely for pleasure, and they were designed “not for fruitfulness, but to delight the senses of sight and smell.”
They were usually walled and had a park-like atmosphere, possibly including a structure meant to be a summer home, where the nobility could go to find relaxation away from the main manor or castle. Very large estates might even have separate gardens, one for the lord or king, and one for the lady or queen.
Pleasure gardens had a diversity of trees, not only for the purpose of giving shade, but also to enhance the aroma of the garden with the perfume of flowers, or of ripening fruits. Winding paths might be edged by sweet smelling herbs, like sage and basil, mixed in with fragrant flowers. There would have been no shortage of things to look at. Vibrant colors were everywhere. Tendrils of vine curled around trees, and up stone walls. Trellises and latticework supported climbing flowers, and formed archways or covered paths.
When one grew tired of walking, or simply wanted to be still and immerse oneself in the surrounding beauty, there were plenty of places to sit. Marble, stone, or wooden benches were common, but turfed seats (excedra) were also a feature of pleasure gardens. They could be made entirely of sod, or as part of a raised flower bed, with outer walls made of wood, brick, or wattle. Tables for eating, or for playing games, would also be available as part of the garden. Eating outdoors in summer seems to have been a popular activity.
Most pleasure gardens also had at least one water feature; a fountain, stream, reflective pool, or a pond stocked with fish. Birds, rabbits, ducks, geese, and other types of animals would have roamed freely. Pleasure gardens sometimes had labyrinths, in which one walked a path in a set pattern, with one entrance and one exit. (This is different from a maze, in which one can get lost, with many paths meant to deceive.) A labyrinth might be laid with stone, cut turf, or have its edges defined by short to knee-high plants. It served not only as a pleasant diversion, but also helped take up a fair amount of space in a very large garden.
Look through manuscripts from the medieval period, and you will find plenty of poetry and lavish illuminations of lovers enjoying medieval pleasure gardens, which were often the setting for flirtatious games and mild horseplay between men and women.
“Under the green leaves, on the soft turf beside a chattering brook with a clear spring near at hand, I found a rustic hut set up. Gontier and Dame Helen were dining there, on fresh cheese, milk, butter, cheesecake, cream, curds, apples, nuts, plums, pears; they had garlic and onions and crushed shallots, on crusty black bread with coarse salt to give them a thirst. They drank from the jug and the birds made music to cheer the hearts of both lover and lass, who next exchanged their loving kisses on mouth and nose, the smooth face and the bearded.”
– Philippe de Vitry, 14th century