Book review: The Medieval Garden, Sylvia Landsberg, reviewed by Stephen Bloch

Tending your Garden

by Stephen Bloch

Sylvia Landsberg has a job to die for.  The dust jacket of The Medieval Garden (Thames & Hudson 1996?, ISBN  0-500-01691-7) describes her as “a garden historian and lecturer who has designed several thirteenth- to sixteenth-century gardens.”  In other words, she’s a professional garden recreator, involved in designing reconstructed medieval gardens at Singleton (in Sussex), Hangleton (in Sussex), Crickhowell (in Wales), Winchester Castle, and Shrewsbury (home of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael), all of which she discusses in detail in a chapter entitled “The Medieval Garden Re-Created.”

In this beautifully illustrated and (apparently, to my inexpert eye) carefully researched book, Landsberg distinguishes several types of medieval European garden.  The enclosed “herber”, of under an acre, was often divided in half by a low wall or fence, one side for raised beds of flowers and herbs, the other largely lawn, with turf-covered benches and shade trees for recreation.  The orchard, typically one to four acres, might have trellises and tunnel arbors, between its rows of fruit and nut trees.  The “pleasure park”, typically around ten acres, seems to have been a forest stocked with wildlife, not for hunting but just for spectacle: cleared avenues among the trees radiated from a central pavilion or gazebo, from which nobles and their guests could watch deer, rabbits, hares, goats, porcupines, and in the largest parks lynxes and lions.

Landsberg describes all these, as well as vineyards, peasant and kitchen gardens (essentially an herber without the recreational half) in sufficient detail– measurements, species lists, construction diagrams, gardening tools, crop rotation schedules, etc.– that the reader might join her in reconstructing them.  A whole chapter entitled “Make Your Own Medieval Garden” discusses tradeoffs among authenticity, practicality, and expense, and suggests plans suitable for residential yards as small as a hundred square feet.

Landsberg writes from a decidedly British viewpoint, and the English gardening terminology may send you to your dictionary, but many of the plants she recommends are readily available in the U.S., having immigrated and taken the role of roadside weeds centuries ago.  The book ends with a list of re-created gardens to visit (the one U.S. entry being New York City’s  Cloisters), a list of recommended suppliers for gardening materials, an index of plant species mentioned in the text, and an extensive bibliography.

Missing from Landsberg’s bibliography, but perhaps of interest to local garden re-creators, is Tania Bayard’s Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters (Metropolitan Museum of Art 1985, ISBN 0-87099-422-0 or 0-87923-593-4).

[from the January 1997 Seahorse]