By Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens
Many fantasy stories, from The Hobbit to Game of Thrones, are set in a European medieval world of kings, castles and dark magic. But while they usually have medieval social structures and technology, they’re always missing is the dominant thinking of that age: redemption and the forgiveness of sins. That was because heaven and hell were perceived as very real places and hell was even worse than the brutal world in which most people lived short lives. Disease was prevalent, especially the periodic plagues. Winters were harsh and medieval graveyards suggest that many people died from violent assault. Dark forests blanketed a lot of Europe, where wild animals and brigands made travel dangerous. It’s probably that sense of constant menace that appeals to the fantasy writers.
The Medieval Garden at Hamilton Gardens will be based on those found in western Europe, and not the contemporary Byzantine and Islamic gardens. The European gardens generally weren’t as elaborate of those being developed in the flourishing cultures around the Mediterranean because after the collapse of Roman power in the west, Europe became a continent of warring tribes. Things did start to improve around the start of the new millennium and the gardens gradually evolved into the grand estates of the renaissance.
While religious dogma of that age may have restricted progress because innovation was considered a sin, it was the monasteries that played a major role in keeping civilization alive. They were communities practicing the Christian virtues of prayer and study along with hospitality and help for strangers. Those roles are reflected in the two different types of medieval garden being created at Hamilton Gardens. There were other types of Medieval garden, including: cemetery orchards, vineyards, cellarer’s gardens, herbularius or physic garden, a hortus or vegetable garden, castle gardens, obedientiary gardens and hunting parks. However, in terms of the progress of civilization, the ‘Cloister Garth’ and the ‘Apothecary Garden’ were probably the most significant because they represented more significant functions than just producing food or making a castle space pretty.
These days when you visit old European monastery and cathedral courts they’re often filled with attractive planting. However, there’s no evidence of a medieval cloister garth alongside a church being planted with anything other than turf and sometimes a symbolic pine or juniper. They usually had a well or water basin for washing and the turf or ‘turves’ were beaten down with broad wooden mallets. The monks processed at regular intervals, day and night, around these courts and studied under the cloisters on most days. They were minimalist gardens for prayer and pious contemplation without any distraction, a little like the Japanese Zen gardens that were designed for Zazen meditation. The simple Cloister Garth at Hamilton Gardens will only be glimpsed through a window. While it’s a significant form of garden in the context of that age, the general idea can be presented with a glimpse and it’s important to have mysterious inaccessible areas in any good garden.
The other major change was the idea of Christian charity and helping strangers. The monasteries provided a sanctuary for travelers who often arrived ill or injured. In response, monks and nuns developed the skills to heal, becoming the physicians of the Middle Ages and established in a monastery, what eventually evolved into the modern hospital. Some monasteries specialized in the care of the sick, the injured and lepers, particularly the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, founded in AD600. However most large monasteries included an infirmary for the care of the sick, and for monks to convalesce in after their regular blood-letting. Monks were generally bled six times a year to relieve stress and then allowed to rest and recover. Their potions to help the sick were substantially made from an Apothecary’s Garden, which forms the main part of our Medieval Garden.
During the medieval period, medicine and the choice of medicinal plants relied heavily on medical texts from the ancient world, particularly Hippocrates (46—370BCE) and Galen. The medieval medicinal plants that will be grown in our Apothecary’s Garden will give it a subdued, very green character. However, they often grew plants other than pothecary ones, such as aromatic herbs to cover unpleasant smells and narcotic plants that helped with the pain of bloodletting. Some plants of high religious significance were often included, such as the lily and rose, each with their different meanings. There are plenty of records of the medicinal plants used in Medieval times, and most of them are still available, unchanged.
The most influential thinker of the age was a Syrian called St Augustine, and his influence also included the design of buildings and gardens. His key aesthetic concepts were based on order and symmetry, numbers and proportion, with geometry given a sacred meaning. Surrounding columns, arcades and buttresses were planned to the proportion of the Golden Section. His ideal garden form was a pentagonal fountain, within a round pool, set within a perfectly square garden. Such a garden was usually divided with paths into ‘quadrads’ to represent the four winds and four seasons. That quadrant form was used in gardens throughout Europe and as far as the western provinces of China, Mughal India and North Africa for thousands of years, so it certainly wasn’t unique to medieval gardens. That’s why it’s been used as the symbol for Hamilton Gardens.
The end of the Medieval Age came gradually, not in the sudden burst of the renaissance. But during that succeeding 15th and 16th century renaissance period, there was certainly a wide breadth of achievement. That period is represented at Hamilton Gardens with: the Italian Renaissance Garden, the English Tudor Garden and perhaps most importantly, the proposed Hortus Botanicus Garden. That Dutch renaissance garden also included a medicinal plant collection, but its purpose was very different from the monastic apothecary garden, reflecting a fundamental change in thinking that had occurred since medieval times.