Renaissance gardens included more than food plants

Share:

My last post shared the results of research by six UMass and Mt. Holyoke College students who hit the libraries to learn about English cottage gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries.  What they learned was fascinating and is being used to design a Renaissance Era garden at the UMass Renaissance Center.

According to Mt. Holyoke College student Paula;

….gardens first became common after the ‘Black Death’ from 1347 to 1351 that killed an estimated 25-50% of the European population.  The plague left vast tracks of previously peasant-owned land untended after centuries of escalating food prices, famine and intensive food production whose abrupt halt due to the plague resulted in personal garden plots to be constructed near houses.  In addition to vegetables, these gardens would host an array of flowers and herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes.”

This post looks at a few of the non-food plants which are so much part of the story of the period.  While colewort (cabbage), leeks, peas, and broad beans were important in the English cottage garden, herbs, flowers and even strawberries were well-represented as well.

Abby wrote;

“Wild strawberries in Europe were very plentiful and grew like grass. They could be seen on lawns or in gardens between the flowers.  The flavor of the wild strawberries were much sweeter than today’s strawberries.  Strawberries also had a religious symbolism.  Celia Fisher wrote in Flowers of the Renaissancethe white flowers and red fruit stood for purity and for Christ’s redeeming blood. The three parts of a strawberry leaf reflected the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were distinct entities joined in one God.”

Notice the bowl of strawberries in Allegory of Summer by Lucas van Valckenborch, c.1595. Flowers were also part of the English cottage garden, as Madeline wrote;

“The rose is widely recognized as the national flower of England. It was likely introduced to England in the 13th century in the form of Rosa gallica – or the “apothecary rose” which earned its title from its many medicinal properties. Preparations of the apothecary rose include rose hip jam, candied rose petals, essential oil, teas, and rose water.”

Madeline continued;

“…the symbolism of the rose has a rich history… medieval Christians cherished the five-petal geometry of the rose – a symbol of the five wounds Jesus received during crucifixion. The red color of the rose also symbolized the blood of Christian martyrs.”

The rose also had important political symbolism;

“The most famous example of rose symbolism was the Wars of Roses (1455-1485), which were a series of struggles between the House of Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose) and the House of York (whose emblem was the white rose). Both houses groups claimed lineage to the royal British crown.

Following the death Henry V (the House of Lancaster) in 1422 (and respective crowning of the psychotic Henry VI), England was in a state of chaos. This period was characterized by heavy taxes, lawlessness, and massive private armies dominating the countryside.

After Henry VI (of Lancaster) was eventually deemed insane, Edward IV of the House of York assumed the crown in 1461.  Edward IV died in 1483 leaving his 12-year old son Edward V in control. The regent (temporary ruler) for Edward V was Richard III of York who locked the young king in the Tower of London.  He was never seen again.

Richard III became king in 1483, but was defeated in 1485 by the Lancaster army and their leader – Henry Tudor of Wales who claimed blood relation to John Gaunt, the First Duke of Lancaster. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. This marriage united the feuding Lancasters and Yorks and brought peace to England. Thus was born the Tudor Rose (sometimes called the union rose) which represented both houses and incorporated both red and white in their emblem.

The Tudor (or Union) Rose

Roses had a more pedestrian use as well during the Renaissance, as rose petals were used for strewing (that is spreading fragrant herbs about the house to release pleasant odors as they were walked upon).  Remember, people didn’t bathe much during this period and became quite smelly!

Please be sure and take a look at my first post on this project, Creating a Renaissance Era Cottage Garden in New England.

These stories about the gardens of the Renaissance and others will be shared at our new UMass Renaissance Garden.  If you would like to follow the development of the garden and/or be kept informed when we are planning events at the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center, please join our “friends and fans” mailing list:

Join the Renaissance Garden Friends and Fans mailing list

We also encourage those of you who are knowledgeable about English kitchen gardens during the Renaissance and related subjects to share your own thoughts in the comments box below.  We would appreciate your ideas and may include them in the garden design.

===========================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  If you are interested in sustainable food and farming, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And please check out more of my World.edu posts or my personal webpage.

Creating a Renaissance Era Cottage Garden in New England

Share:

Have you ever wondered what the garden of an English commoner might look like during William Shakespeare’s time?   Well, a group of University of Massachusetts and Mt. Holyoke College students did – and they learned quite a lot – often not what they expected!

pickngcabbagde

This project, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Interdisciplinary Center for Renaissance Studies and the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture, asked six undergraduate students to investigate what an English commoner’s garden might look like pre- and post-1492. Once the research was completed, we planned to design and build demonstration gardens at the Renaissance Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

wh18_columbianexchangeWe began this project with a hypothesis.  We believed that the Columbian Exchange would have changed the way common people grew their food during this period.

Our original plan was to create two gardens, representing pre- and post-1492 northern European cottage gardens to demonstrate the impact of the Columbian Exchange.

However the students learned early in the project that New World plants coming to Europe after 1492 did not have a dramatic impact on cottage gardens in northern Europe until after the period we think of as the Renaissance.  Most New World plants were better adapted to the Mediterranean climate and those that did find their way into northern Europe were found mostly in the gardens of the nobility.  Aaron wrote in her research blog;

“…about 127 new plants came across the Atlantic from the Americas during the first hundred years after Columbus. These plants diffused through the Old World at different rates, mostly from the port city of Seville, where the plants initially arrived.”

Corn (maize) which is native to the Americas became well-established in the Mediterranean region within 20 years of being brought to Europe by Columbus.  Other warm-season vegetables such as squash, sweet potato and various types of beans, also spread through the region but did not find their way into northern Europe quickly.  Aaron continues:

“…other crops were not such an easy sell to Europeans. The sixteenth century tomato was little like the delicious, juicy red fruit we know today. It was small and hard, and very bitter.  The tomato and other Solanaceae plants (peppers and potatoes) were outright rejected by most of Europe because they were recognized, by their flowers and leaves, as being members of the poisonous group called the nightshades.”

Although plants from the Americas did arrive in Europe following the explorations of the 16th century, they did not become a significant part of the common people’s diet for some 200 years.

The nobility, on the ohenryfoodther hand, seem to have benefited from the Columbian Exchange.  Jennie writes in one of her blog posts, Henry VIII reined in England from 1509-1525 and according to John Harvey in Vegetables in the Middle Ages, “…there was a very marked enrichment of diet during the reign of Henry VIII and royal and noble tables first saw delicacies such as asparagus, globe artichokes, melons and apricots.”

labyrinthOne of the difficulties in learning about commoner’s gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries is that most resources focused on gardens of the nobility.  Clearly, most common people weren’t writing books at this time. Thomas Hill’s classic, The Gardener’s Labyrinth, was printed in 1570 and is still available today.  Hill’s book recommends gardeners employ a labyrinth garden design for aesthetic reasons.  He writes “it much availeth in a Garden to frame seemelye walkes and Alleys, for the delight of the owner, by which hee maye the freelier walke hither and thither in them…” 

Its not very likely that the kitchen garden of commoners were designed to “freelier walke hither and thither….”  Nevertheless, the student research (which may be found here) discovered quite a bit about the diet and the gardening habits for commoners during the Renaissance.  This and my next few blogs will share some of what they have uncovered.

One of the most interesting stories that emerged from the research focused on the common food called pottage (sometimes confused in the literature with porriage).  Jennie continues in her blog post:

“Andrew Boorde, Dyetary of 1542, states that pottage, NOT porridge, was most defiantly a primary food staple of England. Pottage has been commonly confused with the word and food porridge, but it is quite different. Oat based Porridge was not a primary food staple in England.”

And;

“Pottage, also called Porray or Sewe, is the what we might think of as a watered down savory/herbal soup, consisting of different herbs/plants, grown specifically for pottage.  Pottage was cooked over a fire in a metal pot, water or stock from meat, fish or poultry was added and then the ‘good pottagersthat is, leaves of colewort (Brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), peas (Pisum sativum), and broad beans (Vicia faba) were added.

bavariaThe student’s research brought forth some really interesting ideas that we will include in our garden at the Renaissance Center.  We plan on designing a vegetable/herb/flower garden typical of the period.  We believe we can use the garden to tell some interesting stories about how common people lived (and ate) during the 14th to 17th centuries.

Of course, pottage plants will make up a good part of our garden at the Massachusetts Renaissance Center, as it represents a major part of the diet for English commoners.  Other typical plants to be included are garlic, leeks, onions, turnips, hops, and even roses along with many common medicinal and savory herbs.

————————————————————————–

To see part two of this series on the garden, see: Renaissance gardens include more than food plants.  And if you would like to follow the development of the garden and/or be kept informed when we are planning events at the Renaissance Center, please join our “friends and fans” mailing list here:

Join the Renaissance Garden “Friends and Fans” mailing list

We also encourage those of you who are knowledgeable about English kitchen gardens during the Renaissance and related subjects to share your own thoughts in the comments box below.  We would appreciate your ideas and may include them in the garden design.

 ===========================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  If you are interested in sustainable food and farming, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And please check out more of my World.edu posts or my personal webpage.