primary focus of Wyrtig.com is the
“vernacular garden”; that is:
A small plot,
rather than a field
Cultivated by hand, usually by the household
will use its produce
Primarily utilitarian, providing essential
foods and seasonings, medicines, cosmetics, dyes,
plants used in social and religious practices
local beliefs and attitudes
Innovative and adaptive because its produce is essential to the well-being of the
this makes it
a setting where gardening practices continually evolve
in response to local
conditions and demands
Looking at the
plants most often named in early medieval sources,
and at the garden descriptions that survive, it is clear that these
gardens were highly practical. But even so, it is likely that then as now gardeners were
sensible of the beauty, as well as the bounty, of their gardens.
Malinowski wrote in 1966, exactly as someone
delight in constructing a canoe or a house, perfect in shape, decoration
and finish, and the whole community will glory in such an achievement;
exactly thus will he go about the laying out and developing of his
garden… It is the right, honorable, and enviable thing to have
fine-looking gardens and rich crops.
Coral Gardens and Their Magic
There is no reason
to believe that medieval
vernacular gardens would not have reflected a similar
aesthetic. Indeed, we see this in the writing of 9th century gardener
whose garden contained not just vegetables, but also roses
and lilies; and Walafrid
tells us that even though his homeland had no
source of Tyrian purple, a luxurious red dye obtained from shellfish, it made up for this with its vivid
There is much
that we can never know the early gardens of this period, no matter how
carefully we parse archaeological reports, comb through the
illustrations in illuminated manuscripts, or examine early charters, herbals,
legal documents, medieval literature, and other written sources. The
documents we have were not typically written by the gardeners
themselves, nor by their peers, but come from elite sources such as
religious houses and court records. In truth, a great deal of what we "know"
about early medieval gardens is hearsay, common wisdom, accepted theory.
modern scholars say that early medieval gardens were the domain of women; others,
that they were men’s work -– after all, it was Adam who delved while
Time and again,
Romans have been credited with introducing a plant that modern archaeology
has shown to exist in Britain long before the
appearance of the Roman armies.
Some say that
early gardening practices and plants were largely developed by monastic
gardeners and then shared with lay gardeners beyond the monastery
precincts, a theory that runs counter to what we know from comparable but more
recent practices in vernacular garden development, in which "herb women"
and rhizomati, root gatherers, are a key source of plant materials and seeds, and garden
innovations are shared among peers -- family, neighbors, friends --
rather than distributed by a central authority.
what we read in primary sources can be
tricky; terms are often unclear, and defining from context
is sometimes not possible. For example,
If an herbal tells us a plant is
“found in” a garden," does this
mean it is cultivated there, or is it a common weed in gardens?
hedges cited in
gardens as well as fields?
If our name for a plant is the same as the
name used in a medieval herbal,
can we be certain that the
two plants are identical?
If you like
problem-solving, this is a fascinating field, and discussions
about the vernacular garden can be found at: