THE PENN STATE MEDIEVAL GARDEN

About the Garden

The Penn State Medieval Garden was established in 1998 with a generous grant from AT&T. Until 2005, the garden was located in the Horticultural Trial Gardens on the Penn State University Park Main Campus. In 2009 the garden was moved to an area adjacent to the H.O. Smith Botanical Garden and Arboretum. The rebuilt garden has many of the features of the first layout with a Formal or Contemplation Garden, a Kitchen Garden, and an Orchard with period appropriate fruit trees. Future plans for this new site include a Pleasure Ground, Field Plots, and a Forest.

Original design for the Medieval Garden, circa 1999
Original design for the Medieval Garden, circa 1999

The design of each part the garden comes from period illustrations showing how gardens were laid out. We essentially used a compilation of images and descriptions to arrive at our final design. Because of the length of the Middle Ages, 450 to 1450 CE, there is no one style that can be said to be truly representative of that period. The garden improvements were constructed over a two year period by students in the Landscape Contracting Program, Department of Plant Science at Penn State. Each spring and summer students help with the propagation, planting, documentation and maintenance of the plant collection.

The plants found in the garden all date to the Middle Ages. They have been selected from lists developed from period herbals and other documentation like Charlemagne's Capitulare de Villis vel curtis Imperialibus. Some plants may be recognized as those in use today such as Thyme and Rosemary while others may be more obscure such as Milk Thistle and Valerian. In fact, one of the surprising aspects of the garden is that plants such as Dandelion, Mullein, and Plantain, weeds to the contemporary gardener, were collected and valued for their medicinal properties.

As stated earlier, the current Medieval Garden contains three distinct elements. These are the Contemplation garden, the Kitchen Garden, and the Orchard.

Formal or Contemplation Garden

For people in the medieval period a formal garden, such as this, was not just a place to display beautiful or rare plants. The garden also served as a place to go to contemplate the spiritual aspects of life and to escape from the more worldly and mundane features of their existence. In fact the garden became, in literature if not in fact, paradisus terrestris, or paradise on earth with the Garden of Eden serving as a model. The garden was to be isolated from the outside world and was to include all sorts of features that would make it a place of spirituality and contemplation. The plants in the garden were also important in further reinforcing this link with Christian beliefs, personages and events. The color white in flowers stood for the Virgin Mary and purity, red represented the Blood of the Martyrs, grapes for everlasting life, flowers with five petals the five wounds of Christ, and fruit trees stood for the tree of knowledge. These symbolic representations were copied into literature and art and are some of the best examples of elements of medieval gardens that we have today.

Kitchen Garden (Wortgeard or "vegetable garden or yard")

This garden would have been a mainstay of medieval life. The plants grown here would have been used as food, to make medicines, and prepare household products. There is no absolute list of plants grown in this type of garden. The type of plants would have depended on where the garden was located and the lifestyle of the owners. Gardens in rural areas could supplement what was grown with plants collected from the surrounding woods and fields. Urban gardens may have had a larger garden with a broader plant selection or could have purchased what they did not grow from farmers, herbalists or plant gatherers

The Orchard (Ortgeard or "fruit garden")

Orchards in medieval times were valuable property worth protecting from free-roaming cows, pigs and other animals. They were often protected by thick hedges, fences, wall or even moats. On occasion orchards could serve a dual purpose as part of a pleasure ground or perhaps as a cemetery as evidenced by the ideal plan for the St. Gall monastery. The orchard would contain different varieties of fruits including apple, pear, cherry, and medlar. It would not be unusual to fine bee hives in or near the orchard and garden as the bees would help to pollinate the flowers. The harvest from the orchard would yield food but also cider (apples) and perry, an alcoholic drink made from pears. Verjuice, a vinegar-like liquid, could also be made from cider and used in cooking.

Uses for the Plants

Medical Plants
These plants represented the source for many drugs used during the medieval period. Harvested by herbalists, apothecaries as well as the common man, the plants were drunk, inhaled, pressed on the flesh, and ingested to relieve all manners of medical problems. Many were later found to have little or no medical value while others such as Foxglove and Belladonna have ingredients that are still used today.

Dyes and Aromas
Without any source of commercial dyes it was necessary for medieval persons to find plants from which they could extract dyes for cloth, food, inks and paints. Some of the colors extracted were blue from Woad, red from the Madder plant and yellow from Saffron. Cloth that was dyed was often wool and later linen. Food coloration was an important way to liven up meals that often lacked variety.

Scents were also important be they pleasing or objectionable. Pleasing scents helped to mask odors created from lack of personal hygiene and close proximity of human and animal waste. Objectionable scents were used to drive out vermin and snakes and to protect clothes from fleas and moths, among other things.

Without any source of commercial dyes it was necessary for the medieval household to find plants from which they could extract dyes for cloth, food, inks, and paints. Some colors extracted were blue from Woad, red from Madder, and yellow from Lady's Bedstraw.

Scents were also important, be they pleasing or objectionable. Pleasing scents helped to mask odors created by poor personal hygiene and close proximity to human and animal waste. Objectionable scents were used to drive out vermin and snakes and to protect clothes from fleas and moths, among other things. Tansy, Lavender, Valerian, and Lemon Balm are just some examples of these plants.

Pottage
Pottage was a basic staple of medieval life and closely resembles stews of today. To a pot or kettle, containing meat and water, would be added root vegetables and leaf greens. The leafy material or pottage was generally used to bulk up the meal however many of the plants did contain useful vitamins and nutrients. Once the meal was finished more water would be added with more leafy material in order to stretch what was left for the next several days. Pottage plants were found both in the garden and in the wild. Some of these plants included Agrimony, Betony, Borage, Chives, Dandelion and Violets.

Vegetables
Plants in this area contain many recognizable root and leaf vegetables that are used for food even to this day. One large difference between gardens of the present and those of the medieval period is the vegetables that you would have not found back then. These included corn, potatoes, pole beans, peppers, pumpkin, and tomatoes. The previous plants are all new world vegetables and were not introduced to Europe until after 1492. With medieval vegetables, some would have been planted in gardens while other were considered field crops. Some of the latter include peas, lentils, fava or horse beans, and turnip. Besides edible roots, leaves from many of these plants were also used as pottage greens in soups or stews.

Distillation
Distilling herbs is a way to remove the volatile oils. The resulting liquid could then be used in medicines or for household purposes. The household uses included fragrant bath waters, oils for massage, hair rinses and perfumes. Most of the distilling was done by placing the herbs in water and then heating them over a flame or in hot sand. Distilling could also be accomplished by mixing the herbs with alcohol to draw out the oils and then staining them through a fine cloth.

Sauce
As with certain types of cooking today, sauces were very important to medieval cookery since they allowed the embellishment of food in a time that lacked many of the spices that we are accustom to today. Plants for sauce could have been cooked with cream, milk meat broth or almond milk which was a heated mixture of ground almonds and beef fat or suet. A sauce could have included ground, dried or whole leaves, seeds or even stems and roots for flavoring.

Seasonings
Lacking the broad range of seasonings available to us today, the medieval garden may have contained plants such as these that would be used to add flavor to meals. The plants contributed seeds, leaves, stalks and roots to accomplish this. Many of these plants are still used today attesting to their continued ability to contribute to our meals.




Arbor at the Medieval Garden












February Farm in Medieval times
Original plan view of the garden



















Medieval vegetable garden or yard
Medieval vegetable garden or yard






















Scene of spring sowing from Tres Riches Heures. Note the scarecrow. Chateau in rear is where the Louvre Museum in Paris now stands.
Scene of spring sowing from Tres Riches Heures. Note the scarecrow. Chateau in rear is where the Louvre Museum in Paris now stands.







Illustration of distilling apparatus in the garden
Illustration of distilling apparatus in the garden