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French and English Gardens of the Middle Ages

The Roman de la Rose gives the best possible idea of both the French and English gardens of the Middle Ages. It was chiefly written by Guillaume de Loris, in the first half of the thirteenth century, and was probably well known in England before it was translated by Chaucer into English. There are several manuscript copies of it containing descriptions in the text, accompanied by illustrations giving vivid pictures of the pleasure garden. Its form—the walls enclosing it with their surrounding moat, the subdivisions of latticework, the “flowery mede,” shaded by fruit trees, with a fountain in its center, and the stone-coped beds, containing clipped shrubs and other smaller plants—are clearly shown from various points of view.

In the most important of these illustrations (which is on the opposite page, and was taken from a fourteenth-century Flemish manuscript preserved at the British Museum), the garden is shown as a whole, ornamented with many quaint details. It is enclosed by a crenellated wall, surrounded by a moat. The subdivisions are formed by a fence of wooden trellis-work, on the topmost railing of which is balanced a peacock. In the left-hand division is a copper fountain head, where the water, spouting from lions’ mouths, drips into a circular basin, and runs off through a marble channel embedded in the turf. Velvety grass, thickly sprinkled with daisies, surrounds the fountain and forms a soft seat for the little company of merrymakers who are singing and playing upon musical instruments.

A garden, according to the derivation of the word from zerd, garth, or yard (three nouns from the same Aryan root as the French word Jardin), originally signified a walled but unroofed enclosure containing cultivated vegetation. Usually this vegetation principally consisted of herbs, grass, or fruit trees.

This enclosure protected the vegetation from marauders, and secluded its occupants. Privacy was a very important characteristic of the garden. Inside the castle there was scant opportunity for confidential conversation. So when people wished to talk without being overlooked or overheard, they were apt to retire to the pleasure garden.

The earliest fences were commonly wattled, that is, woven of osiers. Others, more ornamental, were formed of rails or of pickets, and painted green. Hedges often enclosed the later gardens, instead of walls. The bushes used for this purpose were privet (thus called perhaps because it served to insure privacy), thorn, sweetbrier, and yew. Moats were also common, the water accommodating fish and swans.

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