In the Middle Ages in Europe, a specific type of garden emerged as a combination of Greek and Roman influences and Christianity. This kind of gardening was reserved for monks and was developed in the courtyards of monasteries and castles, reflecting their need for self-sufficiency. Since famine was a major concern and a constant threat for all parts of society, monastic gardens were regarded as very valuable and needed. Gardening was a chief method for providing food and medicines, and for cultural use.
The main characteristic that differentiates medieval gardens from other types is the fact that they were always enclosed by fences or walls. The practical aspect of this kind of structure was to protect monasteries and their crops from marauding livestock and thieves. But equally important was the spiritual and religious meaning which saw the enclosed garden as a natural symbol for Heaven or the lost Eden. They were regarded as spaces of unity of the divine and the earthly, privileged areas that manifested an emblematic attribute of the Virgin Mary. A term that represented such complex ideas was the hortus conclusus. Within hortus conclusus, many flowers had precise symbolical meaning. For example, the red rose stood for the blood of Christ and martyrs, and the white rose for Virgin Mary.
Monks were using and growing many herbs mainly for medicine – it was a basic way of treating all sorts of remedies. Some herbs were also used in homes for cleaning and cosmetics, or for poisoning pests. As food supplies, plants were crucial for monks since their diet was based on fruits and vegetables. However, for priests, the gardens were very important as places of manual labor. It was regarded as a way of spiritual battle with idleness, the enemy of the soul. The sin of acedia, a state of torpor and languor, was a problem originally noticed among monks and can be related to the contemporary understanding of depression. St. Benedict thus established the rules of labor, in order to obtain the maintenance of monasteries, taking care of its agriculture, tending the fruit orchards. Since monks were supplying their overall livelihood with gardens, it was a necessary thing to do.
Monastic gardens were divided into orchards and cemetery gardens, with vineyards, as well as areas where they planted vegetables and herbs. Fruit trees were planted in the gardens and the rest of the species were placed along the walls or fences. Astronomy advised in the matters of planting and organizing the time of the crops and they used irrigation from water sources to keep the gardens alive. Crops were usually laid in rectangular plots in sunken or raised beds arranged in regular patterns.
Along the lines, they used tufted seats as remaining features of pleasure gardens. Statues were rarely included, only fountains in the middle of the garden. Sometimes gardens included small knee-high labyrinths made out of bushes and plants, but they never were constructed as mazes. An interesting fact is that grass was first noted in medieval gardens. Cloisters were used for meditation, and some gardens even had wonder-provoking apparatuses.
However, the most intriguing and inspiring thing about medieval gardens was the concept of hortus conclusus; a concept that depicted the perfect divine order materialized in every single enclosed garden as a safe place for pleasure, contemplation, and cure. As an allegory of the Virgin Mary, it represented her chastity belt, ensuring purity, sealed-up womb, and Immaculate Conception.
However, a paradox occurs in the interpretation of these ideas since the term hortus conclusus comes from The Song of Songs of The Old Testament, one of the greatest love poems in the history of literature and refers, very precisely, to sexual desire and lover’s passion. In addition, the enclosed garden in the song is a representation of a feminine space, an area of fertility and flourishing – making the garden a metaphor for the female body.
But it was an abbot named Bernard of Clairvaux who died in 1153 that re-interpreted this tradition in the manner of celebrating a marital relationship between the Church and Christ. Those allegorical readings served as a base for understanding enclosed gardens as divine places, depictions of Paradise and their multiple uses in medieval art and iconography.