Medieval/Renaissance Garden Party

Elements of 14th-16th century European Garden Design and their Social use

A young man frolics with damsel around a fountain within a garden, from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,      1499A group of musical maidens entertains a young man around an artificial pond (or cistern) with a fountain, trees, a latticework enclosure, and a pergola/loggia/arch. From Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or The Dream of Poliphilius, 1499. (One hopes the lady in the distance is a statue.)

Lover's Garden, from the Hausboch, last quarter, 15th c.
Venus's Garden, Master of the Housebook, last quarter, 15th c.

From the Romance of the RoseSocial uses of gardens depicted in art:

Enclosed Gardens and their social use

 The defining element of the medieval-to-Renaissance garden was its enclosure. Fences, walls, and hedges, as well as thickly-covered trellises, protected the garden, provided privacy, and mitigated wind and cold.

Fence types:

Thomas Hill in his Gardener's Labyrinth discusses the 'forms of the Inclosuresanother enclosed
        garden' which he says the ancients invented:

"..First, the skilful and wary Husbandmen in time past, being those of good abilty, built them walls about of Free-stone artly laid, and mortered together, and some did with baked bricke like handled.  Others of lesser ability, and of meaner sort, formed them inclosures, with stones handsomely laid one upon another with morter or clay; and some of them couched the broad salt sontesk, with other bigge and large stones (in like order about). . . but very many of the baser and poorer sort, made them fences and wals about, with mudde of the ditch, dung, chaffe, and straws cut short, and wel mixed together. Others there were, which with bigge Canes set upright, by smal poles bound together, so fenced their garden plot, in handsome manner round about. Some also with young Willow trees, set by certaine distances, and the drie black thorne (purchased from the wood) being bound in (between the spaces) so framed their inclosure. . ."


Hedges, either made by 'quickset' -- fast growing bushes and small trees, planted close together and then trimmed to shape-- or by planting trees with long, whippy stems, then bending over and interweaving them. Trees were sometimes coppiced, that is, cut off close to the ground, to provide quick, thin growth for this purpose-- extra sprouts could be harvested and used for wattle. Thick hedges are depicted both with rounded, more natural tops, and straight sides and tops.

Hedge and ditch

The combination of a hedge and a ditch, usually with the ditch outside the hedge, was often used in the middle ages to discourage animals from crossing the hedge. Especially characteristic of parkland, where sporting animals had to be kept out.  (The use of sudden, deep ditches as dividers is more more characteristic of formal gardens of the 1700s and later, though Evelyn Shirley in 1867 claims that medieval 'deer leaps' in royal deer parks were similar.

Gates and Windows

Obviously a garden without one or more gates is inaccessible. Wooden, metal, and lattice gates are depicted, often varying from the material of the wall they are in. Gates could be made of wood, metalwork, or even framed lattice. Some gardens, inside larger walls, are shown as having no inner doors.

Walls, including lattices, are sometimes shown pierced with window-type openings. Of course, the placement of gardens below the windows of state apartments features in depictions of the stories of Bathsheba and Judith.

Walking elements: Places and Planting


In addition to providing soft flooring for walking and sitting, lawns would rest the eyes, as  Albertus Magnus says: "For the sight is in now way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass kept short."   As a result, cloisters and areas of study were provided with lawns, especially with covered walkways around them, where the inhabitants could take the fresh air and refresh the sight even in bad weather.

Most writers recommend digging out the original 'waste' plants, killing the seeds in the soil by flooding with boiling water, then laying out the lawn with turves (sod) laid in and pounded well. Another writer recommends mowing them twice a year; lawnmowing would have been done with scythes or primitive shears. Though such sod lawns would have had lower species diversity than a general meadow, they still were expected to include non-grass plants, thus being the 'flowery meads' depicted in embroidery, tapestry, illuminated manuscripts and paintings.

Walking paths

The choice of walking path surface was a vital one, as grass or other dew-collecting surfaces would require the wanderer to have "shooes or boots of some extraordinary goodnesse" in order to walk dry upon them, as Gervase Markham points out in his 1635 English Husbandman. (part 2, page 202)

Paths could be made of grass/dirt, brick, gravel, or stone/paving.  As gardens grew larger more elaborate and status-concious in the latter part of the 16th century, these paths were often used in combination with hedges or walls in order to create different 'rooms' in a garden.

Pergolas, Arches and Covered Walks

Erecting an archLoggias, Pergolas, and Arches appear especially in depictions of Italian gardens. Part of their purpose was to allow visitors to stroll without fear of the sun's heat and/or sunburn. Roses, grapes, gourds (Lagenaria species) are shown trained over these structures.

Covered walks both freestanding and as part of existing buildings (via open colonnades, as at the Cloisters in New York) were popular in monasteries, churches, and hunting park buildings.


Orchards, or patterned arrangements of sweet-smelling or fruiting trees, were recommended as an excellent place for strolling, both for the inhabitants of cloisters and more worldly garden visitors. Wall-trained or shape-pruned trees could also be incorporated into gardens with rectangular or other layouts.

Orchard trees that give fruit (apples, pears, plums); tender perennials such as bay, orange, pomegranate in the south and later in period, Olives and date palms in the south. Nut trees such as chestnut and almond. Pine and Cypress. Of non-fruiting trees, linden or lime trees were popular in northern Europe; William Stephen in 1180 mentions elms, oaks, ash, and willow "along watercourses and to make shady walks" (says Hobhouse); the Roman de la Rose also mentions fir, and oriental plane trees.

Crescenzi says: "Trees are to be planted in their rows, pears, apples,  and palms, and in warm places, lemons. Again mulberries, cherries, plums, and such noble trees as figs, nuts, almonds, quinces, and such-like, each according to their kinds, but spaced twenty feet apart more or less." He also suggests box, broom, cypress, dogwood, laburnum, rosemary, eonymous or spindle and tamarisk.

John Harvey gives this quote from Albertus Magnus:

"There are, however, some places of no great utility or fruitfulness. . . these are what are called pleasure gardens.  They are in fact mainly designed for the delight of the two senses, viz. sight and smell. . .[about the lawn] may be planted every sweet smelling herb such as rue, and sage and basil, and likewise all sorts of flowers, as the violet, the columbine, lily, rose, iris and the like. So that between these herbs and the turf, at the edge of the lawn set square, let therebe a higher bench of turf flowering and lovely; and somewhere in the middle provide seats so that men may sit down there to take their repose pleasurably when their senses need refreshment. Upon the lawn, too, against the heat of the sun, trees should be planted or vines trained, so that the lawn may have a delightful and cooling shade, sheltered by their leaves. For from theses trees shade is more sought after than fruit, so that not much trouble should be taken to dig about to manure them, for this might cause great damage to the turf. Care should also be taken that the trees are not too close together or too numerous, for cutting off the breeze may do harm to health. . . the trees should not be bitter ones whose shade gives rise to diseases, such as the walnut and some others; but let them be sweet trees, with perfumed flowers and agreeable shade, like grapevines, pears, apples, pomegranates, sweet bay trees, cypresses and such like."

Plants of a Pleasant Smell

A huge range of plants can be documented to the medieval and Renaissance garden-- but for pleasure purposes, the good smell was of primary importance.

A Place to Sit

A couple from a German textTurfed Seats

The turfed seat, consisting of an open-topped enclosure filled with dirt (possibly with a bottom layer of stone or gravel, then topped with sod (and possibly flowering plants) is the unique seating object of this time. "Excedra" as some experts call them, could be sided with brick, stone, wood panels, or wattle.  Users could sit on the flowering plants, or on the ground using the turfed seat as a back-rest.

Built-in Seating

Stone seats (and tables) appear in garden social scenes depicted in art. Brick or stone solid benches also appear.

Some tables are single pedestal, others more elaborate-- they may seat only one couple or several.

Portable seating

Portable wooden chairs, stools and tables were apparently used in the garden by the saintly as well as the roisterers!
Throne-like chairs, with backs and sides, are available for saints, scholars and Madonnas; but most of the time, seating is benches and three-legged stools. Tables could have three or four legs. These would be made out of wood.
Rugs and blankets are also spread over the ground to providing seating and protect people's clothes.

Eating and Games

Meals and snacks appear in our garden depictions. Saints and madonnas snack lightly, while the partiers under Venus have full course meals.
Madonna in the        Garden

Card games and Gambling, music, and sometimes other games, also appear.

lovers with a cool drink,      Master of the HousebookGarden of Love and      Earthly Delights, Master ES, 1465

Pool Party

Bathing in a fountainWater, bathing and washing in the garden

Water features were a necessary element of the garden.  The 14-16th century gardens we have depictions of generally include a water feature. These were generally surrounded by a lawn, rather than a planting of any sort.

Naomi Miller, in her article "Medieval Garden Fountains" in Medieval Gardens, Dumbarton Oaks, 1986, describes the typical fountain before the vogue for classical statuary beginning in the 14th century:

"...Throughout the late Middle Ages, whethere the fountain was placed at the center of a town square, a monastic cloister, or a Garden of Love, its form remained relatively unchanged. Defined by a circular, polygonal, or quadrilobe basin, it was rooted to the ground or raised upon a basin or steps. Water usually passed through a column; sometimes it rose from the center of the first basin to support a second one and was dispensed by one or more spouts. A more imposing fountain would usually have secondary basins used a troughs, provisions for washing, and even fish tanks. Spouts in the form of lions' heads or grotesques decorating the column were commonplace." (p. 152).

Two illustrations for the Decameron:

Sketch illustration from
          the DecameronFrom the Decameron

In addition to providing water to mix with  the wine, cisterns, wells, and streams could be used to cool drinks for our party-goers.


Medieval Revelry in a very large fountain

We have many depictions of (mixed!) bathing in gardens, primarily to represent planetary influences-- Venus, patron of amatory adventures, was also associated with water, and brothels were known to possess baths. Garden water features were used to wash clothing-- why not people as well?

Decorative Elements: Statuary, Grottos and Mechanical Toys

In addition to the many decorative fountains shown in depictions of the 1400s and before, the rich and powerful added new means of showing off.

The Italian Renaissance had revived the interest in Greek and Roman statuary (though the scholars of the Renaissance were unaware that these items were orignally painted). Gods, nymphs, and other classical reproductions (and sometimes originals) began to appear in the garden, often as focal points. (Depictions of saints and modern heroes seem to have been rare, and gargoyles unknown.)

These statues were sometimes placed in specially-built grottos, either built into a hill or even underground, with mosaics, water features, etc.
In addition, the rediscovery of classical texts involving automata and piping led to the creation of water, gravity and/or wind-powered devices where birds flapped wings, figures moved, and water squirted on the visitors.

Heraldic beasts and emblems made appearances as stone carvings, statues, flying pennants, or even wooden figures on sticks, during the Tudor era in England (according to Roy Strong).

Labyrinths, knots and figures of plants or different colored gravels began to appear, and in larger gardens, a "mount" for visitors to view the garden from a height became a desireable feature.

Banquet Houses in the Garden

Asian and Arabic gardens had a long history of constructing pavilions in which to serve meals to guests.

Summer Banquetting HouseHowever, the garden dining room really appears to have taken hold in Europe during the heyday of the "Banquet"-- a separate dessert course provided in a different location at the end of a fancy meal. Banqueting-rooms or houses could be constructed as part of hunting shelters in the great parks, but others were free standing, both permanent and temporary. Unusual Example:

Sporting Party: the Grand Park as entertainment

Rich and powerful persons often took the garden party a step further, setting up an enclosed hunting-part, stocked with deer and other prey, and provided with a one or two story building as a hunting blind and banquetting house. Guests could either participate in hunts on horseback through the park, or hang out in the colonnaded lodge and shoot arrows at game from there. Such parks were also home to archery contests and other large-scale amusements.

"Of the gardens of royal personages and powerful and wealthy lords. And inasmuch as wealthy persons can by their riches and power obtain such things as please them and need only science and art to create all they desire. For them, therefore, let a great meadow be chosen, arranged, and ordered, as here shall be directed. Let it be a place where the pleasant winds blow and  where there are fountains of waters; it should be twenty 'Journaux' or more in size according to the will of the Lord and it should be enclosed with lofty walls. Let there be in some part a wood of divers trees where the wild beasts may find a refuge. In another part let there be a costly pavilion where the king and his queen or the lord and lady may dwell, when they wish to escape from wearisome occupations and where they may solace themselves."
"Let there be shade and let the windows of the pavilion look out upon the garden but not exposed to the burning rays of the sun. Let fish-pools be made and divers fishes placed therein. Let there also be hares, rabbits, deer and such-like wild animals that are not beasts of prey. And in the trees near the pavilion  let great cages be made and therein place partridges, nightingales, blackbirds, linnets, and all manner of singing birds. Let all be arranged so that the beasts and the birds may easily be seen from the pavilion. Let there also be made a pavilion with rooms and towers wholly made of trees...”
Petrus Crescentiis, Opus Ruralium Commodorum. 1305.

Suddenly, a Garden!

Gervase Markham in 1613 explains how to set up a temporary garden for VIP visits:

"How for the entertainment of any great Person, in any Parke, or other place of pleasure, where Sommer-bowers are made, to make a compleat Garden in two or three dayes.
If the honest English husbandman, or any other, of what quality soever, shall entertaine any Noble personage, to whom he woul give the delight of all strange contentment, either in his Parke, or other remote place of pleasure, neere unto Ponds, River or other waters of cleerenesse, after hee hath made his arbors and Summer-bowers to feast in, the fashion whereof is so common that every labourer can make them, hee shall then marke out his garden-plot, bestowing such sleight fence thereon as hee shall think fit: then hee shall cast forth his alleys, and devide them from his quarters, by paring away the greene-swarth with a paring spade, finely, and even, by a direct line (for line must ever be used in this worke) then having store of  labourers (after the upper-most swarth is taken away) you shall cast up the quarters, and then breaking the mould and levelling it, you shall make flat(?) the earth againe, then upon your quarters you shall draw forth either Knots, Armes, or any other device, as Birds, Beasts, and such like: and in your knots where you should plant hearbes, you shall take greene-sods of the richest grasse, and cutting it proportionably to the knot, making a fine trench, you shall lay in your sod, and so joyning sod to sod close and arteficially, you shall set forth your whole knot, or the portrayture of your armes, or other device, and then taking a cleane broome that hath not formerly been swept withall, you shall brush all uncleanenesse from the grasse, and then you shall behold your knot as compleat, and as comely as if it had beene set with hearbes many yeeres before. Now for the portrayture of any living thing, you shall cut it forth, joyning sod unto sod, and then afterward place it into the earth. Now if within this plot of ground which you make your garden piece there be either naturall or arteficiall mounts or bankes upon them, you may in this selfe-same manner with greene sods set forth a flight, either at field or river, or the manner of hunting of any chase, or any story, or other device that you please, to the infinit admiration of all them which shall behold it: onely in working against mounts or bankes you must observe to have many small pinnes, to stay your worke and keepe your sods from flipping one from another, till such time as you have made every thing fast with earth, which you must rame very close and hard: as for Flowers, or such like adornments, you may the morning before, remove them with their earth from some other garden, and plant them at your best pleasure. And thus much for a gardne to be made in the time of hasty necessity."

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