Though in the Middle Ages plants were used far more out of necessity than they are today, they were also admired for their beauty and fragrance. The medieval pleasure garden was designed for delight, enjoyment, and refreshment; fruit and vegetable production was not the objective.
In the thirteenth century, Albertus Magnus wrote about crafting a medieval pleasure garden and encouraged the planting of
every sweet smelling herb, such as rue, sage, basil and likewise all sorts of flowers, as the violet, columbine, lily, rose, iris and the like...there may be great diversity of medicinal and scented herbs, not only to delight the sense of smell by their perfume, but to refresh the sight with the variety of their flowers, and to cause admiration at their many forms in those who look at them.1
The rose and the lily were undoubtedly the most important flowers in the Middle Ages. Both were entwined with symbolism, beauty, fragrance, and medicinal uses. According to Deirdre Larkin, former managing horticulturist at The Cloisters, "the Rose was dedicated above all other flowers to the Virgin, herself the rose without thorns. Red roses signified her charity, white roses her chastity."2 Beyond the rose's beauty and symbolic associations, it overflowed with practical uses: rose water was made for hand washing, rose honey was cleansing and nourishing, petals were transformed into rosary beads, and potpourri were scattered in drawers and smelled sweet—"put to the nose to smell do comfort the brain and the heart and quickeneth the spirit."3
In Walahfrid Strabo's poem from the ninth century, Hortulus, he illustrates the rose's many virtues:
Far and away the best of all in power and fragrance,
It well deserves its name "the Flower of Flowers."
It colors the oil which bears its name. No man can say,
No man remember, how many uses there are
For Oil of Roses as a cure for mankind's ailments…4
The Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum, was also dedicated to the Virgin. Its beautiful white flowers were a symbol of purity, and the golden anthers symbolized the light of the Virgin's soul. Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess, writer, and polymath, believed that the "smell of the bud of the lily and the smell of the flowers themselves cheer a person's heart and makes a person's thinking right."5 In addition to the healing properties of the lily's fragrance, the leaves were used to aid burns and serpent's bites. The root mixed with honey was thought to give skin a youthful appearance (the medieval anti-wrinkle cream!).6
Medieval plants are fascinating; there is so much for me, as a horticulturist at The Cloisters, to learn and discover. Working in the gardens, I am drawn to the stories that plants tell, and I witness the gardens' effect on visitors—people are calmed and refreshed when they admire the gardens' beauty. My work here is so gratifying, and it reminds me of the lines in Strabo's Hortulus in which he describes the joy and labor of tending a garden:
A quiet life has many rewards: not least of these
Is the joy that comes to him who devotes himself to the art
They knew at Paestum, and learns the ancient skill of obscene
Priapus—the joy that comes of devoting himself to a garden...7
1. John Harvey, Medieval Gardens (Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981), 6.
2. Deirdre Larkin, The Medieval Rose: A Gallery Looking Guide (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006).
3. Margaret B. Freeman, Herbs for the Medieval Household (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), 42.
4. Walahfrid Strabo, Hortulus, translated from the Latin by Raef Payne (The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966), 25.
5. Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard's healing plants: from her medieval classic Physica, translated by Bruce W. Hozeski (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 26.
6. Freeman, 40.
Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2007.
Freeman, Margaret B. Herbs for the Medieval Household. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.
Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981.
Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard's healing plants: from her medieval classic Physica, translated by Bruce W. Hozeski. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
Larkin, Deirdre. The Medieval Rose: A Gallery Looking Guide. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.
Strabo, Walahfrid. Hortulus, translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.