Monday, November 26, 2012

Expressive Landscaping

I hope all readers of this blog had a happy Thanksgiving - I certainly did, and enjoying time with the family is never something to be passed up.


Robert Liddiard, in his article "Medieval-Designed Landscapes: Problems and Possibilities," says that until recently, historians of landscapes have disregarded medieval gardens in favor of the "developments" and "progress" displayed by post-medieval landscaping and horticulture. Specifically, he says:

"The suggestion that medieval men and women did not, or could not, conceive of the countryside in anything other than functional terms remained influential in writing on high-status landscapes for many decades; the scattered nature of landholding, attitudes to private property, and a perceived lack of appropriate sensibilities all ensured that 'the aesthetic manipulation of the countryside was not to begin until after the close of the Middle Ages (Williamson 1988, 261)'"[1]

The line "perceived lack of appropriate sensibilities" caught my eye, as I feel it more or less typifies the academic and popular attitude towards the Middle Ages as a whole. Whether it is gardening, or science, philosophy, or art, medieval Europe is given the short-end of the stick in popular imaginings - nowhere is this more evident in the terminology of "the Dark Ages." What was nothing more than a smug declaration of superiority bycontinental Enlightenment thinkers has curiously maintained itself in public vocabulary despite numerous, efficacious challenges to its veracity. People are only now rediscovering Peter of Abelard, John Duns Scotus, and [to bring things back on track] the nuanced way medieval society viewed the world in which they lived. Particularly through landscaping and horticulture!

While never truly forgotten in the Roman Catholic Church, Scotus has for a long time been ignored in the secular academic world.

In the Middle Ages, we see an extensive and exhaustive effort by aristocratic and ecclesiastical nobles to reshape the landscape surrounding their demesnes. Medieval landscaping entailed the "creation of parks to provide a sylvan backdrop to residences, the construction of lakes and approach drives, and the use of ornamental planting" [2] among other things. The aesthetic impulse sometimes proved very strong for these visionary men: the entire village of Somersham in England was relocated in order to create a better approach to the bishop's residence.

This cute cartoon doesn't come close to how hardcore the middle ages were, man.

Joking aside, such a case does demonstrate the strong link medieval people held between buildings and the surrounding landscape.

While Liddiard admits that there is a question in ascertaining what constitutes "thoughtful design" or not [3], he counts at least 1,000 landscapes surrounding manorial estates as "medieval-designed landscapes."

Saltwood Castle, England. Note the vision of orderliness emerging from a wild, forested countryside.

Liddiard makes the point that medieval aristocratic ideas about residence found added expression through the landscape. [4] That is to say, medieval conceptions of status and rank expressed themselves not only through social customs and rituals and governance, but extended into manipulation and reshaping of the environment itself to express those ideas. The reasons for doing so are many. Among others: "some to emphasize wealth, rank, bountiful resources, the contrast between the wild countryside and ordered domain" [5], as well as that the appearance "could be pleasing for its own sake" [6].

Earlier historians had trouble with some medieval castles and their curious layouts, because the way their landscapes were designed seemed to offer little tactical advantage. Places such as Clarendon Palace, where Edward II worked to expand its parks, are better-viewed not under the heavy lens of "military determinism" but as a site whose landscape is meant to evoke a type of pleasure as much as it evokes lordly attitudes concerning land [7].

The ruins of Clarendon Palace

Liddiard relates a darkly amusing anecdote by a chronicler showing contemporary appreciation of the medieval landscape, centering around the 1123 visit of English King Henry I to the manor of a noble named Ranulf:

"Now as [Ranulf] was conducting the king on the way to giving him hospitality, and had reached the very top of the hill from which his castle could be seen, in his exaltation of mind he fell from his horse, and a monk rode over him. He was so badly injured by this that after a few days his life ended." 
-Henry of Huntington[8] 

Now, it might very well be that I have a terrible sense of humor (and I neither confirm nor deny these allegations), but it is worth noting in the story just how important the picture of the landscape was, especially for poor Ranulf!

My poor sense of humor finds this endlessly hilarious.

On a final note, I will bring up a quote I feel ties Liddiard's piece together:

"in a world where symbolism and ritual was of everyday significance, the landscape could provide cultural meanings that are barely apparent today."[9]

Leeds Castle, Kent.

Aerial view, this time besieged by a roving band of watermarks.

For example: Leeds Castle in Kent: the center part of the landscape is clearly modeled to reminiscent of representations of the cosmos, with Jerusalem at the center (much like how Loyola's medieval labyrinth has Jerusalem at its center!). In the wild expanse of the lord's domain, his castle stands in the center, like Jerusalem, the fulcrum of cosmic order [10].

If there is something I hope that this blog's posts (however infrequent) have displayed, is that the medieval people had far from a "lack of appropriate sensibilities" when it came to the world around them. Landscaping and gardening was another facet that the people of the Middle Ages molded their worldview into - this fact gets lost in a lot of "big-picture" analyses.

To tie it in to Loyola's own Medieval Garden, I have been reflecting for some time now how I can reshape the garden into something reflective of these ideals - the garden as a reflection of the medieval world. Suffice to say, the garden in the spring will be a different garden than the one that has situated itself by the Crown Center of Loyola University Chicago for now.

-Charles Heinrich


[1] Liddiard, Robert. "Medieval-Designed Landscapes: Problems and Possibilities," in Medieval Landscapes. 2007. p. 201.
[2] Ibid. p. 202.
[3] Ibid. p. 207.
[4] Ibid. p. 210.
[5] Ibid. p. 211.
[6] Ibid. p. 212.
[7] Ibid. pp. 202-203.
[8] Ibid. p. 211.
[9] Ibid. p. 215.
[10] Ibid. p. 215.


  1. "I have been reflecting for some time now how I can reshape the garden into something reflective of these ideals"

    -More ninjas. Clearly its what people of that time were aiming for.

  2. most Medieval project require big spaces. It should be huge I think to have a touch of Medieval look.