Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Peasant Economy Part 2: Gardens

A major problem in garden research (at least, that I have found) is that generally, as garden knowledge was so common-place and not considered a real "science" of sorts, most horticultural knowledge was passed down orally; at least, it was almost never written down. I assume it's the same with riding a bicycle - no one buys a book on how to ride a bicycle; everyone just teaches their children (and so on) how to do it. Reflect on future generations, who will ponder just what those strange, two-wheeled contraptions are!

What in God's name... (Here's to hoping that these get popular again one day)

Nonetheless, gardens and gardening are not entirely absent from medieval literature (as previous posts have shown) - and not just in the figurative and literary sense. Gardens and information regarding their care show up in deeds, charter, surveys, manorial or household accounts, and wills.[1]

Looking at the records in late medieval England, a few things can be surmised. Gardens, the actual food/vegetable/potager gardens, were designed for two things: food and money.[2] One cannot live on bread alone, after all (or oats, if we all followed my last, exciting post). Vegetables grown would directly supplement the peasant diet, and surplus would be sold for a profit - shown by the existence of "huxters" on the roads of English towns, and other vendors with great job-names such as garlicmongers and leekmongers.[3]

Borage. Seeds for which could be bought at Eye (near Westminster) in the 14c.

In management treatises from the time-period, you have little details thrown in about gardening - record-keeping and fact-checking details, like how many quarters of apples it takes to make a tun of cider (answer: 9 or 10 quarters) - a tun being the equivalent of 240 gallons.[4]

As mentioned earlier, gardens for lower classes were family-worked, where most of the produce was consumed directly. This leaves little actual written evidence of peasant and town horticulture, though they do factor in to the local economy, diet, and culture. Garden land itself was often expensive - townsfolk would pay premium in order to get the convenience of accessible fruits and vegetables.[5]

All the same, vegetables were important to non-aristocratic diets, comprising a sizable percentage of the diet.  Even the poorest, 5-acre farm in England could be expected to have at least a half-acre of space dedicated to a fruit and vegetable garden.[6] In a bit of hangover from classical ideas, the notion of body humours still very much applied - vegetables and salads were seen as "cold", and when consumed, needed to be matched with foods of opposite qualities.[7]

The humours of the body as depicted in a 15c manuscript. 

This is not to say that medieval folk didn't appreciate gardens for non-utilitarian merits. There seems to exist a genuine love of space set aside for relaxation and contemplation. Guilds would build gardens around their halls, fraternities would meet in them, lovers would make marriage contracts, and the elderly would spend their retirements - all in gardens.[8] A certain recognition existed, seeing the garden as something of a "Paradise," and that recognition awarded a certain respect and admiration for gardens in the Middle Ages.

[1] Dyer, C. "Gardens and Garden Produce in the Later Middle Ages," in Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition. 2006. p. 27.
[2] Ibid. p. 29.
[3] Ibid. p. 34.
[4] Ibid. p. 30.
[5] Ibid. p. 33.
[6] Ibid. p. 36.
[7] Ibid. p. 35
[8] Ibid. p. 39.

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