Renaissance gardens included more than food plants

My last post shared the results of research by six UMass and Mt. Holyoke College students who hit the libraries to learn about English cottage gardens of the 16th and 17th centuries.  What they learned was fascinating and is being used to design a Renaissance Era garden at the UMass Renaissance Center.

According to Mt. Holyoke College student Paula;

….gardens first became common after the ‘Black Death’ from 1347 to 1351 that killed an estimated 25-50% of the European population.  The plague left vast tracks of previously peasant-owned land untended after centuries of escalating food prices, famine and intensive food production whose abrupt halt due to the plague resulted in personal garden plots to be constructed near houses.  In addition to vegetables, these gardens would host an array of flowers and herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes.”

This post looks at a few of the non-food plants which are so much part of the story of the period.  While colewort (cabbage), leeks, peas, and broad beans were important in the English cottage garden, herbs, flowers and even strawberries were well-represented as well.

Abby wrote;

“Wild strawberries in Europe were very plentiful and grew like grass. They could be seen on lawns or in gardens between the flowers.  The flavor of the wild strawberries were much sweeter than today’s strawberries.  Strawberries also had a religious symbolism.  Celia Fisher wrote in Flowers of the Renaissancethe white flowers and red fruit stood for purity and for Christ’s redeeming blood. The three parts of a strawberry leaf reflected the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were distinct entities joined in one God.”

Notice the bowl of strawberries in Allegory of Summer by Lucas van Valckenborch, c.1595. Flowers were also part of the English cottage garden, as Madeline wrote;

“The rose is widely recognized as the national flower of England. It was likely introduced to England in the 13th century in the form of Rosa gallica – or the “apothecary rose” which earned its title from its many medicinal properties. Preparations of the apothecary rose include rose hip jam, candied rose petals, essential oil, teas, and rose water.”

Madeline continued;

“…the symbolism of the rose has a rich history… medieval Christians cherished the five-petal geometry of the rose – a symbol of the five wounds Jesus received during crucifixion. The red color of the rose also symbolized the blood of Christian martyrs.”

The rose also had important political symbolism;

“The most famous example of rose symbolism was the Wars of Roses (1455-1485), which were a series of struggles between the House of Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose) and the House of York (whose emblem was the white rose). Both houses groups claimed lineage to the royal British crown.

Following the death Henry V (the House of Lancaster) in 1422 (and respective crowning of the psychotic Henry VI), England was in a state of chaos. This period was characterized by heavy taxes, lawlessness, and massive private armies dominating the countryside.

After Henry VI (of Lancaster) was eventually deemed insane, Edward IV of the House of York assumed the crown in 1461.  Edward IV died in 1483 leaving his 12-year old son Edward V in control. The regent (temporary ruler) for Edward V was Richard III of York who locked the young king in the Tower of London.  He was never seen again.

Richard III became king in 1483, but was defeated in 1485 by the Lancaster army and their leader – Henry Tudor of Wales who claimed blood relation to John Gaunt, the First Duke of Lancaster. Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. This marriage united the feuding Lancasters and Yorks and brought peace to England. Thus was born the Tudor Rose (sometimes called the union rose) which represented both houses and incorporated both red and white in their emblem.

The Tudor (or Union) Rose

Roses had a more pedestrian use as well during the Renaissance, as rose petals were used for strewing (that is spreading fragrant herbs about the house to release pleasant odors as they were walked upon).  Remember, people didn’t bathe much during this period and became quite smelly!

Please be sure and take a look at my first post on this project, Creating a Renaissance Era Cottage Garden in New England.

These stories about the gardens of the Renaissance and others will be shared at our new UMass Renaissance Garden.  If you would like to follow the development of the garden and/or be kept informed when we are planning events at the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center, please join our “friends and fans” mailing list:

Join the Renaissance Garden Friends and Fans mailing list

We also encourage those of you who are knowledgeable about English kitchen gardens during the Renaissance and related subjects to share your own thoughts in the comments box below.  We would appreciate your ideas and may include them in the garden design.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  If you are interested in sustainable food and farming, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And please check out more of my posts or my personal webpage.

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