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Were medieval cities greener? Urban agriculture in the Middle Ages

By Lucie Laumonier

Cities have grown so rapidly in the past century that we tend to forget that, until the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of people actually lived in rural settings. Even just one hundred years ago, most of the suburbs of large modern cities were completely rural.

In the Middle Ages, cities comprised a large population of farmers, ploughmen and agriculturalists who worked in close vicinity to urban spaces. Most cities’ outskirts included an important portion of estates dedicated to agriculture where urban peasants laboured. However, one of the key characteristics of any city is that the food it produces does not suffice to feed its population. Medieval cities thus had to import most of the foodstuff required to sustain their citizens, even if a portion of it was produced locally.

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Medieval cities were also full of gardens and vegetable beds that people cultivated for their own sustenance or for extra revenues. This preoccupation with urban agriculture is evident in Le Ménagier, a housekeeping guide written by a fourteenth-century gentleman from Paris for his young wife which included several sections about gardens. This was done in part so that his wife would “have some knowledge on horticulture and gardening, grafting in the proper season, and keeping roses in winter.”

This article looks at the urban farmers of medieval France and discusses the roles of the gardens that were found throughout medieval cities.

Urban peasants: How Many Were There?

Medieval population estimates depend on the nature of available sources, few of which were drafted for demographic purposes. Wills and fiscal sources are often the main indicators of a population’s stratification. In the town of Manresa, Catalonia, 13.5% of fifteenth-century taxpayers were farmers. This proportion is relatively low, especially compared to the large city of Montpellier, Languedoc, which counted more than 30,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Black Death. There, 22% of the 1380-1480 taxpayers were farmers or gardeners.

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The data thus suggests that one in five late medieval urban dwellers in Montpellier practised agriculture. But, except for the gardeners, we have no concrete information about the actual work the farmers performed. We do not know for instance what proportion specialized in cattle or sheep rearing; how many were mainly producing wine or cereals. We do not know either how many owned the fields they tilled, how many farmed the estates of others, or how many had no land and no job security, and hopped from farm to farm looking for work.

A gardener from around the year 1425, depicted in the Housebooks of Nuremberg – Amb. 317.2 fol. 8v

Part-Time Urban Farmers

Few work contracts were made by the urban peasantry. In Marseille, Provence, 10% of the fourteenth-century work contracts analysed by Francine Michaud concerned farming and agriculture. The figure is low but compares to the data I collected for Montpellier in Languedoc. The reason for such a small figure is that agriculture, in general, seldom prompted the drafting of a work contract, even in rural settings where it was the primary occupation of workers. Since agricultural work was seasonal in nature, it rarely called for the legal guarantees long-term work contracts required.

In the Montpellier sources, some self-identified urban peasants juggled different jobs, suggesting that agriculture was not, in fact, their full-time occupation. Some men described themselves as “agriculturalist and gardener”. Two men were “carpenter and ploughmen;” one taxpayer worked as “musician and ploughman and public crier;” one was a “glove maker and ploughman;” while another was listed as a “ploughman and fishmonger.” It is possible that agriculture was their primary occupation but that they had a side activity to make ends meet.

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But it is also possible these workers took on agricultural work during harvest season as a way to supplement their earnings coming from their other activity. Medieval city dwellers often owned small pieces of land they rented out or cultivated in their free time. In the town of Castelnaudary, near Toulouse, 95% of the fourteenth-century taxpaying inhabitants owned at least some agricultural land. The rate was 91.5% in the fifteenth century. Most of these landowners held very small estates (less than 2 hectares), which would not have sufficed to sustain their families. Nonetheless, these lands did offer the guarantee of some sustenance to their owners.

Urban Gardens for the Poor and the Wealthy

Vegetables, fruits and various herbs had always been cultivated in cities for practical and sustenance purposes. Cities were covered with backyard vegetable beds in which people planted cabbage, carrots, peas and other products they would eat. Historian Jerry Stannard dubbed such vegetable beds “kitchen gardens” and underlines that “the produce of the smallest, most crudely tilled plot was preferable to nothing at all,” in that they provided “free” food to their owners. Besides vegetables, artisans and workers also planted (grew) medicinal plants.

However, the existence of kitchen gardens often depended on the population density of cities and on the demographic context. At times of demographic pressure, when cities were full, the spaces taken up by the gardens and vegetable patches of the poor were used for housing. The size and number of such gardens therefore decreased. But when the population declined, such as after the Black Death, unoccupied lots and abandoned houses were turned into vegetable beds to help sustain more modest households. Today still, depopulation in cities sometimes prompts the reconversion of available lands into gardens and parks.

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Unthreatened by demographic changes were the patrician gardens that belonged to the wealthier inhabitants of cities. These gardens were usually of the mixed type, containing edible and medicinal plants as well as ornamental species cultivated for their beauty and delightful scents. Ornamental gardens were heavily featured in medieval literature (which teems with scenes unfolding in gardens), where protagonists engaged in all sorts of activities — preferably courting a lady or discussing philosophy with allegorical figures. The Romance of the Rose is a fitting example of such.

An illustration from Roman de La Rose, depicting a fountain and a stream pouring outwards from the centre of the garden – Wikimedia Commons

Ornamental Gardens: Aromatherapy and the Pleasure of the Senses

Ornamental gardens gained traction (in popularity) after the devastations of the plague and its ulterior episodes. The scientific belief that nasty vapours carrying miasmas had caused the disease, as the airborne transmission of plague through droplets had been acknowledged by medieval physicians, fuelled the idea that gardens had the power to clean up the air. Gardens, in short, had a curative power one should not ignore. Through their odour, wrote Italian physician Marsilio Ficino in the second half of the fifteenth century, flowers and plants “restore and invigorate you on all sides, as if by the breath and spirit of the life of the world.”

The curative virtues of gardens worked in two ways, notes historian Carol Rawcliffe. On the one hand, the smell of flowers restores health by strengthening the heart, while on the other it works as a prophylactic agent. Medieval scientists recommended the scent of roses and violets as a form of protection against the plague. The perfume of violets was also prescribed to treat headaches, fevers, and skin diseases. Fourteenth-century physician John of Burgundy therefore recommended “to smell roses, violets, and lilies” before leaving one’s home in times of plague to avoid catching the disease.

Even more ambitious was physician Ibn Khatimah, who had witnessed the devastations of the Black Death in Andalusia. He argued that cities should protect themselves from the plague through the intensive cultivation of sweet-smelling plants around their boundaries. This physical barrier against the disease could then be enhanced by the stockpiling of plants to prevent its vapours from reaching the cities’ dwellers. In their homes, town dwellers could scatter freshly cut herbs and flowers on the floor to clear the air; and “refresh” their straw mattresses with the addition of lavender and other plants.

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Besides the curative virtues listed above, medieval physicians also believed flowers to be beneficial to mental health. Walking in gardens, smelling and looking at flowers uplifted people’s morale, which in turn had positive effects on their general health. Moderate exercise and strolls in gardens or, when possible, in the countryside, cured both the soul and the body. The reason why medieval hospitals kept gardens in their precincts were both practical (cultivating the medicine and food they needed) and philosophical, thus enabling the sick to breathe some fresh air and engage in light yet invigorating activities.

Medieval cities were surrounded by agricultural estates. Within their walls, the urban space was partly covered with gardens that belonged to the wealthy, to hospitals and convents. In humbler neighbourhoods, the extent land was taken up by private gardens depended on the period of time and the density of the city in question. The fewer the inhabitants of a city, the more numerous its gardens tended to be. Besides their role in alimentation, gardens, ornamental ones especially, also had medicinal virtues for the soul and the body. In the Middle Ages, smelling the roses was to be taken literally.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

Further Readings:

John Drendel & Kathryn Reyerson (eds), Urban and Rural Communities in Medieval France: Provence and Languedoc, 1000-1500 (Brill, 1998).

Jeff Fynn-Paul, Family, Work, and Household in Late Medieval Iberia: A Social History of Manresa at the Time of the Black Death (Routledge, 2017).

Elizabeth B. MacDougall (ed.), Medieval Gardens (Dumbarton Oaks, 1986).

Marie-Claude Marandet, Les campagnes du Lauragais à la fin du Moyen Âge: 1380 – début du XVIe siècle (Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, 2006).

Norman Pounds, The Medieval City (Greenwood Press, 2005)

Carol Rawcliffe, “’Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles’: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England,” Garden History, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2008), pp. 3-21

Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS NAL 1673

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