The garden in the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is one of my favourite such spaces in all of medieval literature. The text to your left (in Old French, should you be that way inclined) gives a rich description of said garden, filled with apple trees, almond trees, fountains, flowers of all colours and perfumes. It’s a place where the normal rules don’t apply. Anything can happen in such a garden.
The medieval garden is a place where people are protected. Consider the group of bright young things who flee Florence and the Black Death for a villa in the countryside, in Boccaccio’s Decameron. They spend much of their time in the garden telling stories to pass the time. It has been suggested that this garden is something of a mockery of that in the Roman de la Rose.
Yet the tradition of the secluded garden is not a medieval invention. Ancient Egyptian gardens have much in common with their medieval descendants, based on the summary provided here. Eden, in Genesis, is the garden in Biblical tradition. It has such a hold on the medieval imagination that it appears in personal devotional texts such as the Duc de Berry’s Tres Riches Heures.At the same time, in other medieval media, the garden appeared again and again. Turn your head to the left again – the Roman de la Rose garden still blooms in words. Similar trees and flowers fill tapestries, as in the Burrell Collection’s Mille-fleurs Tapestry with a Coat of Arms Guarded by a Wild Man (France/Flanders, wool and silk, c.1500), one of my personal favourites.
If we move forward a little further in time and into a different culture, the Burrell Collection also has a particularly beautiful garden – rolled up in a carpet. The Wagner Garden Carpet, produced during the Safavid period in 17th century Kirman (Iran), depicts a walled garden, intended more to evoke an image of the earthly paradise as inspired by both the ancient Iranian ‘chahar-bagh’ – four-quartered garden – and the description of Paradise in the Qu’ran.Coincidentally, its square shape links it to the garden in the Roman de la Rose. For me, it also evoked the carpet page in the Book of Kells, which I have for some time been referring to as the garden page. I still don’t think I’m wrong in my choice of term – perhaps “garden carpet page” would be best? The circles even resemble the considerably less ornate flower beds at my own Family Seat.
In both examples, the carpet and the page, it is possible to lose oneself in the paths and in the details. The medieval garden of love is probably the most abiding image of all medieval gardens that still exists in our consciousness today. There are several examples in Pre-Raphaelite art, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s watercolour of lovers in the garden in the Roman de la Rose itself. The presence of the angel playing music adds to the impression that this is a place outside normal time and space as we know them. Can we still say that there are examples of such gardens today? The normal reaction – of any self-respecting geek, at least – when mention is made of places beyond time and space is to think of the TARDIS. It has a swimming pool, and a library. I want to believe that there is a garden in there too somewhere.