“Debunking Portrayal, Who’s Garden is it? The Significance of “Pottage”, Reannisance Gardens of Commoners and Wealthy

9/17/12 -10/01/12: Debunking Portrayal:  The Significance of “Pottage”, Renaissance Gardens of Commoners and Wealthy, Exploring Cultural Factors and Differences

I order to gain a more accurate picture, I have been researching the differences between the commonly found, Renaissance gardens of the wealthy and the somewhat lesser documented gardens of the common people. Although some information about peasant gardens exists, it has been interesting to try to decipher the differences between them in primary sources. While looking into the History of Horticulture in Europe, it is clear that gardens were often expressions of artistic form (Harvey, 1984). We commonly see the elaborately patterned gardens of the wealthy and this “Renaissance Garden”, but how accurate are they to the broader scope?

Did peasant gardeners use such patterns, did they have time, where they allowed to by law? In addition, were the lists of documented herbs and vegetables listed in so many sources, mainly the documentation of what the wealthy grew? In “The Vegetables In the Middle Ages”, John Harvey asks the very important question, how much of the commonly listed plants and garden vegetables of the Middle ages, like those written about by William Harrison from 1534-1593, were really a part of the common garden?

This project is asking about the difference between pre and post Colombian exchange gardens and plants of the Renaissance. Wealth people and royalty of the time almost certainly profited more and had greater access to newly introduced plants, post Colombian exchange. It certainly must have taken time for these plants to trickle through to the common garden and may be better found in primary documentation from a much later time period then were are presently looking in. The post Colombian shifts we are looking for may be found in greater abundance, in the well documented gardens of the wealthy. Harvey questions, “Little attention has been paid to the extent to which garden produce actually did, in early times, form a major part of the national diet… The tendency to accept ready-made summaries from secondary sources has led to the adoption, without comment, of the statements of William Harrison (1534-93) in 1577 as to development in gardening (Harrison).”

This leaves me with an important question about the our project. What groups of people do we really want to know about?  Now that I have learned these agricultural changes may not be seen so much in the same vein, are we asking more about the change in agriculture, or solely the effects on gardens of common people? How broad a scope do we want to have now, or should we have? Should we make any shifts or include more to better find at this information?

I have been researching the time period and thinking about the cultural structure to help understand land use and access to land by common people. Many common folk worked in gardens of the wealthy. Another important factor, the “Black Death” had its heightened period of attack in Europe around 1348-1350. This had a catastrophic impact on European cultures of the time. I can imagine that such an impact would have been a huge factor affecting peoples priorities, as well as how much documentation about common peoples, peasants, or agriculture in general, was created.

So many people were dying, that it was more important to try to survive, than perhaps, write. Is this also why gardens of the wealthy are better documented, other than the fact that they were simply valued more? There must be many reasons for this unequal documentation of society, money, control of land, class systems and access begin forefront. Coming through the “Dark Ages” and into the “High middle Ages”, as it is called and the end of England’s hundred year war with France certainly impacted people of the time. Protestant reform was beginning in the early sixteenth century, during the time Henry VIII ruled. This certainly impacted many things, even those linked to food.

The Black Death, laws or control by kings and royalty the “Lancastrain uprising (Harrison)” and other factors may have contributed to what is further emphasized by Harrison in his 1577 documentation, understood by Harvey to mean, “a diet rich in fruits and vegetables from c.1270 until 1400, followed by an almost disuse of kitchen gardening until 1525, after which we enter the modern world (Harvey).” Henry VIII reined in England from 1509-1525, interestingly, “…There was a very marked enrichment of diet during the reign of Henry VIII is certainly the case,and royal and noble tables first saw delicacies such as asparagus, globe artichokes, melons and apricots (Harvey).”

So, we know these vegetables existed early in England, but for whom, mainly for the wealthy to enjoy. Perhaps the peasants who worked in the gardens were payed in food, or seeds, maybe they had access to a degree? The same can be said for many cook books of the time, although valuable in their own ways, which document only a wealthy diet and “throw little light on the everyday meals eaten by most of the population (Harvey).”

The more important thing is to understand what the majority of the population did indeed have for land space, and what they did with it. I have found a good way to do this is to identify one or a few main staple dishes of the common population. Harvey mentions a primary source by Andrew Boorde, “Dyetary of 1542“, in which states that pottage, NOT porridge, was most defiantly a primary food staple of England. Pottage has been commonly confused with the word and food porridge, but it is quite different (Harvey). Oat based Porridge was not a primary food staple in England.

Pottage is an old food, found farther back then we are specifically looking. Boorde spoke about the “lay gardeners”, the garden workers and mentioned an interaction and payment with a meal. “This at Beaulieu Abbey, Hants., in 1270, there were daily allowances for the lay gardeners (ortolani) consisting of a convent loaf, a gallon of good ale, and four bowlfuls (scutellas) of the convent pottage (Boorde, Harvey)”. ” It is no doubt that pottage, bread and ale were the three essentials of diet for most English men and women of the whole Middle Ages (Harvey)”.

     Pottage, also called Porray or Sewe, is the what we might think of as a watered down savory/herbal soup, consisting of different herbs/plants, grown specifically for pottage. When we see the term “pottage herbs”, “porrets”, “porray plants”, or garden plots that list as such, it does not mean that these herbs were in pots, it means they are plants used for this daily preparation, so much so that entire areas of garden were sectioned off for them. Harvey states, that pottage was cooked over a fire in a metal pot, water or stock from meat, fish or poultry was added and then the “good pottagers” … “leaves of colewort (brassica oleracea), leeks (Allium porrum), peas (Pisum sativum), and broad beans (Vicia faba). The principal flavoring used was parsley and many cole plants..(Harvey).” As for the allium family, common onions, green onion, scallions, shallots and Chibols are mentioned being present in the late 1300′s.

I found these and other Renaissance vegetables grown, in the Herbals I mentioned last post. The trick is to figure out the layout of the common peoples gardens and figure out distinctions between plants grown by the wealthy and those grown by the common population, only some of which overlap. “…the diet of nobility and gentry differed fundamentally from that of the general populace. Obviously the upper class consumed large amounts of meat, fish, poultry and game in addition to basic rations (Harvey)”. Harvey also mentions some important name for these pottage areas, “kale yards”, “kitchen gardens or wort gardens”, bingo!

Harvey mentions a heavy reliance on “the cabbage tribe” among the common population, further emphasizing some of the plants listed in my last post. It seems clear that we can focus on the cabbage family, in addition to specific herbs when planning for the Pre-Colombian garden. Perhaps the Post-Colombian garden, (for the time period we are looking into) may reflect more about gardens of the Wealthy, based on the fact that they were impacted first by plants newly introduced. Is this a direction we want, or need to go in to show certain differences?

Source (Journal): Harvey, John. “Vegetables in the Middle Ages.” Garden History Society. 12.2 (1984): 89-99.


2 thoughts on ““Debunking Portrayal, Who’s Garden is it? The Significance of “Pottage”, Reannisance Gardens of Commoners and Wealthy

  1. Pingback: Creating a Renaissance Era Cottage Garden in New England | John Gerber

  2. Pingback: UMass to plant medieval kitchen garden |

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