The Early Middle Ages are widely reviled in gardening circles (I have found out at great cost). Spiteful criticism by rent-a-gob garden polemicists of the 1300’s has lead to an ill-thought-out, but almost universally swallowed consensus, that this was a period barren of any insightful design, lazy in hard landscaping, and slapdash in its planting. Curmudgeonly critic Petrarch sums up the establishments entrenched ideology best when he says:
Each famous author gardener of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonour to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings gardens that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage.
Not so Mr P, not so. Today I am strapping on my revisionist armour and sallying forth to pull the Dark Ages and their accompanying ancestral heritage out of the compost bin. So without further ado I bring you the stinking, naked and well rotted, St Fiacre, Patron Saint of Gardeners.
That’s right the patron saint of gardeners is not Percy Thrower. It is an Irish monk born circa 595A.D. The Hibernian Monks are most famous for protecting Christianity and western learning from the rampaging barbarian tribes that toured Europe after the fall of Rome, and for drunkenness. They are less famous for their protection of tasteful gardening from the thuggish pagans (who liked playing football and having barbecues in their gardens). St Fiacre was one of those roguish Irish charmers, endowed with the wealth of the worlds gardening knowledge. Like any moderately talented Irishman Fiacre realised that the Emerald Isle is far to small to effectively propagate ambition. Unlike the modern day Irishman he did not flee to London, Sydney or New York, but went to France, to an area of woodland near the Nore River. Here he built a simple cell to live in, and started to do some serious gardening: he grew herbs, he grew vegetables, he grew fruit and he grew magic ivy, he also grew marrows to gigantic sizes and made them into chutney to serve in his hospice. As a kitchen gardener he was superb, as a show gardener he was better than average (bronze medal standard), but it was for his garden clearance ability that he was sainted, told by the local bishop he could have all the land he could clear in a day he simply walked around with his crosier uprooting trees and thundering through brambles like a huge great tonsured flail mower. Here is gardener of huge talent ambition and diversity willing to travel the world in the services of gardens, insufferable neglect this is not.
‘So what!’ I hear you cry ‘One swallow does not make a summer’ ‘I’ve studied for RHS level 2, I know my syllabus, Dark Age gardens are “squat, bulbous, boggy, choleretic, and aesthetically bankrupt”. Boggy they may be, but it is from this unappealing bog that today’s garden movement springs. Lovers of antiquity such as Petrarch can delight in gardens, but they will never be a part of a garden in the way that St Fiacre was. For the gardeners of antiquity, their high medieval followers and their renaissance offspring to be in a garden is great – to be a gardener is to be uncultured poor and servile. It is with the separate historical strand of monasticism that we see the garden interacted with and the physical connection celebrated in a way that anyone with an allotment will recognise.
So all you small holders, allotmenteers and grow-your-owners, the next time a stranger at a dinner party tries to spend an entire evening talking to you about Gardens The Dark Ages, please to not guffaw derisively in their face, for I am talking about your forefathers.