Post-urban gardening, now and in the Middle Ages

Reconstruction of two phases of the Forum of Nerva

Caroline Goodson

My new book, Cultivating the city in early medieval Italy (2021) examines the social, economic, and political values of food-gardening in Italy in the early Middle Ages (c. 500-c.1050). I was spurred to look at food-growing in medieval cities when I spent some time in Berkeley, California. I saw the urban cooperatives growing food in burnt-out residential neighbourhoods of Oakland, and the chic edible gardens in upscale Berkeley. When I sat down to read the preserved property documents of early medieval Italy, I kept finding references to gardens, vineyards, and orchards attached to houses in Rome, Milan, Naples, Verona, and Benevento and I wondered if there were similar patterns at play. I started examining how and why people farmed in the city in the Middle Ages, and then received a Leverhulme Foundation Research Fellowship to work intensively on the project.  

Kitchen gardens are historically part of country life, common in villages and at farms but not part of city life, where there was normally sufficient demand to support a large market of fruits and vegetables and the value of land was great enough that rents for houses were worth more than profits from planted lands. In modern America and Britain, the effects of economic decline prompted urban farming. In Detroit, for instance, the depression of 1893 led the city’s mayor  to create a 'potato patch plan' to allot quarter-acre plots to urban families receiving public assistance. Later, as industry declined in the late twentieth century, Detroit’s population plummeted, leaving acres of abandoned city lots in decay. Some of these have been taken up as community farms, such as Earthworks, an 1.5 acre organic kitchen garden run by a Cappuchin Franciscan monastery and its soup kitchen. Similarly, in London in the 1970s, the ground lots of derelict buildings were occupied for vegetable gardens. For example, the Harleyford Road Community Garden, Vauxhall took over the front gardens of a mostly demolished Georgian terrace owned by the City and Borough councils. The gardens were set up first as vegetable plots and then as a diverse pleasure garden with allotments. Local residents created agricultural areas to claim abandoned land and set up collectives to ensure their communal use.

Wartime market disruptions have also motivated urban farming. In 1939, as food imports from continental Europe became impossible, local councils in Britain converted open spaces into garden allotments. During the war, Kensington Gardens became a vegetable garden, Hyde Park had a piggery, and the moat of the Tower of London, grounds of museums, golf courses, playing fields and school yards were planted with food. Prompted by the Victory Garden, a major governmental campaign to encourage food farming, over half of all households were growing at least some of their own produce by 1942; many were also growing tobacco, which was heavily taxed. In London’s Bethnal Green an estimated 80 tonnes of bombs fell, destroying 2200 homes and rendering 1000 more unliveable. The borough cleared the bomb sites and developed them into food gardens.

In most cases, when the crises that interrupted long-distance food commerce ended, so did city gardens. Urban lots again became too valuable, or too cherished as leisure spaces, to be used for vegetables. The fate of the contemporary farms of Detroit is uncertain; many argue that as urban density will inevitably increase in our world, ensuring fresh food for urbanites will be a critical part of securing the health of cities, and the value of agriculture spaces within or adjacent to cities may come to outweigh the value of those places for residences. The current trend in urban planning, especially in emerging economies, however, places farming outside the city.

Some of the phenomena which permitted urban gardens in the twentieth century also occurred in the Middle Ages. The early medieval cities of Italy also faced dramatic declines in population and the collapse of long-distance trade, sometimes related to war. As in my modern examples, the people of medieval Rome, Naples, Ravenna and other cities built kitchen gardens and domestic orchards and vineyards next to their houses or took over open areas between houses to grow other unavailable foodstuffs. References to kitchen gardens at Rome appear in the late sixth century, the mid-seventh century at Ravenna and with increasing frequency as the documentary record expands in the Middle Ages. Lucca in the eighth century has been described as ‘a garden city’ based upon the frequency of gardens in the preserved property documents, such as this one dating from the year 738 and preserved in the Archepiscopal Archive, Lucca:

Codice Diplomatico Longobardo I 65 (a. 738) (=Chartae Latinae Antiquiores XXX, 913, pp. 96-7)
It is established by me, Aurepert the cleric, son of Autus, on this day, that I have sold, have transferred to you Iordanus, venerable man, priest, my house which I am seen to have inside this city, with its lot, garden and well, located near S. Giorgio. One side is held by Raduald the notary, with a hedge, and at the far end is the lot of Berucionus Belongonus, and on the other side is Mamarianus’s garden. As I said, a house with lot, land, garden or well, and everything which is seen in them, wholly; to me no authority is retained….

This document, written in Latin on parchment, records the sale of a house and garden, surrounded by other houses and gardens in the centre of medieval Lucca. It is typical in nearly every way, in the vocabulary used and the terms of the transaction. But the presence of a garden attached to the house marks a radical difference from the urban fabric of Roman-period Lucca, when townhouses lined the streets and food cultivation occurred outside the city walls. This document and dozens of others like it attest to a major change across all of Italy in how people lived in cities and put food on their tables. Urban food gardens of early medieval Italy were not simply ubiquitous symptoms of urban decline, as they are often treated by historians and archaeologists. They were planted because certain consumers wanted fruits and vegetables and made space to grow them. Urban gardening took place in direct relation to changes in economy, society and the urban environment. And just like in modern Berkeley and in the Dig for Victory/Victory Garden campaigns of war-time Britain, new cultural values were ascribed to growing produce.

The gardens in the medieval documents of Italy were probably not garden cooperatives or activist occupations like the examples in California or the UK. The market in properties with gardens was controlled by different urban elites, both private and ecclesiastical, such as Aurepert, a cleric. The study of these gardens, through their textual and archaeological records, provides us with a small window onto shifting social structures within the city, the presence or absence of markets in perishable foodstuffs, and emerging ideals of charity. The paucity of documentation about residential properties and social structures in the early Middle Ages have conventionally made these issues very difficult to understand. Looking at gardens casts new light on them. The combination of property documents with letters, narrative chronicles, and recent urban archaeology makes it possible to observe urban food provisioning in early medieval Italy and to relate the phenomenon of urban gardening to shifting power structures in the city.