What Asinus Teaches
Wild Reddit Question Appeared!
What would the yards between buildings in a Medieval European city be used for/occupied by? [image included for reference]
I stumbled into the excellent Layers of London website and was exploring a map of London from about 1270-1300. We can confine my question to that time and place if that helps. I also looked at some old maps of other cities in the 13th century like Paris, and while they’re a bit tricky to interpret, I think they have the same quality I found.
Here is a screenshot of a closeup look at some neighborhoods. The darker brown is keyed as “houses and other buildings forming a built-up front-age,” the white negative space is road, and the slight off-white occupying the space in between “blocks” of houses is keyed as “yards and gardens in the urban area.” That’s the part I’m curious about.
What’s so confusing to me is that it seems to occupy such a vast amount of space relative to actual buildings. When I read about medieval urban spaces, I’m told that it’s incredibly cramped and jam-packed with buildings. Watching/reading guides for drawing medieval cities for something like D&D show the only negative space to be the major roads between buildings.
Who owns/has permission to use the “yard” between everyone’s buildings? Does your business extend out into the open? Are there agreements between neighbors about how that space can be used? Is it more of a communal thing that is privately shared by every resident of that “block”?
What Defines a Medieval Town?
Our post-industrial conception of urban and rural areas is very black and white. The city and the countryside seems like two opposites in our modern worldview. However, green areas constituted the best part of most cities before the 18th century and medieval towns, especially, were tightly connected to their surrounding countryside or contado. Though international trade was a real thing, globalization hadn’t taken over local commerce. Cabbages were not imported from another country because you fancied them, they were found in your own very region if not in your own backyard.
Medievalists are often at odds when it comes to define what a medieval town was. Was it the walls? Was is the bourgeoisie (a class of priviledged town-dwellers)? Was it the population number? The medieval town is nothing like an ancient Greek or Roman city. It’s messy.
It grew organically around a few landmarks: a church, an abbey, a castle, a mill or all of those things! Privileges were first acquired by the end of the 11th century. Walls rose from the ground around the 12th century. Town really started to be clustered by the 14th century when the Black Death pushed many countrymen to cut their losses in the countryside and take their chances in the big cities.
However the city didn’t only include one single species of inhabitants. Beyond the social human diversity you’d also find cattle: cows and pigs for the most part. The first were popular for their milk, the latter litteraly cleansed the streets and also made up for tasty meat. Nevertheless, roaming pigs became a daily pest. It happened that a young French king died in Paris when his horse fell unexpectedly upon a pig. In Amiens, the town had to ban pigs from within the city walls several times during the 14th and 15th century. Really, medieval towns looked a lot like rural areas.
Aristocrats, Religious Congregations and Burghers
As I’ve already stated in a former post, medieval cities held several seats of power. In Paris or London, the king had his castle (the Bastille or the Tower); the powerful aristocrats had their mansions; the archbishop had both his cathedral and his palace; many priests had their own church and parish; religious orders were scattered all over town in their convents; the burghers had a towncentre, several indoor and outdoor market places; craftmen were regrouped into streets… Each of those members of society had their own rights and privileges, they had their own assembly, they answered to different political players. Not only was the town an actual maze of narrow streets, it was also a labyrinth of a political chess! Keeping everybody in check proved to be very difficult. Urban revolts were quite common during the 14th and 15th century, to the point that Richard II of England and future Henry IV came close to death when the good people of London stormed the Tower. Philip the Good, a few decades later, found himself trapped within Bruges and barely made it with his life.
This social diversity called for a greater architectural diversity. Lords and prelates often held actual lands within city walls. Behind the strong façades of their buildings–mansions, convents, churches–they’d entertain vast gardens or actual fields and pastures. Some of those well kept areas have been turned today into public parcs, big or smalls. Burghers who belonged to the upper-middle class also enjoyed their own private gardens. Yards were more common than we could expect.
Recreative Gardens, Urban Agriculture and Medicinal Horticulture
People of the Middle Ages enjoyed having a garden as much as we do today, if not even more. They had no TV nor printing press to distract them. Spending some time in the yard after a long day of work was quite the release. Friars were invited to have a gentle stroll in their gardens instead of napping after dinner. The rose already obsessed many people for its unique scent and beautiful shape.
Cities had often been placed next to rivers and marshes. When those marshes were dried up it became the perfect spot for in-walls agricultural fields. It wasn’t enough to help a city go through a siege, but it could help in times of generalized famine. Religious congregations were quick to capitalize on such parcels whilst aristocrats rather paid for the services of professional gardeners (they had lands in the countryside and didn’t bother to grow crops within city walls).
After the Black Death struck, it was also advised by many authors to maintain a medicinal garden. It’d be the jewel of a few hospitals and convents. Really, gardens were everywhere though parcels were divided and turned into construction areas to make room for more houses when rural exodus peaked. A few neighbourhoods were always quite densely populated though and in those cases gardens were more often replaced by courtyards.
Lyon, which is a very ancient city dating back from the Roman Empire, has many what we call “traboules”: secret shortcuts within neighbourhoods only known by the locals that formed over time because of the very high density of buildings. These are more than narrow alleyways. They go up and down buildings, connect various streets together and made Lyon a proper nightmare to manage and control for the authorities. However, the case of Lyon is quite unique. Most medieval cities, since they were not former Roman colonies, had gardens, alleyways and courtyards, in-walls fields and pastures or private parcs.
- C. Rawcliffe, “‘Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles’: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England”, in Garden History, 36 (2008), 3-21.
- E. Gesbert, “Les jardins au Moyen Âge : du XIe au début du XIVe siècle”, in Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, 46/184 (2003), 381-408.