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Horticultural Landscapes in Middle English Romance
By Nicole DeRushie
Master’s Thesis, University of Waterloo, 2008
Abstract: Gardens played a significant role in the lives of European peoples living in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By producing texts in which gardens and other cultivated landscapes are used as symbol and setting, medieval writers provide us with the opportunity to gain insight into the sociocultural conventions associated with these spaces in the late medieval period. By building our understanding of medieval horticulture through an examination of historical texts, we position ourselves to achieve a greater understanding into the formation of contemporary cultivated literary landscapes and their attendant conventional codes. This study provides a map of current medieval garden interpretation, assessing the shape and validity of recent literary criticism of this field. With a focus on the hortus conclusus (the walled pleasure garden) and arboricultural spaces (including hunting and pleasure parks), this study provides an historicist reinterpretation of horticultural landscapes in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Sir Orfeo, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, furthering our understanding of the authors’ use of such conventionally-coded spaces in these canonical romances
Few writers have given more than passing attention to the topic of gardens in any medieval genre. When facing a genre with a history of interpretation as rich and varied as that enjoyed by Middle English romance, it is evident that there are many areas which have received more substantial focus, and rightfully so. I believe, though, that by limiting the symbolic potential of gardens in this genre to a number of traditional interpretations, critics who do spend time in this area limit and even damage the validity of their arguments.
Interpretation of medieval gardens varies significantly. Critics have generally interpreted this topos to fit it into the critical traditions in which they have embedded themselves. As a result, it is necessary to map out the interpretive landscape in such a way that we may have a good overview and begin to pick out the critical points at which these varying interpretations overlap and influence each other. While many writers have approached this subject from an historicist angle, other critical traditions are represented here as well, including feminism, eco-criticism, and aesthetic philosophy. There is some variance, also, in the extent to which gardens are seen purely as metaphorical constructs, rather than literary counterparts to historical realities. As my own project is focused elsewhere, it is not my intention to dwell overlong on those facets of medieval garden interpretation that have garnered the most attention from literary critics, namely, the issues surrounding the Marian interpretation of enclosed garden symbolism, specifically as it relates to the garden of the Song of Songs. A brief summary of this vast body of work will have to suffice. For further reading on Marian symbolism, please refer to the bibliography. In general, in reviewing the critical literature, it is possible to ascertain that there are four ways in which these settings are commonly interpreted, though they are heavily interdependent.