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Plants in the Middle Ages: between reality and imagination

At Middle Ages, the imagination is an integral part of reality. The world then could not think of itself otherwise. Whether from a political, heraldic, literary or material point of view, the plant world is everywhere. Often, as almost everywhere in the Middle Ages, the Scriptures justify certain choices and give substance to the scenes of a particular flower, plant or plant structure.

Through this short article, we have chosen four themes. First, we will focus on the literary field with the case of honeysuckle in the poetry of Marie de France. Subsequently, with the example of medieval gardens, we will see how the correspondences are woven between the material world and the imagination of the men of that time. Thereafter we will harvest the fleur-de-lis, seen more from a "political" angle in order to take stock of the myths that surround it. We will end with a brief symbolic history of Apple. This brief overview is by no means exhaustive. Other themes such as the rose, the ash, the tree of Jesse or even the hawthorn could have found their place here.

The natural symbolism of Marie de France: the honeysuckle and the hazelnut tree

Among the supposed works of Marie de France, we know a collection of twelve short stories written in octosyllabic verse, the Lais. These stories, which are relatively short in length, are imbued with assured love and eroticism. In the 12th century - date of the composition of the "poems" - the fin'amor is booming. However, this carnal passion is not within everyone's reach. She is the prerogative of the noble people, of the Lady and her lover. The erotic symbolism of the lais is embodied in different elements, some of which are very material. Nature can also play this role of awakening and revealing the senses. Wildlife is particularly popular. The birds are particularly appreciated by the poetess. Besides, the flora is also well represented. This is what interests us here.

To describe the union of lovers, Marie de France uses the famous and evocative image of the honeysuckle which embraces the branch of the hazel tree. This theme is already found in various mythologies, as among the Celts for example. This vegetal metaphor actually serves to show in a courteous manner the union of Tristan and Iseut. However, the embracing of the two lovers cannot only be perceived as being purely carnal. As we have said, the poetry of Marie de France is part of the trend of fin'amor where courteous values ​​are in order. The honeysuckle carries within it an image of purity, freshness, which perfectly suits the feeling that the poetess wants to create in the reader.

If the honeysuckle in itself carries a strong symbolic charge, the hazel tree - and more broadly the trees that surround them - give the story an atmosphere conducive to the blossoming of the feeling of love. Both attractive and disturbing, the forest is a favorable place for the blossoming of sensuality. Hidden behind the branches, the two lovers live a privileged moment. It is also thanks to the wood that Tristan is recognized by his beauty. On a branch of a hazel tree, he engraved his name, which later allowed Iseut to follow in his footsteps.

The image of the honeysuckle embracing the hazel branch is also the evocation of absolute and infinite love. Indeed, as Marie de France clearly tells us, as soon as they are separated, the two plants die shortly after. The honeysuckle and the hazel tree form an inseparable couple, just like Tristan and Iseut. Let separation happen, and the outcome will be tragic. All this takes on its full meaning in the beautiful phrase of Marie de France which closes the lai: "Neither you without me, nor I without you".

Resorting to plants here makes it possible to summon both an image of purity and freshness within which erotic tension is in fact reinforced. It is this interplay of dualities that gives all its flavor to the poet's lay.

Reality and imagination of medieval gardens

From the eleventh to the thirteenth, the population of the West grew sharply, resulting in a growing need for gardens. In fact, the medieval lexicon is rich to designate these types of spaces sometimes described from a utilitarian point of view, sometimes staged in a literature steeped in Christian or secular culture. Usually the courtil is the small plot of land adjoining the house where some vegetables grow for local consumption. From the 13th century, we see the term casal in the southwest to qualify a similar type of space. Beside these utilitarian gardens, the purple is more present in the literature. In general, it is a plot delimited by a wooden fence or by thorny bushes (hawthorn, rosebush ...). In the same vein, the jarz where the orchard are places of peace where lovers come to meet in the middle of flowering trees, preferably in May.

Contrary to what one might spontaneously think, the gardens are not present only in rural areas. Indeed, until at least the 12th century, the urban fabric remained loose enough to accommodate many gardens, vines, meadows or barns. In the second part of the 13th century again, large agglomerations still have many spaces of this kind. The toponymy has kept a trace of it as evidenced by the name of the streets of Paris: rue des Rosiers, rue des Jardins, rue du Figuier ... In the 14th century in Reims, there were still nearly 46 gardens. When habitat becomes denser and construction takes precedence over unbuilt land, gardens tend to be pushed to the periphery while remaining Intramural. The cities are also surrounded by a “gardening halo” to use Georges Duby's phrase. They are then used to supply the city with vegetables, fruits, wine and other roots or medicinal plants. Anyway, in the city, owning a garden can be seen as a sign of wealth. Aristocratic, chivalrous and soon merchant families use this element to mark their social preeminence. Louis IX himself has his orchard on the tip of the Ile de la Cité.

The layout of a garden is designed according to the role that will be assigned to it. In general, we take great care to fencing it to avoid animal intrusions, but also human. Thefts of fruit or vegetables are commonplace and sometimes lead to endless conflicts in villages. To do this, we can use branches, hedges, stone or bricks when the means allow. Beyond the purely utilitarian role, the fence also becomes the marker of a spiritual space that invites meditation. The garden then closes directly to those of the Scriptures. Foreshadowing of Heaven on earth, it becomes the place where the split between savagery and civilization takes shape. Likewise, number of jarz and orchard host fountains. Besides the obvious utilitarian aspect, the clear and pure water which flows there is like the four rivers which irrigate Paradise.

The flora of the pleasure garden is varied. Flowers are highly prized and sought after. Here too, the symbolism of plants plays a major role, one thinks of the Roman de la Rose.. Moreover, the cultivation of the rose bush was very widespread in the Middle Ages. The red rose and its button are enough to evoke the amorous and erotic feeling. Next to it we often find rosehips, gladioli, lilies, daisies or even wild flowers. In addition to offering a little of their shade and their precious fruits, the trees are cultivated with special care. Here too, there is a wide variety of species: alis, cherry, chestnut, fig, pomegranate ... Non-fruit trees such as ebony, laurel, plane or pine also make up the landscape of these medieval gardens. The same goes for aromatic or medicinal plants. In the end, a good pleasure garden is one that appeals to all the senses: the vivid colors of the flowers; the varied scents of herbs; the softness of the petals against the rough bark of the trees; the bewitching song of the branches which cradle the lovers hidden behind a thick flowering bush.

The power of flowers: the lily

There are many myths and legends surrounding the fleur-de-lis. It is, however, an authentic object of history which must be linked to the political as well as the dynastic, artistic, emblematic or symbolic field. This stylized figure is already found on Mesopotamian cylinders, or engraved on Egyptian bas-reliefs. It is even found in Japan as well as on Sassanid fabrics. The oldest representations of the flower, similar to those we will know in the medieval West, date from the 3rd millennium BC in Assyria. Of course, with each period and in each space, its meaning changes. However, we notice that the lily has almost everywhere a connection with power.

The Middle Ages entrusted the fleur-de-lis with a triple religious dimension. She first made it a Christological symbol by basing herself on the Scriptures, in particular on this passage: " I am the flower of the fields and the lily of the valleys "[Cant 2, 1]. With the development of Marian worship in the 13th century, our flower becomes a marker of purity and virginity, once again based on the Scriptures: “ Like a lily among thorns, such is my friend among young girls "[Cant 2, 2]. Medieval iconography frequently associates the Virgin - and more widely the Ladies - with the lily. Finally, the evocative shape of the flower allows theologians to make it an allegory of the Trinity in addition to being assimilated to the three essential virtues of Faith, Wisdom and Chivalry.

The lily is also associated with power, as we said above. From the 14th century, the chroniclers liked to tell that Clovis himself was the first king to adopt it. However, the Merovingian's choice for the fleur-de-lis is a pure medieval invention. The first serious material evidence of a direct link between the flower and royalty dates from 1211. It is the seal of Prince Louis, the future Louis VIII. However, under the influence of a Suger or a Saint Bernard, the Capetians, since Louis VII at least, seem to make use of the lily as a clear sign of their piety, without however making it a royal attribute. The coat of arms ofAzure sown with golden lilies are definitively attested around 1215 thanks to a stained glass window in Chartres Cathedral. We can nevertheless assume that from the reign of Philippe Auguste (1180-1223), the lily had been incorporated into the royal coat of arms. Thus, by having recourse to the floral emblem, the Capetian monarchy is placed directly under the protection of the Virgin. The king becomes the mediator between Heaven and earth.

With his new coat of arms, the King of France differs from other sovereigns in several ways. While in England one leans for the leopard, for the eagle in the Empire or for the castle in Castile, the Capetian is the only one to use a floral emblem. Likewise, he is the only one to use the seed. The cosmic dimension is then undeniable. It is also reinforced by the choice of colors - "blue" and "yellow" - which directly evoke the starry sky. From 1372, the sowing gives way to the three fleur-de-lis. This time, it is no longer the Virgin who watches over the monarchy but “the benoict Trinity”. In general, the French monarchy, from the eleventh to the fifteenth, maintains close links with the plant world. Think of the lily, of course, but also of the flowering rod or the flowering scepter and crown. Likewise, Valois princes and kings draw heavily on the emblematic floral: roses, daisies, irises, holly, currants ... We can also add the famous oak of Saint Louis which Joinville likes to say that " it happened many times that in summer [the king] would go and sit in the Bois de Vincennes, after mass, and lean against an oak tree and make us sit around him ».

However, the use of the fleur-de-lis is in no way a royal monopoly. Everywhere else, it functions as a full-fledged heraldic emblem. It is mainly found in the arms of the small and middle nobility of northern Europe, or even in Italy. Likewise, in certain regions such as Normandy, many peasants have a lily engraved on their seal. This is a common figure that does not seem to have a direct link with its symbolism linked to power. In rural areas, it is more associated with the plant and fertile world rather than with the monarchy. Cities like Lille or Florence even adopt the lily as the main emblem within their coat of arms. In the two cases cited, the flower plays a "speaking" role through the Latin terms of lilium and flor. Finally, many abbeys or cathedral chapters make use of the lily, which then takes on all its religious dimension. In the end, the fleur-de-lis in the Middle Ages knows different uses and is loaded with multiple symbolism depending on the environment where it is found.

The apple: an ambivalent fruit

In medieval culture, the apple frequently has to do with flight on the one hand and pleasure on the other. In the West, it then embodies the fruit par excellence, while this role is occupied by the pomegranate in Islamic civilization or by the plum in Japan. In Latin, the term pomum is used to designate generally all the fruits. We still find traces of it today: potato, pine cone, golden apple ... The word pomum evokes the idea of ​​roundness. A distinction is then made between pulp and flesh fruits (malum) and those with hulls (nux). To summarize, the apple is therefore first qualified as pomum then malum.

Since Antiquity, the apple has been frequently associated with the nut when the plant world is staged. During medieval times, a new couple is formed. The apple is then seen associated with the pear. The two fruits love each other and fight each other at the same time. The pear's curvy shapes and supple texture make it look like a woman, while the apple plays the male role of the duo. Many proverbs feature the two fruits. In the 13th century, it was said that "there is no worse pear than apple" or that "better apple given than pear eaten".

Mythology has a close relationship with the apple, and this since Antiquity (cf. The Judgment of Paris). Think of Avalon, described asinsula pomorum by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. On this mythical island where heroes and illustrious kings rest, Arthur awaits his messianic return. Everything around him grows naturally. The place is guarded by the fairy Morgane. To attract certain travelers with the aim of conferring immortality on them, Morgana and her fairies wave apple tree branches. As often, the apple serves as a point of connection between the world of gods and that of men. Likewise, a number of mythical stories make this fruit a food capable of rendering immortal.

The apple also invites itself into the sphere of power. Since the Late Roman Empire, the scepter, the crown and the spherical globe have formed the typical attributes of royal or imperial power. In the Middle Ages, the Byzantine and Germanic emperors, and some kings, kept the globe. It is therefore not uncommon to see it likened to a real apple, both in the texts and in the iconography. For example, at the end of the 12th century, the cruciferous globe of the Holy Roman Empire is described as Reichapfel, or "apple of the Empire". In this case, the use of our fruit makes it possible to evoke the idea of ​​prosperity and abundance of which the emperor is the guarantor.

It was also during the Middle Ages that the tree of knowledge (Gen 2, 16-17) took the form of an apple tree through a clever process. Indeed, in Latin, apple and evil are said by a common term, malum. Medieval culture likes to match words and things. In addition, the apple tree as an embodiment of knowledge can also find its roots in other mythologies - among the Celts for example - or in the Arthurian cycle. For example, it is under an apple tree that Merlin tests his knowledge when he engages in magic.

In addition to these few positive aspects, the apple worries and intrigues. The theme of the poisoned apple is already attested at the beginning of the 13th century in the Death Arthu. Guinevere is then accused of having offered our fruit gorged with venom to Gahéris le Blanc. Likewise, the apple can be likened to the house of the Devil. Indeed, it can at certain times accommodate beings whose medieval culture abhors, worms. These infamous insects are said to originate from rotting flesh. Moreover, the Scriptures do not fail to recall that “ fire and worms are the punishment of the ungodly "[Sir 7, 17-19]. Last negative aspect that deserves an entire article, that of the relationship between the apple and the woman. Evil couple par excellence, it is that of the Fall caused by Eve picking the forbidden fruit.

In the end, the apple is one of the fruits most present in the learned and secular culture of the Middle Ages. Taken on the good side, it can confer immortality and apple blossoms are said to be the most beautiful trees that exist. Taken in the wrong way, the apple becomes evil is dangerous. She is the symbol of female corruption and evil.


- “Erotic scenes, courteous writing. The natural symbolism in the lais of Marie de France ”, Tovi BIBRING, Clio. Women, Gender, History, 2010

- "The gardens of the Middle Ages: from the 11th to the beginning of the 14th century", Elise GESBERT, Notebooks of medieval civilization, 46th year, 2003

- PASTOUREAU Michel, A symbolic history of the Western Middle Ages, Threshold, 2004

- PASTOUREAU Michel, Symbols of the Middle Ages. Animals, plants, colors, objects, The Golden Leopard, 2012

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