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1 - Urban Gardens and Gardeners

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2021

Caroline Goodson
University of Cambridge


Reflection on food cultivation in modern cities opens up new lines of inquiry into the past, showing examples of civic authorities on the one hand, and community groups and individuals on the other, creating cultivated spaces for food production in periods of social and economic transformation. Examples from tenth-century Rome introduce the different kinds of evidence available for a study of the phenomenon, both material and textual. The material evidence of the cities of Italy (roads, houses, public buildings, and parks) provides the backdrop of urban change, the gaps in the urban fabric into which new gardens were placed. The available documentary evidence comprises charters of land sales, rents, and donations of urban properties, and there is discussion here of how those sources were produced and what they can tell us about the fabric of early medieval Italian cities as well as the people who lived in them. The chapter then sketches the historiographic landscape of the subject. Urban cultivation and gardening has long been recognised to have existed in early medieval Italy, but its relevance to broader pictures of social and economic history has not yet been evaluated.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

Growing your own food in early medieval Italy was both a necessity and a luxury. To feed a family, you needed land to grow things on. Sometimes you found that land in the ruins or abandoned lots next to you. And sometimes those ruins and that garden plot were prestigious and highly valued. Property documents from tenth-century Rome reveal a bustling city, living and working around its past. In 965, Leo, a priest of the church of SS. Quattro Coronati, located on the Caelian hill, and Helena, daughter of Petrus and Ursa, sold to Crescentius, son of Petrus:

a whole two-story house roofed with tiles,Footnote 1 with a courtyard in front of it, in which there is a pergola and a well and a marble stair. And also a large garden next to it and behind it. Wholly planted with vine. With different fruiting trees, and likewise the ruinsFootnote 2 with use of water, and with all of the things pertaining to them, located in Rome, Regio 2, next to the Decennias [i.e. marshland in the southeast of the city]. And between the boundaries on two sides are public roads, one to the Porta Metrovia, the other to the Lateran Palace next to Decennias. On the third and fourth sides … and prepared ground of the monastery of the holy martyr of Christ Erasmus, and a vineyard, in which is the slope of the heirs of Ursa, of good memory.Footnote 3

This house, garden, vineyard, and orchard were sold along with a number of suburban properties located outside the walls in Campanino, others at S. Lorenzo, and others outside the Porta Nomentana in a transaction recorded by a charter of 965, which was subsequently transcribed into the eleventh-century Register of Subiaco. The description of the properties conveys a rather fine urban parcel, including a substantial house and a range of cultivated land within the circuit of late antique walls around Rome. In this corner of the Caelian hill, the neighbouring lots were also cultivated properties, as the charter makes clear when describing the boundaries, so we might imagine this neighbourhood to have been a rather leafy patchwork of large houses, cultivated lots, and a couple of monasteries.Footnote 4 After the sale, the vendors retained use of the possessions for their lifetimes, a typical arrangement in cessions of early medieval Italian properties. The text of the transaction, at least the text as it has been passed down to us by the copy in the Register from the monastery at Subiaco, is very much in keeping with contemporary transactions concerning rural properties, as we shall see, and suggests that the buyers and sellers were of relatively high status, doing business within their same social horizon. Their cultivated lands were integral parts of their households, and the lots with houses and gardens were surrounded by other cultivated properties.

There were many types of food cultivation within the city of Rome, even within a single property. This is clear from another document dating to 982, according to which Iohannes, the archdeacon of the church of S. Maria Nova, Rome, rented out for three generations a house in Regio 4, near the Colosseum, to another Leo, this one a priest from SS. Cosma e Damiano (Fig. 2):

It is one two-storied house with roof tiles; the whole thing with lower and upper floor, up to its roof, with a small courtyard and pergola and marble staircase in front of it, with its garden behind it in which there are olive trees or other fruiting trees, with entrance and exit and with all that pertains to it. It is located in Rome, Regio 4, not far from the Colosseum, in the temple which is called the Romuleum [scil. the Temple of Venus and Rome], between the boundaries from one side, the house of Romanus, a smith, and the house of Franco and Sergio, brothers, and the garden of the heirs of Kalopetrus (deceased), and on the second side the garden on Constantinus the priest, and his associates, and on the third side the garden of Anna, most noble girl, and house of Stephen, a bronze-worker, and on the fourth side a public road.Footnote 5

Here, on the Roman Forum, a house located within the precinct of an ancient temple is a sizeable structure with different kinds of cultivated land around it. Neighbouring properties were similar holdings, though these may not have been as lavish. A marble staircase and pergola are mentioned specifically in the charter; they may have been particularly prestigious aspects of this house. The actors in the transaction are neighbours in some sense: S. Maria Nova is located between SS. Cosma and Damiano and the former Temple of Venus and Rome, so the people involved in this rental agreement worked and prayed very nearby this property in the centre of town, where Leo lived. These documents sketch for us the look and feel of the early medieval city, as well as a peek at the lives of its inhabitants, revealing the integral role played by urban cultivation in the life of Romans. Previous scholarship has paid considerable attention to the social relationships forged through property transactions and the ways in which status was conveyed through the re-use of ancient buildings and urban topographies. But the gardens and orchards, which linked people’s houses and status to their ability to provide food for their families, have been ignored. This book takes urban gardens as its subject, to redefine the early medieval city as a place where households were often productive, where food gardens were desirable assets, strategically protected, and where new ideas about wealth and welfare emerged.

Figure 2 Plan of the area of the lower Forum Romanum, including the Temple of Venus and Rome in the Middle Ages. Plan based on Lanciani, Forma Urbis, tav. 29.

The survey of the early medieval property documents from the seventh to the mid eleventh century reveals gardens, orchards, and other cultivated lands located both on the edges of the city, as well as in the more densely built-up centre. In early medieval Rome, as in every other city of the Italian peninsula, people organised themselves and their social relations around their food gardens. Many of the people who appear in these Roman documents were attached to a Roman church in one way or another, as clerics, lay officials, or lessees. We see also a tradesman, the smith, and women with allotments; we can see families organising their possessions and inheritances with a view to safeguarding houses – and their gardens and orchards – for subsequent generations.

References to kitchen gardens at houses in Rome appear in letters and contracts from the late sixth century, the mid seventh century at Ravenna, and with increasing frequency as the documentary record expands in the early Middle Ages. The episcopal city of Lucca in the eighth century has been described as ‘a garden city’ based upon the frequency of ‘horti’ among the houses in the preserved property documents.Footnote 6 Gardens have been taken as a ubiquitous part of early medieval cities.Footnote 7 Food gardens in the medieval city are generally taken by historians as clear signs of the decline of the post-Roman world. Once their ubiquity is noted, their causes identified as the economic collapse of the Roman empire, urban gardens are not explored further. Such a summary view overlooks the confluence of many social, economic, and political forces which created the need and the possibility of gardening, and misses the vigorous efforts of people to make and secure their access to gardens, and the values they accorded to self-sufficiency.

In this book I examine the creation of urban spaces for cultivation, their use, by whom and how, and ideas about productive horticulture in the early Middle Ages. The primary place of food-growing in early medieval Italy was certainly in the countryside, in fields, orchards, and gardens that were either owned outright, rented, or worked by obligation or servitude.Footnote 8 A geographic division between rural production and urban consumption is nearly universal for urbanised pre-modern cities from antiquity on, but in Italy the distinction became fuzzy for a period between about 500 and 1050 CE, and it is in this period that urban food gardening emerged across the cities of Italy. In the early Middle Ages, much urban property was cultivated for food.

My study of urban gardens, through their textual and archaeological records, provides us with a window onto shifting social structures within the city, the presence or absence of markets in perishable foodstuffs, and emerging ideas of charity. The combined analysis of property documents with letters, narrative chronicles, and new urban archaeology make it now possible to observe urban food provisioning in early medieval Italy and to relate the phenomenon of urban gardening with wider economic patterns, cultural and social contexts, and shifting power structures in the city. The centrality of household economies emerges clearly from this study, as do the rich and sophisticated new ideas about cultivation and Christian charity; these ideas gave colour and value to the economic and ecological transformations of urban landscapes.

A significant proportion of early medieval Italian documents which refer to agricultural land growing fruits, vegetables, grapes, olives, and sometimes nuts describe these cultivated lands as being within cities. A graphic representation of all of the edited property documents, more or less, from tenth-century Rome is provided here (Fig. 3). Out of 186, three-quarters pertain to suburban and rural farmlands owned by people or institutions based in the city, the rest to urban properties; of these, four-fifths are, or include, cultivated spaces. As at Rome, so too at Salerno the majority of the documents which pertain to urban houses include references to cultivated spaces. Paolo Delogu surveyed property documents from Salerno preserved in the Abbazia di Cava, identifying 105 houses at or around Salerno in the period between 853 and 946 CE. Of these, 10 are urban townhouses, 8 of which have plots of land joined to them.Footnote 9 Documents recording property transactions such as these constitute a significant body of evidence for the phenomenon of urban agriculture and reveal, sometimes, not only where there was cultivation within cities but also who owned a garden, and to whom they passed it on.

Figure 3 Graph of the preserved charters from tenth-century Rome and the proportion of these documents which relate to urban gardens.

Through my survey of the property documents from the seventh to the mid eleventh century, I can find gardens, orchards, and other cultivated lands located both on the edges of the city as well as in the more densely built up centre. In early medieval Rome, people organised themselves and their social relations around their food gardens. Many of the people who appear in these documents were attached to a Roman church in one way or another, as clerics, lay officials, or lessees. We see also a tradesman, the smith, and women with allotments; we can see families organising their possessions and inheritances with a view to safeguarding houses – and their gardens and orchards – for subsequent generations.

Ubiquity of Urban Cultivation

Rome was the largest city in Italy in this period and in all of Latin Europe until the eleventh century; it was the most complex city but was in many ways a scaled-up version of other Italian cities. The picture of a city filled with houses next to gardens which emerges from this sample of the documentary record is borne out when compared to Naples and its documents, and across Italy, both in the north and in the south. As in Rome, it was common for wealthy families and monasteries based in Naples to own rural properties outside the city, extending beyond the immediate suburbs to rural villages in the periphery, as well as their houses with gardens inside the city. For example, a family of smiths owned a number of townhouses on the Vico S. Giorgio, within the walls, as well as concentrations of property at the villages of Marano, 6 km to the northwest, and Miano, 3 km to the north.Footnote 10 One document describes a property parcel including a ‘terra’, a term which usually refers to a grain field, within the city and a vegetable garden outside the Porta Capuana.Footnote 11 It is unlikely that there were fields of wheat within the city of Naples, which was a relatively small area enclosed by walls, so there was some fluidity to the terminology of cultivated spaces both within the walls and beyond, as we will discuss. Neapolitan documents of the tenth and early eleventh centuries give some sense of the wide range of crops grown in and around the city.Footnote 12 These include greens (folia),Footnote 13 onions and leeks,Footnote 14 wheat and millet,Footnote 15 grapes for wine, made into young wine (saccapanna),Footnote 16 fruit and nuts,Footnote 17 chestnuts and acorns,Footnote 18 white beans,Footnote 19 small fava beans,Footnote 20 red beans,Footnote 21 and barley.Footnote 22 There is an occasional reference to citron trees at Naples; citrus trees, such as they were in the early Middle Ages, were mostly grown in the south.Footnote 23 Through the documentary record, Neapolitan urban cultivation and the people who grew food and received agricultural products in rental payments emerge in fine detail. They are one part of a larger picture of agriculture and its sociopolitical context in early medieval Italy, a part which warrants, I argue, special consideration.

In selecting urban cultivation as the focus of special consideration, I aim to reveal the interrelationships of economies, ideas, and material realities. While on the one hand urban production related to the wider agronomics of medieval Italy, on the other hand it reveals in fine detail how some people negotiated the changed circumstances of urban life in the centuries after the fall of Rome. In focussing on urban farming, we can observe other broad changes, too, such as the church – both the people within the institution and the ideas which they developed and put forward – becoming a major force within society and economies becoming increasingly simplified, local, and centred on households. In this sense, a history of urban gardening serves as a sort of microhistory, a spyhole into urban relationships, household strategies, and the practicalities of getting food on the table, daily, in the profoundly unpredictable world created at the end of empire.

Despite the presumed ubiquity of food gardens, and the abundant evidence provided by property documents, no study has yet attempted to explain when and how the spaces for food horticulture – vegetable gardens, orchards, vineyards, and grain fields – appeared in the urban fabric and how these changes respond to, or provoke other changes in medieval cities. Nor has the significance of urban cultivation as it evolved over time been the focus of research. This absence of study prevails despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that scholars have long noted the omnipresence of cultivated spaces within early medieval cities. Given the intense focus in recent years on the early medieval city as a centre of production and a landscape of power, the extent and nature of early medieval urban horticulture still remain unclear. Does the presence of domestic gardens indicate a shift in landholding patterns or expectations about the nature of the urban landscape? Did they appear in certain sectors of a city more than others? Is there evidence for change over time in their appearance and use, or geographical variation? Early medieval archaeologists, while noting the presence of areas which might have been cultivated, have not examined the ways in which gardens changed not only the urban profile of the city but also the social and economic landscape. Domestic food production and market gardens in early medieval cities have rarely been analysed at all, despite their widely recognised ubiquity.

Urban gardening was hardly unique to Italy among other parts of the post-Roman world, but there are two reasons for which Italy is a compelling focus of this study.Footnote 24 First, the cities of the Italian peninsula were emblematic of the processes of Roman urbanisation across western Eurasia. The legacy of ancient cities – and many of Italy’s cities were very ancient by the Middle Ages – was both material and cultural. Roman cities had been the principal places of governance, administration, much commerce, as well as the performance of civilising cultural values and status within imperial hierarchies. A dense network of cities, linked by roads and rivers, had developed across the peninsula during the Roman Republic and became richer and more vibrant in the imperial period, up to about 350.Footnote 25 The fabric and built environment of Italian cities endured as a resource to be exploited and re-exploited in subsequent centuries, and the idea of a city as a social and political entity, a machine for the performance of social prestige and power, and an economic condition generated by residential density, underpinned much of Italian society through the Middle Ages.Footnote 26 Thus, because Italian cities had been more numerous and more sophisticated than elsewhere and because they provided such central pillars in the structure of early medieval society, the study of urban gardens in Italy is critical to our understanding of how cities and society worked.

The second reason that Italy is a suitable subject for the study of urban cultivation is the availability of evidence. We know more about cities in Italy than about cities nearly anywhere else in early medieval Western Eurasia thanks to documentary archives and well-preserved (and well-excavated) city centres. Documentary records of the properties of early medieval Italy and intensive urban archaeology over several decades of the twentieth century provide ample and diverse angles from which to view urban food production. Using charters, letters, and inscriptions, this book plots the emerging phenomenon of cultivated land inside the medieval Italian city, from domestic vegetable patches, orchards, and vineyards between houses, to arable fields cleared within city walls. References to these kinds of plots begin to appear in documents of the late sixth century and increase in frequency up to the late eleventh or twelfth centuries, when population pressures began to drive most cultivation outside the city again, as gardens were built over for new houses and suburban areas were developed for commercial agriculture. Urban archaeology provides some additional insights into these changes. The centres of most Italian cities have been excavated, whether in the nineteenth century, after the Second World War, or in modern commercial excavations. Some very recent excavations have included palaeobotanical analysis of pollens and plant remains. The archaeological identification of gardens remains challenging, but excavations have revealed late antique townhouses partially backfilled with earth where deposits of Dark Earth (thick accumulations of dark-coloured sediments) formed. The material realities of early medieval cities, when considered holistically, make newly clear the chronology and extent of the change in structures of townhouses, and the presence of urban agriculture within residential complexes and household economies and the possible roles that urban gardening played in the evolution of new ideas about early medieval societies. Further, by drawing on such textual and archaeological resources, this book also attempts to reconstruct the unbuilt environment, revealing the range and intensity of urban cultivation in early medieval Italy and its economic and its social value. Consideration of the interplay between ancient buildings, residential architecture, and cultivated areas provides a new context to examine how people interacted in medieval cities through their urban spaces.


The intense urbanism of Italy is relatively unusual compared with the rest of the Western medieval world, where cities – such as there were – were small central places within territories filled with villages, rural monasteries, and elite country residences.Footnote 27 In Carolingian Europe, political ritual and social mobility were often tied to rural lands and their management. The Frankish kingdom (and later the empire), was ruled by the central authority of the king, but also through an extensive web of administrative forces, down to the county level.Footnote 28 By contrast, in post-Roman Italy, and in central and southern Italy in particular, cities persisted from antiquity through the Middle Ages as the key localities of power, politics, and economic activity.Footnote 29 Rome was, in many ways, the early medieval city par excellence. It was atypical in its scale but we might consider it the most successful urbanistic effort of the early Middle Ages, the most sophisticated expression of contemporary tendencies: a diversely populated city, with different social groups competing within the urban landscape to achieve and project status, a concentration of population which could both produce goods for exchange and demanded goods from beyond its region, and an elite which drove a market for luxuries. Other cities were less significant in their built fabric but nonetheless effective as tools for political and social mobility: from the period of the Lombard invasions of the mid sixth century onwards, several cities such as Pavia, Milan, Verona, and Benevento became residences of the new rulers and strategic positions in the military efforts against the Byzantines, while Naples, Rome, and Ravenna preserved official residences and administrative centres for the Byzantines.Footnote 30

Much scholarly effort over the past forty years has gone into establishing and arguing over the qualities and characteristics of these cities in their transition to the early Middle Ages. Historians and archaeologists, depending on the countries in which they work, or the kind of evidence with which they work, have argued about what constitutes a city in the early Middle Ages, given the obvious decline (or devolution) of early medieval society and economy with respect to the Roman period.Footnote 31 Some emphasised the preservation of street grids and toponyms, or the maintenance of urban fortifications as testimony to the continuity of early medieval cities with their ancient past; others claimed that the fragmentation of urban fabric, the abandonment of much monumental architecture of antiquity and its replacement by timber buildings or open spaces, attests a radical rupture with the ancient pasts of Italian cities, and there could hardly be a claim of urban continuity.Footnote 32 The presence of cultivated spaces within urban areas was a charged wire within these discussions about definitions, as cultivation has been held to be a key marker of the ruralisation – and thus decline – of cities:

The countryside penetrated the city: fields, gardens, vineyards, and empty spaces were also on the insides of cities; whenever reference is made to a house, it is always surrounded by a plot of land; [the urban house] is presented to us as an element added to the land.Footnote 33

In 1984, Gian Pietro Brogiolo described an overall picture of early medieval cities in Italy that was ‘not very far from the rural model’, and for him this was a loss, a negative trajectory of early medieval society.Footnote 34 An English archaeologist working in Verona, Peter Hudson, identified evidence for urban cultivation in the area around the Cortile del Tribunale in the heart of ancient Verona, and described this as ‘an image of desolation and ruralisation of the early medieval city’.Footnote 35 The presence of cultivated spaces within Italian cities has similarly been described as ‘an invasion’Footnote 36 or a ‘descent into rurality’Footnote 37 and urban transformation has been cast as a social failing. Thus, for Andrea Carandini, the eminence grise of Roman archaeology, early medieval cities were ignoble social failures:

A nobleman who has become a bum is a nobleman only in spirit and a pauper in reality. Thus, an early medieval centre can continue to be considered the city that once it had been by who looks after souls and goods, even if it now it is little more than a squalid village. By efforts of misery and degradation, the nobleman looks more and more like a real bum and the city sheds its noble urban mantle, looking more and more like a village.Footnote 38

These ideas have had a long life. Jean-Marie Martin, in his consideration of early medieval ‘cultivated space’ in southern Italy, excludes urban cultivated space as something aberrant, even while he acknowledges that agriculture was able ‘to insinuate itself even inside towns’.Footnote 39 There have been alternative voices. Cristina La Rocca made the most optimistic case, already in 1986, also based on Verona. She argued that the changes to the early medieval city were not a worsening of conditions, but rather a new model: migrations into Italy and the reconfiguration of a new political class with the Lombards enabled the reconceptualisation of ancient cities. While there was a strong interest in certain aspects of the cities of antiquity, the changes to cities, both in their ideals and in their realities, were part of the transformation of ‘cultural values and of the exigencies of political affirmation’.Footnote 40 The weakening of boundaries between the activities in the countryside and those in the city had implications for society, too.Footnote 41

If some scholars have insisted on the usefulness of urbanism as a line of inquiry in the early Middle Ages, whether they insist on the breakdown of urbanism or the perseverance of it, others have advocated abandoning it altogether. In their study of the pre-modern Mediterranean, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell argued for abandoning urbanism as an analytical category. ‘Neither route nor town is a particularly helpful category. Both can be dissolved into less readily mappable kinds of microecological functioning and interaction’.Footnote 42 They cast out towns/cities and investment in them as a heuristic and replaced it with ‘microecologies’. Horden and Purcell are indeed correct in the sense that a town never existed independently of its countryside; the agricultural hinterland of the city fed it, supported its economy. But a fundamental element of medieval Italian culture was its cities, and to negate the relevance of urbanism to medieval societies is to reject a category that was of principal interest to the people we are examining here. In this book, my interest is not in the city per se, but in the city as a particular form of cultural behaviour, of investment and effort with particular conditions and qualities of population density and political centrality.Footnote 43 Examining cultivation within cities both helps us to understand systems of food provisioning as well as it reveals hierarchies and values within cities, which were central to early medieval life in Italy.

The urban contexts of early middle Italy were defined and set apart in our medieval sources long ago, not just by modern scholars. For medieval perspectives, the first distinction to be drawn between urban and rural was whether something was located within the walls, or without. Early medieval communities invested heavily in the creation of urban defences, in Italy as well as elsewhere.Footnote 44 Sometimes, these circuits of walls included larger areas than ancient ones had done (this is the case, for example, at Milan, Ravenna, and Verona); in other cases and usually earlier, walls were simply rebuilt and repaired, leaving certain major elements of urban landscape without the walls. City walls in late antique and early medieval Italy served to delineate the areas that were explicitly under the care of the public authority of the city, whatever or whomever that might be.Footnote 45 This delineation sometimes excluded parts of the city which were integral to the collective identity and life of a city, such as cult centres and saints’ shrines, or (less often) rulers’ residences.Footnote 46 Processions moved inside and outside the walls, and the practice of civic and religious ritual knitted together the buildings and spaces inside the walls and outside.Footnote 47 Thus, we might imagine that in the early Middle Ages there was a certain degree of fluidity between the city inside the walls and immediately adjacent suburbs; the latter, though extramural, were nonetheless functionally integrated into the urban centre.

The authors of early medieval property documents made very clear whether a parcel of property is located within a city’s walls. The documents specify whether a plot is in the city where the document was recorded (using phrases such as in hanc urbem or hic infra civitate) or next to the walls of the city, prope muris civitatis; otherwise, it may name the village or territory where the land is found. ‘Urban’ thus existed as a category for early medieval Italy, separate from everything that was not within the city, and this distinction was emphasised and reiterated by notarial practice.Footnote 48 The documents of early medieval Italy placed great emphasis on the city as a fixed topographic and socio-geographic entity, with clear boundaries between what happened inside the walls and immediately outside, and what happened beyond the city. We must therefore uphold the heuristic of our sources.

In leaving aside the debates about continuity or rupture, vibrancy or decline, we can also set aside these debates regarding ruralisation as a characteristic of Lombards or any other ethnic category.Footnote 49 As has been clearly shown by La Rocca, the arguments made by Michelangelo Cagiano de Azevedo and others that there existed ethnically distinct forms of urbanisation which centred on types of housing, approaches to ancient public monuments, and degree of ruralisation, are not supported by critical examination of evidence.Footnote 50 Across the whole of Italy – Lombard, Roman, and Byzantine – there is evidence for cultivation within urban contexts. Some areas had greater or lesser frequency of urban gardens, and across Italy, different terms were used for the spaces, and the means by which people owned them varied, too; people of ‘ethnicity’ or cultural identities of the owners had urban gardens.

Sources: Documents

Urban food-cultivating lands are referred to in the documentary record by numerous different terms that make clear the horticultural purpose of the plot and which can be treated as synonyms for our purposes: (h)ortus, orticellus, ortalis, hortalicium, gardinus, iardinellus.Footnote 51 The language of the medieval documents follows the usage of antiquity: hortus and derivations of it referred to a cultivated space, usually dedicated to the cultivation of fruits, flowers, and vegetables for consumption or sale, what we might now in English call by a range of different names: vegetable patch, vineyard, orchard, or garden.Footnote 52 In antiquity, a hortus (or ortus, or ortalis) was most often attached to a house or a tomb and was differentiated from a field (ager) or monumental parks (the named horti of Rome, discussed in Chapter 2, Rome, p. 47). In the early Middle Ages, horticultural terminology became much more fluid, following regional variations in vocabulary more than variations in practice. Occasionally there is a reference to a uiridarium, which for Italian documents referred to an ornamental pleasure garden, not a productive one.Footnote 53 In medieval property documents, a hortus, orticellus, ortalis, or iardinus were all cultivated with vegetables or fruits, including fruiting trees; a vinea or pergola vineata was planted with grapevines, most probably for making wine. Sometimes the plots were independent, such as a ‘garden which is surrounded by a pergola, perhaps of grapevines, to be used as a courtyard, in addition to a wellFootnote 54 or a ‘small piece of land in the city of Piacenza’ measuring 6 tabulas and 10 feet.Footnote 55 Most often, however, cultivated areas appear in our documents as part of the urban residential plot with a house. Houses (domus) in the early medieval documents of Italy may have had one or two stories (terrinea or solarata), and some were roofed with tiles (teguliciam). Some domus had walled yards or courtyards (clusura, corta, curta, curtis) around them or within them. Terra (land) appears often in our documents; terra vacua was not cultivated, and terrae in the countryside were fields planted with grain, yet terra was clearly often used in an urban context to refer to a cultivated lot in cities, especially Milan.Footnote 56

Scholars have rather boldly claimed that some terms certainly indicated cultivated spaces while others certainly did not. Cagiano De Azevedo saw the corte or corticellae in the documents of many cities as communal spaces for many families or courtyards in which a well was placed, not necessarily cultivated.Footnote 57 At Rome, some of them clearly were, as shown in a document from the early eleventh century recording a house in Trastevere with a garden (ortua) behind and a courtyard (corta) in front in which there are fruiting trees.Footnote 58 Arthur takes the view that many curtes in documents from Naples were ‘back gardens or orchards’ and the curte commune was cultivated communally.Footnote 59 By contrast, Delogu considered the phrase casa et curticella qui est coniuncta in the documents from Salerno to be a house with a ‘verzière’, a kitchen garden or domestic orchard; by contrast, he did not believe a terra cum casa was necessarily cultivated, but rather the terra was the curtilage (the land immediately surrounding a house) and thus not cultivated.Footnote 60 I do not believe that the people making these documents were consistent up and down the peninsula in their usage of terms such as curta; these may or may not have been cultivated, some or all or none of the time. In this book, I have based my analysis on documents which were clear about cultivated space, usually with terms that are unambiguous in their context, both productive and urban, such as this one from 1004 at Rome: ‘It is a garden in which there are fig trees together with stones and column in it, and all inside it, which measures 40 feet in length, and 30 feet in width, surrounded by walls … Located in Regio 6, Rome’.Footnote 61

There are thousands of original Latin property documents from Italian cities which date from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, many of which are preserved in the original, others of which are transcribed in registers or cartularies. There might be about 7,500 documents issued by individuals and ecclesiastical institutions (that is to say, documents not issued by public authorities) from northern and central Italy (between the years 680 and 1000), and considerably fewer from the South;Footnote 62 but we could probably guesstimate a total of about 10,000 preserved documents, and perhaps another 5,000 for the first half of the eleventh century.Footnote 63 There are no significant archives of lay figures for this period, and the overwhelming majority of the documents preserved have been transmitted down to the present day because of the involvement of a church or monastery.Footnote 64 The societies of medieval Italy, like those of other parts of the post-Roman world, bought and sold properties. In doing so they forged relationships through the exchanges of property and cultivated moral and social values of generosity, reciprocal obligations, and the preservation of history, memory, and interpersonal bonds formed by land transactions and shared property boundaries.Footnote 65 Also, owning land was a means to exert power over other people; it was not only treated as an exercise in efficiently extracting surplus for profit.Footnote 66 Given the economic and social benefits arising from property transactions, the market of agricultural properties was generally brisk in most parts of medieval Italy.Footnote 67

Through charters, the economic and social relationships around property are visible to us, and property documents constitute a major source for the history of the early Middle Ages, both how people related to each other and how people lived and worked in their environments. In the broadest sense, charters preserve the terms and key elements of a transaction in a consistent format, usually composed by a professional. For early medieval Italy, whether in Lombard, Roman, or Byzantine areas, these documents follow certain patterns of composition: they include the date, often the ruler, the names and sometimes parents of the actors in the transaction, the details and boundaries of the property or properties being sold, donated, exchanged, or rented, and the terms of the agreement. There is a sanction clause against possible violations of the agreement, and then the document was signed by witnesses. The properties are often described in some detail, as the examples above make clear; boundaries are specified in relation to neighbouring properties or geographical features, permitting us to see clusters of neighbours and sometimes family members living in proximity to each other. Sometimes they specify the surface area of the properties – this is especially true of Milanese documents – and they give a price or a rent of the land, usually specified in local currency.

Property documents for rural and urban residences often assume the presence of cultivated areas alongside houses. Many documents recording the transfer of property use formulae; notaries had collections of model documents which could form the skeleton of a new document, and the formats and phrases which were used and reused in these formulae speak to the assumptions and expectations of those who commissioned and used these documents in their transactions.Footnote 68 Documents used formulae which mention gardens, such as a gift from Raduald of Antraccoli to the church of S. Prospero, Gurgite, near Lucca, of half of ‘all his possessions, whether house or house-structure, foundation, courtyard, garden, vineyard, lands, cultivated or uncultivated, trees whether fruit-bearing or not, and movable, immovable, and semimovable goods’.Footnote 69 The formulae used in Milan covered properties ‘whether houses, buildings, areas, farms, gardens, the use of wells, enclosures, fields, meadows, pasture land, vineyards and woods, houses and all things, and houses and all farmsteads’.Footnote 70 Documents and the formulae by which they were created speak to the prevalence of gardens among estates and in urban contexts as well. In the minds of those who used property documents, urban properties could be expected to have productive land with them. These productive lands contributed to the household’s food resources and also permitted their owners to interact with other owners including institutions of the church.

The rate of preservation of property documents from early medieval Italy inevitably has conditioned the geography and detail of our discussion of urban horticulture. I have considered the textual record of property documents from the major cities of Italy, both the largest (Rome, Naples, Milan) and the politically central (Pavia, Parma, Verona, Ravenna, Bari, Benevento, Amalfi, Salerno, Lucca). Within these cities there are some major gaps: the archiepiscopal archive of Milan has been lost, central Italy (Lazio and Tuscany) is by far better represented by preserved documents than the south and even parts of the north, and Bari has very few Latin documents prior to the eleventh century.Footnote 71 There are no Arabic property documents from this period which provide the kind of detailed accounts of land use, buildings, and cultivated areas for Italy that the Latin documents do.Footnote 72 Likewise, there are few Greek documents preserved which include detailed information of urban properties; the Brebion of Reggio (c. 1050) lists properties and their values from Reggio Calabria, and small collections of charters are preserved from Basilicata and Calabria, though they too pertain to rural properties.Footnote 73 The disparity in preservation of documents makes it challenging to assess regional variation across the diverse geography of the Italian peninsula. There is also a risk that the expansion of the documentary record from the mid tenth century onwards might lead us to perceive an increase in gardens where we simply see an increase in documents.Footnote 74 I have tried to account for this in my analysis and by considering the proportions of documents in a given place which pertain to urban cultivation.

I have privileged documents preserved in the original or in authentic copies, and I have eliminated many dozens of documents that refer to urban cultivation but which exist only as later copies and which use language or formulae reflecting periods later than the focus of this study. Some of the Latin documents are known to us only in cartulary transcriptions or in contemporary or subsequent copies. The reliability of these copies varies enormously, and some editors have been more interested than others in rooting out anachronisms which point to forgeries. Early on in my research, Cristina La Rocca reminded me of the forgeries of Pacificus of Verona, which she has shown to be products of later invention of a Carolingian past; and thus the purported ninth-century donations of Ratoldus, bishop of Verona, of five townhouses including one with a garden and a small garden nearby to form a scola for the training of priests of the cathedral, cannot be held as evidence for the creation of a scola, as the document is a forgery of the eleventh or twelfth century, as is the purported will of Pacificus which describes the dispensation of fresh food from his house and garden in a village outside Verona to the poor.Footnote 75 The general lines of what these documents claim may well have been true. But in order to explore questions about changes over time within the period considered by this book, I have tried to keep to documents which are original, or as close to original as possible. For Naples, this is practically impossible, given the destruction of the Archivio di Stato in 1943, though the main nineteenth-century editor of Neapolitan documents, Bartolomeo Capasso, recorded some information about copies.Footnote 76

Charters rarely tell us what was grown on land that is being exchanged, however. Sometimes they describe the property in words that make clear that they grew wine grapes, fruit, or nut trees; some documents specify rental payment in kind, such as the Neapolitan crops mentioned in the section ‘Ubiquity of Urban Cultivation’. The specification of a product in a document might sometimes suggest that on the land, the growers specialised in a certain crop with the aim to sell at markets. The majority of the documents considered in this book, however, do not specify crops, because they pertain to household-level cultivation as opposed to market production. In nearly every city of early medieval Italy, a significant proportion of residences had lots for cultivation, and gardens appear in different phrasing in the documents, as well as in the archaeological record, as we shall see.

Massimo Montanari’s work on the agricultural properties in northern Italian documents has shown that gardens attached to houses on plots for extensive farming were, apparently, exempt from dues owed to landlords; while a portion of the proceeds of the field were extracted as payment, proceeds of the garden were fully for the use of those who planted them.Footnote 77 While these exemptions are not often stipulated in the documents from southern Italy, where payment in kind was possibly less frequent than in Montanari’s northern documents, they may very well have nonetheless been practiced. Exemptions for gardens were, according to Montanari, the most relevant factor in the increased importance of the garden in the domestic economy in the early Middle Ages because they permitted the occupant to invest freely and reap the benefits of intensive farming without fear that the proceeds might be taken or that the value of the produce might fluctuate with the market.Footnote 78 While the return on planting of grains was, he calculates, one to three in the early Middle Ages, the return on garden sowing was surely much higher than that.Footnote 79 The value of the vegetable garden lay in its continual production of intensive crops. Through investment in fertiliser, irrigation, and labour, the soil of a garden could produce different crops nearly year-round. An oft-cited definition of a garden, from Isidore of Seville’s witty Etymologiae, is that ‘a Garden is so called because something always springs up there, for in other land something will grow once a year, but a garden is never without produce’.Footnote 80 The appearance of specific mentions of domestic gardens in property documents occurs before mentions of their exemption, however. The appeal of intensively cultivated fruit and vegetable crops adjacent to the household was probably more than their tax exemption, if indeed they were consistently exempt. The value of household crops in the context of widely variable crop yields and inconsistent marketing conditions, discussed in Chapter 4, means that gardens attached to houses provided a certain amount of cushion for household consumption.

The houses in the Roman documents discussed above had not only gardens but also olive and fruit trees and vineyards, and all of these might have been recorded in documents with the word hortus. Like vegetable gardens, orchards of fruiting trees appear to have been common in the cities of Italy. Unlike vegetable gardens, which could, in the right circumstances, produce a continuous supply of different fresh foods, fruit trees had annual cycles of crops. It sometimes takes years for young trees to produce fruit regularly, perhaps ten years after planting, so cultivating fruit and nut trees in an urban plot was an investment towards the medium and long term.Footnote 81 The documents from Italian cities tended to refer to fruit trees in a general way as arbores pomarum; in medieval Italy, people did indeed grow apples as well as pears, figs, hazelnuts, chestnuts, citrons (Citrus medica), cherries, and peaches as food crops, though our sources rarely mention fruit taxa by name.Footnote 82 Grape vines were planted on pergolas around houses and also between trees (arbustis), common in areas which produced wine; and vegetables could grow between rows of vines, as archaeological evidence sometimes makes clear.Footnote 83 Polyculture seems to have been normal for urban cultivation; space was at a premium. Coltura promiscua, a strategy of planting trees, grape vines, and vegetables together, has been traditional for Italian agriculture since the Roman period and seems to have been used in the early Middle Ages.Footnote 84

Sources: Archaeology

Food-cultivation and production were among the most common activities of past societies, but just as with sleep and sex, the archaeological evidence for the most common and essential activities of life is exiguous. The excavation of ancient and medieval gardens and fields has thus far concentrated mostly on boundaries, not usage.Footnote 85 Sown fields and the crops which grew there are challenging to recognise in the archaeological record without careful analysis of soils: the constant turning of soils prevents the formation of substantial archaeological stratification, the preservation of seeds depends on either waterlogged contexts or carbonised remains, and the collection of these requires sieving or flotation, which are time-consuming recovery techniques, not always adopted.Footnote 86

In Baldini Lippoli’s survey of dozens of excavated urban domus in late antiquity, not a single house had an identifiable kitchen garden.Footnote 87 Her study examined urban contexts of a wide range in size, from Rome and Constantinople to smaller episcopal centres, like Djemila (Cuicul) in what is now Algeria; but in no cases could she identify areas for food-growing. It is, of course, possible that excavation strategies and the emphasis on architecture in the study of late antique houses might have neglected areas given over to cultivation. As we shall see in Chapter 3, direct archaeological evidence of garden planting is difficult to discern. But it remains nonetheless generally true that in the imperial and late antique periods, Roman cities had active markets of foodstuffs, grown on estates outside the city, and while they had planted porticos and pleasure gardens, uiridaria – these later attested at least until the third century – there were not usually kitchen gardens at or around townhouses.Footnote 88

The horticultural products best studied by archaeologists are wheat, oil, and wine; this is perhaps related to the recognisability of the structures which their processing left in the archaeological record or the traces left of oil and wine containers attesting the distribution of processed crops. It is perhaps also because of the central roles those crops played in the Roman economy, especially through the annona.Footnote 89 Archaeological analysis of vegetable gardens has depended upon very exceptional conditions of preservation and very attentive excavations; a few examples are discussed in Chapter 2. Urban archaeology in Italy has been extensive in many cities of the north, somewhat less in the south. There have been some impressive recent excavations in Milan, Rome, Naples, Palermo, and Salerno which cast new light on the early medieval period in those cities. While medieval archaeologists have long noted the presence of Dark Earth in late Roman and early medieval urban contexts, this dark-coloured deposit has conventionally been interpreted as decomposed timber and thatch from structures in organic materials, decomposing rubbish left in abandoned areas, colluvial/alluvial sediment collected in abandoned areas, and/or sometimes spaces of urban cultivation. Such deposits are analysed in Chapter 2, where it is argued that Dark Earth might attest to horticulture; but more to the point, it attests to conditions which provided opportunities for horticulture in cities.

My study of urban 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 ideas of charity. The analysis of property documents combined with letters, narrative chronicles, and a new urban archaeology make it now possible to observe urban food provisioning in early medieval Italy and to relate the phenomenon of urban gardening with shifting power structures in the city, cultural and social contexts, and wider economic patterns. The centrality of household economies emerges clearly from this study, as do the rich and sophisticated new ideas about cultivation and Christian charity; these ideas gave colour and value to the economic and ecological transformations of urban landscapes.

Urban food gardens of early medieval Italy were not simply ubiquitous symptoms of the decline of urban fabric, as they have often been treated by historians and archaeologists.Footnote 90 They were planted because certain consumers wanted fruits and vegetables and made space among their houses to grow them. Urban gardening developed in direct relation to changes in economy, society, and the urban environment; they created new realities and prompted new relationships and new ideas, which in turn changed other parts of life in the Middle Ages. And the vegetable patches examined in this book were more than simple patches scratched out of abandoned space for the subsistence of individuals. Rather, they were strategic investments, undertaken by the highest and the lowest landholders; far from being a sign of ruralisation and therefore decline of the quality and sophistication fabric of medieval city, they attest to the reorganisation of urban economies and power structures. When considered in detail, the evidence for urban gardening in Italy is substantial; the many historians who assumed that medieval cities were filled with kitchen gardens were indeed correct. The phenomenon was not consistent, however, across all Italian cities nor throughout the Middle Ages. Understanding which consumers created urban cultivated space, by what means, and for which reasons, where, and when is the subject of what follows. The answers to these questions reveal a new sense of the urban household which emerges over the period between approximately 500 and 1050 and a new vision of how the household might serve as a model and even a constituent element in political structures.

This book is an urban history examining the changes and consistencies in the ways in which people organised themselves in and around cities. I am seeking to explore an urban phenomenon, agriculture, which is typically rural, and this exploration challenges some of the key principles of urbanism in the post-Roman world. Food gardening was part of urban life in the early medieval Italy, and exploring its forms and variations makes clear that gardens do not simply reflect wider changes in politics. Rather urban cultivation changed the ways in which people interacted with each other as well as with their environment, in terms of new views on the ways in which land related to power and households cared for themselves and the needy.

My research methods have been necessarily multiple and diverse in order to disentangle the structures and significances of this aspect of urban life. What would an environmental urban history of the early medieval city reveal? How can we characterise the experience of the unbuilt? Must we use the tools of analysis of the built environment? Was the cultivation of food an unspoken part of the daily grind of getting by, or was it culturally noble? I have deliberately juxtaposed evidence which is not always complementary: the documentary record provides altogether different data from the archaeological one, and both of these are unsatisfactorily incomplete for the period considered here. In considering the ways in which people organised their houses and the cultivation within cities holistically in the panorama of economic patterns we can see urban cultivation take on prominence when large-scale trading networks and opportunities for market exchange are few. Because of the importance of household-scale production in this economic sense, for the period between approximately 500 to 1050, urban cultivation also played a part in changing constructions of power in the urban landscape. When the overall scale of economic activity is reduced, as it was in this period, small-scale contributions can make large differences. Similarly, the consideration of cultivated areas within the city should prompt us to analyse changes on the timescales of plants and trees and the ways in which gardens might prompt novel human interactions.

Early medieval history has embraced the material turn, perhaps even more successfully than other subfields of history, and most early medieval historians now eagerly engage with archaeological evidence, art, and imagery alongside texts.Footnote 91 As I will show in subsequent chapters, the built environment – while obviously not capable of sentient choice or biological preservation – nonetheless provoked responses from the people who lived in it, prompting them to change their behaviours. One strand of material culture studies, which engaged with actor-network theory (ANT), has sought to blur the Cartesian divide between the dead, material elements of the world and the conscious thinking parts of the world. ANT has provoked reconsideration of the role which objects play in people’s lives by thinking about machines, or microorganisms, as provoking humans to do things differently. Andrew Pickering has suggested the metaphor of a dance to convey shared, reflective negotiations between people and things, including rivers/flood gates/engineers/levees.Footnote 92 I suggest that thinking about the built environment as a changing and evolving reality, with buildings standing and collapsing, being built and decomposing, and parts of the city growing and dying might help to push our thinking about the ways in which material forms manipulate our interactions. Architectural historians and archaeologists have long recognised that buildings, by restricting or inviting certain behaviours, delimit what happens in them.Footnote 93 Geographers and urban ecologists recognise the ways in which unintentional landscapes, or wastelands, decentre and disrupt webs of modernity and public urban space, and can even provide footholds for new plant species.Footnote 94 By thinking about interactions between people and their cities as co-productive and involving the intensive cultivation of useful plants, I suggest that we will see the domestic garden as a force which prompted new means of thinking about how people lived in early medieval cities: by forging and developing social networks around the household.

New Directions

Through this work I seek to build upon three intersecting discourses in early medieval studies: the social interactions facilitated by the property market and its records, the co-productive nature of human relations with their environment, and material culture as an agent in human interactions. For most early medievalists the first discourse is easily recognisable. An enormous body of scholarship has developed in the past 100 years investigating how people in the early Middle Ages used agricultural land, identifying patterns of ownerships at the end of the Roman Empire, exploring how tenacious these patterns were, and discovering by which means new practices of land-holding and farming supplanted old systems. Early medieval land was not a commodity, though it was bought, sold, and also donated and bequeathed. Land in early medieval Europe was worked to make useful things – food, material for clothing, and firewood – and it was pastureland for useful animals. Land was also a means of status; it was given, conserved, and exchanged with others, and in the nature of these exchanges, we can see individuals, families, and institutions strategising for their well-being, their food, and their status. The documents which record these transactions, of which we have seen some excerpts above, are narratives of alliances and ambitions in men’s and women’s relationships with their landscape.

The second discourse which informs this book has emerged recently in environmental history. Recent studies of early medieval plant- and animal-use have revealed not only the complex exploitation of natural resources in the early medieval period, but also that the natural world changed and responded to this use and prompted further interaction. Jamie Kreiner’s analysis of pigs in early medieval Europe has shown the ubiquity of the pig as a food resource, and critically, she has revealed the correlation between pig biology and agricultural strategies as they changed along with Merovingian farming. Because of their flexibility, pigs thrived in post-Roman landscapes of what is now France, and Merovingian Franks ate considerably more pork than Britain in the same period, in particular at certain sites where micro ecologies encouraged the beech and oak woods that pigs liked to eat in.Footnote 95 Kreiner has shown through the study of pigs that Merovingian society ‘was “thinking with” ecologies’ in the ways in which new legal codes, taxation structures, and foodways evolved in relation to changes in lived environments and the resources that could be extracted from them. Similarly drawing upon methods from ecology and biology, Paolo Squatriti has shown that early medieval cultivation of chestnuts in Italy developed in relation not only to the changing needs of post-Roman society (fewer people, less interregional trade of foodstuffs) but also in relation to the qualities of the trees as they grew and spread in the benign neglect of post-Roman forestry management.Footnote 96 For Squatriti it is not sufficient to chart the rise in documentary references to chestnut groves in eighth-century Italy. Alongside this work, Squatriti points out the biological qualities of the genus Castanea which permitted the groves to thrive and the people in villages around Lucca and Salerno to eat. The species of chestnut which is edible grows well where wheat does not; the shade it produces repels pigs but not goats and sheep, animals which were consumed in greater frequency in these parts of Italy than they had been in the Roman period and than they were in Frankish Gaul, for instance. Chestnuts reproduce by seed, without much assistance.

Some animals and plant species capitalised on the emerging conditions of late antique and early medieval settlements. In the post-Roman world some Roman fruits and vegetables endured, such as apples, pears, cherries, and plums. But everywhere we have comparative data from the archaeobotany, ‘wild’ fruits increased within the panorama of food stuffs; dogberry and blackberry grew more commonly in the early medieval Middle Ages than in the Roman period, taking advantage of less regular maintenance and abandoned space. Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus) and raspberries (Rubus ideaus) were known in antiquity; Pompey apparently brought the first raspberry canes from what is now Turkey to Rome about 65 BCE.Footnote 97 However, they rarely featured prominently in the archaeobotanical record and are often taken as things that animals ate. When the seeds appear in a dump, as at Roman sites from Modena, they are interpreted as animal dung, not human food.Footnote 98 But blackberry brambles, which are vigorous fruiting canes, grew in the suburban fields around Roman cities which had been cleared but cropped less intensively than in antiquity, if at all. Brambles have a propensity to increase in height and density when not cut back, as new canes grow over old dead ones. Blackberries, currants, dogberry, sloeberries, alongside the stalwarts of fig, olive, and grape: these all appear among the food waste of early medieval settlements and cities with greater frequency than they did in earlier periods. This change was not simply a subsistence move by hungry people to forage for food, but it was also an aggressive takeover by an opportunistic plant.

The Shape of This Study

Having laid out the parameters of the study and the motivations for carrying it out, the following chapter, Chapter 2, juxtaposes the urban and agricultural patterns of antiquity with those of the early Middle Ages. A picture of food-cultivation and urban density of the cities of Roman Italy is sketched in order to gauge the transformations of late antiquity, which included the populations in Italian cities and the fragmentation of urban density, especially with regard to high-status townhouses. The changed urban landscape created possible spaces for food cultivation where there had not been any before. These are apparent in the archaeological record as early as the fifth century and in the textual record in the later sixth century. A key piece of evidence for the transformation of cities is the presence of Dark Earth, dark-coloured sediments formed in urban contexts after the end of the Roman Empire. Dark Earth in Italy is shown here to have been transformations of deposits which were formed deliberately and which underwent a number of different, related processes of waterlogging, accretion, and weathering. These changes, like the deposit and accumulation of soil and rubbish, which grew into open earthy areas in the formerly dense Roman city, are explained in summary, invoking two contrasting views of the changes of ancient to medieval society: one stressing the overall indebtedness of the early medieval city to its ancient precedents, the other stressing the dramatic breaks between the past and the early medieval present. New scientific analyses provide new data on the formation of Dark Earth, tipping the scales to recognise the deliberate efforts involved in making Dark Earth and making clear that such urban contexts reflect conscious decisions and collective efforts. The broader economic shape of early medieval Italy, in terms of both regional networks as well as Mediterranean connections, provides a sense of how strategically important urban cultivation became in post-Roman Italy.

Chapter 3 surveys the overall shape of the phenomenon, situating urban food cultivation against the backdrop of rural agriculture which characterised the majority, though not the totality, of Italian agronomics. If the majority of food production for cities was rural, what prompted urban cultivation? What political, social, and economic benefits might be derived from farming in cities? Examples from Lucca reveal how the documents which attest to urban cultivation can reveal urban topography, relations between neighbours, and relations to larger institutions, such as churches. In small cities such as Lucca, we can see some tightly controlled cultivated spaces within the walls. Archaeobotanical evidence is providing new evidence for the extent and nature of this cultivation. Here I use it to demonstrate the radically changed cerealiculture in Italy for the fifth to seventh centuries, and then analyse in detail the floral remains of two urban gardens, one from ninth-century Rome and one from tenth- to eleventh-century Ferrara. These case studies reveal the wide range of foodstuffs cultivated in cities and the prevalence of polyculture, that is, growing many different things for household consumption rather than single crops for market production.

Observations and arguments about the political value of cultivated spaces in cities must take into account the economic context of urban food production of the Middle Ages. Chapter 4 explores the emergence of evidence for urban markets for foodstuffs and suggests ways in which we might understand the absence of that evidence for the period prior to the eleventh century. In the absence of commercial-scale farming of foodstuffs, household-level cultivation was the principal means of acquiring food for most city dwellers. The possession of food gardens and their exchange through horizontal networks of families or social groups allow us to see the prominence of family links and consortes or associates in the management of urban property and the control of urban food production.

In Chapter 5, I consider cultural attitudes towards cultivation and gardening in the early Middle Ages to understand how new ideas interacted with emerging economic conditions. From antiquity, land management was nested in several different clusters of ideas and values: the ancient Roman cultural esteem that was placed upon effective estate management; emerging ideas about self-sufficiency of religious households, such as monasteries; and ideas about health and medicine. Some of these ideas were rooted in different genres of literature from antiquity, from agronomic treatises to medical theory; and new, early medieval writing on monastic communities and recipe books for medicines emerged. Both sets of writings are considered here for the light they shed on agricultural practices and consumption of urban produce. This chapter also considers the movement of cultivated urban spaces into ecclesiastical hands and explores whether the new cultural values attached to food provisioning for certain groups, such as the dedicated religious, might have informed habits of charitable or pro anima donations of cultivated land.

Chapter 6 examines how urban cultivation worked in relation to traditional and emerging strategies of social power. Patronage and commissioning of public events and buildings was a key tool in the attainment and replication of social status in antiquity. In the early Middle Ages, new ideals emerged around Christian forms of wealth and support, and different values were attached to the acquisition of agricultural land. Urban properties took on new relevance, and agricultural property became socially valuable in new ways. Cultivated spaces within cities thereby were newly prestigious. This chapter charts three examples of this development from the mid eighth century to the early tenth century.

To conclude, we will consider the cities of early medieval Italy and the role of urbanism in social and political forms. We end with a glimpse of how the phenomenon of urban gardening for household consumption changes over time in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with the rise of commercial production, markets, and communes, a changed world, in which the social and moral value of self-sufficiency endures.


1 On the terminology of Rome’s houses, see Hubert, Espace urbain et habitat à Rome, pp. 172–9, and for Italy in general, see also La Rocca [Hudson], ‘“Dark Ages” a Verona’, p. 67, note 149.

2 On crypta/cripta as ruins, presumably with some functional use, see Wickham, Medieval Rome, p. 119.

3 ‘me leone religioso presbytero uenerabilis tituli sanctorum quattuor coronatorum. Seu Helena honesta femina filia quoddam petrus. Seu ursa quoddam iugalibus. Sub usufructu dierum uite nostrae do donamus. Cedimus. Tradimus et inreuocabiliter largimur atque offerimus. Nullo nobis cogente. Neque contradicente. Aut uim faciente. Sed propria spontaneque nostre uoluntatis. Post discessum nostrum donamus et largimus tibi crescentio dulcissimo atque dilecto filio petrus. … Idest domus integram tiguliciam solaratum cum inferioribus et superioribus suis. A solo et usque ad summum tectum. Cum curte ante se in quo est pergola atque puteum et scala marmorea. Et cum introito suo. Nec non et ortuo maiore iuxta se et de post se. in integro uineato. Cum diuersis arboribus pomarum simulque et criptis cum usu aquae. Et cum omnibus ad eas pertinentibus posita rome regione secunda iuxta decennias; Et inter affines a duobus lateribus uie publice. Unam que ducit ad portam mitrobi. Et aliam que ducit a lateranensis sacri palatii iuxta suprascripta decennias. Et a tertio uel a quarto latere [lacuna] seu pastino de monasterio sancti martyris Christi herasmi et uinea in quo est pentoma de heredes quoddam ursa bone memoria. Iuris uestri [uenerabilis?] maioris sacri palatii.’ RS 90 (965), pp. 135–6. For a map of the area, see Figure 15.

4 On the Caelian Hill and other cultivated properties there, see p. 88, Chapter 3.

5 ‘inter Iohannem … archidiaconum summae sanctae Apostolicae Sedis et praepositum venerabili diaconiae sanctae Dei genitricis Mariae domin[ae nostrae] quae appellatur Noba, consentientem sibi cuncto clero et serbitores eidem venerabili diaconiae, et te diverso Leonem humilem religiosumque presbiterum venerabili diaconiae sanctorum martirum Cosme et Damiani quae ponitur in Via Sacra … condutionis titulo. Idest domum solarata tegulicia et scandolicia una in integrum cum inferiora et superiora sua a solo et usque a summo tecto, cum corticella sua et pergula atque scala marmorea ante se, cum hortuo suo post se in qua sunt arbores olibarum seu ceteras arbores pomarum, cum introito et exoito suo vel cum omnibus ad eam pertinentibus. Posita Romae re[gi]one quarta non longe a Colossus in templum quod vocatur Romuleum, inter affines ab uno latere domum de Romano ferrario, atque domum de Franco et Sergio germanis, sive hortuo de heredes quondam Kalopetro, et a secundo latere hortuo de Constantio presbitero et de suis consortibus, et a tertio latere hortuo de Anna nobilissima puella et domum de Stephano herario, et a quarto latere via publica’, TSMN 1 (982), pp. 182–4. On the neighbourhood around S. Maria Nova and the temple, see Augenti, Il Palatino nel medioevo, pp. 102–3; on the bronze-workers there, see Wickham, Medieval Rome, p. 143.

6 Belli Barsali, ‘La topografia di Lucca’, p. 488.

7 ‘Avec une belle unanimité, les actes mentionnent tout au long de la période, et bien au-delà, la présence de jardins derrière les maisons. À cela rien d’original: dans toutes les villes, même les plus peuplées, espaces non bâtis et cultivés aéraient le tissu urbain … Omniprésence des jardinets donc, du Xe au XIIIe siècle, quel que soit le quartier [of Rome]’, Hubert, Espace urbain et habitat à Rome, pp. 164–5.

8 Montanari, L’alimentazione contadina, pp. 309–36; and on domestic-scale food production in villages, see Petracco-Sicardi, ‘La casa rurale nell’alto medioevo’, pp. 364–5.

9 Delogu, Mito di una città meridionale, pp. 118–19, notes 23–4. Later in the tenth and eleventh centuries, there are fewer documents recording houses with parcels of land: between 962 and 1064 there are 95 houses, with curte or terra vacua pertaining to only 10 of them, but 78 are without; 7 are unclear or pertain to houses already tallied.

10 Skinner, ‘Urban communities in Naples’, pp. 291–4.

11 RN 5 (917), pp. 20–1.

12 For discussion of the products grown in Italian cities, see Montanari, ‘I prodotti e l’alimentazione’; Skinner, Health and medicine, pp. 4–7; Vitolo, ‘I prodotti della terra’. Note that Skinner, Health and medicine, p. 7, identified cucumbers in two Neapolitan documents. This identification is a mistranslation of caucumenas, which refers to young plants or vine propagations and appears in many documents from Naples and elsewhere. See Libertini, Documenti del regio archivio napoletano, p. 70.

13 CDC vol. II, 336 (982), pp. 162–4. It has been suggested that greens were exclusive to Neapolitan documents, Health and medicine, p. 7, but they also appear elsewhere, if infrequently, cf. SMCM 16 (1072).

14 RN 443 (1033), p. 277 for the monastery of S. Gregorio, grown in Fullotani.

15 Among many examples, see RN 379 (1019), pp. 236–7, from the monastery of SS. Sergio and Bacchus, grown in Paterno.

16 There are dozens of records specifying payment in kind (wine) for the area of Naples.

17 RN 379 (1019), pp. 236–7.

18 RN 399 (1023), p. 250; RN 396 (1022), p. 247.

19 RN 395 (1022), p. 247.

20 RN 3 (915), p. 19; RN 281 (993), p. 174.

21 RN 267 (990), pp. 165–6 in Casaferro; RN 275 (992), p. 170 in the area of the Porta Romana; RN 277 (992), pp. 171–2; RN 391 (1021), pp. 244–5.

22 RN 392 (1021) pp. 245–6, in this case for the horses working the vintage.

23 ‘portionem de domum et de curte et horticello, ubi est cetrarius’, RN 67 (949), p. 57. On citrus, see Vitolo, ‘I prodotti della terra’, p. 18 and now AGRUMED. Archaeology and history of citrus fruit.

24 Compare Constantinople; see Maguire, ‘Gardens and parks in Constantinople’; Koder, Gemüse in Byzanz. On Byzantine gardens (broadly defined), see Littlewood et al., Byzantine garden culture; Brubaker and Littlewood, ‘Byzantinische Gärten’.

25 On the cities of Roman Italy, Cracco Ruggini, ‘La città nel mondo antico: realtà e idea’; Crawford, ‘Italy and Rome from Sulla to Augustus’.

26 Cantino Wataghin, ‘Quadri urbani’; La Rocca, ‘Public buildings and urban change’; Marazzi, ‘Cadavera urbium’; Goodson, ‘Urbanism in the politics of power’.

27 On the unique qualities of Italian urbanism and its historiography, see La Rocca, ‘Perceptions of an early medieval urban landscape’, pp. 427–8; Wickham, Framing the early Middle Ages, pp. 644–56.

28 Ganshof, Frankish institutions under Charlemagne, pp. 71–97.

29 Goodson, ‘Urbanism in the politics of power’, and discussion in Chapter 4.

30 Goodson, ‘Urbanism in the politics of power’; Brogiolo, ‘Capitali e residenze regie’.

31 For collections of essays related to this debate, see Brogiolo and Ward-Perkins (eds.), Idea and ideal of the town; Brogiolo et al., Towns and their territories; Christie and Loseby (eds.), Towns in transition; Hobley and Hodges (eds.), The rebirth of towns in the West. For a summary of the debate from the trenches, see Wickham, ‘La città altomedievale’; for a retrospective view looking back on the debate, see Ward-Perkins, ‘Continuitists, catastrophists’.

32 For a summary, see Ward-Perkins, ‘Continuitists, catastrophists’.

33 Galetti, ‘Struttura materiale e funzioni’, pp. 112–13, with reference to Piacenza.

34 Brogiolo, ‘La città tra tarda antichità e medioevo’, pp. 48–55, quote on p. 53.

35 Hudson, ‘La dinamica dell’insediamento urbano’, p. 289.

36 Brogiolo, ‘Capitali e residenze regie’, p. 14.

37 Gelichi, ‘The cities’, esp. pp. 181–2; Montanari, L’alimentazione contadina, p. 25; Montanari, ‘Structures de production’, p. 283.

38 ‘… un nobile decaduto a barbone è un nobile solo nello spirito e un povero nella realtà. Cosí un centro altomedievale può continuare a essere considerato la città che un tempo era stata da chi amministra anime e beni, anche se ormai si tratta solo piú di uno squallido borgo. A forza di miseria e di degradazione il nobile somiglierà sempre piú a un vero barbone e la città si spoglierà gradualmente dell’aulico manto urbano, somigliando sempre piú a un villaggio’, Carandini, ‘L’ultima civiltà sepolta’, p. 27.

39 Martin, ‘L’espace cultivé’, p. 238.

40 La Rocca [Hudson], ‘Città altomedievali’, p. 733; La Rocca [Hudson], ‘“Dark Ages” a Verona’, p. 77. Her arguments evolved and became more complex with time and in response to the debate. See La Rocca, ‘Lo spazio urbano’, esp. p. 399; La Rocca and Majocchi, Urban identities in northern Italy. See also Zanini, Le Italie bizantine, pp. 200–2, who distinguished between the physical ruralisation and the social ruralisation of cities.

41 Galasso, ‘Le città campane nell’alto medioevo’, esp. pp. 83–4; Arthur, ‘La città in Italia meridionale in età tardoantica’.

42 Horden and Purcell, The corrupting sea, pp. 89–108, quotation at p. 90.

43 Chris Wickham asserted the value of a Weberian Kriterienbundel of different aspects of city-ness which usefully constitute a heuristic for the early Middle Ages, Framing the early Middle Ages, p. 592; see also Loseby, ‘Gregory’s cities’.

44 Tracy, City walls; Wickham, ‘Bounding the city’; Christie, From Constantine to Charlemagne, pp. 319–24; Christie, ‘War and order’.

45 La Rocca, ‘Lo spazio urbano’, p. 417.

46 Carver, Arguments in stone, p. 33; Goodson, ‘Urbanism in the politics of power’.

47 On urban processions, see Andrews, ‘The Laetaniae Septiformes’; Lønstrup Dal Santo, ‘Rite of passage’; Flanigan, ‘Moving subjects’; Dey, The afterlife of the Roman city.

48 Mengozzi, La città italiana, pp. 93–4; La Rocca, ‘Lo spazio urbano’, pp. 426–7. For Milan in particular, see Balzaretti, The lands of Saint Ambrose, pp. 280–2. For an argument to contextualise the terminological distinctions made in property documents, see Settia, ‘Identification et ventilation’.

49 Fumagalli, ‘Langobardia e Romania’.

50 La Rocca, ‘Lo spazio urbano’, pp. 429–31.

51 On terminology see Vitolo, ‘I prodotti della terra’, p. 164; Niermeyer, s.v. ‘hortale’, ‘hortalicium’, ‘hortellus’, ‘horticellus’, ‘hortifer’, ‘hortilis’, ‘hortivus’, ‘gardinus’, using examples principally from Italian sources. For comparison with documents from Northern Iberia, where there were productive gardens, see Davies, ‘Gardens and gardening in early medieval Spain’, pp. 332–3.

52 Lugli, s.v. ‘Hortus’.

53 On uiridaria, see Chapter 3 on pleasure gardens and Goodson, ‘Admirable and delectable gardens’.

54 ‘hor[tus] [in integr]ọ, qui est in pergulis exọrnatus, cum usu curtis et putei’, ChLA.29.865 (=P.Ital I, 24, pp. 371–4 (s. vii). Square brackets refer to lacunae in the papyrus, round brackets provide the full text of words abbreviated in the document.

55 ‘peciola una de terra inter civitatem Placencia, per mensura tabulas sex et pedes decem’, Le carte più antiche di S. Antonino 23 (855).

56 See, for example, a dispute of 863 between Peter, abbot of S. Ambrogio, and Peter the priest over ‘terra ipsius monasterii … intra ipsa civitate’, CDLangobardiae 226 (863). On the word terra in the documents of Milan, see Balzaretti, The lands of Saint Ambrose, pp. 253–4.

57 Cagiano De Azevedo, ‘Aspetti urbanistici delle città altomedievale’, p. 668. Paul Arthur wants these to grow out of Roman peristyles, as a sort of reversal of the Republican-period hortus to imperial-period peristyle, but given the changes to residential architecture in Late Antiquity it would be improbable that such a direct connection could be made; Arthur, Naples. From Roman town, pp. 48–9; see my discussion of late antique residential architecture in Chapter 2, Townhouse Transformation, Archaeology.

58 ‘Idest terram in qua domus nostre construire edificate esse videtur, cum ortua post se et cortae ante se, cum arboribus pomatum infra se’, CDMA 30 (?1026, ?1027).

59 Arthur, Naples. From Roman town, p. 48.

60 Delogu, Mito di una città meridionale, p. 119, note 26.

61 ‘Idest hortuo in quo sunt arbores ficulneis una cum petras et columna infra se et omnibus intro se habentes, quod est in longitudo ad pedes semissales mensuratum numero quadraginta et in latitudo triginta, a parietinis eundem ortuo circumdatum una cum introitu exoitu suo a via publica et cum omnibus [ad eunde]m hortuo generaliter et in integro pertinentibus. Posito Romae regione sexta’, SMVL 26 (1004) pp. 33–4.

62 A full list of preserved documents to 899 is in Martin et al., Regesti dei documenti dell’ Italia meridionale.

63 Bougard, ‘Actes privés et transferts patrimoniaux’, and discussion in Costambeys, ‘The laity, the clergy, the scribes and their archives’, pp. 236–7; Bartoli Langeli, ‘Private charters’.

64 Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian economy’; Bougard et al., Sauver son âme; Costambeys, ‘The laity, the clergy, the scribes and their archives’.

65 See Lagazzi, Segni sulla terra.

66 Wickham, The mountains and the city, ch. 3.

67 On the land market in Italy, see Feller and Wickham, Le marché de la terre; Wickham, ‘Land sales and land market’; and especially Feller et al., La fortune de Karol.

68 Rio, Legal practice. On medieval charters in Italy and their composition, see Petrucci, Writers and readers in medieval Italy; Everett, Literacy in Lombard Italy; Les transferts patrimoniaux; Amelotti and Costamagna, Alle origini del notariato italiano.

69 ‘omnes res mea medietatem, tam casa cum structura case, fundamento, curte, orto, uineas, terris, cultum uel incultum, arboribus fructiferas uel infructiferas, mobile uel inmouile seo seomouentibis’, CDL vol. II, 133 (759) pp. 21–3. For other examples of formulae including gardens, see CDL vol. I, 134 (759), 136 (759), 139 (759), 140 (759), 148 (761), 175 (764), and many others. For examples from Southern Italy, see Benevento: CDC vol. I, 26 (845); Salerno: CDC vol. I, 207 (960); Rome: AGCS 78 (974?), 79 (991).

70 ‘casis, edificiis, areis, curteficiis ortis usum puteis clausuris campis, pratis, pascuis, vineis et silvis’; ‘casis et omnibus rebus’; and ‘casis et rebus illis masariciis’, Balzaretti, ‘The politics of property in ninth-century Milan’, p. 760. For discussion of charter production at Milan, see Balzaretti, The lands of Saint Ambrose, pp. 57–9.

71 Brown et al., Documentary culture, especially Costambeys, ‘The laity, the clergy, the scribes, and their archives’; Martin et al., Regesti dei documenti dell’ Italia meridionale.

72 Chris Wickham has pointed me to one Arabic document about a residential building (قاعة, qāʿa) in Palermo, dating from after 998, recently edited in Mouton et al., Propriétés rurales et urbaines à Damas, 7 (998), pp. 130–3, but it is surely the exception which proves the rule.

73 Syllabus Graecarum Membranarum includes about thirty-five documents from our period, all rural; Robinson, History and cartulary of the Greek monastery of SS Elias and Anastasius of Carbone has a couple of wills including rural properties.

74 On the chronological shifts in the documentary record, see Cammarosano, Italia medievale; Maire-Vigueur, ‘Révolution documentaire’.

75 Scola: CDV vol. I, 101 (813), La Rocca, Pacifico di Verona, pp. 54–81; will: CDV vol. I, 176 (844), on which see La Rocca, Pacifico di Verona, pp. 105–20; Costambeys, ‘The laity, the clergy, the scribes, and their archives’, pp. 256–7.

76 RN. More work with the inventories of the Archivio di Stato, especially the Pergamene dei monasteri soppressi, would probably be advantageous.

77 Montanari, L’alimentazione contadina, pp. 310–11, cites sixteen documents, out of his total of forty-nine ninth-century documents from northern Italy with payment in kind; eighteen documents out of sixty-seven tenth-century documents similarly exempt the garden with phrases such as ‘anteposito orto … unde non retdatis’. See also Vitolo, ‘I prodotti della terra’, p. 172; Andreolli, ‘Il ruolo dell’orticultura’.

78 Montanari, L’alimentazione contadina, p. 310. See also Squatriti, Water and society, pp. 80–1.

79 Montanari, L’alimentazione contadina, pp. 176, 314.

80 ‘Ortus nominatus quod semper ibi aliquid oriatur. Nam cum alia terra semel in anno creet, ortus numquam sine fructu est’, De Agricultura Liber XVII, 10.1 (ed. André, p. 227), trans. Barney et al., The etymologies, p. 355. For Isidore’s source, see Varro, ‘De sono vocum, 280 [57]’ in Grammaticae romanae fragmenta, ed. G. Funaioli, p. 297.

81 Squatriti, Landscape and change, p. 24. On olives, see Graham, ‘Profile of a plant’.

82 Vitolo, ‘I prodotti della terra’, pp. 174–84. On the produce revealed through archaeobotany, see Chapter 3.

83 See the garden excavated in Rome, discussed in Chapter 3.

84 Desplanques, ‘Il paesaggio rurale della coltura promiscua’, and Barbera and Cullotta, ‘The traditional Mediterranean polycultural landscape’.

85 Gleason, ‘To bound and to cultivate’, p. 13; Beaudry, ‘Why gardens?’.

86 For a broad summary of the techniques and processes, see Campbell et al., Environmental archaeology.

87 Baldini Lippolis, La domus tardoantica. She includes one garden of the fourth century at the Casa di Amore e Psiche, Ostia, p. 233, but this is a very small area, open to the sky, which had a nymphaeum. It appears to have been an ornamental planted area; it was clearly not for food production; Shepherd et al., ‘Giardini ostiensi’.

88 On gardens in the imperial period, see Grimal, Les jardins romains; Farrar, Gardens of Italy and the western provinces of the Roman Empire; and now Jashemski et al., Gardens of the Roman Empire; see Chapter 2.

89 Carandini,‘Hortensia’, p. 71.

90 Emblematic of this approach is Montanari, L’alimentazione contadina, p. 25; see also references in note 102.

91 See, for instance, Deliyannis et al. Fifty early medieval things.

92 Pickering, ‘Material culture and the dance of agency’. I thank Tina Sessa and Lucy Grig for their invitation to discuss Pickering and the agency of late antique Rome at the Oxford Patristics Conference (2015).

93 Hillier and Hansen, The social logic of space remains foundational along with de Certeau, The practice of everyday life.

94 Gandy, ‘Unintentional landscapes’.

95 Kreiner, ‘Pigs in the flesh and fisc’, p. 27; Kreiner, Legions of pigs.

96 Squatriti, Landscape and change; Squatriti, ‘Trees, nuts, and woods at the end of the first millennium’.

97 For the self-fertilising qualities and tip layering propagation, see s.v. Blackberries, Raspberries, and Rubus L., New RHS dictionary of gardening, ed. Huxley; Blamey and Grey-Wilson, Flora of Britain and Northern Europe, p. 176 on wasteland growth.

98 Bosi et al., ‘The life of a Roman colony’.

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