Urban gardening in early medieval Italy: cultivating the city

In early medieval Italy, the real marker of political power was control of food resources. More than military force, legislative authority, or religious ceremony, the ability to secure food supplies meant wealth, social status, and legitimacy. Kings gave gifts of farms, vineyards and orchards to loyal retainers, and laymen and laywomen secured their families’ continued use of agricultural plots by promising them to churches. Much of this productive land was actually urban; in Italy, where social and political manoeuvring happened mostly in cities, urban food-producing lands were highly valuable and carefully controlled. My book examining urban gardening in Italy from c.600–1100 will reveal an overlooked process by which societies and economies in transformation reorganised urban landscapes and negotiated power relationships. 

It is established by me, Aurepert the cleric, son of Autus, now deceased, this day, that I have sold, have transferred to you Iordanus, venerable man, priest, my house which I am seen to have inside this city, with its lot, garden and well, located near S. Giorgio. One side is held by Raduald the notary, with a hedge, and at the far end is the lot of Berucionus Belongonus, and on the other side is Mamarianus’s garden. As I said, a house with lot, land, garden or well, and everything which is seen in them, wholly....

[Codice diplomatico longobardo, I, ed. Luigi Schiaparelli FSI 62 (Rome, 1929). no. 65 (s.a. 738). Constat me Aurepert clerico filio q(uon)d(am) Auti hac die uindedisse et uindedi, tradedisse et tradedi tibi Iordanni
u(iro) u(enerabili) pr(es)b(itero) casa mea quem hauire uideor hic infra ciuitatem, cum fundamento, orto, seo puteo; et posita est prope S(an)c(t)o Georgio: uno latere tenet in sepe Raduald notar(ii), et caput tenet in fondamento Barucioni Belongoni, et alio latere tenet in orto Mamarian[i]; ut dixi, casa cum fundamento, curte, orte, uel puteo, omnia quem iniui hauir[e] uisus sum in integro....]

A charter for the sale of an urban garden, dated 738 (here excerpted). It pertains to a
piece of land from Lucca, Tuscany.

Urban food gardens are conventionally taken as key signs of decline across the post-Roman world. The Roman cities of Italy had parks and pleasure gardens, while fruits, vegetables, wheat, olives, grapes, and flowers as well as livestock, was farmed in the countryside or in faraway provinces and shipped to urban markets. The dramatic social transformations of the middle ages, however, eroded the division between urban culture and rural agriculture; cabbage patches grew in ancient theatres. Households farmed lands within city-walls and there is little evidence for commercial food markets of rural produce. These were radical shifts in how cities worked, and are typically interpreted as simplification of social structures and fragmentation of economies. Closer analysis suggests, conversely, that they demonstrate complex social networks and emerging values of household management and religious charity. Urban food cultivation – who did it, where, and for whom – provides rich and unexplored information about medieval politics, societies and economies.


A reconstruction of gardens excavated in the Forum of Caesar, Rome. On the right is the first phase, early ninth-century, with rows of vegetable plantings. On the left and centre is the second phase, mid ninth-century, at which point the ground level was raised for rows of grapevines and vegetables with fruit trees in a separate area. (Drawing: Maria Supino, Reproduced from Roberto Meneghini and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, Roma nell' alto medioevo. (Rome: 2004), fig. 99. By kind permission.) 

We know more about cities in Italy than about nearly anywhere else in the medieval world, thanks to documentary archives and well-preserved (and well-excavated) city centres. Through charters recording property transfers, it is possible to plot the rise of urban cultivated land, including domestic vegetable patches, independent fields within the city-walls, and orchards and vineyards between houses. These appear in documents of the late sixth century, rising in frequency up to the late eleventh or twelfth centuries, when population pressures and commercialisation of suburban agriculture meant that most farming moved outside the city. The centres of most Italian cities have been excavated in the nineteenth century, after the second World War, or in modern commercial excavations. The archaeological identification of gardens is challenging even with palaeobotanical analysis, which has been infrequent. Italian urban archaeology does, nonetheless, demonstrate that late antique townhouses were often partly back-filled with earth, and Dark Earth deposits (thick areas of organic-rich soil) formed through deliberate dumping of soil or long-term decomposition. These areas of earth have never been systematically examined in relation to the gardens in our documents. Drawing together textual and archaeological sources to reconstruct the un-built environment will reveal the locations, the intensity, and the people involved in urban gardening in early medieval Italy. Studies of contemporary urban gardening may provide insight; urban sociology and geography have identified the social cohesion and alternative economies that urban gardens and allotments can foster in modern cities, where immigrant populations conserve traditions at allotment gardens, and new foodways are created where supermarkets fail to reach. Considering research about modern urban food production, such as the study referred to here, may help me to refine and reconsider my medieval evidence, informing my analysis of the past and suggesting diverse networks in medieval urban contexts.

Dr Caroline Goodson
University of Cambridge
Research Fellowship