Urban Gardening in Medieval Cities. In a Modern Library.

This year, Day of Archaeology finds me in London in the British Library, sifting through the latest phases of late Roman townhouses. As I wrote in 2013, I am working on the phenomenon of urban gardening in the cities of early medieval Italy, and this summer I’m trying to finish finishing the manuscript of a small book on the subject. The majority of the evidence for where people got their vegetables in Rome, Naples, Brescia and Verona and other cities comes from property documents, which identify houses with gardens in them. This week I have been looking again at how Italian townhouses went from very dense buildings, perhaps with a central courtyard planted with ornamental trees and flowers, to individual houses that had food producing gardens inside or adjacent to the property, such as this one described in a letter from Pope Gregory the Great:

Reg Ep. II, 46 (Sept. 591-Aug 592). To Sub-deacon Sabinus.

We are compelled by our duty of piety to make a decision for the monasteries, with prudent consideration, so that those who are known to have allotted themselves to the service of God, may not endure any need. And for that reason we order you Experience with this authority to hand over quickly and without uncertainty the garden of the dead priest Felicianus. It lies in the first region before the steps of Saint Sabina. Leaving aside any excuse, give it to the convent of Euprepia, in which a community of nuns are known to live, for them to possess with a proprietary right, so that aided by the benefit of our generosity, they may persevere in serving God, with his support also, with secure minds. [Trans J. Martyn]

Pope Gregory here writes as a bishop with concern for the spiritual lives and economic concerns of the professional religious people under his care. He was no longer the Urban Prefect, with oversight of the urban fabric of Rome, an administrative office he held in 573 before he became a monk. What he learned about dealing with abandoned houses in Rome nonetheless surely informed his decision on behalf of the religious women. He endowed a new community of professional religious women with a house and garden in order to help them in their devotion to God, providing for them in a city that was increasingly unreliable. We don’t know exactly when urban markets ceased to function in Rome, but it must have been at some point in the sixth or seventh centuries, as the annona ceased to bring grain and wine to the citizens, and as the monetized economy of the city dwindled to barter and credit systems, rather than coins. The provision of a garden for these women, and for three other religious communities in Rome who received houses with gardens from Gregory, seems to be an effort to provide self-sufficiency for the community.


Domus of the Piazza dei Cinquecento, Rome, after Roberto Meneghini and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, ‘Fasi tarde dell’ isolato,’ Rita Paris, ed. Antiche Stanze (Milan, 1996), fig. 5 p. 176. The areas marked in brown were filled with earth, leaving the rooms in red as a smaller-scale house. The small house comprised former service rooms and part of the private bath, as well as the latrine.

It has long been recognised that the complex political, social and economic changes of the later fourth and fifth centuries meant that fewer people lived in Italian cities, and had fewer resources (monetary and material) to spend upon their city and the upkeep of their townhouses. Things changed, so people reused, or made good with what they had. When houses were abandoned, they were sometimes reallocated to new people, as Gregory arranged in the letter above. Sometimes it appears that houses in ruined states were converted to ‘horti’ – gardens, when they were irredeemable and unclaimed by owners. Legal precepts, in place from the third century, made this possible with the permission of local magistrates. (See the Codex Iustianiani VIII, 10, 3 eg)

As I am sorting through publications of urban archaeology looking for examples of this process, I am confronted by a very consistent pattern of partial abandonment in the fifth century and the deliberate backfilling of parts of houses, or entire houses, with earth in the later fifth and sixth centuries. I have seen examples of this documented at Brescia, at Naples, and at Rome. At Rome, the house I’m looking at today, a domus from the Piazza dei Cinquecento, excavated in 1940s to build Stazione Termini, was partially filled with earth in the late fifth century, reducing a large townhouse into a small suit of rooms surrounded by earth. No archeobotanical studies were carried out in the 1940s excavation, so it is impossible to know whether the earth surrounding the house was used for intensive cultivation, either of ornamental species or of food-producing species, but this kind of complex may very well be what Gregory was providing the nuns with in the same years that this house was abandoned.

I am charting this phenomenon in the second chapter of this book. In subsequent chapters I survey the charter evidence for who grew vegetables where in Italian cities and then review the analysis of Dark Earth as open fields for intensive agriculture within the city. There were fields for onions, cabbages and greens, fruit trees and vineyards in early medieval cities and major households – and institutions – controlled supplies of fresh food for urban residents.