Huerto from outside Valencia Source Wikipedia
Moderne huerto from outside Valencia. Source:Wikipedia

Gardens in Early Medieval Iberia ca. 750–1000

In 1974 the historian Andrew Watson published an influential article in which he coined the phrase: The Arab Agricultural Revolution. How has this thesis fared? What do we know today about gardening in Early Medieval Iberia?

When Andrew Watson published his thesis on the central role of what he termed “The Arab Agricultural Revolution” it soon drew the attention of historians well-versed in the history of Late Antiquity.

Watson’s argument read that the Visigoths until the arrival of the Arabs for cultural reasons remained entrenched in a pastoral, agrarian economy combined with a “primitive” system of crop rotation. After AD 711, the Arabs introduced new and advanced irrigation techniques as well as seventeen new garden crops imported from the East. However, The cultivation of these new plants and agrarian technologies was linked to the arid and hot summer periods, during which peasants left to themselves would usually avoid working. Hence, peasants had to be coerced to adopt this new agrarian regime. We have to imagine how increased social repression was a precondition for the successful outcome of the shift in the agrarian system. It appears, the impetus for the introduction of new species and the development of the new and sophisticated hydraulic techniques was bolstered by a new kind of social and cultural hierarchy, such as was established by the Muslims after the conquest. This new intensive agrarian system provided significant economic growth opening up for wealth accumulation among the new elite.  Arguably, this new agricultural system furthered, what Islamic historians have characterised as the “flowering of Islamic Culture and civilization in the Muslim World.” (From Zohor Idrisi: The Muslim Agricultural Revolution. For instance, this agrarian revolution stimulated the need to apply sophisticated mathematics when constructing hydraulic systems.

Lauding the Arabs innovative and creative – revolutionary – industry, this idea continues to be heralded by Islamic historians, who wish to underline the significant role of Medieval Islam in the formation of the culture of Al-Andalus and wider Iberia.

Somewhat mono-causal, historians soon put Watson’s bold thesis to a number of critiques. Foremost, some historians claimed that the revolution was not an innovation but rather a reinvention of the ancient Roman or Persian agricultural practices. The “new” agrarian regime of Muslim farmers or peasants did not fundamentally differ from those of pre-Islamic times, they wrote. Instead, the new farming methods were said to have evolved from the hydraulic know-how, which the Muslims had inherited from their Roman and Persian predecessors. Also, the newness of the seventeen plants, which Watson claimed were adopted by the Muslims, was at best a hypothesis. One of the main contentions to Watson’s thesis was his widespread use of Iberian agronomic handbooks, which later studies have shown were more faithful to their ancient models, from whom they liberally copied, than to the actual seeds in the ground. Famously, aubergine, artichokes and spinach were claimed by Watson to be part of this new garden-regime. Since then, archaeologists have strived to document the seeds of these plants in the waste heaps and pits as part of their excavations. So far, with little success.

Review of Watson’s thesis

In 2014 Paolo Squatriti, an environmental historian from the University of Michigan published a review of the last forty years of the academic and political squabbling surrounding Watson’s thesis. As part of this, Squatriti noted that archaeological surveys since 1974 had helped to settle the question somewhat. On the one hand, the excavations around Valencia had provided evidence of the sophistication of the irrigated landscapes and the political ramifications of these hydraulic systems and technologies. Unfortunately it has been complicated to date these systems of irrigation. Also, new studies of the corn- and breadbaskets, as well as diets in Early Medieval Iberia, indicated that Watson might have exaggerated the report on the “seventeen” more exotic fruits and vegetables. For one, the prominence of the aubergine in the medieval handbooks and texts had so far not found its correspondence in the archaeo-botanical remains, Squatriti noted. It appears the jury is still out.

What we now know

Recently, a special issue of the journal, Early Medieval History, (June 2019), has provided us with a new overview of the current status of our knowledge about gardens, crops and gardening in Iberia between the 6th to 10th century. Edited by Wendy Davies, who has also written an introductory article, we are offered a host of details together with an up-to-date résumé of what we know today by Leonor Pẽna-Chocarro, Guillem Pérez-Jordà, Miquel Forcada, Sonia Gutérrez Lloret and Caroline Goodson.

Many types of gardens

Tending a Market Garden outside Valencia © Karen Schousboe
Tending a Market Garden outside Valencia © Karen Schousboe

First of all, it is important to note that there were different kinds of “gardens” in early medieval Iberia (as elsewhere in the Mediterranean).

  • Refined and ornamental architectural gardens with running water and fountains, such as those preserved outside Cordoba (Jardínes)
  • Urban market-gardens inside or on the perimeter of cities (Huertos)
  • Fruit orchards, vineyards and olive groves worked as commercial enterprises (Huertas)
  • Peasant holdings with plots of gardens (Huertos)

As much has been written in later years about the ornamental gardens at Cordoba and elsewhere in Al-Andalus, focus in this handful of articles is on the more humble gardens of peasants and city-dwellers as they are documented in charters, as well as archaeologically.

Indeed, it appears that stable crops were cereals and fruits, with groves and plots often located separately in favourable “watery” spots on the properties rather than close to the houses (as was the northern European custom). Alternatively, gardens might be located in the vicinity of large cities providing victuals to the inhabitants.

Of these, the fruit-basket presents an overwhelming variety of strawberries, figs, walnuts, apples, almonds, peaches, olives, grapes and mulberries as well as cherries, plums, and pomegranate, which only occur after the Islamic conquest. As opposed to this, the basket of vegetables was less impressive. Celery, fennel, carrots, kale, melons or gourds as well as chickpeas, peas, beans and mustards dominate, while the three signature vegetables made famous by Watson – spinach, aubergine and artichoke – have not been found this early. To this should be added a handful of spices. Absent were beet, chicory, parsnip, turnip, radish, garlic and onions, all known from northern and central European excavations. For all three groups, it should be noted that from a botanical point of view it can be near impossible to differentiate between wild and domesticated species based on the seeds. We know from studies of late medieval Andalusia that the collecting of wild herbs was an important part of ordinary people. As it continues to be.

The technological argument

Irrigation technology may be seen in action at the Museo de la Huerta in Murica © Karen Schousboe
Irrigation technology may be seen in action at the Museo de la Huerta in Murcia © Karen Schousboe

Parallel to the explorations of Andrew Watson into the history of the agricultural revolution, Thomas Glick initiated his research into the irrigation systems around Valencia. This led to the thesis that a major element in the Arab Agrarian Revolution was the adoption and technical development of the irrigation systems of Antiquity. But also that the process in Iberia represented both re-introduction as well as innovation bringing the technologies to a new level. This argument was later used to bolster the hypothesis that the Islamic conquest was accompanied by large contingents of Berbers settling in the countryside and “revolutionising” the system of agricultural production. 

Famously, though it has been complicated to date this innovation to the early Islamic period archaeologically. Despite the development of “Hydraulic Archaeology”, it appeared to be impossible to date the foundation of the huertas or market-gardens in Valencia, Alicante and Murcia before the 10th century. 

However, recent excavations in the south-east of Iberia, in the province of Tudmīr have provided new answers.  Here archaeology has demonstrated that some peasants in the 7th and 8th centuries based their lives on a mixed economy. Settled on hillocks bordering on the marshes and estuaries, they would eke out an existence from hunting, fishing, gathering as well as intensive agricultural based on irrigation of small plots of land. The excavation of arcaduces (water-carrying-pots) from the beginning of the 8th century seems to indicate the innovation derived from Muslim migrants. Further studies have concluded that these settlements were mixed; both Muslim and Christian burials can be found. On the other hand, the settlements were definitely founded ex novo, writes Sonia Gutiérrez lloret. She refers to excavations of the Cabezo Pardo, carried out in the last decade. These digs have revealed a village with households living in houses surrounding courtyards and with a common storage space high up on the hill. Among the finds are shards of arcaduces. It seems clear that this pottery witness to the and early import of farming technology, she concludes. 

In particular, this new overview allows us a broader view of popular and ordinary gardening in Early Medieval Iberia. 

Ornamental gardens

Garden in Alhambra- Sorce: wikipedia
Garden in Alhambra- Source: wikipedia

These articles provide a detailed and up-to-date overview of popular and ordinary gardens, intensive irrigated farming technologies as well as systems of plain gardening in Early Medieval Iberia. But the collection also presents us with an outline of the monumental gardens in al-Andalus and Early Medieval Italy.

Often filled with famous clichés asserted by popular opinion and media, Miquel Forcada digs deeper, and presents us with the sophisticated background to the more humble gardens discussed by the other contributors. Rightly, he takes as his point of departure, the idea of the almunia or villas, the extensive estates constructed outside the cities. Archaeologically, one of the first, al–Ruṣāfa (ca. 756-88), probably reused the set-up of a former Roman agricultural estate. Complete with defensive structures, al–Ruṣāfa may be considered a precursor to the later Madīnat-al-Zahrā’ (ca. 936– 1010) and the gardens of the 9th and 10th centuries, including the renovated al–Ruṣāfa. Lauded in poetry and other literature, such gardens were presented as luxurious places for relaxation, shade and cool pleasures. Complete with their aviaries, zoos and ponds full of fish, these gardens were intended as stage scenes for civilised living, Forcada tells us, As such, these gardens also provided space for sophisticated botanists and doctors, while they served as stage settings for the peculiar and refined lifestyle of the elite in the Ummayad Caliphate. However, the almunias were also essential providers of agricultural produce, not least barley to feed the horses in time of drought. As was the case with the Roman villas, the Muslim almunias were both sites of leisurely and civilised pursuits as well as practical retreats securing survival in times of crisis and strife.

To complement these studies of the Iberian gardens, Caroline Goodson has written an article about ornamental gardens in Italy, the so-called uiridaria. In Antiquity, the word uiridarium denoted areas of greenery enclosed by architecture and embellished with flowers, shrubs, trees and perhaps topiary. Compared to the Iberian Peninsula, Italy seems to have been much less sophisticated. While excavations have provided us with in-depth knowledge of the gardens at al-Madinat al-Zahra and near Cordoba, Italian archaeologists have recovered only a few records of ornamental plants or constructions. It appears that the classic Roman decorative gardens, known from murals and excavations, virtually disappeared, while more prosaic and productive gardens came to dominate in the Early Middle Ages. Nevertheless, a few decorative gardens have been identified as uiridaria. These belonged to the highest echelons of society.

This is an interesting collection of articles, well-edited and worth reading. The articles should be complemented with further case-studies and made available as part of a book

Karen Schousboe


The Arab Agricultural Revolution and Its Diffusion, 700–1100
By Andrew M. Watson.
In: The Journal of Economic History (1974) Vol 34 No 1, pp. 8–35.

Agricultural innovation in the early Islamic world : the diffusion of crops and farming techniques 700-1100.
By Andrew M. Watson
Cambridge University Press 1981 (2008)

Of Seeds, Seasons, and Seas: Andrew Watson’s Medieval Agrarian Revolution Forty Years Later
By Paolo Squatriti
In: The Journal of Economic History (2014) Vol 74 No 4, pp. 1205-1220


Gardens and gardening in early medieval Spain and Portugal
By Wendy Davies
In: Early Medieval Europe (2019) Vol 27, No.3, pp. 327 – 348

Garden plants in medieval Iberia: the archaeobotanical evidence
By Leonor Peña-Chocarro and Guillem Pérez-Jordà
In: Early Medieval Europe (2019) Vol 27, No.3, pp. 374 – 393

The garden in Umayyad society in al‐Andalus
By Miquel Forcada
In: Early Medieval Europe (2019) Vol 27, No.3, pp. 349 – 373

The case of Tudmīr: archaeological evidence for the introduction of irrigation systems in al‐Andalus
By Sonia Gutiérrez Lloret
In: Early Medieval Europe (2019) Vol 27, No.3, pp. 394 – 415

Admirable and delectable gardens: uiridaria in early medieval Italy
By Caroline Goodson
In: Early Medieval Europe (2019) Vol 27, No.3, pp. 416 – 440


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