In the tenth century, the darkest of the Dark Ages, a period of great industrial depression reached its lowest ebb in Europe. Monasticism, for the previous two centuries on the decline, almost ceased to exist, and horticulture, as early in the Christian era, practically became a lost art. Lush gardens, elegant statuary, and decorative water fountains were no longer to be found in good repair.
In the eleventh century, however, a revival of religious zeal, in England as elsewhere, brought about an improvement in the condition of these outdoor areas. Europe was under either religious or military rule, and the common people turned to the former for security. As a result, the monasteries acquired more influence and more riches than the castles. Religious houses were the place of refuge for sick souls, for great repentance, for hopes deceived, for work and meditation, for feebleness and poverty, at a time when the first condition of earthly existence was a strong arm and a shoulder capable of carrying a coat of mail.
William the Conqueror and his followers brought new styles in architecture for the castles, gardens, and monasteries they established to subjugate England. The rage for founding monasteries, then at its height in Normandy, spread across the conquered nation. William himself began this movement by erecting and richly endowing several superb abbeys with large and lush gardens, adorned with fountains and large statues, and many of his subjects of means followed his example.
The Benedictine order was the first to flourish in this new wave of artistic garden expression. In order to avoid unnecessary contact with the outside world, its rule prescribed that each community contain all the essentials of life within its precincts. Since the flesh of no four-footed animal could be eaten, the raising of fish and fowl was customary, while that of vegetables was indispensable. Large garden planters filled with vegetables, fountains full of fish and duck garden ponds, poultry yards, orchards, and vineyards were connected with every religious foundation, and were often its greatest pride and glory. Manual labor was obligatory, and the monks adopted the building of lush gardens, complete with classic statuary and dramatic fountains as their favorite pursuits.