Gardens, Human Senses and Eudaimonia

Garden ScentCasa del Bracciale d'Oro nell'Insula Occidentalis di Pompei, ambiente 32 (image by concession of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo - Parco Archeologico di Pompei)

Since ancient times, next to serving pure economic needs, gardens have been perceived as locations of pleasure and joy. Gardens affect most or all human senses. This project wishes to research the deep historical roots of one specific garden characteristic by exploring how humans have recognised the benefits offered by pleasant garden scents in their daily life during three different stages in European history: antiquity, medieval times, and modernity. On the premise that humans, nowadays as much as in the past, share the need to be surrounded by pleasant environmental sensorial stimulations, the project focuses on the history of the perception and appreciation of gardens as an instrument toward the achievement and enjoyment of a ‘good life’. We aim to extend our results from archaeological investigations to a reflection on the concept of a ‘good life’ in the Anthropocene in general. 

Gardens undoubtedly offer high value to human life. Gardening is an easily accessible, dynamic and flexible activity. These characteristics made gardening a successful strategy for human survival and wellbeing across different times and places. Secondly, in addition to their dietary contributions, gardens are also places of sensorial enjoyment of a synaesthetic kind: singing birds, murmuring fountains, colourful flowerbeds and, last but not least, the intense scent of aromatic plants, such as rosemary bushes, are traditionally experienced as an enhancement of feelings of calmness, peacefulness, and contentment. As such, gardening and the enjoyment thereof leads towards eudaimonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ in the fullest and deepest ethical sense, to the point of being favoured by philosophers as a locus of intellectual discussion (Epicurus’ ‘Garden’, kēpos being only the most famous example). Moreover, gardens are recognized medically for the multiple therapeutic benefits they offer. Here, we see a connection between eudaimonia and health, as explored in recent psychosomatic medicine.

In comparison, the pleasing fragrances and scents offered by gardens are obviously contrasted with the unpleasant smells of other parts of city. The reconstruction of vegescapes that are deeply interrelated to the smellscapes of ancient towns from a material point of view can be supported by archaeobotanical investigations that allow tracing different activity areas in the densely settled space.

These include potentially smelly waste depositions in the streets, swampy areas alongside water courses where animals gather, with people coming to dump waste or to wash dishes, clothes or themselves and at the same time collect water for different purposes, or muddy market places where ruderal floras establish. It is by far more difficult to archaeobotanically trace ancient gardens directly. This is where written sources or iconographic depictions come into play.

On a socioeconomic account, the project explores the ‘Garden City’ movement developed a utopian alternative to the unpleasantness of the modern industrial city during the late 19th century. With his book To-morrow: A peaceful path to real reform, E. Howard envisioned vast planned polycentric urban agglomerations which integrated gardens and the countryside into the city. The Garden City concept is heavily influenced by utopian back-to-the-land communities and socialist ideas such as Kropotkin’s industrial villages.
Howard’s vision of town planning was intended to solve many issues of the late 19th century, among them the detrimental working conditions reducing the health of citizens, especially factory smoke. As Howard (1898, 10) put it “Town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization”. With the Garden City movement, we explore the opposition between city and countryside which envisions gardens even more as places of escape and peaceful recovery due to the construction of an alternative, ideal environment.

This project concentrates precisely on the sensorial dimension of olfactory experiences and scents, a relatively underexplored sphere, which has lately become the object of increased attention in sensorial scholarship, and how varying smells and fragrances affected the quality of human life in different time periods. Our framework is thus provided by a philosophical approach to a eudaimonistic appreciation of the human environment. Furthermore, it is based on the premise that gardens are eminently of ‘human’ creation as special environments defined by human activity, within which we act and interact on different levels.

The study of ancient views on the influence of garden scents on human life, in general, as well as in philosophical and medical cultures will be one part of the project. As an important complement and chronological consequence, views on gardens from the Middle Ages will also be discussed. During medieval times, a close connection between courts and monasteries, which enabled the reception of ancient texts and ways of life including garden experiences, is noteworthy. In his De vegetabilibus (ca. CE 1260), Albertus Magnus (I, 149) mentions “green pleasure gardens” (viridaria) which “are places arranged not for their great benefit or their crop, but for pleasure” (“sunt autem quidam utilitatis non magnae aut fructus loca, sed ob delectationem parata”). The role of olfactory experiences is present in literary sources where medieval gardens are described or evoked. In medieval times, in fact, authors presented gardens as a promise of happiness. Hartmann von Aue, for instance, speaks in his Iwein (ca. CE 1200) of a spacious garden in which cultivated vegetation with its blossoms and grass offers copious opportunities for leisure and sensuality (“vil süezen smac”/“sehr herrlichen Duft”, ll. 6435–6451). Such idyllic garden motifs of the chivalric romance time with the pattern of the locus amoenus, as a projective place of longing, evokes pleasure, love and a lost ‘Golden Age’. What role did the sense of smell play in the construction of this picture of gardens? Which elements of reception, adaptation or change emerge from the ancient

Last but not least, the outcome of our historical research will be connected to contemporary studies in the field of environmental ethics with a focus on the values of gardening as an overarching theme. Environmental ethics, in fact, has recently highlighted the importance of eudaimonic values with respect to different types of semi-natural environments. Among them, gardening has become a fashionable topic both in theory and practice, as one can see in transition towns – towns which have devoted themselves to a forerunner role in becoming low-carbon, environmental friendly, smart and inclusive communities. Moreover, within the phenomenology of nature, there is growing interest in smell-scapes. Environmentalists have consistently combated air pollution but, in contrast, have neglected the positive impacts of natural smell-scapes from the sea, forests, and gardens – just to name two possible environmental and ethical starting points of our topic. The topic of garden scents has great potential as we connect ancient ways of having a ‘good life’ with contemporary environmental ethics and the philosophy of health.     


This project evolves from cooperation between the ROOTS Reflective Turn Forum, the ROOTS Knowledge, Urban, and Inequality subclusters as well as the Botanical Platform.

Involved ROOTS members:

Prof. Konrad Ott (Reflective Turn Forum)
PD Dr. Chiara Thumiger (Subcluster Knowledge ROOTS)
Prof. Timo Felber (Subcluster Urban ROOTS)
Laura Schmidt, M.A. (Subcluster Knowledge ROOTS)
Dr. René Ohlrau (Subcluster ROOTS of Inequalities)
Prof. Wiebke Kirleis (Subcluster Dietary ROOTS)

Other involved members:

Dana Zentgraf, M.A. (Reflective Turn Forum)


Fieldwork + Activities


Participating Institutions