The weird history of lawns
Why medieval kings are behind the reason you're mowing the grass every weekend.
Lawns are some of the most mundane things in the world until you really start thinking about them. That's when you realize that they make no sense. Why do people keep patches of perfectly manicured, uninteresting, pointless little plants outside their homes? They're not beautiful like flowers, they don't provide food and you have to mow them constantly.
Israeli bestselling author and world history professor Yuval Noah Harari thought they were weird too. He looked into their history and ended up "unearthing" a strange story that goes back to medieval kings.
No one had considered putting patches of grass outside of their homes in ancient times. "No green meadow welcomed the visitors to the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Capitol ... or the Forbidden City in Beijing," wrote Harari in his new book, "Homo Deus."
That changed in the Middle Ages, when French and English aristocrats started putting carefully cropped patches of grass at their castle entrances.
Ireland's Ashford Castle was built in the 13th century, just as lawns were becoming popular in Europe. (Photo: Stacy/Flickr)
"Well-kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers," wrote Harari. "In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can't even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass."
Peasants could never afford wasting their time or land on lawns, so these artificial meadows were a perfect status symbol for nobility. They proclaimed, "I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza," Harari explained. You could even assess a nobleman's wealth by looking at his lawn: if a lawn was massive and well kept, it indicated a powerful family dynasty. If it was in bad shape, the nobleman was probably broke.
This status symbol ended up outlasting the monarchies that created it. Kings and dukes were toppled and guillotined, but new presidents and prime ministers kept the lawns.
"Humans thereby came to identify lawns with political power, social status and economic wealth," wrote Harari. As technology became way more advanced in the following centuries, new kinds of businesses started appearing. Rich entrepreneurs appeared on the world scene ... And they wanted lawns too.
"At first only bankers, lawyers and industrialists could afford such luxuries at their private residences," Harari explained.
When the Industrial Revolution really kicked into gear in the 18th and 19th centuries, the middle classes started being able to afford their own mini versions of wealthy manors: suburban houses. And guess what became the ultimate suburban status symbol? A perfectly mowed lawn.
"In America suburbia, a spick-and-span lawn switched from being a rich person's luxury into a middle-class necessity," wrote Harari. "There is no surer sign that something is wrong at the Joneses' than a neglected lawn."
The popularity of lawns continued to grow, taking over public event spaces and sports. In the past, people played sports on all kinds of surfaces – dirt, ice, sand. But in the last couple centuries, they made the switch to green grass, or turf made to imitate green grass.
"Grass is nowadays the most widespread crop in the USA after maize and wheat," Harari continued. Lawns spread beyond Europe and the U.S., and they're now status symbols around the world. People use up literal tons of water on them, even during droughts.
Suburban folks may not realize it, but they meticulously care for patches of grass because centuries ago, medieval French and English kings wanted to show off how many serfs they had ... by intentionally planting something useless. It's strange that people would continue to spend so much time and money on what's really a weird leftover from the Middle Ages. But that's history for you.
"When you now come to plan your dream house, you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard," wrote Harari. "You are free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you by European dukes, capitalist moguls and the Simpsons – and imagine for yourself a Japanese rock garden, or some altogether new creation."
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