Walled in - reaching out

A Sense of Herbs

A Sense of Herbs

October 07, 2002|by Dorry Baird Norris

Until Benedict of Nursia brought a new focus to the monk's life, asceticism and withdrawal from the secular world were central to early monastic communities. He advanced the notion that manual labor was a Christian duty and laid out plans for living that included work and worship in equal measure.

Since 524 AD, the goal of the Benedictine order was that each monastery would produce everything it needed within its walls. St. Benedict thought "no person is ever more usefully employed than when working with his hands or following the plough providing food for the use of man."

Medieval cloisters became islands of learning and healing. During the seventh and eighth centuries, monasteries advanced the practice of farming and industry. They served as storehouses for food, sanctuaries for travelers, havens for medical care as well as repositories for books and plants.

As monks moved from one house to another on Church business, they carried with them seeds and cuttings. This inter-monastery trafficking in plants introduced new plants to a wide area and served to keep the more difficult-to-grow, viable.


Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. He was a man of powerful personality and strong organizational skills. He unified and he led.

In 812 AD Charlemagne listed 75 herbs that he wanted grown in gardens throughout the Holy Roman Empire. His thinking influenced the plants shown on the plan for gardens at the Benedictine Abbey at St. Gall in Switzerland.

The plan of the St. Gall garden, created around 840 AD, appears to cover an area of almost seven acres. The plan was meant to be a model for Benedictine monasteries throughout Europe but it was never implemented at St. Gall.

St. Benedict's directive that "If it can be done, the monastery should be so established that necessary things, such as water, mill, garden and various workshops may be within the enclosure, so that there is no necessity for the monks to go about outside of it," seems to have been basic to his plan.

The kitchen garden (Hortus) was situated next to the barn and the pens for fowl, all areas likely to produce beneficent dung for nourishing the garden.

Many of the food plants in this garden are still with us today - onion, leek, chard, garlic, shallot, radish, lettuce, parsnip, and cabbage.

Many of the herbs - coriander, dill, poppy, chervil, savory are also grown today.

The herbarist's (doctor's) lodging, the infirmary and the house for blood letting (an important part of Medieval medicine) and were clustered together. Adjacent to this unit was the Physic Garden (Herbularius). This garden was laid out in 16 beds each containing a single herb that was used for healing.

Intestinal complaints must have been widespread since a wide variety of herbs to treat them - mint, savory, coriander, rue and pennyroyal - all enjoyed a reputation as sort of a dark ages Pepto-Bismol.

Rosemary, horehound, rue, iris, and the beautiful Apothecary's rose were recommended for coughs and colds as well as bronchial distress. In a society whose diets relied on beans and cole crops, flatulence was a constant problem. The remedy - fenugreek or savory. Sage along with onions and garlic were panaceas believed to cure infection. The poppy was an important pain reliever.

What wasn't grown in the Physic Garden was wild-collected from the fields around the monastery. The orchards and the grain fields were also located beyond the monastery walls.

Even some flowers - the lily (once sacred to Venus and later a symbol of the Virgin Mary) and the rose - grew cheerfully in Paradise Gardens around the church.

The monastery garden was a reminder of the cycle of life - birth, growth, death and re-birth.

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