The Random Herbalist: An Introduction to Early Monastic Gardens

Photo credit: John Menard
Photo credit: John Menard

A series on monastery cooks (“At the Tables of the Monks“)*, and a recent comment on the impact of medieval monks on the spread of dill throughout Europe, led me to reflect in more detail on the influence of monks on early European agricultural practices. For the next several days, I will be sharing notes from my reading.

Thus within the walls of the Benedictine monasteries were large gardens cultivated by the monks in common, and often smaller ones assigned to the abbot and to the chief almoner of the community. Here flowers, despised by the earliest Christians as symbols of paganism, were now grown to decorate the church. The rose was held in the highest esteem. At Subiaco is still preserved the roseto, a little rose garden set apart for St. Benedict. The rose-bushes it contains are said to be the same as those whose beauty delighted his senses, and with whose thorns he was accustomed to mortify his flesh when endeavouring to chase away thoughts of the beautiful temptress.

With the cross the monks carried the plough. The Benedictines were accordingly called by Monsieur Guizot the Defricheurs of Europe. In England, to the Benedictine St. Augustine and to his disciples were due the revival of horticulture and the introduction of several new vegetables and fruits. On the continent the monks are said to have incorporated fragments of the Roman villas into their monasteries, and to have restored the former gardens. But in England there seems to have been very slight connection if any between the classic and conventual grounds. Although during the two centuries succeeding the advent of the saint, gardening certainly flourished within the newly founded monasteries, little is known except the mere fact of its existence.

In order to avoid any unnecessary contact with the outside world, its rule prescribed that each community should 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. Fish and duck ponds, poultry yards, orchards, vineyards, kitchen and physic gardens, were, if possible, connected with every religious foundation, and were often its greatest pride and glory. Manual labour was obligatory, and the monks adopted agriculture and horticulture as their favourite pursuits. ” Beside the spacious monastic buildings,” Monsieur Joret says**, “one always found a garden. Although it was destined above all to supply the needs of the convent with vegetables, which served for the nourishment of the cenobites, and with aromatic or medicinal herbs, cultivated for the remedies which they furnished, yet some flowers also were cherished for the pleasure they gave the eye and for their fragrance, as well as to deck the altar on a feast day.”

From English Pleasure Gardens, by Rose Standish Nicols (1902).

*Series ran from May 18 through June 2, 2009. Search this blog using the word “monks.”

** La Rose dans l’antiquité et au moyen âge, by Charles Joret (1892).

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “The Random Herbalist: An Introduction to Early Monastic Gardens

  1. This is one of my favorite posts. I love herbs, I love history and I love the combination. I will get the 2008 Gerard’s Herbal:Selections… But what is the “random recent comment on the impact of medieval monks on the spread of dill throughout Europe”? Who made it, when, etc.? Dill is the 2010 Herb of the Year which The Herb Society of America supports with a power point presentation, programs and literature: recipes, culture, etc. A big “thank you” anytime you write about herbs!

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