The Random Herbalist: The Monastic Physic Garden

Monastic Gardens 2Most of the gardens originally associated with monasteries contained numerous plants used for medicinal purposes. And, if nothing else,  at least these gardens provided the background for mystery novelist Ellis Peters’s sailor-turned monk and herbalist, Brother Cadfael.

The cloister-garth was a square, planted with grass and possibly shrubs, divided by two intersecting paths into four equal quarters. In the centre was a savina, supplying water for drinking and washing purposes. These cloisters were south of the church, and surrounded by the other more important communal buildings. For obviously logical reasons, the physic garden was placed close beside the house of the medical attendant. It was laid out in sixteen oblong beds, severally containing peppermint, rosemary, white lilies, sage, rue, corn-flag, pennyroyal, fenngreek, roses, watercress, cummin, lovage, tansy, kidney bean, fennel, or savory. All of these were regarded as herbs useful for medicinal purposes.

The kitchen garden was necessarily on a larger scale and contained eighteen oblong beds of identical shape, each planted with a different kind of vegetable or pot-herb : onion, garlic, parsley, coriander, chervil, dill, lettuce, poppy, savory, radish, parsnip, carrot, cabbage, beet, leek, shallot, celery, or corn-cockle. Near by was the house of the head gardener or hortulanus. In the burial ground, trees and shrubs were planted in the spaces between the graves, and must have produced the ornamental effect which in this connection we are apt to consider as modern. Mentioned as growing there were apple, pear, plum, service medlar, fig, quince, peach, hazelnut, almond, chestnut, walnut, laurel, and pine trees. Amidst such a luxuriance of foliage the graves must have been almost hidden from view.

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

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “The Random Herbalist: The Monastic Physic Garden

  1. Thank you, Louise. The article is fascinating — thank you for sharing. I dream of finding an old, unpublished manuscript cookbook in an old monastery library somewhere!

  2. What a sobering series you have shared within these posts, Cindy. I enjoyed them all immensely. I found an article you might find interesting. Here’s the link. It’s about Father Epifanios Milopotaminos and the cookbook he published for his fellow Monks.

    P.S. I agree with your thoughts on the use of the word “foodie…”

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