The Random Herbalist: Books About Monastic and Medieval Gardens

I find the following books enlightening, soothing, and motivating. My plan is to create/design a medieval/monastic herb garden over the upcoming winter and plant it starting next spring.*

Monastic Gardens 3Monastic Gardens, by Mick Hales (2000)

Private worlds glimpsed by a privileged few, monasteries have long maintained an aura of mystery. Outsiders imagine the silent seclusion, the austere settings, the rigorous routines of a religious life. But these sacred places share a common bond with the secular realm. Monks and nuns, too, know the peace and the pleasure that come from gardening.

In Monastic Gardens, Mick Hales goes behind the gates for a rare look at the integral role a garden plays in the life of a monastery. Gardening is not undertaken for decorative purposes alone: Instead, fruits and vegetables flavor meals and carefully tended refuges are the perfect spot to pray. Surprisingly vibrant blossoms may even decorate a guest room or altar. Starting from the cloister garth and spanning outward to the sacristan’s cutting garden, the physic or herb garden, the vegetable garden, the orchards, and the vineyards, Hales’s evocative images capture the many facets and functions of monastic grounds.

Monastic Gardens 7Hildegard’s Healing Plants: From Her Medieval Classic Physica, by Hildegard Von Bingen (2002)

Medieval saint, mystic, healer, and visionary—Hildegard von Bingen has made a comeback. She is now popular in natural healing circles, in medieval and women’s studies, and among those interested in investing the everyday with the spiritual.

Hildegard’s Healing Plants is a gift version and new translation of the “Plant” section of Physica, Hildegard’s classic work on health and healing. Hildegard comments on 230 plants and grains—most of which are still grown in home gardens and sold at local health food stores. In one of many entries on women’s health, Hildegard writes, “Also if a pregnant woman labors much in childbirth, let someone cook pleasant herbs, such as fennel and assurum, in water with fear and great moderation, squeeze out the water, and place them while they are warm around her thighs and back, tied gently with a piece of cloth, so that her pain and her closed womb is opened more pleasantly and easily.”

Monastic Gardens 4Medieval Gardens (Historic Gardens), by Anne Jennings (2005)

Medieval Gardens charts the evolution of England’s earliest gardens, from the rows of culinary and medicinal herbs tended by monks, to the earliest secular pleasure gardens, enclosed within castle walls. These were spaces for private conversations and outdoor games, often with raised beds and turf seats and perhaps a mound for surveying the countryside beyond. Still enclosed within wall were the ‘pleasure parks’ that covered many acres of land.

Monastic Gardens 5The Medieval Garden, by Sylvia Landsberg (2003)

How does one write about gardens that no longer exist? Landsberg, a garden historian and lecturer who has designed several 13th to 16th century-style gardens, re-creates medieval gardens by analyzing contemporary manuscripts and art, the results of recent archaeological studies, and the few remaining fragments of gardens and surviving horticultural practices from that period. She includes dozens of reproductions of medieval illuminated manuscripts, paintings, etchings, and woodcuts to illustrate gardens from the time of Charlemagne to the beginning of Renaissance gardens in England. These are fleshed out with hypothetical plans and diagrams pieced together from documentary sources, poetry, and texts on cookery, medicine, and social life. The lists of plants included in the gardens are deduced from the visual evidence but are mainly taken from the work of John Harvey (e.g., Medieval Gardens, 1982) who unambiguously equated almost every medieval plant name with plants still available. The last third of the book discusses re-creating medieval gardens and provides a list of gardens to visit, some of them designed by the author.

Monastic Gardens 6Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden: An Illustrated Companion to Medieval Plants and Their Uses, by Robin Whiteman and Rob Talbot (1997)

Brother Cadfael is the world’s best-known 12th century monk, a renowned herbalist and a clever sleuth. This succinct history of herbal remedies and monastic herb gardens such as Cadfael’s, features a complete A-to-Z guide to the medical uses for every herb and plant mentioned in Ellis Peters’ books.

Monastic Gardens PeplowAnother pertinent book includes In a Monastery Garden, by Elizabeth Peplow and Reginald Peplow (1989). Also Herbs for the Mediaeval Household for Cooking, Healing, and Divers Uses, Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Margaret B. Freeman (1943).

I was trying to find my old books of roses recipes, but still need to sift through the jumble after the big move, so here’s a substitute:



Chicken with fennel**

Take the chickens, cut them up, fry them, and when they are fried add the quantity of water you prefer; then take “beards” of fennel, “beards” of parsley, and almonds that have not been skinned; and chop these things well, mix them with the liquid from the chickens, and boil everything, then pass through a sieve. Add it to the chickens, and add the best spices you can get.

*Commentaries are from product descriptions on

**Recipe from Frammento di un libro di cucina del sec. XIV edito nel dì delle nozze Carducci-Gnaccarini edited by Olindo Guerrini. A modern version can be found HERE, from in The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, by Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban, & Silvano Serventi, Translated by Edward Schneider (1998).

5 thoughts on “The Random Herbalist: Books About Monastic and Medieval Gardens

  1. I recently DID get a Kindle! (It came from one of the American military who is involved in training of Burundi army peace keepers who are off to Somalia under African Union peacekeeping in Somalia). It is great – but in Africa it is possible only to download free eBooks from the net. Still, that is great and I’ve finished re-reading Herodotus history of Egypt just today – some of his remarks on pig farming I used in my recent blog on pigs.

  2. I know — I remember the trials of getting a book when we lived in rural Honduars. Long story. Maybe I’ll write about it someday. It had to do with a cookbook, The Silver Palate, actually. I wish we could help, but you know, you might investigate getting a Kindle; you might be able to use one there.

  3. Really nice books – sorry it’s not possible for us to readily get books here in central Africa! :(

  4. You wrote “Brother Cadfael is the world’s best-known 12th century monk.” I agree. I saw his portrait in stained glass in the church at Shrewsbury. I wondered what future generations would make of it, in terms of fiction vs. truth. (Image here:

    Thanks for the book reviews. I think the Cistercians are very interesting from the point of view of food production.

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