The Random Herbalist: St. Gall, A Model Garden Plan?

Figure 24, St. Gall Plan
Figure 24, St. Gall Pla

[NOTE: I’d like to thank the readers of Gherkins & Tomatoes for their patience this summer — in the last few weeks I’ve moved from a house where I’ve lived for fourteen years, my favorite cat died, and I’ve been writing under deadline for an article for an encyclopedia as well as for a local magazine.  And now I’m currently attending a family reunion. I promise to be more fully “present” to the blog and all reader comments soon.  Meaning the meatier, more original articles you’ve gotten in the past. Coincidentally, tomorrow marks one year since I started this blog!]

This illustration comes from a manuscript in the library at St. Gall. Very valuable not only for its age, the picture aids us in visualizing monastic gardens, because rarely do we get any specific information about garden layouts, etc., from scribes of the times.

It was sent to the abbot of St. Gall in the year 900 as a model plan. The whole design, which really includes all the “necessaries” within its walls, falls into three divisions: first, the church with the buildings for Regulars in the center; secondly, on the north-east, schools, hospitals, and guest-houses; and, thirdly, to the south-west, stables and farm- buildings. Not only the monastery proper and the church, but almost all the other buildings are grouped round a center space, an open court with a portico. The cloister for the monks has four doors, and paths leading across the square. In the very center there is a little circle drawn, with the word “ savina “ (which perhaps means stoup for holy- water) written on it, surrounded by flowers and grass; also the four squares left blank were intended to be used for flowers. Perhaps this is indicated by the ornament in the design, although it may mean to suggest a mosaic pavement, seeing that for some strange reason there is no sign of water in this plan, which is otherwise so complete. For such a place there would have to be plenty of water; moreover, the founder had included water among the necessaries. Wells may have been omitted from the plan because the idea was to distribute the water in suitable proportions over all the various parts of the ground.

The school and the hospital have similar peristyles; and other buildings, the guest- house, a second school, etc., seem to have a covered atrium as their central place. Though we learn so little about the planting of the peristyle, the artist is most explicit as to the special monastic gardens at the school and hospital. South of the hospital is the physician’s house, so arranged that the very sick patient could be taken there. On the west side is the physic-garden, a small quadrangle, divided into sixteen straight beds. This may have been following Roman tradition, but the raised beds, straight and square, point to the ever-present need of careful tending. Poets in the later Middle Ages have thought a garden like this looked like a chess-board with the pieces moving about; and the parterre no doubt originated from this arrangement of beds.

The medicinal herbs which grow in our monastery cloister gardens are plainly marked by name on the plan: first come roses and lilies, and then sage, rosemary, and other herbs that look pretty and are aromatic. Thus this little garden gave not merely healing medicines to the sick, but also a very charming view to the convalescent. The original idea, the germ, of all specialised flower-growing is here in this physic-garden; and so deep down was it in the heart of man that even when horticulture was highly advanced, in the days of the Renaissance, the place where flowers were grown was always called the garden of medicinal herbs.

From History of Garden Art, by Marie-Luise Gothein (1913, first published in German).

4 thoughts on “The Random Herbalist: St. Gall, A Model Garden Plan?

  1. This is all so interesting to me. As for your life being in flux, are you sure you want your life to be uninteresting? Chinese blessing for a new baby, “May your life be uninteresting.” Breathe deeply.

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