The Random Herbalist: The Church as Farmer

Monastic Gardens 18The Catholic Church influenced many things, even (especially?) agriculture, as this passage from History of the English Landed Interest: Its Customs, Laws, and Agriculture, by Russell Montague Garnier (1908) 2nd. ed, vol. 1, implies. The monastery libraries also held much treasure, opening up the monks to the wonders of old knowledge and enabling them to forgo reinventing the wheel, so to speak:

The agriculture of the neighbouring Church lands would be closely watched and imitated by the lay farmers. Advice would be solicited from and often proffered by the monastic husbandmen; and even a right to interfere could be claimed by those whose tithe charge gave them a stake in the layman’s industrial efficiency. But if further evidence of Church influence be needed, it is afforded by the general use of saints’ days to denote the dates of all agricultural operations. The year began on Lady Day; it was Hoketide when fallows should be broken up; Martinmas was the day for slaughtering the winter’s meat; from the feast of St. Luke to Holy Cross day were the inclusive dates for sheltering in stalls the most valuable livestock. The most important commercial transaction of the year, the fair, was fixed on the anniversary of the local saint’s day. Rogationtide (a custom originating in France during the fifth century) was the period of the “gauging” or beating the parish rounds, which impressed the public mind with the sacredness of proprietary rights, the principles of God’s fee,1 and the necessity for invoking God’s blessing on man’s labour; finally, harvest was considered incomplete without the solemn assembly round the village cross for purposes of prayer and praise. Even to this day there is an echo of these old and pious observances. Thus the chief rent days are more recognised as Lady-day and Michaelmas than the particular dates in March and September when-these events occur.

There is little doubt that almost every one of the thirteenth- century manuscripts, to which in an earlier part of this work we had occasion to refer, was the result of ecclesiastical pens, and the Latin law book Fleta, said to have been written by a judge imprisoned in the Fleet about 1290, contains so much valuable advice on the management of land, the cultivation of crops, the use of manures, and the sowing of seeds, that it is more natural to attribute it to a monkish source. Then, too, there is the translation of Palladius, an anonymous manuscript dating from early in the fifteenth century, and in all probability the product of some religious house in the neighbourhood of Colchester. Here is a treatise on agriculture so advanced in erudition and scholarship as to have been considered worthy by Milton to be ranked with those of Cato, Varro, and Columella. There is little doubt that the mediaeval monks had access to all these authors, as well as Pliny, Virgil, and others. They had but to refer to the pages of the first- named writer to learn the uses and cultivation of the cucumber, cabbage, lettuce, radish, parsnip, turnip, and other now well-known garden vegetables, to say nothing of the many orchard and field products mentioned therein.

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