Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme … and Lavender

First, a pinch of etymology. The Greeks called lavender nardus after the Syrian city of Naardus, from which comes the word “spikenard.” (More on spikenard in a second.) As for our word, "lavender," we must once again thank the Latin language for lavare, meaning, "to wash." A member of the mint family, and cousin to…

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Begging the Question: Les Quatre Mendiants and Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts

The truth is, the dishes associated with Provence's Thirteen Desserts abound with religious symbolism. Take the Four Beggars, or Les Quatre Mendiants, which symbolize something that we in the secular West have basically lost, a sense of awe and fear about the natural world and all that is in it. The Thirteen Desserts likely represented…

The Black Fast, a Mortification of the Appetite

With Lent fast approaching (February 17, 2010), an examination of fasting and other fleshly challenges seems apropos. Religious-based fasting, in the history of English speakers anyway, belies its importance in the commonly used word for the first meal of the day: breakfast or “break fast.” After all, for much of Western European history, almost half…

Weihenstephan, the Oldest Brewery in the World (?)

Make that the oldest brewery still standing (and producing) in the world, never mind that the oldest brewery is actually a smashed clay pot [no pun intended] someplace yet to be dug up by an intrepid and curious archaeologist. Given my deep interest in fermentation, as well as the impact of monks and monasteries on…

The Random Herbalist: The Church as Farmer

The 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…

The Random Herbalist: Charlemagne, St. Gall, and the History of Medicine

The history of medicine, a fascinating subject, shows how people began to understand more and more about the corporeal body. Herbs played a big role in the evolution of this understanding, and medieval monasteries encapsulated this knowledge: The curriculum of these cathedral schools embraced originally the Trivium, (arithmetic, grammar, music), and the Quadrivium (dialectics, rhetoric,…

The Random Herbalist: Libraries and Monastic Gardens

Another reason why the Internet is so fantastic --- here is a catalog of the manuscripts available in the monastery at St. Gall in Switzerland. (You need to be able to read German, or at least have a good dictionary at hand!) In 1875, the Catholic Administration (Katholische Konfessionsteil) of the Canton of St. Gall…

The Random Herbalist: Monks and Plant Migration

Along with dill, which we've briefly brushed by, other plants also traveled with the monks as they made their way across Europe: To the monks, who in their way were great gardeners, we are indebted for the introduction of several plants ; and since in many cases the ancient monastery has disappeared, the flowers which…

The Random Herbalist: The Roman Influence on Monastic Gardens

With this post, I celebrate a year of writing "Gherkins & Tomatoes!" Thank you so much to everyone who visits the blog. I look forward to the coming year! The Romans wielded profound influence on the architecture and organization of monasteries ... and, hence, on us ... centuries later. According to Viollet-le-Duc : —* "…

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

[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…

The Random Herbalist: The Hortus Eremitje

Charlemagne had a shovel in every monastic garden, or so it seems:* As early as the days of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) the cloister owned outside property, and just as at Canterbury we must conclude that the plan of St. Gall meant the orchards and vineyards to be outside. The whole time of Charles the…

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, 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…

The Random Herbalist: Gregor Mendel

Medieval monks knew a great deal about plants and their characteristics. And so did monks of later times. Take the example of Gregor Mendel, as does this article discussed in a March 2009 Journal of Biology article: Why Didn’t Darwin Discover Mendel’s Laws? Mendel solved the logic of inheritance in his monastery garden with no…

The Random Herbalist: The Monastic Physic Garden

Most 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…

The Random Herbalist: An Introduction to Early Monastic Gardens

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…