What little we know about the earliest medieval gardens is derived largely from monastic texts. Around the year 530, Saint Benedict of Italy established rules for governing monasteries, including prayer, study and manual labor such as might be performed in farming or tending to medicinal plants. Benedict’s rules state that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor.” When they were not praying, monks were expected to perform the many tasks necessary to maintain the monastery. Chores were dictated by the seasons, and included preparing the ground in spring, garden tending and care of fruit orchards. Every monastery had at least one plot for vegetables and herbs. The monks might observe rituals in the harvesting of herbs, picking them in total silence at daybreak, and often facing to the south or east.
The earliest known garden blueprints are found in a monastery plan intended as a guide for Benedictine abbeys (this document survives today in a Swiss abbey). The plan featured several gardens, including a kitchen garden for vegetables and herbs and an infirmary garden for plants used in medicine. A typical medieval garden, as represented in medieval manuscript paintings, was enclosed by a wall, fence, trellis or hedge, and generally subdivided into neat geometric units with straight paths in between.
The earliest firsthand gardening account comes to us from a 9th-century monk named Walafrid Strabo. His Hortulus or “Little Garden” was a poem dedicated to his garden in which he describes his pleasure at working with the soil and tending plants.
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil--
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.”
Walafrid Strabo, ninth century
People today use herbs much the same as medieval people did when it comes to cooking and seasoning food. The leaves of mint, sage, marjoram, parsley and many other plants provided added flavor to their diets. The medieval vegetable garden was similar to a modern-day vegetable plot, yielding crops like onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, carrots, celery, lettuce and beans. Fruit trees were also carefully tended. An orchard might sometimes be planted outside monastery walls, or located in a cemetery adjacent to the church. Apple and pear trees provided not only fresh fruit, but also the makings of fermented cider.
Herbs, used by apothecaries to make potions and ointments, were a particularly valuable crop during medieval times. Home remedies containing leaves, flowers and roots provided treatment for all kinds of illnesses and ailments. Monks and others who cared for the sick might grow feverfew to treat headaches, lungwort to treat coughs, and wormwood to rid the body of worms. Sage served as an antiseptic and astringent. Chamomile had many uses, being adminstered to a person suffering from worms or sores. It was also used as a tonic, similar to our chamomile tea of today. Fennel was credited with the power to soothe stomach problems, improve eyesight and cure rheumatism. Feverfew was well known as a pain killer, and comfrey used to heal bruises and fractures. Rosemary was administered as a cure for asthma and gout; mint served as a cure for abscesses, dog bite and hiccups.
“I insist that those who treat the health and body of the brethren...learn therefore the nature of herbs, and seek to know how to combine the various kinds for human health...”
Monastery founder Cassiodorus, 468-560
In the Home
Although in modern times we still enjoy the scent of flowers, our gardens are probably not essential to our housekeeping as they were in medieval times. Herbs were once integral to the cleaning and sanitizing of homes. Rue with its acrid odor helped fend off vermin and their accompanying diseases. Wormwood and rosemary prevented insects from damaging clothing. Poisonous herbs like aconite and hellebore were used to kill larger problem animals such as rats, wolves and foxes. Woad, madder, and the pollen of the saffron crocus were all sources of dye. Herbs and other plants also brought pleasure and beauty into the medieval world. The original cosmetics came from the garden, with plants like chamomile, tansy and elderflower recommended for the complexion and Madonna lily roots used to treat wrinkled skin.
In every era, people have enjoyed the color and fragrance of flowers, and often viewed them as representative of important beliefs. Walafrid in his Hortulus mentions the Madonna lily as a symbol of chastity, and the rose as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the blood of martyrs. Flowers adorned medieval altars, where their scent was considered to to be the breath of God on earth. Among the many blossoms you might find in a medieval garden were daffodil, primrose, cowslip, violet, herb robert (geranium), honesty (lunaria), periwinkle, bluebell, forget-me-not, wallflower, campion, lungwort, columbine, buttercup, poppy, aconitum, lavender, turkscap lily, foxglove, iris, sweet pea, lilium regale, rose, scabiosa, pinks, mullein, meadowsweet, lily of the valley, love-in-a-mist, canterbury bells, martagon lily, hollyhock, jacob’s ladder, hellebore and snowdrop.
Medieval Gardens to Visit:
Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of the Cloisters; Tania Bayard; Metropolitan Museum of Art; 1985
Medieval Flowers; Miranda Innes and Clay Perry; Kyle Cathie Ltd,; 1997
Medieval Medicine: A Reader; Faith Wallis; University of Toronto Press; 2010
Medieval manuscript images from Vintage Printable, in the public domain
14th century image of St. Benedict, from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
“Emilia in the Rosegarden” by Giovanni Boccaccio, ca. 1460, from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
Cloisters Museum and Gardens photo by Smart Destinations