The image of a garden in the monastery during the Middle Ages do not speak to us of a simple admiration for nature. They translate a vision of the world proper to the medieval universe, where God is at its very centre.
The world below is nothing but the imperfect mirror of divine realities, an image of Heaven. It is therefore necessary for us to rise towards the divine. Nature should not be contemplated for its aesthetic value, but for its symbolic content. Nature is spiritual, its reality is not exclusively physical.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, St. Francis of Assisi and his friars minor in the Canticle of the Creatures evoked a visible nature benevolent toward man, innocent and blameless with regard to original sin. In this spirit, how did the monks organise their gardens? What symbolism did think of in connection with it?
The organisation of the monastic garden, especially of the isolated monastery and therefore autonomous and self-sufficient in its structure, was modelled on the two concepts of Desertum and Hortus conclusus, linked both to the isolated life of the anchorite and to that of the community of the monastery: the two aspects merged into a harmonious organism, a model of reference for the organisation of civil society. Silva refers to the binomial desertum-hortus as nature-culture in underlining the pious and practical lives of the first monks: the figure of the saintlike hermit is interpolated into the wild natural environment, alongside that of the cultivated countryside:
They cultivated the land and made a number of uncultivated sites healthy and fertile. The deserts resounded not only with their prayers, but also with the clatter of the axes. Worried about advantageous projects, sufficiently educated, full of strength, fervour and perseverance, they managed to accomplish quite extraordinary works by themselves, spreading new lights, interesting practices to all branches of agriculture, and achieving fruitful results.Silva Ercole, Dell’arte dei giardini Inglesi, edited by G. Venturi, Milan 1976, p. 192.
Saint Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners
The first monastic gardens were organised in Irish monasteries where the Greco-Latin culture sought refuge during the Viking invasions. After all, Fiacre was a French monk — the patron saint of gardeners. As for horticultural sciences, it is within the great Swiss abbeys — where the Irish rule of St. Columban was exercised — that horticulture experiences its golden moment.
An example of this figure of a hermit friar and a farmer at the same time is that of Saint Fiacre, much venerated in France as protector of the Guild of gardeners, represented holding the spade and the gospel. An engraving by the brothers Johann and Raphael Sadelet, in the work of Maerten de Vos, circa 1585–86, entitled Solitudo, sive vitae patrum eremicolarum, kept at the Biblioteca Marucalliana in Florence, explains in the legend:
Fiacre, an Irishman, cultivates a small garden and performs wonders; he marks the ground and it is covered with plants, sits on a stone and that becomes a cathedra.
But the constructive model of the monastic garden, with raised square or rectangular flower beds, containing vegetables and flowers, in an articulated checkerboard arrangement, is found in the poem by Walafrid Strabo, a monk of Reichenau who lived in the IX century, entitled Liber de cultura hortorum, also known as “Hortulus” ca. AD 827.
The hortulus — that is to say the little vegetable garden
The hortulus provides an economic function: it must supply the kitchen, since the monastic diet is almost totally vegetarian. But the nutrition of the monks also involved three elements that contained a spiritual value. Bread and wine (symbols of the Eucharist) … and also vegetables. Eating roots and raw herbs, often at the heart of the menu of hermits and monks, was a symbol of humility.
Herbs and legumes were planted in squares bordered by perimeters of wicker or brushwood. Since biblical symbolism was ubiquitous, these squares were often multiplied by three: they represented the Holy Trinity.
And an example of a monastic garden structure from the early Middle Ages can be easily reconstructed through the plan of the Abbey of Saint Gall [in the city of St. Gallen in Switzerland], from the early IX century, created at the time of the rebuilding of the abbey, in which the differentiation of spaces between gardens is represented and vegetable gardens. It depicts the ideal layout of a Carolingian monastery: a walled micro-city, in which places of prayer and work are equally distributed.
The St. Gallen plant distinguishes the areas intended for the harvesting of vegetables for food, from the areas used for the cultivation of (simple) medicinal herbs usually located in the immediate vicinity of the infirmary. Adjacent to these two specific areas were the cemetery-orchard and the claustrum, a square 100 feet long laterally (30.48 metres), surrounded by a fence, as the Benedictine rule required. The monks had to cultivate the garden for their food needs, watering the earth with the sweat of their brow, while, when they dedicated themselves to gardening, it was as if they approached the vision of the lost biblical paradise. Stewardship for Benedictines is yet another value which, just as hospitality, captures the essence of the Benedictine way of life. On a fundamental level, St. Benedict prescribed care and reverence of material things; of the Cellarer The Rule of Benedict admonishes “He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected” (RB ch. 31 §10-11). For Benedictines, the idea that gardening tools were just as important as chalices has come to mean a total way of life which emphasises orderliness, good example and like-mindedness; body, mind, spirit, material things and the planet — are all one and the same and therefore must receive the proper care and attention. All created things are God-given, and a common-sense approach to resources should prevail.
The layout was still similar to that of the villae rusticae —roman farmhouse or countryside villa—, accompanied by four types of cultivated spaces: vegetable gardens (hortus vegetabilis), orchards (pomarium), gardens with trees (viridaria or arboretum), herbaria (herbularius). The spaces were therefore divided geometrically by separate flower beds and paths covered by pergolas and made up of distinct parts, each of which had its own well-defined purpose. Reality and symbol were often confused in the context of the Benedictine monastic experience of Cluny. Here, the space intended for cloisters and cultivated areas are considerable, where perfumes and essences were perceived in some way similar to both actual reality and the metaphorical spiritual universe. The collective imagination of the Christian world linked to that of the cloistered life, from Benedictines to Carthusians, even the White Monks or Cistercians of St Bernard of Clairvaux are often identified with the symbolic processes of the garden. To quote a thought from Bernard:
“Trust to one who has had experience. You will find something far greater in the woods than you will find in books. Stones and trees will teach you that which you will never learn from masters. Think you not you can suck honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock? Do not the mountains run sweetness, the hills run with milk and honey, and the valleys stand thick with corn?”
The pomarius — or the orchard
St. Albert the Great, born in 1198, was both a philosopher, theologian and naturalist. He was a teacher to St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps the most beautiful definition of the orchard is due to this Dominican:
The orchard will include first of all a meadow of fine grass, […] a real green carpet of which no stem will cross the uniform surface. At one of its ends, on the midday side, trees will stand out: pear trees, apple trees, pomegranates, laurels, cypresses […], or vineyards will connect to it, whose foliage will protect the lawn and provide a pleasant and cool shade . […] Behind the lawn, aromatic and medicinal herbs will be planted, for example rue, sage, basil […], and then flowers such as violet, columbine, lily, rose […]. It will be advisable to raise the ground so as to form a green and flowery area where you can come and sit to rest your spirit gently.
The flowers were also intended to adorn the altars: the flower picked was thus offered as a sacrifice, symbolising the sacrifice of Christ, the Virgin, the martyrs and the saints.
The herbularius — or the medicinal garden, the last element of the triptych
The monks possessed an empirical knowledge of the medicinal virtues of plants. The herbalist was both a doctor and a pharmacist. The monks’ pharmacy was already divided into six registers at the time: plants for fever, plants for women, healing plants, purges, plants for stomach aches and plants as antidotes.
The monks saw in every medicinal plant a manifestation of God who has placed plant resources in the hands of men. They had this vision of the world: it is not things themselves that are important, but the spiritual realities to which they refer.
In the Middle Ages, gardens evoked for some the paradisum amisit — paradise lost. It therefore appears as a circular sacred place, where the circle reveals the celestial vault and the infinite while the square expresses the earth and the finite. It is thus integrated into medieval symbolism, where numbers count a lot: the 4 elements, the 4 rivers of paradise, the 4 Gospels, the 4 seasons … The 4 or the square are the symbol of earthly perfection in the Middle Ages. It therefore serves as a basis for the creation of the gardens.
Only in the twelfth century did the Chartres school spread a new approach to nature, conceived as a set of causes with a precise order, of divine origin, without those symbolic expressions recurring in the early Middle Ages. The garden was a fragment of nature modelled by man, a sort of well-defined refuge distinct from the outside world, interdependent in its cultural and natural aspects. Despite its intrinsic tendency towards eternal spring, it had to constantly communicate its artificial and precarious essence. Its inviolability referred to the ancient Persian conception of paradise, in its original meaning of garden, conceived as a delimited and protected place. This sense of intimacy and isolation is an ancient and constant connotation of the garden, the etymology of the word gardening refers to an enclosure: it is from Middle English gardin, from Anglo-French gardin, jardin, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German gard, gart, an enclosure or compound; the words yard, court, and Latin hortus (meaning “garden,” hence horticulture and orchard), are interconnected — all make reference to an enclosed space.
The gardens of Genesis, those of the Gospel, the new heavens and the new earth of the Apocalypse of John, are the reference models of the whole early medieval experience, to which a new archetype was added in the following epoch, the Hortus conclusus of the Song of Solomon he recites: You are an enclosed garden, my sister, my promised bride; you are a garden that is locked, a fountain that is sealed. (Song of Songs 4:12)
Bernard of Clairvaux, commenting on the canticle, describes the garden as a continuous game of hide and seek between a lover and loved one, that is, between creature and creator. His trees must produce fruits that take away hunger and thirst in contrast to those of the tree of life, in the Earthly Paradise, which gave immortality. Its square shape must reflect the four corners of the universe, the heavenly Jerusalem; its center is constituted by a tree (tree of life) or by a well or source (source of wisdom, symbol of Christ and of the four rivers of Paradise). Three allegorical types of gardens in the Bernardian vision must interact with the different spiritual ambitions of the chosen souls: the walnut grove of Susanna (Hortus nucum) expression of the sufferings of earthly life, the Hortus deliciarum primordial abode of Adam, and the divine vision of the Hortus conclusus.
Hortus conclusus and Hortus deliciarum are the two types that are most frequently found in documents. While the second is the representation of the Earthly Paradise, frequented by lovers, often depicted with the fountain of youth in the center, the Hortus conclusus is a secret and fantastic garden, which inside the cloister offers shelter from evil. Here there are flowers and fruits full of symbolic meaning: the rose (sacred flower to Venus, attributive of the Graces) represents the Virgin but for its thorns it is also a symbol of divine blood as well as of the pains of love; the lily (born from the milk poured by Juno —queen of the gods of marriage and childbirth— whilst nursing Hercules), symbol of purity and poverty; the violets (born from the blood of the god Acts) [Attis, was unaware of the love Cybele bore him. In time, Attis saw the king of Pessinus’ beautiful daughter, fell in love, and wished to marry her. The goddess Cybele became insanely jealous and drove Attis mad as revenge. Running crazy through the mountains, Attis stopped at the foot of a pine tree. There Attis castrated and killed himself. From Attis’ blood sprang the first violets. The tree took care of Attis’ spirit.], Symbol of modesty and humility; the pomegranate (born from the blood of Bacchus) represents the firm unity of the church; the palm (before the birth of Romulus and Remus two palms appear in a dream to Rhea Silvia), a symbol of justice, victory and fame; the fig tree (tree sacred to Saturn), a metaphor for sweetness, fertility, well-being and salvation; the olive tree (a plant sacred to Minerva), a symbol of mercy, peace, and the clover that alludes to the Trinity.
The cloistered religious orders of England made an ongoing contribution to the tradition of gardening, but among the monks and nuns a special niche in the history of English Medieval gardening was filled by Carthusian monks. Because of the disciplined nature of their lives all Carthusians were gardeners. The Carthusian Order began in 1084 when Bruno, a priest and head of the cathedral school and chancellor of the diocese of Rheims, in his mature years founded the Grande Chartreuse in Provence. In Carthusian houses, or charterhouses as they were called in England, the monks lived lives of strict asceticism and solitude, each one residing in a separate cell, very much like a private house, within the monastery precincts. The brethren gathered each day to participate in collective worship, but they ate together only on important feast-days. They followed a common daily schedule, but lived essentially as recluses. They prayed, studied, ate, and worked for the most part within the small world of their cells and gardens, each one following his own programme of cultivation.
Where to see gardens with medieval features in the UK
- Benedictine Buckfast Abbey with its Lavender Garden, a Physic Garden and a Sensory Garden
- The Carthusian Mount Grace Priory at the foot of the Cleveland Hills in North Yorkshire
- Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx Abbey in the tranquil valley of the North York Moors
- Cluniac’s Castle Acre Priory with its monastic medicinal herb garden in Norfolk
- The Original herbularius or Herb Garden at the Priory of St. Pancras Lewes
- Abbey of Our Lady of Quarr, on the Isle of Wight and its woodland walk, the small farm and apiary
- The Orchard and Cider Mill of Ampleforth Abbey, North Yorkshire
- The breathtaking grounds, woodlands, formal gardens and pasture of Carmelite Friars, Aylesford, Kent
- Wealden ‘hall-house’ Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex
- Former Benedictine Priory of Avebury Manor, Wiltshire
- Moated XV-century Manor Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire
- XII-century Cistercian Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire
- Manor House of Ightham Mote, set in a wooded valley of Kent
- Wealden Yeoman’s ‘hall-house’ Stoneacre, Kent
- How to garden like a medieval monk (English Heritage)
Bibliography: Primary sources on gardening
- Apuleius, Herbal 11th century
- Charlemagne, Capitulare de villis (c. 800): listing the plants and estate style to be established throughout his empire
- Palladius, Palladius On husbondrie. c. 1420
- Walahfrid Strabo, Hortulus
- Jon Gardener, The Feate of Gardening. c. 1400: poem containing plant lists and outlining gardening practices, probably by a royal gardener. Download pdf here.
- Friar Henry Daniel (14th century): compiled a list of plants in his herbal of which only two manuscripts survive at British Library, MSS Additional 27329 and Arundel 42.
- Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus et plantis (c. 1260): records design precepts on the continent
- Piero de’ Crescenzi, Ruralium Commodorum Liber (c. 1305): records designs precepts on the continent
- ‘Fromond List’, original titled Herbys necessary for a gardyn (c. 1525): list of garden plants you can view extracts at Cryptoforestry
- Master Fitzherbert, The Booke of Husbandrie (1534): includes commentary on past horticultural practices
- T. Tusser, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1580): another relevant commentary though written in the post medieval period download pdf free from here
- Crisp, Frank; Mediaeval Gardens
- Bayard, Tania; Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers: Medieval Gardens and the Gardens of The Cloisters or download pdf here
- Landsberg, Sylvia; The Medieval Garden 1995
- Wright, Richardson; The Story of Gardening from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Hanging Gardens of New York, 1934
- John Harvey; Mediaeval Gardens
- Hildegard von Bingen, Hildegard’s healing plants: from her medieval classic Physica, translated by Bruce W. Hozeski (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 26.
- Margaret B. Freeman, Herbs for the Medieval Household or (download Pdf here).