Medieval monasteries were enclosed worlds in which the monastic buildings and surrounding lands provided the monks with everything they needed for their daily lives. Monks lived lives of seclusion and deep spirituality, working the land and the gardens when not at prayer – in the order of St Benedict, which influenced most monasteries, prayer had always to be balanced by physical work, or which gardening often took up a large part of the monk’s day.
Working the land and gardens was a form of prayer and honour to God within itself, and it prevented idleness, ‘the enemy of the soul’. After all, Adam had condemned sinful man to toiling at spade and behind plough, just as Eve had condemned women ever more to the pain and perils of birthing.
While the ideal of monastic life may have been seclusion and contemplation, in practice the monks had a reasonable degree of contact with the outside world. Large monasteries often owned vast tracts of land and were large landowners in their own right with communities of peasant villages to oversee and manage. Monasteries also provided shelter for travellers and pilgrims, and their infirmaries provided health care for the wider community.
Monasteries therefore had to supply not only their own food, ales and wines and herbal medicines, but the food and medical treatments for a large number of other people as well. An important part of the monk’s duty of care, to their dependents as well as to God, was maintaining the monastic gardens. The gardening duties had become so onerous in some monasteries that by the end of the twelfth centuries the monks had to hire in lay gardeners to help manage their gardens.
St Benedict was a prosperous Roman who lived in the sixth century. Disillusioned with the shallow and immoral society in which he lived, St Benedict retired to live in a cave outside Rome. Outside this cave he planted a rose bush so that the flowers could tempt his sensuality while the thorns torment his flesh. The image of the rose, sensual temptation weighed against the pain of physical travail, epitomises medieval gardening and agriculture as it epitomises gardening today. All gardens represent great spiritual peace, but only at the cost of physical travail and pain. In the medieval period, when life was so difficult and so uncertain, the tranquility and beauty of a garden was treasured even more.
Monastic gardens typically had three main gardens: the herber, herb, physic, or infirmary garden which provided medicines for the infirmary, and the orchard and kitchen gardens, which provided food (although many herbal preparations would have been made from plants in these gardens as well). The designers of these gardens often when to particular trouble to make them attractive as well as practical – medieval monks, like modern day gardeners, delighted in the beauty as well as function of plants. Sometimes fruit trees and berry bushes were planted through the graveyard so that the space had twin usefulness and beauty. Latrines could be positioned near the vegetable beds of the kitchen garden not merely to supply the kitchen garden with a ready-made and close source of manure for its soil, but also perhaps to sweeten the monks’ journey to and from the latrines.
Planting beds were generally very carefully laid out in both the physic garden and the kitchen garden. A typical garden would have at least six beds, perhaps protected by low hazel fences or hurdles, aligned along a central pathway. The physic garden could have twenty beds or more, one bed for each herb. The monks grew cumin, fennel, comfrey, feverfew, yarrow, pimpernel, rosemary, sage, rue, lavender, rose, iris, mint, lovage and pennyroyal among others. What was not grown in the physic garden could be gathered from the wild – along the river meadows and under the hedgerows.
In the kitchen garden the monks would have grown turnips, parsnips, a variety of legumes, onions, leeks, mint, borage, nettle, violets, rocket, endive, wormwood, basil, carnations, melons and mugwort to name only a few.
The lily of the valley, pictured to the right, was often grown for its sheer beauty rather than for any medicinal purpose.
The orchard would have been stocked with varieties of plum, apple, almond, grape vines (before the fourteenth century western Europe’s climate was much warmer than it is now and wine could be grown successfully in England), cheery, chestnut, fig,hazel, pear, medlar, walnut and mulberry, gooseberries and strawberries.
Fish ponds also formed an important part of the monastic garden. The monks farmed a number of fish, eels and carp primary among them, in ponds, streams and moats. Fish formed a major part of their diet on Fridays and during the Lenten fasts, and without a steady availability of fish their diet would have suffered terribly.
Also forming an important, if less decorative part, of the monastic garden was the cloister garden (or cloister-garth). While some cloister gardens had shrubs and flowers, most had only a level field of lawn. The simplicity, as well the emerald colour, aided the monks or nuns in their daily spiritual contemplations – the plain green lawn symbolized renewal and everlasting life.
The monastic official who oversaw the gardens was known as the ortolanus. He not only oversaw production in the gardens, but also administered the hiring of staff (if the monastery needed to hire in lay gardeners). One of the perks for the lay gardeners was that, as well as monetary wages, they also often obtained medicinal care, food, gloves and boots for their labour.
In the smaller religious houses, those with only a handful of monks or lay brothers, there were no lay gardeners at all. The monks did all the work, whether in freezing hail or summer sunshine, living and dying by the fruits of their endeavours.