Ancient Blessings: The Forgotten Contribution of the Monks

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When Rome fell it left devastated land behind it. author Martin Palmer observes that by the fifth century much of North West Europe was “a wasteland of over-exploited land and loss of tree cover” as the great estates which had extracted more than they put back into the land economically collapsed. Palmer observes “it was into this destruction that Christianity brought healing of land and nature. ” The people whom he credits with this healing are the Benedictine monastic order, whose gardeners began to restore the land by the simple expedient of giving more than they took. For the monks, a garden was a sacred place combining beauty and utility. Its beauty stimulated prayer and its utility fed and healed monks and sometimes local folk. So let us see what monastic gardens were like.

Historically significant gardens

One of the earliest gardens mentioned in historical literature was the garden of Strabo, abbot of Reichenau, an island monastery. This was an abbots garden, so in it Strabo grew what appealed to him. Lilies for beauty and adornment of the altar, grew alongside mint for flavour; and horehound for healing colds and flavouring beer grew in his beloved eighteen beds.

However, the great monastery of St Gall in Switzerland, endowed by Charlemagne, gave us the design which became the standard over the next twelve hundred years. A well developed profusion of farms and gardens divided according to their function was established. The primacy of St Galls design was due to the fact that Benedictine monasticism practised there came to be the norm for monasticism across Europe, and squeezed out the alternative Irish monasticism that operated on different lines.

Prayerful spaces.

Some monastery gardens were prayer places. The central one, right at the private heart of the monastery, was the cloister garth. Cloisters were a quadrangle of corridors surrounding a lawn along which which monks walked to meditate or in which they sat for study. The garden was a still, often green space at the heart of the monastery. Grass was not clipped as short as nowadays and sometimes bulbs were planted to enrich the scene. However, the emptiness at the heart of the cloisters symbolized the mystery of God. Yet, according to mediaeval thought, a monastery should be a foretaste of heaven. Its glorious chant and powerful architecture spoke to men of the divine, but so did its gardens. One garden found in many monasteries was the paradise garden, which was often at the head of the church and was a place designed for beauty, rich in flowers and ornamental shrubs. The word paradise denotes a garden in Persian parlance, a place of life and beauty in a hot, dry land. Often the paradise doubled up as the sacristans garden, which was where the official in charge of preparing for services grew the flowers that adorned the altar for worship.

Practical gardens

Yet there were practical gardens. A vegetable plot was essential in monastic life, as monks ate more vegetables and fish than flesh meat. The range was not as wide as a modern vegtable garden, but colewort, the ancestor of cabbage, parsnips, leeks and onions were very common. I have found silverweed, an edible root very popular in the Celtic areas of the British Isles, growing in the remains of a ruined monastery in Wales. Mustard was so popular that some monasteries had an official known as a mustardarius to ensure a constant supply. Fans of Cadfael will know of the herbalists garden that supplied the medicaments. This seems to have faded out in modern monasteries, as monks tend to use conventional medical services nowadays. Occasionally large monasteries would have a brewers garden, where they grew flavourings for beer and cider, as the monks were not averse to beer.

Large abbeys might have an abbots garden, partly for the enjoyment of the abbot, but also because as abbots were important officials entrusted with kings business, a hospitable place to meet official guests was needed.

Reflections

The monks contribution was centred on their commitment to a long term strategy. The Benedictines take a vow of stability, so they expected to live in an abbey for all their lives and that their abbey twould persist after their deaths. Abbeys had therefore to be sustainable institutions, so there could be no grabbing a quick buck and running. The monks were in for the long haul of creating a sacred space that would outlast them, just as the abbey church would outlast all individual monks. Sustainability was encouraged by the vow of poverty. This is not the grinding poverty of the deprived, but simple living and avoiding dependence on excessive consumption for happiness. It was a preference for spiritual rather than material pleasures, though not every monk or monastery lived up to these high standards all the time. monastic poverty meant that more could be put back into the land than was taken from it. Thirdly, monks are expected to be diligent about their duties. Thus if they have a task it must be performed well, so the gardens were well tilled. Perhaps the fact that they saw the earth as a sacred place rather than as a mere source of goods meant that they treated it with respect. Perhaps we can learn from them.