In the the early ninth century a young monk took the small boat that ferried passengers across to Reichenau Island in Lake Constance. His thoughts on that journey to the monastery where he was to become a young, famous, but short lived abbot are not recorded, but he left us with some memorable writings, the most famous of which is Liber de Cultura Hortorum [Book About the Culture of Gardens] better known as Hortulus [the Little Garden.] This is a poetic account that this monk-scholar left of his beloved hobby. It was one of the most popular books in the Middle Ages.
Reicheau Island is in Lake Constance. Rising to 438 feet at its highest point , it is now a world heritage site, though the original monastery is gone, closed by Napoleon and its lands taken. The lake possesses a benign microclimate, and the large body of water works against frosts.. Furthermore, there are no invasive weeds that can cross the water. These factors make Reichenau ideal for gardening, and its is still famed for its vegetable farms. Protected by the lake from attack from the land in the turbulent ninth century, monastic life and monastery gardens flourished in tranquility. Young Walafrid [Wahlafrid in some translations] quickly rose to the rank of abbot and found time to write religious works and to garden. He was so enthusiastic that he wrote an account of his gardening work that inspired many in the mediaeval period and still does today.
A Walled Garden
Walafrid, who was nicknamed Strabo because he was cross-eyed, had the right to an abbot’s garden. This was the abbot’s own special patch, which he used to entertain important visitors in the days when abbots did business for kings. The wall gave privacy for the abbot and, more importantly, shelter for plants that, combined with the beneficient climate, flourished on Reichenau.
A Christian Garden
Religious gardens take on the character of the religion to which the gardener belongs. Christian gardens combine beauty and utility. Red roses in Strabo’s garden stood for the blood of Christ and the martyrs, and Chrysanthemum would have been cut sometimes for the adornment of church services. Lilies, which are in Christian thought symbols of the perfectly pure Mary, flourished in Strabo’s garden. The flowers would serve as an aid to meditation. Strabo could well have walked along the paths between the twenty three beds and in the peace and beauty of this tiny replica of Eden turned his thoughts to God. Christians will sometimes reflect on the beauty of nature or a garden and use it as a stimulus for prayer. This is a major function of monastery gardens.
Yet a Christian garden serves for healing and food, as well as beauty. Strabo grew melons, cucumbers and celery, along with herbs such as chervil and mint, all of which were for eating. Yet there were medicinal herbs growing there. Betony was often used as an infusion for headaches, and fennel was commonly held by the ancients to be a major healing herb. It is good for digestive problems. Papaver, poppy, was grown for its seeds that could provide relief from pain, an early anaesthetic. Horehound grew for coughs and colds. Pennyroyal was grown probably for beauty. This relation of mint is edible, but must not be taken by pregnant women, as it induces abortions, but pregnant women are in short supply in monasteries, one hopes.
St Benedict believed that not everyone is given the grace of abstinence, and few monks abstained from alcohol. The rule was to abstain from excess. In Strabo’s garden there grew some herbs known to have flavoured beer. Strabo grew yarrow and horehound, both bitter herbs used as beer flavourings in that period. I like to think of this monastic scholar-gardener settling down with a beer flavoured from his own garden.
Death and legacy
“Those whom the gods love die young” said the ancient Greek proverb. Well, Strabo must have been loved. While travelling on official business he fell while fording a swollen river and was swept away. He was only forty. His words lived on and were a guidebook for mediaeval monk-gardeners. His monastery declined over the years for political reasons and was shut down. But in 2003 a small community of Benedictine monks, the order to which Strabo belonged, took up residence. All monasteries have gardens when possible, so a new garden would have sprung up on Reichenau. It will not be the same as Strabo’s garden, as all gardens must change and develop with time. It will still be a place of prayer, and someone will much love it.