The Christian monastic garden is an attempt to provide a space which is both sacred and useful. It must be sacred so as to be conducive to prayer, but it is to be useful because human needs must be served. The design arose in the first millenium at the monastery of St Gall in Swirtzerland, but it derives from the monastic spirit. St Gall was established by Irish monks led by St Columbanus, but it was taken over by the Benedictine rule, which became the monastic norm for Western Christianity.
At the centre was a cloister garth, which we can see in the picture above. This was a large square or rectangular garden surrounded by cloisters on all four sides. Cloisters are covered walkways where monks can walk abd meditate, or where they can sit and read overlooking a pleasant view. The cloister garth was a lawn, but this was not always the modern lawn. Mediaeval lawns often allowed the grass to be longer than modern lawns and sometimes there were bulbs planted in the ground so that they would be studded with flowers.At times there was statuary present.
There was also a paradise garden. This was at the head of the abbey church and would be filled with beautiful flowers. The aim was to recreate the garden of Eden, and it was a place which was intended to stimulate the spirit to appreciate the glories of God as revealed in nature and therefore lead the viewers to prayer. The paradise sometimes doubled as the sacristan's garden, though the bigger monasteries had a dedicated sacristan's garden. The sacristan was the official responsible for the upkeep of the church and the arrangement of services. It was his job to grow the flowers which were picked for the altar. Catholic services use colour coded vestments, for example red for martyrs' feast days and white for other saints, so the flowers would be grown and chosen accordingly. The sacristan would have to ensure a year long supply of flowers.
Many of us have all seen Cadfae on television or read the stories of this fictional monk-healer. There used to be a herbal garden in all monasteries growing medicinal herbs for the healer. These herbal gardens have long since died out as modern medicine has taken over. However, they were a major part of the life of the mediaveal monastery, even up to the nineteenth century. Some monasteries used a dedicated brewers' garden, where the herbs used in brewing were grown. These were not just hops, as ale was flavoured with a variety of flavourants, such as alecost, meadowsweet and mugwort. It may surpise many people that monks drank ale, but Catholicism has never been a teetotal faith. It merely opposes drunkenness and dependence on alcohol, though there have been teetotal Catholics.
The productive gardens were the heart of the monastery. Here the monastic gardener grew the vegetables for the monastery throughout the whole year, vital at a time when food supplies could not easily be imported and when people needed to provide food security for themselves. Bees were an important part of these walled gardens, and they were kept in little recesses in the monastery gadren walls. The monks used beeswax for the candles used in services. Even today Catholc ism sues beeswax candles in religious ceremonies. The chief gardener was known as the gardinarius or the hortulan, but in the middle ages there was special assistant called a mustardarius, whose job was to provide the mustard plants that the monks felt that they needed.It seems that mustard was considered a must-have by monks.The productive garden often had a nursery section known as the impgarth, an imp being a term for a small person or creature.
Other minor gardens included the abbot's garden, only found in the larger monasteries, where the abbot, an important figure in mediaeval times who might have received important visitors, entertained dignitaries. This would be mainly flowers. The guest house garden was a small garden that was for the entertainment of guests, again focusing mainly on flowers. Monastic gardens were an important part of the tradition of this country until Henry the Eighth's vast act of vandalism and theft destroyed the monasteries and depived England of so much beauty and culture. It is worth remembering the contribution that these monasteries made to our national life, and when we see their ruins we might think of the gardens that once flourished there and the sacred music that once floated over their grounds.
write a comment