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Church and Monastery Gardens
Canterbury Cathedral, 1165 CE
Mount Grace Priory - A
restored late medieval herb
The Plan of St Gall, c. 820 CE
garden recreated at
Although we know something about the
plants grown during the
period between the departure of
the Romans and the arrival of the
Normans, our glimpses of early medieval
gardens are frustratingly fragmented.
Early monastic establishments followed a ground plan derived from that
of the Roman villa,
whose central colonnaded courtyard evolved into
the cloister. Cloister gardens, set within
these rectangular bounds and often centered on a
fountain, and were designed specifically to foster
Monasteries had other gardens as well, kitchen
gardens (hortus) for vegetables and seasonings, herb gardens (herbularius)
for medicinal plants, and -- at the west doors of many of the
great churches -- paradise gardens
produced flowers for decorating the church and
also provided sanctuary
gardens are mentioned in surviving monastic bookkeeping records
and in chronicles; for
Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani (History of
the Abbots of the Monastery of St. Albans)
reports that a Danish hermit at St. Albans
tended gardens with
herbis et leguminibus, herbs
At about the same, on the
continent, the "Plan
of St. Gall" was drawn, presenting a model for an ideal monastery,
complete with two gardens and an orchard.
Benedictional of St. Ęthelwold
shows Queen Ętheldreda
(at right), founder of Ely Cathedral,
holding a tall
Historia Novarum in
Anglia that, after the Norman Conquest, King
William Rufus and his men descended upon the nunnery
at Romsey Abbey, ostensibly to view their "roses and
other flowering herbs," but in actuality to inspect
Edith of Scotland, then 12 years old and heiress of the
royal Saxon family.
A scribe at the
Benedictine abbey of Bury St. Edmunds created
herbal that would be recognized a millennia
later for the beauty of its botanical illustrations.
at St. Michael's Priory on the island of Steep
Holm, in the Bristol Channel, grew leeks, Alexanders, and perhaps the lovely, single pink
Balkan peony, Paeonia mascula.
William of Malmesbury
Gerard, Archbishop of York, died in a garden near his house, where he had gone, ailing and
uncomfortable, to "enjoy the open air... to which the flowers of the plants,
breathing sweetly, give life."
Thorney Abbey in the Gesta
...the eyes feast on the greenness of the trees, and
herbs, and grass and everywhere presents the same
delightful prospect. Not the smallest part of the soil
remains uncultivated; here the land produces apple
trees, here the fields are devoted to the cultivation of
vines, which either creep on the earth or rise towards
heaven supported by poles...
A ground plan showing the
Canterbury Cathedral incidentally shows the infirmary garden as well, with
trellised or wattle fences and neat rows of plants.
Gerald of Wales
describes several location in Wales as having
gardens, vineyards, and orchards, among them
Mawr, home of the church dedicated to St.
Llawddog, where you could find a "mill, bridge, salmon leap,
an orchard with a delightful garden -- all stand
together on a small plot of ground."
It was the
responsibility of the refectorer at
Barnwell Priory not only to feed the members of the priory community, but also
to perfume the air of their dining room with flowers,
mint, and fennel.
prior of Barnwell, Henry of Eye, had been the
gardener at Barnwell in the early 1200s, and was
remembered for his success with apples, various kinds of
pears, and a vineyard.
A number of sources make it clear that both monks and nuns were
avid gardeners. Some of the more horticulturally inclined of the
religious houses sold seeds and plants, and supplied medicinals
as well. By the year 1200, the sale of gardening tools,
seeds, and plants was a major industry, with centers at Oxford,
London, and Paris.