The perfect monastic garden?

Happy St Fiacre’s Day!   [and if you don’t know who he is click on the link! ] which makes it a very  appropriate day for  today’s post which is all about this rather dull looking image on the right.

It might not look much at first glance, just lots of  red ink lines and some brown lettering on five pieces of parchment sewn together to make a single large sheet  [113cm x 78 cm or 45 x 31 inches]. However,  the plan of the buildings and gardens of the  abbey at St Gall in Switzerland is almost 1200 years old making it the  only major architectural drawing to survive from the end of the Roman Empire in the West until the  13th century.

Used in association with other contemporary documentary sources  it offers a real insight into monastic gardens.


The images in this post come from the website of the St Gall Project unless otherwise stated

12thc  Life of Saint Martin written on the other side of the St Gall Plan

That anything fragile and perishable should have survived is pretty extraordinary but this is probably explained by the fact that the map had a second life.  It was turned over and folded up and then used in the 12thc as a blank sheet of parchment writing a life of St Martin.

There are two possible theories about why the plan was drawn up in the first place.   Some scholars argue that it was a blue-print  for a standardised monastery designed as part of an attempt by Charlemagne’s  son, Louis the Pious, to establish Benedictine monasteries throughout his empire. It could be adopted and perhaps adapted to fit any new site and size of monastery.   The other theory is that it really was a building plan for  Abbot Gozbert of St Gall,  who wanted to rebuild the monastery there.

However, whatever the reason the building was never constructed.

Artist’s impression of the plan if constructed from  Rudolf Rahn: Geschichte der Bildenden Künste in der Schweiz. Von den Ältesten Zeiten bis zum Schlusse des Mittelalters.1876.

Benedictine monks are renowned for their asceticism. Prayer, meditation and study governed their lives, along with hard manual labour, and they were supposed to be secluded from the rest of the world and have little care for secular matters.  However, their monasteries were supposed to be economically independent and St Benedict laid down that they  “be so arranged that all necessary things, such as water, mill, garden, and various crafts may be within the enclosure.” But to administer this, especially on a larger site, required lay assistance which clashed with the idea of seclusion.

It also meant a large swathe of lay officials taking responsibility for the non-religious day to day affairs of the community, under the direction of the chamberlain who, of course, answered to the abbott. Further it meant that alongside accommodation for  the monks themselves there had to be domestic space for the the lay workers  and the stream of visitors who would have passed.  The solution was to effectively divide the monastery estate into two sections, one exclusively religious with little or no access to outsiders and the other more secular.

This simplified and annotated version of the St Gall plan shows this division in practice.  The monastic section of the site was to the top and left, with  the secular and business parts of the community to the right and at the bottom.

At the heart of the religious space was the cloister. It was completely enclosed and inward-looking, reflecting the importance of quiet contemplation. One side connected directly to the church, while the others  accessed the other areas required by the monks for eating, sleeping and working. The brothers would have spent most of their day in and around it. There was no direct access to/from the secular areas.

The cloister as an architectural form is probably derived from that of the Roman villa or the early Christian church atrium but was not established as the standard monastic design until the 8thc. [For a detailed analysis see Horn ]

An early commentator on Benedict’s rule, Hildemar suggested in around 850, that the cloister should be “large enough so the monks can attend to all their chores without finding cause for murmur, yet not so grand as to invite them to spend their time in gossip.” He settled on it being 100 feet square.  The St Gall plan shows  just that, with the central grass area being 75 feet square.

There are four paths, one  from the middle of each side of the galleried cloister walk which lead to a central feature marked “savin”. The savin is thought to be a form of juniper – Juniperus sabina – which is of Mediterranean origin but which was introduced to northern and western Europe.

Savin – Juniperus sabina  from 
Kohl, Die officinellen Pflanzen der Pharmacopoea Germanica,  (1891-1895)

Its leaves are poisonous but it had recognised medicinal uses as a diuretic and against worms in cattle amongst other things, and  it still appears in pharmacopeia and herbals.  It normally takes a low spreading shape but depending on growing conditions can make a taller more columnar specimen. Does the plan show a single wide branching specimen or perhaps, because of the 4 branch-like marks  a group of them?

Savin is one of the plants mentioned in another important surviving text from this period – The Capitulari de Villis  -[c770 -800] a list of regulations and rules for running of royal estates under Charlemagne. This lays down the trees, herbs and other plants that should be grown for food and physic.  There is however no obvious reason why Savin should be chosen as the single featured tree.

The Infirmary Cloister to the Left, and that for the Novices to the right

Smaller versions of the main cloister can be seen for the sick and for novices in the upper left section of the plan. In the top left corner is the infirmerer’s physic garden. Each of the rectangular beds is labelled with the name of a herb:  sage, watercress, rue, cumin, iris, lovage, pennyroyal, fennel, climbing beans,  pepperwort, costmary, Greek hay,  rosemary, mint, lilium & rose.

Benedictines lived on a largely vegetarian diet so so the kitchen garden was a key part of the monastery.

It was approximately  125 x 52 ft and the notation in the central strip reads: “Here the planted vegetables flourish in beauty” while the beds themselves are labelled onion, garlic, leek, shallots, celery, parsley, coriander, chervil, dill, lettuce, poppy, pepperwort, radish, parsnip, cabbage, chard and fennel.   This is a very short list and omits many of  the plants suggested by Charlemagne’s Capitulari which includes many others herbs  including fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, tarragon, fennel and rosemary, as well vegetables such as broad beans, peas, gourds as well as roses and lilies.

The beds were probably raised above the paths by either planks held in place by stakes or by woven hurdles of willow or hazel, as can be seen in later mediaeval images.

Its care was normally  the responsibility of a lay official – the hortulanus  or gardener -rather than a monk, and the St Gall plan reflects this. He was allocated his own accommodation  within the main garden building [seen at the bottom of the plan above] which even had a fireplace – an unusual luxury in a monastery. According to Capitulari “the gardener shall have house-leeks growing on his house.”

A reconstruction of the garden building from Horn & Born

The garden building stretched across the width of the vegetable plot and was about 35ft deep. Inside it was  divided into several sections with 4 rooms round what the labelling calls a “common living room” [with a central hearth?]  The “dwelling of the gardener”  was on the right,   the other garden workers slept  in the two rooms closest to the garden itself and  there was a “storage place for the garden tools and for the vegetable seeds” in the room on the left.

The gardener would have had to provide vegetables and herbs to feed upwards of 250 people every day – 100 or so monks and the rest lay workers. Clearly this garden was not big enough to do anything like that so its suggested that  possibly only used for “finer crops” and that bulkier crops like the beans, peas and cabbages were grown in large gardens or even open fields outside the monastic precinct.  In addition of course the monastery would have received produce as rent or a tithe from its leasehold possessions, and imported crops from other regions by exchange or purchase usually from other Benedictine monasteries.

Another Benedictine commentator, Saint Adelard [750-826] who was Abbot of Corbie, a much larger community of 200+ monks wrote that his monastery had 4 such off-sites areas, each run by a gardener and using labour from the nearest surrounding villages, some of which may have been owned by the monastery or its patrons. Each village was   expected to supply an ox and labour to assist the gardener and his assistants at busy times of the year. The responsibility for ensuring this happened fell on the mayor of each village and thye were held to account.

And when the time comes when it is necessary to clean the weeds out of the fields (that is, from the middle of April up to the middle of October), let each one of these mayors without any suggestion of negligence or slovenliness of any kind appear every twenty days before the brothers’ gardener to whom he should render assistance, to see and ask when he should need to assign weeders to that garden. Then after the various kinds of leek (porri et porricini) have been transplanted  as well as the shallots, the garlics, and the onions, the mayors should weed them as much as and whenever necessary, just as has been stated. And whenever the workers gather for that weeding, the mayor himself in his own person or the dean – one of those two – should be there to see to it in every detail that the workers complete their work conscientiously and efficiently.

from the Utrecht Psalter

Saint Adelard also  gave advice to his fellow abbots about how to treat their gardener:   “The gardeners should receive carts from the shed every year according to custom. They ought to receive all iron tools from the chamberlain, who should supervise the smiths according to the custom of the community. If any of the tools should be broken, let the gardener show them to the chamberlain and let him have them repaired or give out another metal appliance and take in the broken one. Furthermore, those tools must then be repaired by the chamberlain in whatever way may be necessary. And for cultivating the field or for carrying out any other needs, let each one have six trenchers, two spades, three hatchets, one pick-axe, two sledges, large and small, one pruning-knife, one gulbium, two sickles, one scythe, two trunci, one coulter, one scerum, and other instruments kept in the chamberlain’s office, as are winnowing fans, casting shovels or other things of this sort. Whenever old equipment breaks down, the gardener should tell the abbot. The abbot will advise him about obtaining replacements.”

The plan also shows an orchard, but an orchard with a difference. It was sited between the kitchen garden and the smaller noviciate and infirmary cloisters just behind the church, in other words at the junction between secular and sacred space. That isn’t surprising when you consider the iconography shown.

The orchard doubled as the monks cemetery.  The plan shows 13 trees which may well have represented Christ and the 12 apostles, and the central inscription says “Among the trees always the most sacred of the soil is the Cross , on which the fruits of eternal health are fragrant.  Around let lie the dead bodies of the brothers, and through its radiance they may attain the realm of heaven.” There is apparently a lot of symbolism in the fact that there are  14 burial plots – more info here if you want to know more

The other labels next to the trees  tell us that the orchard contained apple, pear, plum, service tree, mistletoe, laurel, chestnut, fig, quince, peach, hazelnut, almond, mulberry & walnut.

from the Utrecht Psalter

Capitulari also suggests cherries, medlar, and pine and adds “The names of the apples are: gozmaringa, geroldinga, crevedella, spirauca; there are sweet ones, bitter ones, those that keep well, those that are to be eaten straightaway, and early ones. Of pears they are to have three or four kinds, those that keep well, sweet ones, cooking pears and the late-ripening ones.   The plan also includes a drying house where fruit could be dried to help bridge the winter food gap.

The orchard is  80 x 125 ft and was enclosed but clearly not big enough to supply enough fruit for a community of the size of St Gall, so once again there must have been substantial additional orchard land elsewhere, and it is known from the accounts of St Gall that they bought in fruit and nuts from elsewhere.

So, all in all, it’s surprising what can be learned from something that never actually got built!

If you want to know more about the plan or St Gall then its worth checking out the website of the St. Gall Project which offers a large amount of material about the plan and  early medieval monastic culture in general.

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1 Response to The perfect monastic garden?

  1. tonytomeo says:

    What?! I didn’t know it was Saint Fiacre Day! Wow, so lacking!

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