Gardening Advice from a Squint-Eyed Monk

I’ve written several posts on early gardening books, but today’s post goes back even further. It’s about the first gardening book in European history which dates from around 830-40AD.

It  was written by a Benedictine monk who spent most of life  on an island in the Bodensee [Lake Constance]  in south-west Germany. His name was Walafrid, although  he also called himself Strabo which means squint-eyed or cross-eyed. We know a surprising amount about him given the long time gap because he was quite a significant figure both theologically  and diplomatically. However most of his theological writing, has  been long forgotten and instead he’s remembered for another part of his life.  Yes you guessed correctly: Walafrid was a keen gardener.


Walafrid was  born around 809 a few years before the death of  the great  Emperor Charlemagne in 814. When he was about 8 his parents sent him to the Abbey of Reichenau,  to be  schooled for life as a monk. Reichenau had been founded in 724 and quickly developed into one of the most important centres for learning in Western Europe, gaining a reputation for training the clerks who staffed the various court chanceries. His teachers were part of a pan-European ecclesiastical and political  network and as Walafrid  showed his talent  he was given opportunities to impress leading churchmen with his knowledge,  and also to study at other monasteries. So having a squint doesn’t seem to detracted from his career in the slightest.

Charlemagne had been succeeded as emperor by his son Louis the Pious  whose chaplain had been  one of Walafrid’s tutors at Reichenau. So perhaps its not surprising that  in 829,  when Walafrid was only about 20,  he was recommended to Louis, and then summoned  to Aachen, the imperial capital  to be made tutor to the youngest of Louis’ sons, 6 year old Charles, later the emperor Charles the Bald.

It was not an easy time because Louis became  involved in a series  of civil wars with his own children about the succession, which eventually involved dividing his empire up amongst them. Walafrid seems  to have been heavily involved and was probably imprisoned at one point by one of the factions. Later he took part in the diplomacy trying to prevent military action all the while tutoring Charles. At 15 Charles  attained adulthood and  Walafrid  was rewarded by being given the abbacy of Reichenau.

This too caused problems partly because he was still only 30 and partly because of rival factions with other candidates, but he was eventually accepted, took up his post and founded his garden.  His involvement in diplomacy continued until unfortunately  in August 849 during one of his missions  he drowned  crossing the Loire. He was only 40 years old and was buried at Reichenau.


Charlemagne is fairly well-known in garden history terms for having issued the Capitulare de Villis which was a   guide to his stewards about the way  his royal estates should be managed.

This includes a list of food crops that should be grown. It is a significant document but that’s all it is – a list of plants.



While Walafrid’s theological books have long been forgotten his Liber de cultura hortorum  or  Book on the cultivation of gardens,  is the  first work that spells out what exactly the gardener is growing, explains the benefits and properties of the plants involved, and gives some idea of how they are to be looked after.  Rather bizarrely for a gardening book it is actually written as a poem in Latin hexameters, probably based on  Virgil’s Georgics, of 29BCE which is an equally garden-related poetic celebration of agriculture and country  life.  You’ll be pleased to hear that  I’m not going to ask you to read it in  the original because there are several English versions available.  My quotes are from  a lively prose version  written by James Mitchell, published in 2009 but there is also a good poetic version by  Raef Payne dating from 1966.  Both are freely available on-line.

The poem was dedicated to his former  teacher at Reichenau, the “Most Learned Father Grimaldus” who had been promoted to be Abbott of St Gall [see an earlier post for the famous garden at St Gall]  Walafrid,  describing  himself as “your servant Strabo,”  said he had sent it “to remind you of my labours, when you sit in the fenced enclosure of your small garden, in the shade of your fruit trees with their leafy crowns, where peaches rest at the top in the broken shadows, and where the boys, your cheerful pupils, pluck the pale, tender, fuzzy fruits and place them into your palms, as they try to encircle the large peaches in their own hands.”

From the outset Strabo makes it clear that he “didn’t learn about this from people’s chatter, or from looking at a lot of old books, or spending long days doing nothing—I gained my expertise through hard work and experience.”

The book is divided into a series of short sections, the first of which is “On the Cultivation of Gardens”.  Gardening was “among the many signs of a quiet life” and “assuming your attention doesn’t grow numb and falter, and you don’t foolishly squander the gardener’s resources, and as long as you aren’t afraid of going outdoors and getting calluses all over your grubby hands, and dumping baskets of cow-plop onto the parched soil.” If that’s the case then “no matter how it lies, your land will certainly produce the fruits of our native plants” 
Next comes  one on the “Difficulty of the chosen task”. This talks of the changes and challenges in the garden as spring approaches after a long hard winter. For example: “In the small open courtyard in front of my door, a little patch of land facing east, a crowd of stinging nettles has completely taken over, covering the whole area with burning poison. What am I going to do?.”   As you might have guessed the answer is obvious: a poetic way of saying start digging!.  “Getting right down to work, I grab hold of Saturn’s toothed tool [a two pronged hoe or mattock mentioned by Virgil in his Georgics] and break the clods of earth, turning over the numb soil, attacking the recidivous nettles, crushing the tunnels of moles and summoning earthworms into the light of day.”
Then as spring arrives Walafrid shows us that raised beds are not a new idea: ” To keep it from being washed away, we raise the earth a little into rectangular beds and frame the garden with some planks” Then  “The soil is broken up into small clumps with a rake, and rich yeasty fertiliser worked into it. We try to coax forth some of our herbs from seeds, other we try to rejuvenate from old roots”

Spring leads to summer and in the next section Walafrid encounters the difficult problem of watering. Remember there were no hosepipes, taps or even watering cans, although there simple thumb pots and of course the bucket that Walafrid uses.  [For more on this see an earlier post]


“If a dry spell should refuse benevolent rainfall, I’d be apprehensive that the tender roots might wither from thirst, and the love I feel for the plants would inspire me
with enthusiasm and diligence to fetch fresh water in brimming buckets. I pour the water drop by drop, avoiding a sudden deluge that might spill too much water and wash away the planted seedlings.” His plan works and “Soon enough the little plot is completely covered with germinating plants.” and then very soon afterwards  “the garden has brought to life all the shrivelled stocks and seeds assigned to its furrows. Full of green power, it promises a copious harvest”

He then moves to discuss the plants he is growing. The list  is remarkably small with just 24 plants mentioned by name, with a few more such as pepper, pomegranate, and peach trees, which were not actually growing at Reichenau.  Most entries are very brief and list benefits in the very vaguest of terms.  For example, first on the list is”Sweet-smelling sage” which  grows in abundance right at the front of my garden.” It has a forceful energy and produces a healing drink” making it “helpful with many human ailments.”   Hardly the stuff of pharmacopeia.

Rue, next on the list, is more specific. He notes -actually of course its impossible to miss- that “at the faintest touch it releases a powerful fragrance.” and then adds “people say it will relieve hidden toxins and expel harmful substances from their troubled bowels.”

The third of his plants is Southernwood whose “scented leaves and supple stems can be mixed together successfully into healing medicines. These combats fevers, banish side pains and help limbs besieged by insidious gout.”


The longest section by far is about gourds. Walafrid explains how they “grow up high from modest seeds” and climb up trellis or like  ivy enveloping an elm, or grapevines climb up trees in orchards “so that  no raging storm can tear it loose.” Indeed “with external support, they even learn how to transcend steep roofs of arched hallways.” But providing shade is not the main reason for growing them. They have fruit that  “form on every branch. They hang on long delicate stalks and swell from slender necks into strong bodies. The shapes swell into an oversized waist and belly, while inside, in a cavernous jailhouse, the seeds grow with promise of yet another fine harvest.”

These fruit clearly were a main source of food  because he says “As long as the gourd is still soft, and before the juice inside has dried up in late autumn leaving a woody outer shell, the fruits come to the table often with other fine foods, soaking up the fat in a hot pan.” They were also used as  a dessert cut into “juicy slices”.  And, of course if you don’t manage to et them and  you leave the gourd on the vine,  you can, when it has dried out, use it in other ways. “Just remove the guts from its ponderous belly, then smooth out the inside with a scraping tool. It will hold anywhere from a pint to a half-gallon, and if you seal the vessel with some adhesive pitch, it will preserve the kind gifts of Bacchus unspoiled and potable for many a long day.”

One relation of the gourd gets a special mention. The melon is “another type of vine that creeps boldly across the dusty ground and bears round fruits. These lie mainly on the dry ground, ripening in splendour and turning the colour of the sun before filling the gardener’s baskets with a rich bounty.” These fruit  are varied in shape some “rather slender …while others are quite long and have a thick belly, like a nut or rounded egg. They look like shiny bubbles clinging to your hands as you rub some soap, before the fresh foam disappears in the running water.”  When cut “lots of seeds and rivers of juice low forth” so  divide the hollow fruit into several pieces by hand and your happy guest will receive a tasty delight straight from the garden.”

Wormwood [Absinthe]  from the 9th c  Herbal of Pseudo Apuleius in Monte Casino Library, destroyed during the war but luckily which had been printed in facsimile in 1935.  BL Cup.1247.b.5

I won’t go through every one of the remaining plants he mentions but they include wormwood which make a bitter drink [absinthe!] to drive away fevers and deals with headaches.

Unfortunately its not quite as simple as taking an aspirin, because when you suddenly get a splitting headache, “boil the bitter leaves of the leafy plant and then pour the extract out of a large dish over your skull. After you’ve moistened your fine hair, don’t forget to lay some wormwood leaves over it. Then wrap a soft cloth over your moist hair, and after a couple hours you’ll be surprised at the effects.”

Horehound too has surprising qualities, although perhaps not ones that you’d like to test. So “if some evil stepmothers mix up poisonous substances and slip them into your drink, or deceptively load lethal wolfsbane into your food, then quickly down a draught of the antidote horehound and you’ll be soon be rid of the anticipated dangers”

Lily from the 9th c Herbal of Pseudo Apuleius

Fennel will cure coughs, Iris is a good cure for “piercing bladder pains” while crushed Lily will deal with snake bites and help with bruises, and ground celery seed will ” relieve sharp pains during urination.”

Fennel from the first printed edition of Pseudo-Apuleius

Lovage, chervil, poppy, clary, mint, pennyroyal, betony, agrimony, tansy, nepeta, radish and finally the rose “which in virtue and scent surpasses all other herbs, and may rightly be called the flower of flowers”,  make up the complete list, although  there some a couple of mentions in the text of plants that do not grow in the garden.

When describing poppies he says that “Like the pomegranate, named after Punic lands” [ie from Carthage] the pods  contain “numerous seeds of wonderful power.”    So

even if he’d never seen a pomegranate he knew enough about them to pass comment.  More interesting is his mention of black Indian pepper – presumably Piper nigrum which is native to southern India. It was clearly high prized and expensive in 9thc Western Europe but there are no illustrations of the plant until much later, because of course, only the peppercorns were ever seen.     However  Strabo also claims that pennyroyal was “valued as highly by the physicians of India as a whole sack of black Indian pepper amongst the Gauls”

We know there were  quite sophisticated trade routes across the early mediaeval world but  the story usually  emphasises imports like pepper from the east. Walafrid seems to  imply that it was more two-way: “For whatever is seldom to be seen under one part of the sky is readily available in other parts of the earth, in such quantity there as the cheapest things are here. Prosperous kingdoms abroad pay good money for articles which may appear to us valueless. Thus one country profits from another, and the whole world in all its parts constitutes a single household.”  If anyone has any information about European exports to Asia at this time please let me know. 




On the Cultivation of Gardens is really only of historical interest, rather than having any botanical or horticultural usefulness. However, unlike Virgil who probably merely supervised his slaves work in his garden its clear that Walafrid did his own digging and muck-spreading. I love its simple directness and  the fact that the author —like all true gardeners before and after— clearly loves his garden and the individual plants even saying that he’s sorry  he doesn’t have time to celebrate all of them individually in verse.

The oldest surviving manuscript copy probably dates from a few decades after Walafrid’s death and was first noted in the library at St. Gall in 1461. It  is now in the Vatican Library.  It formed the basis of the first printed edition, in Latin of course, published in Vienna in 1510 under the title  Hortulus, [or Little Garden], and this title seems generally to stuck to the text thereafter. It wasn’t printed in English until 1924. But now its easily available so go and check it out.

For more information the two on-line translations of Hortulus mentioned above both have good introductions and commentaries, while  the 1966 Hunt Botanical Library version also includes  a much  fuller account of Walafrid’s  life by Wilfrid Blunt 

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