Monastic Gardens

In the Middle Ages European monasteries and convents were centers of learning, and the monks and nuns also had a duty to care for the lay community outside the monastery walls. They provided shelter and hospitality for pilgrims and other travelers, schools for local children, and they cared for the sick. Most monasteries and convents observed the Rule of St. Benedict. This prescribed a life with four principal components: work, study, leisure, and prayer. The physical work demanded of monks and nuns contributed to the upkeep of the community, and tending the gardens and farmland formed an important part of it, because a religious house had to be self-sufficient, in medicines as well as basic foodstuffs, wines, and ales.

A monastery or convent would have orchards to supply tree fruits and gardens growing nonwoody plants. Religious houses as far north as northern England also maintained vineyards. During what climate historians call the medieval warm period, global average temperatures were markedly warmer than those of the early 21st century, and England was a major producer of high-quality wines.

Monastic gardens were typically designed as a rectangle broken into smaller rectilinear areas by straight paths, and there would be two distinct gardens: a physic garden and a kitchen garden. As the name suggests, the physic garden or herb garden grew medicinal plants and culinary herbs. A member of the community who specialized in herbal remedies would tend the medicinal plants, gathering ingredients at the optimum time and using them to make therapeutic preparations. The kitchen gardens supplied food for the community.

The usual arrangement was that a path ran along the center of a kitchen garden and the ground on either side of the path was divided into at least three beds, making a minimum of six beds in all. Fences or hurdles—temporary fences, often made from woven willow, hazel, or ash, which could be moved as required—defined the boundaries of the beds. A physic garden would have many more beds, one for each of the herbs it contained. At the center of the garden, where the paths crossed, there would be a well to supply the community with water. There was also a cloister garden, comprising an area of lawn, sometimes bordered by flowerbeds. The cloister was where monks and nuns would spend time in contemplation.

All monastic gardens also possessed fishponds, moats, and streams. These contained carp and eels to supply food on days when it was forbidden for the community to eat meat.

Gardens of this type were to be found throughout Christendom, and people were very familiar with them. When it became fashionable for aristocrats to have gardens outside their houses, they based their designs on monastic gardens, but gradually they made innovations that modified the central concept. In De vegetabilibus (About vegetables), published in 1259, Albert the Great described a pleasure garden that he must have visited. Essentially this remained close to the monastic model, but it is possible to detect the beginning of a change. The pleasure garden had beds growing herbs and vegetables and beside them a meadow with a fountain and grassy banks on which people could sit, and there were trees to provide shade. The emphasis was shifting and the medieval pleasure garden later developed into a walled garden that existed to provide enjoyment as well as to supply food and herbs.