The Landscape Guide

Monastery Garden Plans

St Gall garden
Canterbury garden 
Clairvaux garden
Thorney garden

There is a very clear picture of a great monastery (according to the Rule of St. Benedict) in the plan preserved at the library of St. Gall (Fig. 124).

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 It was sent to the abbot of St. Gall in the year 900 as a model plan. The whole design, which really includes all the “necessaries” within its walls, falls into three divisions: first, the church with the buildings for Regulars in the center; secondly, on the north-east, schools, hospitals, and guest-houses; and, thirdly, to the south-west, stables and farm- buildings. Not only the monastery proper and the church, but almost all the other buildings are grouped round a center space, an open court with a portico. The cloister for the monks has four doors, and paths leading across the square. In the very center there is a little circle drawn, with the word “ savina “ (which perhaps means stoup for holy- water) written on it, surrounded by flowers and grass; also the four squares left blank were intended to be used for flowers. Perhaps this is indicated by the ornament in the design, although it may mean to suggest a mosaic pavement, seeing that for some strange reason there is no sign of water in this plan, which is otherwise so complete. For such a place there would have to be plenty of water; moreover, the founder had included water among the necessaries. Wells may have been omitted from the plan because the idea was to distribute the water in suitable proportions over all the various parts of the ground.

The school and the hospital have similar peristyles; and other buildings, the guest- house, a second school, etc., seem to have a covered atrium as their central place. Though we learn so little about the planting of the peristyle, the artist is most explicit as to the special monastic gardens at the school and hospital. South of the hospital is the physician’s house, so arranged that the very sick patient could be taken there. On the west side is the physic-garden, a small quadrangle, divided into sixteen straight beds. This may have been following Roman tradition, but the raised beds, straight and square, point to the ever-present need of careful tending. Poets in the later Middle Ages have thought a garden like this looked like a chess-board with the pieces moving about; and the parterre no doubt originated from this arrangement of beds.

The medicinal herbs which grow in our monastery cloister gardens are plainly marked by name on the plan: first come roses and lilies, and then sage, rosemary, and other herbs that look pretty and are aromatic. Thus this little garden gave not merely healing medicines to the sick, but also a very charming view to the convalescent. The original idea, the germ, of all specialised flower-growing is here in this physic-garden; and so deep down was it in the heart of man that even when horticulture was highly advanced, in the days of the Renaissance, the place where flowers were grown was always called the garden of medicinal herbs.

To the north of the hospital is the burial-ground, which is also, in accordance with the practical good sense of monks, a garden regularly planted with fruit and other trees, In the middle lies a cross that may perhaps be a mosaic in many colours, Between the rows of trees, also set out regularly, are the monks’ graves. The trees too are planted according to plan; but the designer was not much of a botanist; he has done his work very casually, simply copying from Charles the Great’s Capitulare de Villis, without considering whether the kinds of fruit he names would be forthcoming in the neighbourhood of St. Gall. One must needs feel very doubtful about the fig, and pines and laurels would not flourish in that churchyard.

It is important for us to observe that a certain charm, almost architectural, is aimed at here, and that it was entirely absent from the physic-garden, and also from the vegetable- garden, which is to the north of the churchyard: the vegetable-garden is much the same as the physic-garden, but much bigger. “ Here the fair plants grow green and tall,” as the inscription says, in eighteen straight beds close together in a square. The vegetables cited are again copied out of the Capitulare. The care of this garden was extremely important for the monks, whose food was chiefly vegetable; and so a good house for the gardener and his assistants was set up close by. North of the kitchen-garden is the poultry, in two circular houses. Between the two thereis a house for the poultry-keeper himself to live in.

The paradise shows one odd peculiarity of form; on both sides of the church there is a space unroofed and marked with the word “ Paradise,” These spaces are semicircular, and there is nothing to show whether they are meant for gardens or not. A still more curious thing is that next to the abbot’s fine house, the only one not in the central group and with two verandas in front of it, there is scarcely any room for a garden, which the architect does not seem to have thought of. An abbot used to have a special garden of his own, as we shall see presently, and the abbots at St. Gall, who loved a garden, would not have given it up. But we must always bear in mind that we are not now dealing with an historical or real monastery that has been added to and enlarged, but with an ideal plan, happily conceived and beautifully executed.

The great number of monastic gardens that appear on our plan is not justified by the real state of things; but on the other hand the love of flowers would certainly have demanded more space for their cultivation than the plan of St. Gall would allow—and especially would this be so at a time and place where ancient traditions were strongly maintained in monastic life. Although for a long time the plants of healing virtue lorded it over the other flowers, the Church had already taken care to give a symbolical meaning to flowers —first of all to roses and lilies, and then to violets. Roses and lilies, at first condemned as heathenish flowers by the early Christians, soon became the symbol of Mary and the reward of martyrdom, and it was not long before an elaborate symbolism was attached to their colours and scents.

In the touching letters written by the poet Venantius Fortunatus to his friend, St. Rhadegund, one can see the part that flowers played. This royal lady had established a nunnery near Poitiers as a retreat from the dissolute life of the Merovingian court, from which she fled. Fortunatus in poetical and friendly words often returns thanks for the food of many kinds that she sent to him, which was almost always accompanied by flowers. Once indeed Rhadegund had him to a meal where the tablecloth was strewn with roses, and the dishes wreathed; while garlands hung on the refectory walls in the fashion of the ancients.

In the sixth century we find traces of an older manner of life, even in this example of the intercourse of a truly pious nun with a poet-friend of equal rank; and such extravagance in flowers must have meant a large garden and skilful culture. There can be no doubt that with rougher customs the amenities of life were lost. But if there was no demand for the table, the service of God required a supply of flowers at every season. Therefore particular little plots were entrusted to the sacristan, who decorated the church on feast- days. In the ninth century a sacristan’s garden was set up at Winchester Cathedral, and the custom was followed very generally in English monasteries, where an attractive flower-garden is almost always found, and is well kept up, as an ornament to the cathedral, Now and again the office of a special gardener is mentioned in quite early days, and in• the plan of St. Gall he has a house of his own. Sometimes a learned monk took up the work, and according to tradition this was the case at the monastery of Ranshof at Salzburg right on to the time of its dissolution in the year 1811. At this place the Father had to go round the whole estate once a year, and instruct the peasants in the cultivation of fruit and kitchen gardens. It is not unlikely that the poet who wrote Meier Helmbrecht in the thirteenth century, calling himself “ Wernher the Gardener,” was one of these men from Ranshof. A pleasing picture—the monks are teachers of other men, and also cultivate their own estates themselves.

There were many of these properties cultivated indirectly by the monks, and lying outside the walls; their own vineyards and their own fruit-gardens were also far too large to be kept within the precincts. King John of England made a present to Llanthony Abbey of twelve acres of fruit-garden, and this shows how the fashion had spread. Any vineyard in any country—and in the Middle Ages vine-culture extended far into the North of England and also to East Prussia—belonged indubitably to the estate of the monastery. At Cologne there is still to be found, amid the whirl and bustle of the great city, one quiet vineyard near St. Mauritius; and from its deep green seclusion there seems to come a living breath of the Middle Ages.

There is a plan of the cloisters at Canterbury (Fig. 125) which dates from the year 1165, and fruit-gardens and vineyards are shown outside the walls. 

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FIG. 125. PLAN OF THE ABBEY AT CANTERBURY [The cloister was planned by Lanfranc in the 11th century and then rebuilt in the 15th century]

This plan was probably made to explain the water arrangements, perhaps because repairs were needed: the thick black lines indicate this, running across the picture, which is partly a ground-plan and partly a bird’s-eye view. The water system is conducted among the courts and gardens very liberally, for it was urgently required for plants. In one court beside the east wall there is a very large basin marked “ Piscina “; it was intended for fish-breeding, a very important business in English monasteries. Then the churchyard for the laity, to the north but also inside the precincts, had its own special well. The infirmary looks out on a large court that contains the “ Herbarium “; it is cut across the middle by a covered walk or pergola, and has its water-arrangement on one side, and on its other side the monks’ own burying-ground. This plan is fragmentary, and, as we said, was made for business reasons. No doubt the close, with so many different divisions in it, will have contained other gardens than those marked on the plan; and we see, lightly sketched in, a vineyard and a fruit-garden, and two towers in a field outside the walls, perhaps meant for watch-towers.

A little earlier the Abbey of Clairvaux is described by a contemporary of St. Bernard (see Migne). "Behind the abbey, and within the wall of the cloister, there is a wide level ground : here there is an orchard, with a great many different fruit-trees, quite like a small wood. It is close to the infirmary, and is very comforting to the brothers, providing a wide promenade for those who want to walk, and a pleasant resting-place for those who prefer to rest. Where the orchard leaves off, the garden begins, divided into several beds, or (still better) cut up by little canals, which, though standing water, do actually flow more or less.... The water fulfils the double purpose of nourishing the fish and watering the vegetables.” This picture of a French monastery garden at the beginning of the twelfth century, with canals round it, is an early indication of the effect that the Renaissance will have on the gardens of France.

Very like this is William of Malmesbury’s picture of Thorney Abbey, near Peterborough, situated in a marshy neighbourhood. He especially praises the tree-garden for being “level as the sea,” the smooth stems of the fruit-trees, that stretch up toward the stars, and the luxuriant growths everywhere. “ There is competition between nature and art, and what one fails in the other produces.”

As early as the days of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) the cloister owned outside property, and just as at Canterbury we must conclude that the plan of St. Gall meant the orchards and vineyards to be outside. The whole time of Charles the Great—and the St. Gall plan may be supposed to belong to it—was of great importance for horticulture. Charles himself encouraged personally the cultivation of his own estates, and in his private garden he had a large number of new plants, chiefly of course for the kitchen and the workshop. The Capitulare de Villis (which contains among much else a very complete list of woods useful for building) had an unimagined influence on the arts of architecture and horticulture. The great ruler specially favoured the extension of monasteries, and he had them built wherever he could. Thus, in the full enjoyment of peace and protection, the monks busied themselves very diligently with the gentle art of gardening, and so reaped calm happiness and the useful fruits of the earth. There were some, to be sure, who detected a danger in this pleasure. In a work by Herrad of Landsperg, called Hortus Deliciarum, the author tells of a recluse who has climbed up to the very top rung of the ladder of Virtue, but then looks behind him. There he beholds his flowery garden, he is seized by a strong desire, and plunges headlong down among the beds, because he has preferred the earthly to the heavenly paradise (Fig. 126).

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Happily the men and women of the cloister were not all so strict, but could see in garden culture the symbol of a peaceful quiet life; and they always had before them the example of the first garden, which God made for man; and this in every age was to serve as the ideal pattern for them to imitate on earth.

The word "paradise" in Anglo-Saxon and Old-Saxon texts is translated “meadow” or “pasture”: Ottfried calls it the “ field of bliss.” From the beginning of a recognised art of gardening, the paradise was thought of as a decorative place, and Notker calls it “ Ziergart’ or “ Zartkartin “ [zieren =to adorn, to decorated]. Also the detailed descriptions given in the Old-German Genesis answer to the gardens of that day, with fruit, flower, and vegetable beds: they show a distinct likeness to early descriptions of real gardens.