The Landscape Guide

Walafried Strabo and medieval garden poems

The learned poetry of the monks ventured on the garden as a subject in the first half of the ninth century. A poem called Hortulus was written by the young Abbot Walafried Strabo, who secured in a very short time a far-reaching reputation for learnng, at his monastery of Reichenau on the delightful islet on the lake. He describes his little private abbot’s garden; and whereas in the garden plan of St. Gall the designer takes the west for choice, here it is on the east of the house, close in front of the door, so that the porch protects it from wind and rain, while a high wall on the south side keeps off the burning rays of the sun.

Strabo has twenty-three kinds of flowers, each one worthy to find a place there by virtue of its beauty and scent. He has not adhered so exclusively to the Capitulare as the architect did at St. Gall, and here and there an eloquent verse betrays his love for some particular flower. But the rose, as queen of flowers, and her twin-sister the lily, are praised as the noblest symbols of the Church—the blood of martyrs and the purity of faith. And what a lovely garden-picture we get in the final dedication ! He sends his little book to the Abbot Grimaldus, his neighbour at St. Gall : “ If you are sitting in the precincts,” he says to his honoured friend, “ in your green garden, under your shady apple-tree with its swelling fruits, where the peach-tree parts its foliage to cast a dappled shade, while the young lads from your happy school gather the grey downy fruit... then read my gif:.”

This is a charming picture of medieval summer garden life. We feel the Abbot's  love for it in what he writes, but of course the garden of the early Middle Ages is primarily a garden for useful plants and food. Where else than in the garden should men like Abbot Walafried Strabo attain to that life of security and freedom, which demands a state of civilisation where friends can meet together safely in public and private gardens for their pleasure? First they had to learn once more, and by slow degrees, to be content in some measure with their gardens and their duties.

Another teacher of the same kind was the learned historian Rhabanus Maurus, who devotes one chapter of his great didactic work on the Universe to the Garden. The Bible is for him a kind of herbarium, and he must have every plant sanctioned by a passage from Holy Writ: still he has seen a great many things, and he describes them lovingly. "The Garden,” he says at the beginning of the ninth chapter of the nineteenth book, “ is so called because something is always growing there.” It must not be supposed that in. the cloister garden at Fulda there was something growing always; but we hear the old

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cry of Homer, and this remains the ideal through the ages. Then the writer compares the garden with Holy Church, which bears so many diverse fruits of the spirit, under the protection of God, and in which flows the sacred fount of healing. The garden signifies the innermost joys of Paradise.

The ancient rose-tree at Hildesheim may be regarded as a living sign of the love of flowers at that period. Whether or no it is true that it was planted a thousand years ago, cannot be proved, but at any rate it must have been renewed many times by now.

The foundation of the Carthusian Order marks a great advance in gardening among the monks. Their leading ideas take us back to the Oriental monasteries, concentration on the best education, and preparation for the life to come. As a logical consequence, the common life of monks, even in their dwelling-places, was as much as possible curtailed. No doubt the central cloister was still important as a common garden, but separate houses were grouped round it, with small gardens attached, each to provide for the monks a special duty and recreation.

The plan of the cloister at Clermont gives the scheme of a Carthusian estate. On this simple plan what a pro- fusion of ideas for the garden do we find! In the middle of the entrance court is a raised part, a large court with guest-rooms and farm-buildings round it, and here stands the abbot's house with a garden at the side and a rivulet flowing through; on the west is a tower with a dovecot.

The western section of the church-yard branches off from the cloister court; the rest is laid out as a garden, and round about this are the separate houses of the monks, and on the south-east the little private gardens. Exactly like this, the Certosa in the Val di Ema at Florence still keeps a mediaeval appearance. The monks enjoy a wonderful view from the little gardens by the cells, which are set round the large court like buttresses, Every visitor must be impressed by the court of the Thermz Museum at Rome with its little concealed cubicle-gardens (Fig. 127); even though he only sees it first as disguised by Michael Angelo, the division of the gardens has remained the same. It is quite clear that, through stirring up the monks to a personal interest, a great impulse was given to the raising of flowers and in consequence to horticulture generally.

If we compare the cloister plans with the houses of the laity of the Middle Ages, we are struck by the want of space in these: the strongholds of the nobles and their garden grounds are crowded with buildings closely huddled together. We followed the course of development of the ancient villa into the castle on to the time of Sidonius. Then it was still a place of wonder and pride, not yet disturbed by the need for defences.