Picture an enclosed garden with walls of stone or brick, a trickle of water in an old fountain, and with many plots of fragrant plants. This setting could be as ancient as the early Persian, or Greeks, maybe the Roman gardens surrounding the baths, or a monastery of the Middle Ages. It could be a castle during the Renaissance, a colonial manor, a Victorian mansion or even a modern day garden. But the one we will visit now is in a monastery of the Middle ages...
We will drift back in our minds eye, letting our imagination pull us through time. Why am I so fascinated by this time? A time when laws were unfair and leaders corrupt, a time sometimes called the Dark Ages. (Some things never change.) Perhaps because it was a time when people were acutely aware of the fine tuning of the nature world. Well, it also was a time when herbs ruled! The average person knew herbs and used them on a daily basis. They bathed with them, ate them, strewed the floor with them, prayed with them and was buried with them.
But it was at the monastery where the real knowledge of herbs lived. Volumes of ancient herbal lore were read by the herbalist and shared with his apprentice. Knowledge from all parts of the known as well as ancient worlds was kept alive during this very dark period within the walls of the monastery. It was put into practical use and used to aid man. The monk's lives were governed by their close kinship with the hours of the day and the seasons of the year. They chanted daily at different hours and these chants changed with the seasons as did their garden chores and their diets. In the dark of winter their diets consisted of dried grains, seeds, and fruits. As early spring approached and the chickens began to lay more eggs they had these as well as more dairy products when the calves were born. Then the early greens of spring were happily added to the diet. Most monks of that time were vegetarians, eating cheese a bread with their vegetables at most meals. When late spring and summer came the diets of the monk's were more varied as they added fresh vegetables and fruits. When fall approached delicious soups made of all the end of the year garden produce were made. Wine was made from the grapes and other fruits that were ripe on the vines and trees. Thus the monk savored each change of the season being thankful for all his daily bread, and fruit and vegetables. Herbs were added to foods, fresh in the spring and dried in the winter. No one was ever turned away from the door of the monastery. Food and shelter were there for prince or pauper, which ever the weary traveler might be.
Lorraine Kiefer is the owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and has been a garden writer since 1972. Click here to email her.
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