Herbs and Drugs in Monastic Gardens


Herbs and Drugs in Monastic Gardens

South African Medical Journal, Vol.22:1 (1948)

Introduction: Visitors to the big monastery Certosa di Pavia between Milan and Genova in Italy see with admiration how every single monk had his own small cell to live in and to worship God in quiet solitude. Each of these Simple cells is connected with its own small chapel and with its own little garden where the monk could walk and talk. In those small backyards the monks planted various medical herbs from which drugs were gained and gathered to provide the monastery and the sick of the neighbourhood with medicine. Every monk, in this way, was a doctor and pharmacist as well.

Monasteries in those past centuries had to have their own gardens: they needed vegetables for the daily food of their inmates, and fruit was grown in a special area. Flowers and aromatic herbs were raised for decoration of the church. But the smaller herbularies or physic garden was of high importance, too, particularly since the Rule of Benedict of Nursia – who founded the monastery of Monte Cassino, the cradle of the Benedictine Order, in 529 A.D. – stated solemnly: “Before all things, and above all things, especial care must be taken of the sick.”

The Benedictine monasteries, J. J. Walsh says, became the repository of important traditions in medicine and surgery, and their scriptorium or writing-rooms preserved many of the old Greek medical writings from perishing from the face of the earth in the midst of contemporary neglect of the intellectual life during the invasion of the barbarians in the early Middle Ages. Their gardens supplied the herbs which were considered to be so precious for the treatment of the various human ills even down to our own day. The beginnings of modern medical education can be connected with monastic influence.




As soon as monasteries were founded, gardens were made around them. The number of plants they contained was limited at the beginning. But the monks received plants from abroad, from other monks who, as missionaries went to strange countries. They brought new medical herb back for medicinepartly in a dry state – as the word “drug” is imply part of the Anglo-Saxon verb “drigan”, to dry. Other plants were brought back in living condition. and some monks had their ambition in planting new medical herbs in their monastery gardens.

Knowledge of herbs and drugs became soon an important part of Monastic Medicine. In St. Benedict’s time, the Ostrogothic statesman-historian of Syrian descent, Cassiodorus (c.490-585), retired from the world to establish upon his estates on the Calabrian gulf a monastic academy and library, where he taught his monks to preserve and translate Greek manuscript into Latin. Hippocrate and Galen in this way became fundaments of Monastic Medicine. Herbal or Galenical medicine – so called after the Asia Minor-born physician of Marcus Aurelius at Rome (130-200) – had decisive influence on Monastic Medicine and the monastic garden. Friar Lawrence, in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a typical representative of the tradition that powerful medicines grow in monastery gardens.

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Sharan Newman