Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Jan 19, 2018 in Tell Me Why |

Why Did Monasteries Have Herb Gardens?

Why Did Monasteries Have Herb Gardens?

An important feature of all monasteries in the Middle Ages was the infirmary or home for the sick and the aged, and the herb garden, or herbarium, was there to provide the necessary ingredients for making up medicines. Herbal medicines, usually derived from the juices of certain plants, have been used since the dawn of history. In the 3rd Century BC, Theophrastus, a Greek, wrote a “History of Plants”. In the 2nd Century AD, Dioscorides used herbal remedies in his position as official physician to the Roman armies.

During the Middle Ages, monks studied the works written by Dioscorides on herbal remedies and added to these the results of their own experiments and practical experience. The oldest established hospitals are direct survivals of the monastic infirmaries of the Middle Ages. The best known exponent of herbal medicines was Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654), whose book “The Complete Herbal” is still available today.

The oldest traditions of making herbarium collection or Hortus sicci have been traced to Italy. Luca Ghini and his students created herbaria of which the oldest extant one is that of Gherardo Cibo from around 1532. While most of the early herbaria were prepared with sheets bound into books, Carolus Linnaeus came up with the idea of maintaining them on free sheets that allowed their easy re-ordering within cabinets.

Herbs were commonly used in salves and drinks to treat a range of maladies. The particular herbs used depended largely on the local culture and often had roots in pre-Christian religion. The success of herbal remedies was often ascribed to their action upon the humours within the body. The use of herbs also drew upon the medieval Christian doctrine of signatures which stated that God had provided some form of alleviation for every ill, and that these things, be they animal, vegetable or mineral, carried a mark or a signature upon them that gave an indication of their usefulness.

For example, skullcap seeds (used as a headache remedy) can appear to look like miniature skulls; and the white spotted leaves of lungwort (used for tuberculosis) bear a similarity to the lungs of a diseased patient. A large number of such resemblances were believed to exist. Many monasteries developed herb gardens for use in the production of herbal cures, and these remained a part of folk medicine, as well as being used by some professional physicians. Books of herbal remedies were produced, one of the most famous being the Welsh, Red Book of Hergest, dating from around 1400.

During the early Middle Ages, Botany had undergone drastic changes from that of its antiquity predecessor (Greek practice). An early medieval treatise in the West on plants known as the Ex herbis femininis was largely based on Dioscorides Greek text: De material medica. The Ex herbis was a lot more popular during this time because it was not only easier to read, but contained plants and their remedies that related to the regions of southern Europe, where botany was being studied. It also provided better medical direction on how to create remedies, and how to properly use them. This book was also highly illustrated, where its former was not, making the practice of botany easier to comprehend.

the re-emergence of botany in the medieval world

The re-emergence of Botany in the medieval world came about during the sixteenth century. As part of the revival of classical medicine, one of the biggest areas of interest was materia medica: the study of remedial substances. “Italian humanists in the fifteenth century had recovered and translated ancient Greek botanical texts which had been unknown in the West in the Middle Ages or relatively ignored”.

Soon after the rise in interest in botany, universities such as Padua and Bologna started to create programs and fields of study; some of these practices including setting up gardens so that students were able to collect and examine plants. “Botany was also a field in which printing made a tremendous impact, through the development of naturalistic illustrated herbals”.

During this time period, university practices were highly concerned with the philosophical matters of study in sciences and the liberal arts, “but by the sixteenth century both scholastic discussion of plants and reliance upon intermediary compendia for plant names and descriptions were increasingly abandoned in favor of direct study of the original texts of classical authors and efforts to reconcile names, descriptions, and plants in nature”.

Botanist expanded their knowledge of different plant remedies, seeds, bulbs, uses of dried and living plants through continuous interchange made possible by printing. In sixteenth century medicine, botany was rapidly becoming a lively and fast-moving discipline that held wide universal appeal in the world of doctors, philosophers, and pharmacists.

Content for this question contributed by Debra Bohnenkamper, resident of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, USA