Monastery Gardens and Cloisters

A monastic garden was used by many, and for multiple purposes. Gardening was especially important in the monasteries for supplying their livelihood. 

Gardens were mainly in monasteries and manors, but were also developed by peasants. These were used as kitchen gardens, medicine and herbal gardens, and even orchards and cemetery gardens. Each type of garden had its own purpose and meaning, including satisfying medicinal, food, and spiritual needs. Gardening was  important for medicinal use. Monks used these medicinal herbs on themselves and on the local community.

Saint Augustine assembled his company about him: “I assembled, in a garden that Valerius had given me, certain brethren of like intentions with my own, who possessed nothing, even as I possessed nothing, and who followed after me.” 

Augustine built his church (with its cloister site corresponding to museum, exedra, and portico in the old philosopher’s garden); and from the account given, it is obvious that in this particular instance the habit of meeting and living together in a garden preceded the foundation of church and monastery. 

The buildings of a medieval monastery were grouped round a peristyle quite as invariably in the West, where the monks had the strict discipline of a life in common, as in the East, where they were allowed more personal freedom; for even the isolated cells in an Oriental cloister were mostly grouped round a central court.

St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monastic order,  inspired the cloister life of the sixth century in Western Europe. He at once ordered that “ all the necessaries “ for the support of monks should be supplied within the walls, and among these “necessaries”, water and gardens stood in the first rank: of course these gardens were for herbs and vegetables. The Benedictines, whose rule enjoined work in the garden, were the men who handed down the practice of horticulture right through the Middle Ages. Those Orders, which were not influenced by the Benedictine Rule, and forbade the monks to do farm work, still seem to have thought a garden indispensable.

The Spaniard Isidorus, in his Rule, makes a special point of having a garden within the cloister, attached to the wall and entered by the back door, so that the monks should be able to work there and not have occasion to go outside. 

There was a certain tradition in the old Roman provinces about the cultivation of the choicer kinds of fruit. It is well worth noting that in Norway, even to this day, none but the finest and choicest fruit trees are found on the site of an old monastery.

The Plan of Saint Gall is a medieval architectural drawing of a monastic compound dating from 820–830 AD. It depicts an entire Benedictine monastic compound, including churches, houses, stables, kitchens, workshops, brewery, infirmary, and a special house for bloodletting. According to calculations based on the manuscript's tituli the complex was meant to house about 110 monks, 115 lay visitors, and 150 craftmen and agricultural workers. The Plan was never actually built. The planned church was intended to keep the relics of Saint Gall.

The Plan of Saint Gall

Buildings of the Abbey of Saint Gall, according to the historical plan from the early 9th century - Was apparently never built

The Plan depicts 40 ground plans which include not only the properly monastic buildings (basilica, cloister, abbot's house and cemetery), but also secular buildings for the use of lay workers and visitors.

  • Sacred: basilica, round towers, hostel for visiting monks, abbot's house, cemetery and cloister complex.

  • Lay: elite guest houses, servant quarters, hospice for pilgrims and the poor.

  • Educational: novitiate and outer school for the elite.

  • Medicinal: infirmary, physician's house, bloodletting house, herb garden.

  • Agricultural and artisanal: workshops, animal pens, houses for agrarian workers and gardens.

The St. Gall Plan represents a Benedictine monastery, the Benedictine Rule being applied in the architectural design. 

One of the main aspects of the Rule was the ascetic life of the monks who had to dedicate themselves to prayer, meditation and study, and not worry about worldly matters. 

For this purpose, the Benedictine Rule required a monastery which was self-sufficient, and that which provided for the monks all the necessary facilities, food, and water.

The monk's cloister

The monastic cloister occupies the centre of the Plan. It is placed in the southeast aligning itself both with the sacred east and with the poor – the accommodation for pilgrims and the poor is placed in the east just beneath the cloister – far from the worldly commodities and pleasures of the secular elite.

The structure of the cloister is highly symbolic. 
It is a closed space looking inwards to its own center, where a savin tree is placed – sauina – illustrating the ideal of a monk's experience removed from the world.

It is four-square, and four paths lead from its covered galleries to the center – symbolizing  Jerusalem and its four rivers.

The cloister is surrounded by two-storied buildings consisting of the warming room and dormitory to the east, the refectory, vestiary and kitchen to the south, and the cellar and larder to the west.

The monks, as well as the abbot, had a private entrance to the basilica either through their dormitory or through the portico of the cloister.

A general garden was needed for food supply. Some vegetables could also be used for medicinal purposes, such as garlic. 
Monks had a mainly vegetarian diet. Vegetables high in starch or in flavor were sought after for the gardens.

Cottage gardens were widely used to grow vegetables, and typically looked wild. However, patches in the cottage garden were found to be grouped by vegetable family, such as the Allium family, consisting of the leek (Allium porrum), onion (Allium cepa), and garlic (Allium sativum).

Plants found in the hortis at St. Gall

Scientific name
Common name

Vegetable name found in the Plan of St. Gall

Scientific name
Common name

Vegetable name found in the Plan of St. Gall


Allium sativum




Coriandrum sativum




Anethum graveolens





Lactuca spp.



Allium ascalonicum



Nigella sativa

Black cumin,



Allium cepa





Papaver somniferum





Allium porrum




Papaver sp.




Allium sativum


Pastinaca sativa





Anthriscus cerefolium





Petroselinum crispum





Apium graveolens





Raphanus sativus






Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla





Satureia hortensis


Summer savory








The physic garden or herbularis

Plants found in the physic garden at St. Gall

Scientific name
Common name

Plant name found in the Plan of St. Gall

Scientific name
Common name

Plant name found in the Plan of St. Gall


Balsamita vulgarita



Mentha pullegium



Cuminum cyminum



Nasturtium officinale



Trigonella foenum-graecum
Greek hay



Rosa spp.


Foeniculum vulgare


Rosmarinum officinalis


Iris germanica
Iris Purple flag



Ruta graveolens


Lilium spp.


Salvia officinalis


Levisticum officinale



Satureia hortensis
Summer savory

Sata regia

Mentha spp.


Vigna unguiculata
Black eyed pea


Orchards and Cemetery Gardens

Orchards and cemetery gardens were also tended to in medieval monasteries. Cemetery gardens, which tended to be very similar to generic orchards, also acted as a symbol of Heaven and Paradise, and thus provided spiritual meaning. The vegetation would provide fruit, such as apples or pears, as well as manual labor for the monks as was required by the Rule of Saint Benedict. 

According to Saint Benedict, idleness is the enemy of the soul, and for a monk, daily life was meant to be spent learning about the Lord and fighting that spiritual battle for the soul. So, monks used manual labor and spiritual reading to keep busy and avoid being idle.

Monks of this time typically would use astronomy and the stars to determine religious holidays for every year. They also used astronomy to help in figuring the best time of year to plant their gardens as well as the best time to harvest.

These gardens were enclosed with fences, walls or hedges in order to protect them. Stone and brick walls were typically used by the wealthy, in manors and monasteries. Wattle fences were used by all classes, and were the most common type of fence. They were made using local saplings and woven together. They were easily accessible and durable, and could even be used to make beds. Bushes were also used as fencing, as they provided both food and protection to the garden. Gardens were typically arranged to allow for visitors, and were constructed with pathways for easy access. It was not uncommon for the gardens to outgrow the monastery walls, and many times the gardens extended outside of the monastery and would eventually include vineyards as well.

Trees found in the orchard at St. Gall

Scientific name
Common name

Tree name found in the Plan of St Gall

Scientific name
Common name

Tree name found in the Plan of St Gall

Castanea sativa


Pyrus spp.


Corylus avellana


Prunus domestica



Cydonia oblonga


Prunus dulcis


Ficus carica


Prunus persica


Malus spp.


Sorbus domestica
Service tree


Mespilus germanica




Morus nigra
Black mulberry




An irrigation and water source was imperative to keeping the garden alive. The most complicated irrigation system used canals. This required that the water source be placed at the highest part of the garden so gravity could aid in the distribution of the water. This was more commonly used with raised bed gardens, as the channels could run in the pathways next to the beds. 

Kitchen garden ponds also were used in the 14th and 15th centuries, and were meant to offer ornamental value. Manure was placed in the ponds to provide fertilization and water was taken straight from the pond to water the plants.

The tools that were used at the time were similar to those gardeners use today. For instance, shears, rakes, hoes, spades, baskets, and wheel barrows were used and are still important today. 

There was even a tool that acted much like a watering can, called a thumb pot. Made from clay, the thumb pot has small holes at the bottom and a thumb hole at the top. The pot was submerged in water, and the thumb hole covered until the water was needed. A perforated pot was also used to hang over plants for constant moisture.

Castle Gardens In The Middle Ages

It was not only in the great monasteries that people cared for roses and other flowers. Even a hundred years later, much of the joy in feast and garden appears in the poems of Fortunatus. The French kings worked to lay out lovely gardens. Ultrogote, wife of Childeric I, was famous for the rose garden she had planted by her palace. 

In the days of the next centuries, the nobles had to relinquish many of their gentler manners and customs. They were compelled by the unrest and insecurity of those days to strengthen their places, and contract them into a smaller compass. Nothing remained of the fine buildings of Bishop Sidonius’ time except the defensive parts of the walls and the towers of the keep, the stronghold with its dependent farm-buildings about the inner court. The noble owners were obliged to build their castles on almost inaccessible mountain-tops, where there was very little space, or down in the plain, with wide moats; and in neither case was there room to have a garden. Moreover there was not much inclination for peaceful cultivation of the ground, and the men brought in from the chase everything that was wanted in the kitchen. 

But the garden was not entirely absent from the old castles.
The ladies were the gardeners, for they had been taught by monks how to plant healing herbs among their vegetables, so that they not only got extra dishes and green food for the table, but were also able to help the sick and wounded in castle or village. In the season of flowers, they enjoyed the beauty of many colours, and the young people used to weave garlands for themselves and their companions.

The garden was put near the windows of the women’s quarters, so as to be under the eye of the lady of the castle. It was good to see the garden from above, for it lay like a many-coloured carpet, small and delightful to behold.

It was not often possible to walk straight out from the women’s rooms into the garden, which was generally set apart and enclosed, and they went out of the house by a “very narrow” door.

Often, the garden was close to the mansion, with a staircase leading down to it, as in the garden is where the lady would desire to stroll. That's where you'll find the charming garden of lilies and a fountain.

The Garden of Trees


The "garden of trees" was the Medieval garden's  pleasure-ground. 

Fruit-bearing trees came first, but it was not only fruit trees that were planted, but a medley of trees desired for their shade and their beauty. 

A Latin fable describes a noble garden in which an oak grew among flowers and herbs, it gave its shade to the sick king, and a pure clear stream flowed through the garden.

In Parsifal there are found in the Schlossberg garden, together with the fairest flowers, fig trees, pomegranates, olives, and vines.

It is not confined to the tree garden, but is also the glory of the castle court with a lawn and a fountain. 

It is the proper tree for social life and parties, and it also stands out in the pasture lands. 

In time, branches are extended widely, supported on pillars, with a seat below; often there are benches actually in the boughs; sometimes the whole tree is surrounded by a barrier.

In the garden itself, people liked best to sit on the smooth turf seats, which mostly ran along the walls and were either propped up with bricks or stood alone. 

In the same way they sat about at games or in conversation, or for weaving wreaths. They sat on the grass, for here the flowers were not set out in beds, but grew scattered about anywhere on the grass.

In the middle of the flowery part is the fountain, which keeps the lawn from getting dry and bare.

The paths between the beds were hard and sanded, very nicely and evenly kept. When indeed the garden was to be particularly ornamental, the flower beds had tiles round them.

Often. these trees were set in the middle of flower beds. 
This favorite form was used for the tree at the Festival of Spring on May Day, and artificial fruits were hung on the crowns as an attraction to the dancers.

The Arbor

The arbor was of very great importance in the gardens of the Middle Ages.

It was known to the ancients in the form of a pergola or trellis-work, covered with green, possibly supported on posts, and very attractive, but in gardens of that early date not so necessary; for the portico gave a convenient shelter against sun or bad weather in the larger gardens, and in the smaller ones at private houses, there were generally buildings all a round. 

But now, the garden was mostly a thing set apart, and needed a real shelter in the open: roses and honeysuckle covered every sort of arbor.


The walk leading to these bowers could be used to stroll about in.  A rose tree was often grown “so broad and thick that it can give its shade to twelve knights together; wound around evenly and bent into a hoop, yet taller than a man; under the same thorny bush there is golden mullein and lovely grass."

The Labrynth

Another feature appears very early in the gardens of the period, and this, too, was meant for retreat or for domestic enjoyment—the maze or labyrinth. When this first found its way into gardens is uncertain. The name carries us back to the palace of Minos at Crete: the story goes, that no one could find the way out of its numerous rooms without a guide, and in common speech the Greeks used the word in that sense. 

The symbol for it was a figure like a circle or a hexagon, within which were a great many lines crossing each other, and arriving at a point in the middle from which they led out again to the circumference. 

In the early Middle Ages, the Christian churches adopted the same figure as a symbol, and it was marked in stone on the floor of a church and used by penitents. History is not sure as to the date when these mazes appeared in gardens. In one kind, there were paths between hedges taller than a man, so that anyone wandering about and taking a wrong turn could not see over and set himself right.

We first hear of a labyrinth in England in connection with Henry II, who is said to have hidden the Fair Rosamond, his beloved, in the woodland retreat at Woodstock; but the earliest authorities of the fourteenth century only speak of a "House of Daedalus,” where he kept her hidden away. But at this time, the garden labyrinth cannot have been unknown. Later on, no large garden was complete without its labyrinth, and in the design of any grounds plan, the pattern of the pre-Christian maze was preserved.

Medieval Forest Gardens

At an early date, very large forest gardens were laid out.

This garden was often a park for animals as well: “ Beneath the marble tower lies a wonderful garden of trees, with walls all round, and generally with wild animals.”

“The king took two acres or even more of woodland by the lake, and threw a wall around it.”

This does not remain mere wild land: it was divided into three parts for different kinds of animals, and the king had a well-appointed shooting box built, so that he could look on at the hunt with the ladies.



Town Gardens

In medieval towns, it was not only the great nobles who set store by beautiful gardens... 

The burghers began more and more to care about gardens. Every now and then, there is heard some very early rumor about the praise given to gardens in the city of Paris by the Emperor Julian when he was on his journey to the North.

The particular commendation is due to the fact that Parisians used to keep vines and figs round their houses, and protected them through the winter with coverings of straw. But this is an exception, for it is not until quite late that we hear of any horticulture in the Northern towns. 

At first, gardens were just vegetable plots in front of the town walls, and the produce was sold in the horticultural  markets. 

In 1345 the private gardeners of the great nobles and gentlemen of London had a quarrel with the alderman, because the noise of the market at St. Paul’s Churchyard annoyed the inhabitants and passers-by. Naturally there arose at an early date a trade guild of gardeners.

A Roman document is known about a Gardeners’ Company, and at that time, the Northern towns were not much behind Italy. 

Fruit orchards and vineyards were carefully laid out and kept up, and any injury done to them was severely punished.

The towns developed very slowly from want lack of space; and it was only when they were attached to the larger houses that one found more important gardens, taken from the space for building

Sometimes medieval town dwellers were able to have small gardens in the streets alongside the wall, or at the side of houses which faced towards the river, as so often in Paris with the more important houses. They had more freedom in the suburbs. 

The gardens of village houses in the Middle Ages naturally developed in a finer way and at an earlier date than those in towns. In the songs of wandering minstrels we often hear of the peasant’s garden. 

There was generally a plot of ground in front of the house, serving hospitable ends. Peasants met there as in an arbor to drink together, and the plot at the back was used for kitchen stuff.



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