Monastic Herbalism

Medieval Horticulture, Part 1: Monastic Herbalism.
(Also see the Part Two: In The Garden of Charlemagne)

Some say the monastics of the Middle Ages merely kept good records of the classical era, preserved them, copied them, and made use of them. Others say they developed many skills and a great deal of information themselves through trial and error. What cannot be doubted, though, is that monks and nuns of medieval times had records, gardens and medicines for the practice of herbalism. Indeed, they were the masters of it, particularly the Benedictines, and they held and built this treasure of knowledge for over a millennium, with many continuing to do so to this day.

Sage, rue and rosemary.

Ancient Rome used herbs as part of its medical system. Indeed, the Roman Army took seeds with them along the way so they could plant and use them when they dug in at a particular location. The system itself came mainly from Greek discoveries, particularly Hippocrates and his followers, and it is well recorded that the Hippocratic humeral system was used by Ancient Rome. This system held that an excess or deficiency of any of four bodily fluids in a person, called humours, had a direct effect on their health and attitude. Herbs were among the things that they thought could restore balance to the humours. While the system was flawed in its foundational assumptions, the trial and error involved in it led to discovering many herbs and plants that helped the body to heal itself.

Rome fell of course, and the influence it had across Europe receded in the years that followed, with knowledge regarding traditions, medicines, infrastructure, and commerce slowly disappearing with it. Behind the scenes, though, monastics were forming their own communities away from the large cities to worship God. To live such a life, they had to do for themselves with the things that were around them. As the existing structures of civilization disintegrated, the monks and nuns slowly learned trades and skills to survive and thrive in their normally remote communities. Slowly their communities themselves would become the centers of learning.

St. Fiacre, a patron saint of herbalism

Among the many skills they practiced was herbalism—the use of plants material to support the healing function of the body. While knowledge and traditions could simply be wiped away in a generation or two, they retained some texts from the classical period. While some in the Middle Ages had the view that illness was punishment by God for some misdeed–and this supports the misinformed notion that the middles ages were a “dark” age of limited learning–the clear effectiveness of herbalism for many ailments strongly argued that God had supplied the help the people needed in the plant life around them, and this argument was difficult to argue with when the results were seen.

The progress of herbalism for monastics was a combination of retaining the knowledge from the classic period, which the monks and nuns excelled at; absorbing knowledge from other cultures they came into contact with; as well as trial and error with what they had around them, which often differed from region to region. Rather than darkness, the light supplied by the knowledge they developed about herbalism were the seeds of the later fields of medicine, genetics, botany, pharmacology and in many ways the results-oriented spirit of true science itself.

The best way to provide an initial overview of the topic is to survey the major historical events related to the topic including the major works copied, by hand by the monks, which slowly spread across Europe and Western Asia.

– “De Materia medica” (on Medicines) was a text about botany and plants and was written by the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanios around 90 A.D.. He had traveled with the Roman armies as a doctor, learning about the herbs and other medicines of the cultures they encountered. It is one of the most influential compilations of medicinal plants ever, discussing over 700 plants believed to have healing properties. It lasted as a standard medical text for almost 1,500 years and was one of the first books published by the printing presses in the 1440s.

– At about the same time Pliny the Elder in Rome compiled his 37-volume Historia Naturalis with fourteen of its volumes dealing with botany and herbal medicine. Fifty years after Pliny passed, Galen of Pergamon (Claudius Galenus 131-200 A.D.), a Greek living in Rome became Rome’s leading physician. At heart he believed, as the ancient Greeks did, in balancing bodily humours but he also stressed combinations of herbs, minerals and animal parts as a part of that healing.

– “Physiologus” was an natural history book created in the second century in Egypt with unknown authorship. It spoke of plants but also described animals, stones and all aspects of nature. As a main source of knowledge in the area, the book became available in several translations, including Latin by 600 A.D.

– St. Gertrude was born in Landen, Belgium in 626 A.D. She was a Benedictine abbess at a monastery in Nivelles, Belgium and, along with St. Fiacre, is a patron saint of herbalists and gardeners, though she is most renowned as a saint of house cats. She died on March 17, 659, and March 17 is her feast day, the same as St. Patrick.

– St. Fiacre (fee-AH-krah) of County Kilkenny in Ireland is a patron saint of gardening, both vegetable and medicinal. He grew up in a monastery where he learned herbalism and his skill at it, together with his piety, were so noteworthy that it caused disciples to flock to him. Seeking greater solitude, he left and sought refuge near Meaux, France in a wooded area near the Marne River. Saint Faro, the bishop of that area at the time, gave him a dwelling in a forest in the province of Brie. The legend is that St. Faro offered him as much land as he could turn up in a day, and that St. Fiacre, instead of driving his furrow with a plow, turned the top of the soil with the point of his staff. He then cleared the ground of trees which fell to either side of him as he walked the area with his staff, and there he made his garden, built an oratory in honor of the Blessed Virgin, and built a hospice for travelers which developed into the village of Saint-Fiacre in Seine-et-Marne. In his hospice he entertained visitors and patients, treating them himself with herbs and other natural items, and that at times it’s said he miraculously restored some to health more immediately. He died on August 18, 670 after years of prayer, mortification and labor in his garden. Visitors from Ireland and France would continue to come to his shrine for centuries after his death seeking healing and solace. His feast day is September 1.

– As can be seen, after Rome fell, the Benedictines quickly became the monastic masters of herbalism, already being focused on the mission of preserving knowledge. Among other things, they perfected the making of tinctures—suspending the essence of an herb in an alcohol base for medicinal and other purposes. Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.) so admired the Benedictine gardens and techniques that he ordered all monasteries throughout the empire to plant “physic gardens” to supply the monasteries and the empire with healing herbs.

The Plan of St Gall
The Plan of St. Gall with garden/infirmary section shaded.

– In 820 A.D. Swiss Benedictines designed an architectural drawing of the ultimate monastery with their Plan of St. Gall. It showed a physic garden that was to contain two dozen herbs including rosemary, rue, sage, fennel, fenugreek, dill, cumin, mint, savory, pennyroyal, rose and watercress. It is the only remaining major architectural drawing from the 700 years between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the thirteenth century, but it was never built. (Over a millenia later the infamous St. Gallen Mafia was centered in this same area.)

– Also in the 800s A.D. Bald’s Leechbook (also known as Medicinale Anglicum) was compiled in present-day England among the Anglo-Saxons, which apparently was largely uninfluenced by a few centuries of Mediterranean texts, making it unique. It listed herbs and the bark of many trees, and yes leeches, to be used in remedies.

– Walafrid Strabo (c. 808 – 849 A.D.), was a Benedictine monk, abbot and theological writer who lived on Reichenau Island in what is today Southern Germany. He wrote the “Hortulus” which was widely circulated. It was basically a detailed account of his experiences with his garden with descriptions of the various herbs he grew and their medicinal and other uses, which included the brewing of beer. He referred specifically to sage as holding the place of honor in his garden; then rue as an antidote for poisons and included melons, fennel, lilies, poppies, roses and many other plants.

– The knowledge of healing herbs from the classical era was also preserved and expanded on by the Arab nations with Ibn-Sina’s work the Canons of Medicine becoming available just after the turn of the millenium. Abulcasis (1197-1248 A.D.) wrote the Book of Simples, adding 200 healing herbs and poisons to the known lists.  With the Crusades ongoing, the two cultures came into contact and knowledge of healing techniques was spread.

– A compilation of herbal healing methods was circulating by the eleventh century called De Viribus Herbarum Carmen. It was attributed to Macer Floridus who lived in the Loire area of France. It described the medicinal properties of 77 herbs and was written in Latin hexameter, a poetic verse that was most likely used as a memory device for those in the practice of medicinal herbs.

hildegardflipped– Benedictine Saint and Abbess Hildegard von Bingen’s first work was “The Book of Secrets in Nature and Creatures” (Liber Subtilitatum Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum), written between 1150 and 1158. The final manuscript was lost after her death. Around 150 years later, several partial manuscripts were recompiled and it was then split into two treatises, the “Physica” and the “Causae et Curae.” The “Physica” was a history of natural remedies, which she intended for the public, and which contained a detailed section on plants. In “Causae et Curae” Hildegard describes healing and treatment methods more broadly, including consideration of the bodily humours, traditional creation teachings, and mystical beliefs.

    • In recompiling the Physica and Causae et Curae, parts of Hildegard’s original work were omitted or abridged by later writers, while other elements were added making the authorship hard to sort out in places. This tradition of ascribing things to the saint continues today as new-age beliefs are ascribed to her with the more orthodox aspects of her genius being pushed to the side. There can be no doubt, though, that she was a Christian mystic with a wide knowledge and an intellect second to none who continues to inspire to this day. While on lists of saints since the 1600s, she was officially canonized on May 10, 2012 by Pope Saint John Paul the Great and was declared a Doctor of the Church on October 7, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. Her feast day is September 17.

    • Herbs and spices mentioned in Hildegard’s works included: pepper, sage, aloe, mallow, anise, galangal, poppy, rose, rue, plaintain, yarrow, asarum, feverfew, betony, blackberry, wormwood, blessed-thistle, blueberry, boswellia, celery, cloves, dittany, fennel, flax, hazel, laurel, lungwort, milk thistle, mullein, vervain, myrrh, nettles, cranesbill, nutmeg, bindweed, pansy, spindle, white pepper, and winter wheat.

circa instans– The medical school of Salerno, in southwest Italy, flourished between the eleventh and early thirteenth centuries. It was influenced early on by translations of the Arabic works which were provided by Constantine the African, as well as works from the classical Greek and Latin medical sources. They produced works such as the “Antidotarium Nicolai,” a collection of medical recipes, and two collections describing nature and the healing properties of natural elements, the “Glossae Platearii” or “Liber iste,” and the “Liber de simplici medicina” (the book on simple medicine) or “Circa Instans.” The “Liber iste” and the “Circa instans” titles of each were derived from the first words of the works, similar to how papal encyclicals are titled to this day. Both works were attributed to Matthaeus Plateariuus, a medieval physician from the medical school at Salerno.

– In 1296 Marco Polo’s account of his travels in Asia renewed the European taste for spices, and the spice routes were reopened from the early 1300s to the mid-1400s.  At that time the Mongols lost Western Asia to the Ottomans, who closed the overland routes.  During those years pepper, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, galangal and other Asian herbs and spices came West for use as flavorings and medicinals in Europe.  The closing of the eastern spice routes and rising price of spices created a demand to look for sea routes to Asia to the west, which Christopher Columbus was attempting to find in 1492 when he landed in the Americas.  He returned to Spain with the news of these lands and also with the seeds of a different type of “pepper” from the Caribbean Islands–the chili pepper, specifically cayenne (which, of course, has noted health benefits enjoyed to this day).

– The enlightenment periods in the differing countries of Europe in many ways marked the end of the Middle Ages and with it the appropriation of the knowledge of the monastic herbalists by the distinct, emerging fields of science. Modern “Herbals” were compiled and widely distributed via the printing press. At the same time, herbal remedies fell out of favor when they did not seem able to combat the Black Death and other plagues of the late middle ages.

    • Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541) was a Swiss physician who publicly announced his distrust of herbalism and the monastic and other healers who practiced it. He introduced the use of active chemical drugs (like arsenic, copper sulfate, iron, mercury, and sulfur) into medicine, and became a large proponent of the Doctrine of Signatures. The Doctrine of Signatures, the idea that herbs resembling various parts of the body were the right herbs to treat those body parts, oddly took herbalism off in a less fact-based direction than the monastics had typically done in the ages before.

    • Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) brought another “science” of the time to the study of plants and herbs: astrology. Astrological herbalists decided that herbs were somehow connected to different signs of the zodiac. They treated sickness by determining what sign or planet ruled over the part of the body that needed care and then used an herb thought to be related to that astrological sign in treatment. In short, the enlightenment and reason-based science of its time had a hand in wrongly harming the reputation of herbalism.

These errors would rise again in the modern age where herbalism became associated with new age medicine, holistic interpretations of medicine, and other neo-pagan influences. These often willingly included (and include) the flawed astrological or signature processes in determining herbal treatments and are to be avoided.  On the other hand, pure herbalism not only kickstarted the legitimate fields of botany and medicine, but also genetics, literally formalized in many ways by a monk.

Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) “The Father of Modern Genetics” was an Augustinian friar and abbot of St. Thomas’ Abbey in Brno. Mendel was born in a German-speaking family in what is now the Czech Republic and gained posthumous recognition as the founder of the modern science of genetics. Though farmers had known for millennia that crossbreeding of animals and plants could lead to certain favorable traits in the next generation, Mendel’s experiments with pea plants between 1856 and 1863 in the monastery garden of the abbey established many of the rules of heredity, including his noting of dominant and recessive traits regarding color, size, shape and the like.

Also noteworthy is Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821–1897), who was a Bavarian priest and one of the forerunners of the later, and rather problematic, naturopathic medicine movement.  He is known most for his hydrotherapy (water-based) therapies but he believed that phytotherapy (healing with herbs and plants) was an important part of achieving health, and both were counted among his five principles. A student of his was Father Johann Kuenzle (1857-1945) a Catholic priest in Switzerland and a famous herbalist whose work “Herbs and Weeds” was published in 1911 and eventually sold over a million copies in Europe.

An important thing to note from modern science is the fact that certain combinations of medicines can unintentionally strengthen or weaken their effects.  It is actually evidence of the efficacy of herbal treatments in a way, but it is a fact that if you are on pharmaceutical medicines of any kind you must do thorough research before taking an herbal supplement, tincture, salve or other remedy, including discussing it with your doctor. The combinations can render your medicine useless, or increase the effect to a lethal level. Similarly, allergies can have an effect, and everyone responds differently to different medicines, so always go very slowly and discuss each step with your doctor.

Salvia officinalis, or common sage.  The “salvia” has its root in the Latin verb salvare, referring to salvation.  The “officinalis” refers to its medicinal use—the officina was the room in a monastery where herbs and other medicines were kept.

For some, in working closely with their doctors, they may find that the herbal treatment can replace the medicine. Indeed, pharmaceutical medicines are often statistically far more dangerous than many herbal treatments.  For others, taking a variety of pills each day, it is probably best to avoid herbal medicine altogether since the effects of the combinations simply cannot be sorted out reliably.

Finally, consider that a sudden health trend is not the same as a time-tested herbal remedy. Trends are created with small studies, often funded by people invested in that particular cure, to generate the sudden purchase of some herbal product. If herbalism is the time-tested determination that a particular herb is good for a particular ailment, then herbal trends and fads are quite the opposite.  One solid “old wives tale” is worth 100 health fads on their best day.

There are many subtopics that remain, including particular herbs and what they can treat, the different ways herbal remedies can historically be applied (salves, tinctures, extracts, pills), and a deeper look into the history of certain people influential in monastic herbalism. However, this first installment is already longer than intended, so it will have to be continued.

I would definitely ask people to volunteer what they know, what they’ve tried, or parts of this history we haven’t touched on at this point. Send them through this site ( by commenting on this piece, or to me on Twitter at @traditius.  It’s very much my intent to start a conversation about the monastic perspective on herbalism and history, and I’d encourage anyone interested to join right in.

Stay tuned in December for Monastic Herbalism, Part Two: Things To Do With Alcohol.


One thought on “Monastic Herbalism”

  1. Thank for the historic overview of herbal medicine.
    We used plantain for wasps stings while on a hike; it worked to relieve the pain and itching almost immediately.
    It is amazing how we have lost so much critical medical (and farming) knowledge so quickly.
    Thank you,

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