In The Garden of Charlemagne

Medieval Horticulture, Part 2: In The Garden of Charlemagne
A sequel to: Medieval Horticulture, Part 1: Monastic Herbalism

In 476 A.D. the Emperor Romulus Augustus was overthrown by the germanic hordes and any order that the Roman Empire had brought to Europe for centuries was finished.  The fall of Rome in the west would cast the former territories of the Empire into centuries of ignorance and squalor, we are told, particularly the areas farthest from it.  This is the accepted history, and it is an enormous oversimplification.

Landtag beraet ueber Klage des Freistaats gegen den Laenderfinanzausgleich
“Imperial Coronation of Charlemagne”  by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861

Just a few decades later, after all, one of the germanic tribes, the Franks, were unified under one king, named Clovis I. Unlike the other tribes, which were mainly Arian, the Franks were Catholic due to Clovis’ wife insistence and his conversion on Christmas Day in 508 A.D.. The germanic tribes would continue their chaotic rule over much of the former Empire in the west, for a time, but in 768 A.D. a man named Charles rose to lead the Franks and re-establish order. Charles would go on to conquer the other tribes, and became Holy Roman Emperor. Even during his life he was referred to as “Charles the Great” which translates in French, of course, to Charlemagne.

Charlemagne was the oldest son of Pepin the Short and Bertrada of Laon.  In 771 A.D. he became the sole ruler of the Frankish Kingdom. Though the Franks were powerful, his particular military prowess grew the Frankish state into the vast Carolingian Empire (“Carol” being German for “Charles”), even Christianizing the Saxons to his east. Charlemagne continued his father’s friendly policy towards the papacy and became its protector, removing the Lombards from power in northern Italy, from which they had threatened Rome, and he even led a strike into Muslim-occupied Spain. He reached the height of his power in 800 A.D. when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day at Rome’s Old St. Peter’s Basilica. His military prowess and his new title as Holy Roman Emperor began an era of peace, the Carolingian Renaissance, during which he promulgated regulations for the good of his empire, even pulling the wilds of western Europe back together for a time.

L.325, W.268, D.49
Cadamosto’s illustrated herbal explains that an angel advised Charlemagne to eat the thistle to be purged of poison.

The Capitulare de Villis was such an ordinance, issued around 802 A.D.. It had 120 chapters of laws regarding issues throughout his empire, including one intricately requiring and instructing all farmers on how to keep bees.  Having just inventoried two of his royal estates and finding their systems and management lacking, Charlemagne moved in the Capitulare to reform those royal estates, which stretched from Germany to Spain. He included a requirement that the estates all grow particular beneficial plants instead of the unsystemized gardens they had grown before in order to help the lands around them.

That list, in Chapter 70 of the Capitulare, has given scholars insight into what were considered the best medicinal and culinary plants of that time, most of which were actually mentioned by Pliny the Elder of Rome (23–79 A.D.) centuries before in his work Naturalis Historiae Libri. This is not shocking however, since Charlemagne’s empire was at the early end of the Middle Ages, meaning much of his information would still be from Greek and Roman sources. All of the medicinal herbs cited in the Plan of St. Gall, drafted within decades of the Capitulare and intended to be in a grand Benedictine garden in Switzerland, are also listed in the Capitulare, confirming his thoughts as those of others in the know in his time.

List from ch. 70 of the Capitulare

Chapter 70 of the Capitulare details the plants that were required to be grown, with fines and penalties if they were not. Some are still considered beneficial today, some are not. The list reads: “It is our wish that they shall have in their gardens all kinds of plants: lily, roses, fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds, kidney-bean, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick-pea, squill, gladiolus, tarragon, anise, colocynth, chicory, ammi, sesili, lettuces, spider’s foot, rocket salad, garden cress, burdock, penny-royal, hemlock, parsley, celery, lovage, juniper, dill, sweet fennel, endive, dittany, white mustard, summer savory, water mint, garden mint, wild mint, tansy, catnip, centaury, garden poppy, beets, hazelwort, marshmallows, mallows, carrots, parsnip, orach, spinach, kohlrabi, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, cibols, garlic, madder, teazles, broad beans, peas, coriander, chervil, capers, clary.  And the gardener shall have house-leeks growing on his house.” (Underlining added.)

Here we will examine three of the most prominent herbs of the time, which he required be grown at every manor house for the benefit of the empire: sage, rosemary and mint, and the important role they played from then until now.


Spikenard and saffron,
sweet cane and cinnamon,
with all the trees of Libanus,
myrrh and aloes with all the chief perfumes.
The fountain of gardens: the well of living waters,
which run with a strong stream from Libanus.
Arise, O north wind, and come, O south wind,
blow through my garden,
and let the aromatical spices thereof flow.

– The Song of Solomon 4:14

The desire of sage is to render man immortal”
– A late medieval treatise

sage2The name of Sage (its genus being salvia) is derived from the Latin word for salvation, a sure sign that it has been thought of as a beneficial herb for ages, indeed its species officinalis is derived from the name of the room in a monastery where the healing herbs were kept, and a number of herbs bear this species name, making clear their prominence which persisted for centuries.

Originating in the Mediterranean region and coming from the mint family, sage has been cultivated by mankind for millennia, and the ancient Greeks certainly knew of it, with Theophrastus and Dioscorides both writing about its benefits. Ancient Rome also certainly knew that sage had medicinal effects, and Pliny the Elder wrote of it on many occasions. Dioscorides was a military physician and Nero’s expert on herbalism, and he noted sage as one of the most appreciated and important herbs, using it as a decoction on wounds to stop bleeding, for ulcers, as a tea for sore throats and hoarseness, to help digest fatty foods and it had long been known as an aid in preserving meat.

The plant is normally a stunning grey-green, with a fragrance somewhere between the smell of pine and that of spearmint.  While there are over 750 varieties of sage, there is no question that simple garden sage was of the highest culinary and medicinal importance throughout history.  Southeastern Europe was always a predominant user of sage, and in the Middle Ages it was used to treat many maladies including fevers, liver disease, and epilepsy.  In the form of a tea it was widely considered a pleasant and healthful beverage. One common belief from history (that has proven true in modern times) was that sage strengthened the memory, hence a “sage,” or a wise man, was one who had a long memory.

sage1Around the 10th century, Arab physicians wrote that sage could even extend life to the point of immortality, a belief that stuck with the herb for the coming centuries. After the Crusades, with the mixing of cultural beliefs that resulted, the association between sage and immortality began showing up in Europe where the French referred to the herb as toute bonne, meaning “all’s well.” Every country’s herbals recommended sage: an Icelandic book from the year 1000 A.D., Hildegard of Bingen, Ayurvedic physicians, John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper. Folk healers in colonial America used sage to treat insomnia, epilepsy, measles, seasickness and intestinal worms. As late as the 1920s, American medical texts recommended sage tea as a gargle for a sore throat and recommended sage leaf poultices for sprains and swelling.

Sage oil from the plant has a unique property from all other healing herbs–it reduces perspiration, which has been proven true in modern times.  Several studies have shown that sage cuts perspiration by as much as half with the maximum effect occurring 2 hours after taking it.  This explains how it got a reputation for treating fevers, with their accompanying sweating.

Like rosemary, sage contains strong antioxidants, which can slow spoilage, supporting its longest use as a preservative for meats.  Further, British researchers have confirmed that sage inhibits the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, which is important since it may be able to preserve the compound which helps prevent and treat Alzheimer’s Disease in the human body.

Sage is a tried-and-true digestive remedy.  The volatile oils have a relaxing effect on the smooth muscle of the digestive tract.  It relieves colic, gas, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, colitis, liver complaints, and worms, which were of course prevalent during the Middle Ages.  Sage also acts as a tonic to the nervous system and has long been used to enhance strength and vitality. Studies published by a team of scientists in Kamakura Japan concluded that powdered sage or sage tea helps the heart by slowing the forming of blood clots, and is thus useful in the prevention and treatment of myocardial infarction and general coronary pain.

It is the tendency of many moderns to look down upon the poor people who had to survive the “Dark Ages” and its backward beliefs, and instead celebrate how much more sophisticated we are these days.  Some basic study, though, would reveal that herbalism was in fact the beginnings of medicine, and that pharmaceutical corporations are looking for effective treatments with herbs to this very day.  Those who would slander the Middle Ages would likely be much better off and more healthy if they were to plant some sage in their gardens and on a later evening, sip a bit of the herb that their ancestors treasured.  (See also 1,000-year-old onion and garlic eye remedy kills MRSA, A 1,000-Year Old Antimicrobial Remedy with Antistaphylococcal Activity, Medieval Medical Books Could Hold The Recipe For New Antibiotics stating: “For a long time, medieval medicine has been dismissed as irrelevant. This time period is popularly referred to as the ‘Dark Ages,’ which erroneously suggests that it was unenlightened by science or reason.  However, some medievalists and scientists are now looking back to history for clues to inform the search for new antibiotics.”).


Then Jesus answered and said: O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out?

Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, remove from hence hither, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.

– Matthew 17:16 (DRB)

As for rosemary, I let it run all over my garden walls,
not only because my bees love it but because
it is the herb sacred to remembrance and to friendship.”
– St. Thomas More

rosemaryRosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a woody evergreen bush native to the Mediterranean and an ancient memory aid so well known that it became a symbol of remembrance over the centuries.  It had “practical uses” such as when ancient Greek students wearing sprigs of rosemary on their ears or putting a wreath of it around their head went into exams with them, to the more symbolic use of laying sprigs of rosemary across a coffin or tombstone to show you will remember the deceased.  The latter continued well into the medieval period and beyond.  It was prevalent as a symbol at weddings (put in the couples’ wine so they will remember their vows) and in romance generally with Shakespeare’s Ophelia explaining to Hamlet, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray you love, remember.”

Rosemary likely takes its name from the Latin ros maris, meaning “dew of the sea.”  This is in reference to the herb’s preference for growing along the seashore.  It was carried from the Mediterranean by the ancient Roman troops and planted as a medicinal herb for their use as far away as England.  The Spanish believed that another Mediterranean native took refuge beneath a large rosemary bush to shelter herself and her young son as they fled to Egypt to escape King Herod.  In honor of this brave, young woman, they believed, the plant came to be known as Rose of Mary, which was eventually shortened to the modern name familiar to us today.  A similar story says that its flowers were white until the Virgin Mary spread a blue cloak over the plant, which turned its flowers blue.

On a more superstitious level, during the Middle Ages, rosemary was thought to be capable of dispelling negativity. As such, it was tucked under pillows to thwart nightmares and visits from evil spirits. It was also burned in the house to keep the black plague from entering. Perhaps this association with protection is why rosemary is still common in incense used to cleanse sacred spaces.  It was also used in the home as a symbol of family and for protection from disease, in addition to its pleasant scent.

rosemary bloomMedicinally, rosemary has uses old and new.  In one of the earliest herbals printed in England, Rycharde Banckes recommended that one take the leaves of rosemary and “boyle them in fayre water and drinke that water for it is much worthe against all manner of evils in the body.” Indeed, rosemary was once thought to be a cure for poor digestion, migraine, joint disorders, and muscle aches.  Queen Elizabeth of Hungary was reputedly cured of semi-paralysis when she sipped a concoction of rosemary to ease her paralytic joints (and in another version to restore her youthful appearance).  Hence, this rosemary and wine combination came to be known as the Queen of Hungary Water and was later used externally to treat skin problems, gout, dandruff, and for the prevention of baldness.

Nicholas Culpepper’s “Pharmacopeia Londoniensis” published in 1653 said that rosemary water was “an admirable cure-all remedy of all kinds of cold, loss of memory, headache, coma.  It receives and preserves natural heat, restores body function and capabilities, even at late age. There are not that many remedies producing that many good effects.”

Rosemary was also used as a preservative for meats and other foods.  We know now this was due to rosemary’s high anti-oxidant activity, but in medieval times people knew to wrap meats in crushed rosemary and sage leaves. The freshness was preserved and the smell and taste remained pleasant.  Rosemary was also used to control pests such as mosquitoes, fleas (which we now know as the carriers of the plague) and moths.  The uses were many.

Today, rosemary has proven to have many medicinal properties. For one, the plant contains salicylic acid, the forerunner of aspirin.  Indeed, rosemary was once thought to be a cure for poor digestion, migraine, joint disorders, and muscle aches.  This may explain why massaging the its oil into joints effectively eases arthritic or rheumatic pain. It also contains antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities, and is used by modern herbalists to treat a variety of skin disorders, including dandruff.  Rosemary is also being studied for potential anti-cancer effects and in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

What may be most amazing about rosemary is how much the people of the Middle Ages got right through the process of trial and error, coming up with uses moderns now must confirm. Indeed, French hospitals burned Juniper berries with rosemary to fight poor quality air and prevent infection–far from benighted ignorance in a “dark” age, rosemary and sage have vindicated the reputation of medieval people in many ways, leaving those who still slander the age as the ignorant ones.


Every year thou shalt set aside the tithes of all thy fruits that the earth bringeth forth.

– Deuteronomy 14:22 (DRB)

Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cumin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone.

– Matthew 23:23 (DRB)

As for the garden of mint,
the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits,
as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.”
– Pliny the Elder, ancient Rome

Photo by Kham Tran – – own work, CC BY 3.0.

Mint has been around a long, long time.  It has been found at Egyptian burial sites dating to 1,000 B.C..  The ancient Hebrews would strew their synagogue floors with mint leaves so that their fragrance would scent and sanitize the air with each footstep.  The word we use for it descends from the Latin word mentha, which is rooted in the Greek word minthe, and experts believe it probably derives from a now extinct pre-Greek language.  Mint can mean one of over 18 species of the genus Mentha, or the entire, crowded family of Lamiaceae plants, which includes sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, savory and other species that likely all came from a common mint plant in the even more ancient past.

Known to have originated in Asia and the Mediterranean region, mint has been appreciated for its many benefits throughout history.  Greeks used to clean their banquet tables with the herb and added it to their baths, while Romans used it in sauces, as an aid to digestion and as a daily breath freshener.  And, as we know, “it” made it onto Charlemagne’s list of beneficial plants around 800 A.D..  But which mint was he referring to?

Charlemagne’s list actually says that the gardens at his royal estates must include both water mint and garden mint, which we know as spearmint.  It does not list peppermint, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have this mint that is considered the most flavorful and beneficial mint of them all.

Peppermint, history dutifully tells us, was discovered about 1700 A.D. when the English biologist, John Ray, discovered it in his garden.  He “discovered” it instead of “created” or “cultivated” it because it made itself.  When water mint (Menthae aquatica) and spearmint (Menthae spicata) are grown together, they often naturally cross-pollinate and the result is peppermint.  That is, if an insect brings the pollen from water mint and pollinates the spearmint’s flower, that flower’s seeds will be peppermint, not spearmint and not water mint (and vice versa).  Peppermint has likely been with us for much longer than three centuries, it simply didn’t have a name.  And Charlemagne required all of the royal gardens in his estates to have both–perhaps he more rightly deserves the credit for peppermint’s actual and unheralded creation.  There’s no telling now.

While both water mint and spearmint are less strong than peppermint in medicinal properties and culinary taste, they are nonetheless medicinal and tasty in the same ways as peppermint.

Medieval monks drew on the herb for its culinary and medicinal properties, using it to calm the stomach, freshen the air and even as a tooth polisher.  It quickly became a symbol of hospitality and welcome throughout Europe.

The strong aromatic nature of the mint family come from their high levels of oils uncluding menthol, thymol, citronellal, limonene and carvacrol, which also explain its rich flavors, long prized in cooking and also responsible for many of its relaxing and cleansing medical properties which have been set out into four categories over the centuries:

  • As a nervine for nervous system issues (anxiety, dementia, depression, headaches, insomnia).
  • As a digestive for digestive system issues (indigestion, gas, cramps, nausea, colic).
  • As an antimicrobial for the three types of infection issues (bacterial, viral, fungal).
  • As a cleanse for respiratory issues (infection, congestion, asthma).

In the Middle Ages, aromatic herbs such as those in the mint family were used as strewing herbs in homes, literally tossed around onto the floor during times of sickness and plague to combat the evil we now know as microorganisms.  Modern day research confirms the antimicrobial action of these plants for illnesses such as colds, influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis, just to name a few.

In the modern age it is still used for many things, perhaps as many as it was back then.  It is a soothing tea for stomach aches, indigestion or heartburn.  A breath freshener, a respiratory cleanse, and a treatment for headaches.  As with all of the plants in the mint genus it retains its anti-infection, and anti-microbial qualities and of course, is great in deserts.  Indeed, ancient Romans and Greeks used mint to flavor cordials and fruit compotes, and a nice mint julep sounds quite good right about now.


“And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought sweet spices, that coming, they might anoint Jesus. And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they come to the sepulchre, the sun being now risen. And they said one to another: Who shall roll us back the stone from the door of the sepulchre?”

– Mark 16:1-3 (DRB)

“Charles was the keenest of all kings to seek out and support
wise men so that they might philosophize with all delight.
Almost all of the kingdom entrusted to him by God was so foggy
and almost blind, but he made it luminous with the new ray of knowledge,
almost unknown to this barbarous land, with God lighting the way so it could see.
But now studies are growing weak, and the light of wisdom,
because it is less loved, grows rarer among most people.”

– Walahfrid, preface to the Vita KaroliMagni, c. 817 A.D.

Illustration from a Thirteenth Century publication of the Vita Karoli Magni.  From St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Ms. Vad. 302 II, fol. 35v, 13th century manuscript.

From Einhard’s contemporary biography of Charlemagne, the Vita KaroliMagni (“Life of Charles the Great”), we know that Charlemagne died on January 28, 814 at the age of seventy.  He was buried on that same day in the basilica he had built in Aachen, a German town near the border of Belgium and the Netherlands.  A cultus of the people quickly rose and embraced his memory and under the rules of the time (which would change in the twelfth century) he has been accepted as “blessed” but was never canonized by a valid pontiff (all of Paschal III acts being deemed invalid) and thus the man who many have called the “Father of Europe” cannot be called a saint.

Nonetheless, the effects of Charlemagne’s actions still ripple through the ages, having effected politics, religion and, perhaps just as importantly in its own way, the plants people grow in their gardens.

For More See:
Dubin, Reese.
Miracle Food Cures from the Bible.
God. The Holy Bible, Douay Rheims edition.

Part One of the Medieval Horticulture series, Monastic Herbalism, is available here.

Part Three of the series, In the Garden of Hildegard, is expected in December of 2018.

One thought on “In The Garden of Charlemagne”

  1. Hello, I am doing research to develop a living history interpretation of a Benedictine monk who was an herbalist. I am very concerned about being historically accurate in my presentation. These two sites in your blog are -very- helpful and I look forward to finding the one on Hildegard von Bingen’s garden. Thank you so much!

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