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.
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.
Put ye on the armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore take on the armor of God, that ye may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.
The passage above, from The Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, seems on the surface to be comparing, in metaphor, aspects of the Christian faith to the various pieces of armor a warrior might wear. Each item protecting or arming the faithful in the way that a breastplate or sword might. As metaphor, and as spiritual truth, it is powerful. However, it also speaks to a later tradition.
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.
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.