History of the monastery garden

Monastery gardens have changed over the centuries, which makes it difficult to gain a historical perspective on gardens that no longer exist, such as those of the Middle Ages. However, preserved historical documents may provide a glimpse of what monastery gardens of bygone times might have looked like. This is where the search for their traces begins.

Monastery gardens in the Early Middle Ages
– from Benedict of Nursia to Walahfrid Strabo

St. Galler Klosterplan

Plan of Saint Gall

The first trace takes us to the Monastery of Montecassino, where Benedict of Nursia (around 480–547) establishes the Rule of Saint Benedict which eventually becomes a precept for all orders of Western Christianity. The Rule of Saint Benedict (also called Regula Benedicti) makes explicit mention of the monastery garden: “The monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained […]” (RB 66,6). Such garden has two functions: It is a place of physical work (labora) and, at the same time, a place to practice monastic virtues such as humility and honesty (RB 7,63; 46,1). The monks soon achieve economic autonomy with the help of lay brothers and farm workers. There is no question that the monasteries also cultivate land outside their own premises. “This is how people outside the monasteries learn about crops, cultivation methods and gardening” (Willerding 1992, 257).

Two documents written in the 9th century, which use the Rule of Saint Benedict as a guide, give an idealised impression of monastery gardens in the Early Middle Ages: These are the Plan of Saint Gall (around 820) and the poem hortulus (around 840).

The Plan of Saint Gall (around 820) is an idealised drawing of an exemplary monastery showing various types of gardens: cloister garden, medicinal herb garden, vegetable garden and fruit garden.  The latter also serves as the monastery’s cemetery. With the exception of the cloister garden, the Plan of Saint Gall reveals precise information about the plants to be grown in these gardens (cf. Schedl 2014, 123–124). What is remarkable though, is the mixed cultivation method set out in this precept. The medicinal herb garden, for example, is designed to include sage and fennel along with ornamental plants such as roses, and spices such as rosemary and pepper. The vegetable garden is intended – according to today’s understanding – to cultivate vegetables (e.g. onions and shallots) as well as spices (e.g. black cumin) and herbs (e.g. parsley and dill), whereas the orchard is not only used for native trees but also for southern fruit-bearing trees, such as the fig tree.

Particular importance is attached to the poem hortulus (around 840) written by Walahfrid Strabo (808/9-849), abbot of the monastery of Reichenau, which lists 24 medicinal plants in verse form. It is widely accepted that most plant species of the hortulus are actually cultivated (cf. Roth 2009, 50). The layout of the plants described in the hortulus is considered to be a prototype for today’s herb gardens inspired by the medieval medicinal herb gardens. It is worth noting that there are remarkable similarities with the garden layout of the Plan of Saint Gall. The raised beds that correspond to the medicinal herb garden of the Plan of Saint Gall are shown with a light background in the image on the left. The raised beds in dark grey colours host plants which, according to the Plan, are designated for the vegetable garden, whereas the yellow raised beds contain those plants that only are mentioned in the hortulus.

Monastery gardens in the High Middle Ages
– where the knowledge of nature flourished

A reliable description of monastery gardens cultivated during the High Middle Ages can be found in the essays on natural history written by the Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179). In her work, she focuses on her own and vernacular practices with domestic wild medicinal plants and substantially widens the range of plants that are previously known in monastery gardens (cf. Vogellehner 1984, 81-82). The introduction and further cultivation of fruits and vegetables, however, is mainly driven by the monks and nuns of the Cistercian Order, which is developing after 1098, and their international relations. This has a strong influence on the cultivation of plants in the regional agriculture surrounding the monastery (cf. Roth 1995,43). To make wine or beer, however, the Cistercians need more than just wild plants. For this reason, they also create gardens purely used for growing hop (cf. Roth 2009, 59).  Vineyards only exist in regions with suitable climatic conditions. The monks’ wine consumption is already mentioned in the Rule of Saint Benedict (particularly in RB 40). Since wine is of outstanding importance for liturgy and curative medicine, some monasteries that cannot grow wine possess vineyards in distant wine-growing areas (cf. Roth 1995, 49).

In the High Middle Ages, the importance of non-productive gardens is increasing. A development also represented by the Dominican monk Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) who conceived the concept of a pleasure garden and a kitchen garden (Willerding 1992, 256-258). Albertus Magnus transfers plants such as the rose, which still belongs to the medicinal herb garden in the St. Gall monastery plan, to a grass garden featuring a grassy bench, trees and a fountain. Here, the garden is not only a place of labour, but also of contemplation, prayer and tranquillity. Similar gardens exist until the end of the Late Middle Ages.

An exceptional case in many respects are the gardens of the Carthusians, who live in eremitic seclusion. Their gardens can easily rival those of other orders and, for instance, serve as blueprints for French pomiculture (Roth 1995, 47). In addition, each Carthusian monk is given a garden adjacent to his cell, which can be individually arranged (cf. Roth 1995, 47).

Monastery gardens of the Baroque
– the glory and splendour of stately representation

The monastery gardens in the Baroque era give an ornate and splendid impression. Their pomp and splendour does not differ much from that of the sumptuous palace gardens of the 17th and 18th centuries. With their symmetrical layout, the spacious sculpture gardens and park-like landscapes bear witness to the aristocratic character of the monastery premises. Some outstanding monastery gardens become prototypes for important landscaped parks, such as the Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, which is influenced by the Baroque garden of the Kamp Monastery on the Lower Rhine (cf. Roth 1995, 60). But also the cultivation of kitchen gardens continues, especially in order to grow the most exquisite fruit varieties.

The monastery garden since the 19th century
– preserving tradition and exploring new routes

After the social upheavals and the expropriation of the monasteries, new communities begin to emerge in the 19th and 20th centuries, which also maintain the cultural heritage of the monastery gardens. Today, many monasteries are no longer inhabited by monks and fulfil new functions (e.g. parish church, museum, municipal administration). Yet, there are still some monasteries that keep up their horticultural traditions, as for example Michaelstein abbey where the herb garden is maintained until today. And the products originating from such monastery gardens enjoy great popularity as they are commonly considered to be of great value.


  • Roth, Hermann Josef: Nutzen und Nutzung der Pflanzen. Klostergärten vom Mittelalter bis heute. In: Roth, Hermann Josef / Wolschke-Bulmahn, Joachim / Hauptmeyer, Carl-Hans / Schönermark, Gesa [Hrsg.]: Klostergärten und klösterliche Kulturlandschaften. Historische Aspekte und aktuelle Fragen, München 2009, 49–75.
  • Roth, Hermann Josef / Richner, Werner: Schöne alte Klostergärten. Geheimnis, Symbolik und Heilwissen für heute neu entdeckt, Würzburg 1995.
  • Schedl, Barbara: Der Plan von St. Gallen. Ein Modell europäischer Klosterkultur, Wien [u.a.] 2014.
  • Vogellehner, Dieter: Garten und Pflanzen im Mittelalter. In: Franz, Günther [Hrsg.]: Geschichte des deutschen Gartenbaues, Stuttgart 1984, 69–98 (Deutsche Agrargeschichte, 6).
  • Willerding, Ulrich: Gärten und Pflanzen des Mittelalters. In: Carroll-Spillecke, Maureen [Hrsg.]: Der Garten von der Antike bis zum Mittelalter, Mainz 1992, 249–284.


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