Herb Gardens

Backyard Pharmacy

Backyard Pharmacy

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The textual sources on Byzantine monasteries contain only the scantiest of allusions (and those indirect) to medicinal herb gardens, such as are familiar to devotees of Brother Cadfael, the twelfth-century Welsh herbalist detective created by Ellis Peters. Even so, I would argue that most Byzantine monasteries must have grown herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes, despite the virtual lack of hard evidence.54 I draw this conclusion from the following facts: Byzantine monastic complexes often included infirmaries and hospitals, both for their own religious and for laypeople; the hospitals employed pharmacists, who prepared the herbal remedies that were staples of both traditional Greco-Roman and popular medical practice;55 the aromatic herbs used in cooking and the preparation of hot drinks

54 One must assume that herb gardens were in fact so common that there was no need to mention them. Still it seems curious that there is no discussion of the cultivation of such gardens in monastic rules.

55 E.g., typikon of Lips, ed. H. Delehaye, Deux typica byzantins de l'époque des Paléologues (Brussels, 1921), chap. 51; P. Gautier, "Le typikon du Christ Sauveur Pantocrator," REB 32 (1974): lines 997, 1205, 1207, 1216, 1219. A scholium on a legal text describes pharmacists (fthmevtdpioi) as "those assigned to gather herbs and bring them to the infirmary; they also are in charge <of preparing> the medicaments"; cf. C. DuCange, Glossarium ad Scriptores Mediae et Infimae Graecitatis (Leiden, 1688), 1167, and R. Volk, Gesundheitswesen und Wohltätigkeit im Spiegel der byzantinischen Klostertypika (Munich, 1983), 145 n. 446. Also the Pantokrator typikon (ed. Gautier, "Pantocrator," lines 1209—10) refers to the "gathering of herbs (ßOTOVOlOglOv) in the month of May" by the

Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos

15 Diagram of site plan of St. Gall (photo: after Horn and Born, The Plan of St. Gall, 205, plan 426X)

may also have been used therapeutically; the Prodromos in Petra monastery in Constantinople, associated with a hospital, owned a manuscript of the famous herbal treatise of Dioskorides, now in Vienna.56 Finally, in the post-Byzantine and modern periods, herbalists and herb gardens are attested at the monasteries of Mount Athos (Fig. 16).57

pharmacists, although it does not specify whether they were wild or grown in gardens.

56 Among the monks who made notations in the manuscript was a certain Nathanael, who was a doctor at the Xenon of the Kral in the early 15th century; cf. ODB, 1:632, s.v. "Dioskorides."

57 Cf. Simonopetra, 106, which alludes to a modern medicinal herb garden at Simonopetra.

SimonopetraHerbalist Monk

16 A monk gathering herbs, Mount Athos (photo: A. R. Littlewood)

Stories from hagiographic texts provide further indications that monks had some familiarity with herbal medicine and that medicinal herbs were used in a monastic context in the Byzantine era. During the course of a long journey, Athanasios of Athos is said to have healed the sore foot of a fellow monk by picking some wild herbs and pounding them into a paste that he applied to the skin. He covered the medicinal paste with a bandage of plane tree leaves.58 A fourteenth-century account of the miracles of St. Eugenios of Trebizond relates that a man suffering from a serious ear infection sought aid from a monk, who was asked "if he knew any herbs with which to treat someone suffering from this disease."59 Finally, in the fourteenth-century Miracula of the Pege monastery in Constantinople, we read about a leper who bathed himself in the outlet of the miraculous Pege spring located at some distance from the church, rubbing himself with mud, hyssop (a European mint, cultivated in gardens as a remedy for bruises), and some of the wild herbs growing next to the water.60

59 J. O. Rosenqvist, The Hagiographic Dossier of St. Eugenios of Trebizond in Codex Athous Dionysiou 154 (Uppsala, 1996), 303 and 430, note on line 1011.

60 Logos of Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, ed. A. Pamperis, NiKffopou Kalliotou Savöopoulou pepi ouotaoero" tou oepao|iiou o'ikou tfj" ev Krovotavtivoupolei ZrooSoxou nfgj" Kai twv ev aUtw Upepfuw" tel£o0evtrov 0au|iatrov (Leipzig, 1802), no. 52, p. 70.

Regretfully there is no Byzantine source to correspond to the information on the ninth-century medicinal herb garden found in the plan of the St. Gall monastery (Fig. 17), nor the contemporary poem ofWalahfrid Strabo on the herb garden at the monastery of Reichenau. The St. Gall herb garden, which was walled, was conveniently located in the part of the monastery that contained the infirmary (see Fig. 15). Sixteen different species of herbs grew there, including rosemary, lovage, fennel, and mint, each planted in a separate bed.61

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