Monday, September 17, 2012

Churning the Earth: Digging for Weeds, Seeds, and Sources

Greetings, friends, historians, gardeners, and passers-by!

I am happy to report that a lot has happened following my introductory blogpost. Thanks to the hard work and gracious sacrifice of free time from several volunteers, not least of which Dr. Theresa Gross-Diaz of Loyola's History Department, the Medieval Garden is truly starting to shape up in some very noticeable ways. Visitors walking along the lake-shore path will notice a significant portion of overgrowth has been removed (after hours upon hours of effort!), and the garden is starting to look like an actual garden once more!

This fearsome fellow is the gargoyle who protects the garden. Previous to this shot he had been utterly consumed by an equally fearsome outbreak of fennel. Now he he stands proudly over newly-planted pansies and scares away the weak-hearted. Legend has it that the gargoyle curses those who defile his garden with thousands of dollars in student loans.

Rest assured, a week ago this was nothing but a patch of ground thistles and Creeping Charlie (no relation!). After a vigorous weeding, the only creep left was me. Can't win 'em all.
The weeding in particular was aided by a recent graduate of Loyola, Stefan. Stefan, when still an undergraduate, had actually created the original iteration of the Medieval Garden as part of the History Internship program my freshman year. I was very thankful that he could spend some time and effort helping me continue his original project.

The harvest is great but the laborers are few.

Oregano to spice up our garden.

A bee enjoys the fruit of our labors.

I pose for a photo-op with the sole melon of our melon patch. I think I'll call him Harvey.

We have planted what will probably be our first (and last) crop for the year: a good amount of Swiss chard, kale, radishes, beets, turnips, coriander (which will grow into cilantro), as well as the carrots, green onions, and the indomitable chives that had grown in the garden despite the infestation. If we are lucky, we will be able to harvest these plants later in the fall, and perhaps sell them in the Loyola Farmer's Market (we're still working on that!).

Last Monday, I also had the rare honor and privilege to attend a dinner with the distinguished Dr. Elizabeth A.R. Brown, one of the world's great medieval historians (and this compliment is not paid lightly!). I remember reading one of her articles my freshman year at Loyola, "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe" and the article more or less forced me to give up using the term "Feudalism" in any systematic way. Dr. Brown had been invited to Loyola by Dr. Gross-Diaz to give a lecture on King Philip the Fair of France, which was delightful and informative, and later I was graciously invited to a dinner where the conversation turned from Southern cooking, to the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris, to Chicago's Newberry Library (no historian I have met has ever had a discouraging word to say about the place and with good reason), and of course, medieval manuscripts. 

I mentioned my internship project to Dr. Brown, and she recommended I look into the Medieval Gardens at the New York Cloisters Museum. The Cloisters website is already proving to be an incredible resource of medieval botany and horticulture, and I express nothing but gratitude towards Dr. Brown in her recommendation.

I have begun to order copious amounts of research from the Inter-Library Loan system in-place at the university, as well as pick up on several leads - indeed, the wheels have begun turning. Objects of note include investigations into Islamic palace gardens in Spain, diet and nutrition in medieval England, and one article concerning Pope Gregory the Great's Dialogues, which has one of the better titles I've seen for an article, being "The Diabolical Powers of Lettuce." I knew there was a reason kids never want to eat their vegetables.

Some articles I do have in my possession already. I am currently working my way through an article detailing an early hagiography of St. Francis of Assisi that places special mention of the saint's garden - the article mentions how this garden is never found in later hagiographies of the well-loved saint. Which is true, when we think of our popular notions of St. Francis: of the images that spring to mind, gardener is definitely absent!

Gardens played an important part in monastic culture, both for its practical nature in supplying food and medicinal herbs for the monks, and its symbolic nature in allowing the monks to contemplate creation (more specifically, the Garden of Eden and the heavenly gardens of Paradise) and create a powerful physical metaphor for their own spiritual exercises and lifestyle. I came across this great passage in the St. Francis article extrapolating on monastic attitudes towards gardens (including a lovely list of proper monastic vegetables to grow) and the reasons the early hagiographer, Thomas of Celano, would have for portraying St. Francis as a gardener himself.

Lisa J. Kiser writes:
"At a time when the leaders of many radical Italian
religious movements were being persecuted for heresy, Thomas would have
wanted Francis's sect to have resembled, at least in some of its practices, the
familiar and well-regarded monastic orders that followed the Benedictine Rule,
which mentions the monastic garden in its forty-sixth chapter. Cloistered monks
throughout the medieval period routinely kept gardens, both for growing their
own food and spices and for cultivating medicinal herbs to aid in the healing of
their ill brethren. Monastic customaries, documents written to elaborate upon
how each house's practices conformed to the Benedictine Rule, sometimes
mention in detail the kinds of things that should be grown in a monastic garden;
the typical vegetables, generally associated with humility, included cabbage, leeks,
beans, garlic, onions, turnips, and radishes, with whatever else might be necessary
in the infirmary.' By having Francis and his fellow friars attached to a garden,
then, Thomas might have been providing his saint with a recognizably monastic
identity, one in line with what was expected of an upstanding member of a
cloistered spiritual community"1

Gardens could be more than a mere pleasurable sight. The use of gardens could serve political and spiritual agendas, especially in the tumultuous early years of the Franciscan Order. Statements about gardens, farms, horticulture, and agriculture can carry with them economic, spiritual, or allegorical significance, within this one example (and there are more in the article that I will share as I digest them).

But for now, I must leave off, and continue the gardening. Next time, when my sources have arrived, I will begin discussing them in greater length. I hope to begin to touch on the Capitulare de Villis of Charlemagne, early medieval economies, and continuing inquiries into monastic gardens. The work of a historian, much like that of a gardener, is never truly over.

Thanks for all the help and support,
-Charles Heinrich

1 Kiser, L.J. "The Garden of St. Francis: Plants, Landscape, and Economy in Thirteenth-Century Italy," in Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 2, Apr. 2003 (Forest History Society, American Society for Environmental History). p. 234.


  1. I have a statue of St. Francis in my garden. Now I'll be reminded of your research when I look at him.

    1. There's a lot more that I can say, that I haven't said yet. It's an interesting article, but I admit that at this point I've only skimmed it. All the same, I hope my next post will reveal more about monastic attitudes towards gardens and gardening.