Strabo's Hortulus consists of 444 lines of verse. At first glance, the number "4" assumes a large importance. That there are 3 "4"s are also important. Verbaal lays out the significance of the number of lines:
- 4 parts of the physical world; 4 natural elements
- 4 Gospels; 4 Evangelists
- 4 Cardinal Virtues
Not only that, 444 itself is a multiple of 12, and 4 + 4 + 4 = 12 . The number twelve has obvious symbolic significance for Christians, being the number of the Tribes of Israel, as well as the number of Apostles.
The catalogue of herbs in Strabo's poem is comprised of 343 lines. 343 is 7^3, or 7 * 7 * 7. Seven is the "number of spiritual perfection," , as well as the number of sacraments, and 7 three times alludes to the Holy Trinity, the nexus of spiritual perfection and Christian virtue.
|Chartres Cathedral Rose Window. In the Middle Ages, geometry had a divine aspect to it - the perfection of mathematical constructions was seen as a symbolic manifestation for God' own perfection.|
Things get even more interesting when you start examining the placement of the individual plants in this numerical scheme.
The catalogue of plants in the Hortulus lists 24 plants total. 4 lines are devoted to the 12th plant, the lily, the "flower of the spirit" , the flower commonly associated with the Resurrection.
The 22nd plant in the catalogue is nepeta, or catmint.
|Catmint is essentially a weed that will grow wildly if not carefully controlled; however, its scent and beautiful foliage are always a welcome addition to a garden. Potential gardeners, be vigilant!|
Unique to the strophe which details catmint and its many uses, is the fact that over its 12 lines, it contains 440 words, divided evenly into two halves of 220 words each; this amazing numerical precision is based off the fact that the number 22 "refers to the 'sacrament of divine books according to the Hebrew science'" .
The catmint is described as having restorative powers: Strabo notes that just as the catmint (as mentioned above, a weed-type plant) is always continuously growing new offshoots, so it is able to "'restore the former brightness' of 'injured' or 'wounded' skin and 'recall [lost] hair'" .
Verbaal makes an interesting point about the word Strabo specifically uses to describe catmints restorative powers: reparare.
When reparare is used in the Hortulus, it is always used in the sense of the miraculous self-restorative powers of plants. Elsewhere, a similar verb, revocare (to re - call, ie to call back), is used primarily to distinguish the actions of the gardener-poet , trying to "recall" dry plants to their former glory, or the earthworms that nourish the soil. Thus, gardening is seen as a "vocation," something to be acted upon by the gardener himself.
|Another German [well Austrian], experiencing a case of Totus Revocatus.|
"evoke[s] the inner force of the herbs to restore themselves, strengthened b the sole source of all recovery, Christ, the reparator antiqae stirpis. He, in the preceding line, is called the 'flower from the sceptre-bearing descendant of Jesse. Catmint thus is given a strong spiritual association, closely connected with the redemption of man." Much like how Christ is able to restore our own spiritual well-being, some plants can restore their own well-being through their own life-energy.
On a closing note, Verbaal truly makes a fascinating discovery by the end of his article.
Catmint is one of the few plants in the entire herb catalogue to be specifically designated as an herba. In fact, only two other plants in the entire catalogue are also designated as herbae: puleium (Penny Royal), and vettonica (Betony).
|Betony. Note how all three herbae in the Hortulus (Catmint, Penny Royal, and Betony) have purple flowers.|
Verbaal hoped to show that a numerical analysis of medieval poetry can reveal hidden, intentional meanings of the poet (in this case, Strabo) . So too do I hope to have shown furthermore the profuse symbolism inherent in the world of the Middle Ages. Monastic writers had a vast literature to draw from, and this world of symbols, numbers, and allusions infused itself into their writings in ways we are only just now rediscovering.
Next time, I would like to turn to non-ecclesiastical gardening - though not as rich in symbolism, it garners in its own right a sense of beauty and regularity. While I would still like to point out the radical gardening ideas of St. Francis that I briefly mentioned early in my blog, I will have to wait on that subject for a while. In the meantime, I hope this piece has given some of you, if not a greater appreciation of the level of care and thought placed into gardening in the Middle Ages, then at least some ideas of what to put in your own garden.
Till next time!
======= Taken from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15526a.htm
 Verbaal, Wim. "The Arithmetic of Poetry: The Poetry of Numbers in Walahfrid Strabo's Hortulus," in Hortus Troporum. 2008 (Stockholm Universitet). p. 270.
 Ibid. p. 271.
 Ibid. p. 271.
 Ibid. p. 275
 Ibid. p. 276.
 Ibid. p. 276.
 Ibid. p. 276.
 Ibid. p. 277.
. Ibid. p. 288.