Saturday, November 3, 2012

Monk's Mood Pt. 2: The Wonder of Numbers in Strabo's Hortulus

Walafrihd Strabo (his surname means literally "the Squinter"[1]) was a Frankish monk living in the Carolingian period. While occasionally embroiling himself in the politics of the day (ie, the final dissolution of the Carolingian Empire), he is best known as a poet and writer of several diverse subjects. His most famous work is the Hortulus, lit. "The Little Garden," a poem about Strabo's own garden that he cultivates with his own hands. The Hortulus is interesting in many respects, but one in particular, teased out by Wim Verball in the article "The Arithmetic of Poetry: The Poetry of Numbers in Walahfrid Strabo's Hortulus" caught my eye. It gives insight not only into the poetic mastery of Latin verse that Strabo displayed in his writing career, but also more of the symbolic importance that gardens had in the monastic community in the Middle Ages.

Walahfrid Strabo

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:
  1. 4 parts of the physical world; 4 natural elements
  2. 4 Gospels; 4 Evangelists
  3. 4 Cardinal Virtues

Not only that, 444 itself is a multiple of 12, and 4 + 4 + 4 = 12 [2]. 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," [3], 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.
Obviously, Walahfrid meticulously constructed his poem around symbolic numbers meant to evoke a spiritual response from the reader.

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" [4], 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'" [5].

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'" [6].

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 [7], 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.
Reparare is different. Its usage is linked to the restorative power Christ exudes (as praised by Strabo) in the Hortulus. The restorative power of catmint, as Verbaal puts it,

"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." [8]
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).

Penny Royal

Betony. Note how all three herbae in the Hortulus (Catmint, Penny Royal, and Betony) have purple flowers.
The strophes concerning Penny Royal contain allusions to the Father, whereas the strophes detailing Betony allude to the name most-deserving of praise, Christ. It stands to reason then, that the final herba, catmint, refers to the Holy Spirit: its offshoots "'grow out not too slowly' - this can be understood as an allusion to the Credo and the procession of the Spirit from the Father and Son" [9].

Verbaal hoped to show that a numerical analysis of medieval poetry can reveal hidden, intentional meanings of the poet (in this case, Strabo) [10]. 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!
-Charles Heinrich
[1] Taken from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
[2] Verbaal, Wim. "The Arithmetic of Poetry: The Poetry of Numbers in Walahfrid Strabo's Hortulus," in Hortus Troporum. 2008 (Stockholm Universitet). p. 270.
[3] Ibid. p. 271.
[4] Ibid. p. 271.
[5] Ibid. p. 275
[6] Ibid. p. 276.
[7] Ibid. p. 276.
[8] Ibid. p. 276.
[9] Ibid. p. 277.
[10]. Ibid. p. 288.


  1. I love this Charlie! Your words "teased out" a fantastic insight to medieval poetry regarding horticulture. That,and I want to plant catmint now.

  2. haha totus revocatus! good one!

  3. Well, those are two more herbs that really need to find their way into the garden! Catmint is already out there, flourishing, in Mary's Meade. How appropriate! -TGD

  4. I am teaching a class on the History of Garden Design through my church's Continuing Education class. Strabo's Hortulus is part of my lecture on medieval western gardens, and I would love to hand out this fantastic article as supplemental reading material. May I have your permission to do so? (I will certainly point my garden-and-Christ-loving students to your blog).

    1. I would be delighted and honored. Thank you for asking, and I hope all goes well with your class!