The herb garden at Bebenhausen Monastery

The right herbCulinary and medicinal herbs in the monastery

Herbs, whether fresh or dried, played an important role in the preparation of food in the Middle Ages. The monastery's herb gardens also offered many medicinal herbs whose beneficial effects were already known. The herb garden in Bebenhausen gives an impression of typical plantings.

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Herbs for the monastery kitchen.

Herbs for cooking

Raising vegetables and herbs for the monastery kitchen was one of the monks' regular activities. The herbs were used in large quantities as spices and, like salt, were also used to preserve food. Herbs, such as leeks, celery, coriander, dill, anise, garlic, shallots, parsley, chervil, savory, and nigella, were cultivated and were used both fresh and dried. Through the crusades to the east, people also learned of other spices, which were imported to Europe with increasing frequency, though most people could not afford them. 


Today, marigolds are used in natural medicine. In contrast, the use of cabbage juice—poured into the nose—to cure headaches, as recommended in the pharmacopoeia of Lorch around 795, is no longer recommended.

Healing power from the herb garden

The monks not only grew their own food, they also cared for the ill; the plants from the herb garden were used in the monastery's hospital as medicine. Over the centuries, extensive knowledge about the healing arts and a depth of experience with healing herbs was gathered in the monastery. Botanical and medicinal literature was part of the monastery library. Within a monastery, knowledge was passed down to the next generation. 

Stove tile with a depiction of Walahfrid Strabo, Reichenau Treasury

Depiction of the scholar Walahfrid Strabo (circa 809–849).

Selection of herbs

Tansy, agrimony, mint, radish, wormwood... The selection of plants and their arrangement in strictly separated beds was set in stone. Monastery herb gardens typically followed the rules set down around 840 A.D. by Walahfrid Strabo, Benedictine monk, poet, and botanist. In his book, "Liber de cultura hortorum", he used verse to describe 24 healing plants, their characteristics, and the ways they could be used. The book became one of the most important botanical works of the Middle Ages. 

Illustration of a lily ("Lillum Candidum") by Carl Gruber

The lily not only had healing powers, but was also a symbol of the Virgin Mother. That is why it was also called a "Madonna lily."

Plants with symbolism

Medieval academics interpreted all worldly things through a theological viewpoint. Every object, every plant, every animal could be a symbol. Flowers, like the pure white lily or the thornless rose, stood for Mary, patron saint of the Cistercians. The monks planted lilies in the herb garden as a richly symbolic decoration and as plants with healing effects. Even the garden as a whole could be a symbol. An enclosed garden, called a "hortus conclusus" in Latin, was a symbol for the Virgin Mary. With this name, theologists were referencing a line in the Song of Songs of the Bible.

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