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The Bonnefont Cloister
Herb Garden


Sarah McGowan
[[email protected]]

Located in the Cloisters
a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
(in Washington Heights, New York)

View of Herb Garden 1

View of Herb Garden 2

The Cloister and Garden Themselves

This cloister dates from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, containing capitals and some columns from the Cistercian abbey at Bonnefont-en-Comminges and other local religious foundations in the south of France. The simplicity of these capitals reflects the strict asceticism embodied by the Cistercian monastic order, shunning any decoration which might distract monks from the contemplation of God.

The naturalistic floral patterns decorating the double capitals in this cloister are a reaction in form to the robust, grotesque figures of Romanesque cloister carvings. The individual raised planting beds, wattle fences, and central wellhead of the garden are all characteristics typically found in medieval monastic gardens.

The herb garden in the Bonnefont cloister contains more than 250 species of plants which were grown during the Middle Ages. Its design is typical of a medieval monastery garden plan, but no attempt was made to replicate any one monastic garden in particular. Many medieval sources were referenced to ensure that the choice of plants was historically accurate. The raised beds, wattle fences, and central wellhead are features of a medieval garden. Even the fruit trees outside the south wall are in character, because monasteries were often surrounded by orchards. Plants not hardy in New York City's climate, such as aloe, lemon, and bay, are grown in decorative pots which can be moved inside in the winter, a common gardening practice in northern Europe throughout the late Middle Ages. The plants are all labeled according to their uses.

Uses of Herbs in Medieval Life

As can be observed in manuscripts as far back as the 10th Century, herbs were frequently used for a variety of purposes in Medieval life. It is important to understand that this was a period in which people's beliefs were permeated by superstitions. They thought that creatures such as elves and goblins were in existence, and the air was filled with invisible powers of evil against whose conspiracies remedies must be applied. Furthermore, the objects of nature had inherent powers which could be used for this purpose. The writings of the Saxons, in particular, portray herbs as being used for this, and for other functions, such as medical ones in the treatment of disease. Herb drinks were mixed, with ale, milk, or vinegar; many of the potions were made with herbs mixed with honey. Ointments were concocted with herbs and butter. These were prescribed for common ailments such as bleeding noses, baldness, sunburn, loss of appetite, and dog bites. They were also utilized as amulets, or charms against evil and diseases. One might hang them from the door (usually with red wool), to preserve one's eyesight, cure lunacy, prevent one from fatigue while traveling, or even to protect one's cattle. This use survives today to some extent, particularly in the case of the "lucky" four leaf clover. In an incantation for a fever, found in R. Campbell Thompson's Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, we find the instructions for the incantation against a fever:

"The sick man ... thou shalt place
.....thou shalt cover his face
With cypress and herbs......
That the great gods may remove the evil
That the evil spirit may stand aside
. . . . . .
May a kindly spirit a kindly genius be present."*

Many times, there were special instructions, even ceremonies, which were to accompany the picking of herbs. Some examples of this were the instructions that they were to be picked at sunrise, while looking towards the east, in silence, or without looking behind oneself. In addition, several herbs were associated with love, others used for cooking and seasoning, and still others for artistic purposes.

The Herbs in the Bonnefont Cloister Garden
- Specific Functions

The herbs in the Bonnefont Cloister Garden are all grouped according to their uses.

  • The first group is Household Plants, including Scotch Broom, Absinthe, Cotton Thistle, Stemless Carline Thistle, Hop, Soapwort, Common Mullein, Southernwood, Fuller's Teasel, and Juniper.
  • The second group of plants are those used for Medicinal purposes, as previously described. These include Avens, St. John's - Wort, Hollyhock, Birthwort, MarshMallow, Meadow Clary, Liquorice, Common Valerian, mallow, Comfrey, and Feverfew.
  • The third category of herbs found in the garden is the Aromatic Plants, which consist of Lavendar, Orris, Meadowsweet, Vervain , Cupid's Dart, Costmary, and Lemon Balm. Vervain in particular, because it was thought to promote happiness, was strewn around the room in Old England.
  • The fourth category is [?]
  • The fifth category of plants are Kitchen and Seasoning Plants, which include Winter Savory, Leek, Cardoon, Samphire, Chive, Small - Leaved Basil, and Red Valerian.
  • Picture of BoxwoodThe sixth category are Plants Used by Medieval Artists, consisting of golden Marguerite, Weld, Agrimony, Greater Celandine, Our - Lady's Bedstraw, Madder, Woad, Dyer's Greenweed, Alkanet, and Boxwood (still used extensively by horticulture artists today - illustrated.)
  • The seventh group is Plants Associated with Love and Marriage, including the Chaste Tree, Meadow Rue, and Wild Strawberry.
  • The eighth group of plants is Magic Plants, consisting of Bear's Foot, Ragged - Robin, English Ivy, Cornelian Cherry, and Herb Robert.
  • The ninth group of is of Vegetable and Salad Plants, including Caraway, Black Mustard, Fennel, Common Tansey, Clary, Orpine, Horseradish, Skirret, Garden Sorrel, French Sorrel, Sea Holly, Borage, and Parsley. Borage was alleged to relieve and cure the mind and the body. Parsley, in particular, was thrown into fishponds in medieval times because it was thought to heal the sick fishes. Parsley is used today (in a different way), mostly for culinary purposes as a garnish, and to enhance the flavor of fish, meats and to stuff tomatoes. (illustrated.)

Uses of Herbs Today

Herbs are still used a great deal in the modern world. Less of an emphasis is placed on superstition, particularly in American society (with the exception of the four - leaf clover). However, they are often employed for culinary purposes, especially for the seasoning of many different types of foods, including fishes, meats, and vegetables. They are also thought by many to have medicinal properties. Indeed, a walk through any major bookstore will find a section devoted to these plants, and many of their uses.


  • Rhode, Eleanour Sinclair, The Old English Herbals, New York: Dover, 1993.
  • Pinder, Polly, Herbs in Pots, Kent: Search Press, 1993.


Herb Links


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