This section is from the book "A History Of Gardening In England", by Alicia Amherst. Also available from Amazon: A History Of Gardening In England.
In this country the revival was due to the same cause, and in the early years of England's history undoubtedly the monks were better skilled in horticulture than any other class of the community. The lines in which their lives were cast tended to maintain this superiority. They were left quiet, and, to a great extent, undisturbed by wars; and when other property was destroyed and plundered, that of the monks was respected. Many of them were men of skill and intelligence, and they were able to learn, not only from books, but from their intercourse with the Continent, both what plants to grow and how to grow them.
The earliest records of gardens on the Continent (after Roman times) date from the ninth century. In the list of Manors of the Abbey of Saint Germain des Pres, Saint Armand and Saint Remy, in the time of Karl the Great, mention is made of various gardens.* At other places, as at Corbie, in Picardy, and at St. Gall, near the lake of Constance, there remains more than a mere mention of the existence of a garden. At Corbie the garden was very large ; either divided into four, or else four distinct gardens, and ploughs, which had to be contributed annually by certain tenants, were used to keep it in order; while other tenants had to send men from April to October, to assist the monks in weeding and planting.† At St. Gall, the " hortus " is a rectangular enclosure, with central path leading from the gardener's house and shed for tools and seeds situated at one end, with nine long and narrow beds of equal size on either side. The " herbularis," or physic garden, is smaller, with a border of plants all round the wall, and four beds on either side of the central walk ; and the plants contained in each of these beds are carefully noted.‡
In England we have not such an exact description of any garden, and it is only by carefully examining the records of the various monasteries that the existence of gardens or orchards in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and a few of even earlier date, can be proved.
A garden was a most essential adjunct to a monastery, as vegetables formed such a large proportion of the daily food of the inmates. Therefore, as soon as monasteries were founded, gardens must have been made around them, and these were probably almost the only gardens, worthy of the name, in the kingdom at that time. Still, the number of plants they contained was very limited, and probably many of those grown on the Continent had not found their way into this country.The monks may have received plants from abroad, as some connexion with religious houses on the Continent was kept up; and in bringing back treasures for their monasteries or churches the garden would not be forgotten. But plants were chiefly brought for medicine, and we may infer that they were imported in a dry state, as our word "drug" is simply part of the Anglo-Saxon verb " drigan," to dry.
* Polyptyque de l'Abbe Irminon. Ed. by M. B. Guérard. Paris, 1844. † Ibid.
‡ Archceological Institute Journal. Vol. V.
Soon after monasteries had been established in this country, missionary monks set forth to convert their Teutonic kinsfolk on the Continent. It has been suggested by Mr. Earle that some of the German names of plants which resemble old English, are not cognates, but were derived from words used by the Saxon missionaries, who first brought with them the knowledge of the virtues of those plants.*
The old word for garden was " wyrt5erd," a plant yard, or " wyrttun," a plant enclosure. Also the form " ort5erd " or " orceard," which is the same as our word orchard, though the meaning is now confined to an enclosure planted with fruit trees. "Wyrt" or " wurt" was used for any sort of vegetable or herb, and is the same as the modern word " wort," suffixed to so many names of plants, as " St. John's Wort," or " herb John." Sometimes a special plant filled most of the enclosure, thus the kitchen garden was occasionally called the "leac tun," or leek enclosure. We still speak of an appleyard, the old " appultun," or " appul5erd," but we say a cherry orchard, while the old word was equally simply " cherry5erd."† A part of the monastery garden was sometimes called the " cloyster5erd," and the garden laid down in grass where flowers were not grown was the " gras5erd".
At this early period, and for many centuries later, gardens were planted chiefly for their practical use, and vegetables and herbs were grown for physic or ordinary diet. Flowering plants were but rarely admitted solely on account of their beauty. But it does not necessarily follow that bright and pretty flowers found no place within the garden walls. Roses, lilies, violets, peonies, poppies, and such like, all had medicinal uses, and therefore would not be excluded.
The beauty of flowers appeals to nearly every one, and even in the most disorderly periods of our early history they may have exercised some softening influence. A pretty story is told of William Rufus, which shows that monarch, as it were for a moment, in a more gentle light than perhaps any other incident during his turbulent reign. Eadgyth, or Matilda, afterwards the wife of Henry I., was being educated at the convent of Romsey, where her Aunt Christina was Abbess. When the child was twelve years old, the Red Ring wished to see her, and one day the Abbess was distressed to hear him and his knights demanding admission at the convent gate. The good lady, fearing some evil purpose towards the child, made her wear a nun's veil ; then she opened to the king, who entered, " as if to look at the roses and other flowering herbs." While the rough king thus inspected her flowers, the Abbess made the nuns pass through the garden. Eadgyth appearing veiled among the rest the king suffered her to go by, and quietly took his leave.* The story was told by the Abbess to Anselm, who narrated it to Eadmer, in whose history this most picturesque scene is recorded.
* The German for Plantago s "Wegbreit," the A. S. " Waegbrœde." The old German for Camomile was " meghede," the A. S. " magede." † Gardener's Accounts, Norwich Priory.