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A Medieval Herb Garden at Mount Grace Priory

Susan S. Eberly For many gardeners, England in June is the nearest thing to paradise. It offers the full range of gardens -from the fantastic, through-the-looking-glass topiary of Leven's Hall, to the glowing tapestry of roses among the abbey ruins at Bury St. Edmunds, to the remnants of the grand kitchen garden at Kentwell. But one of the most evocative of England's gardens is the tiny gem of an herb garden at Mount Grace Priory, on the western slopes of Yorkshire's Cleveland hills. There is something special, of course, about herb gardens. Perhaps they are so fascinating because as you begin to learn about such gardens, you open the door to a tradition that spans at least two millennia. What's more, it is a tradition uniquely documented by those ancient and often arresting manuscripts, the herbals. And then there is the mystery that has attached itself to the healing plants. As Walter de la Mare wrote, Speak not, whisper not, Here bloweth thyme and bergamot; Softy on the evening hour, Secret herbs their spices shower... Guardens, yards, and gardens The word garden originally referred, quite specifically, to an area of ground secured by walls or fencing; both yard and guard are implied. Until very recently, if you wanted to have a garden, you needed a strong fence to protect it (and sometimes the gardener as well) from both two- and four-legged marauders. The notion of the garden as refuge took root early on, during the violence and instability of the early Middle Ages. It is from those chaotic times that we gained the concept of the hortus conclusis, an "enclosed garden" symbolic of all that is self-contained, secure, and well-ordered. For the modern gardener no less than for his or her medieval counterpart, an herb garden can be a place in which you cultivate tranquility itself. While we moderns have probably given up on the idea that you can create order from chaos, in the herb garden you can at least construct a buffer against chaos. Any ardent gardener knows why all the world's great religions locate heaven in a garden, and few gardens offer more insight into this metaphor than the tiny garden at Mount Grace. Mount Grace Priory To reach the priory, you climb a low rise, and as you mount the first crest you are greeted by glowing green lawns, across which are scattered broken sections of biscuit-colored wall. Ahead is the shell of a small, belltowered church, and beyond it an enormous green square of lawn, the cloister garth. Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian monastery, was born in political turmoil about six centuries ago. Its founder, Thomas de Holland, Duke of Surrey, backed the wrong king in 1399 and was beheaded by

angry townspeople in Cirencester, upon which, says chronicler Froissart, "Great sorrowe was made in dyvers parts of England: for he was a fayre yong man..." But Holland's monastery survived its impolitic beginnings to flourish for more than two centuries before its suppression under Henry VIII. It is celebrated in part because it was at Mount Grace Priory that a unique manuscript was preserved -- the complete writings of remarkable 14th century mystic Margery Kempe. When the suppression of the monasteries came, Mount Grace was dismantled with so singular a thoroughness that the monks took the very wainscoting of their cells away with them -- perhaps to keep whatever they might out of the hands of the king. Today only one cell -- the house and yard occupied by a single monk -- is intact at Mount Grace. It was restored by archeologists at the turn of this century. This cell includes a peaceful garden twice enclosed, first within the high outer wall of the monastery, and again within the wall of the cell itself, for each monk at Mount Grace had in essence his own private home place. He alone occupied his cell's small, two story house. On the first floor he had a living room, small chapel, study, and bedroom, each with its own mullioned window set deep in the stone of the wall. All of the second story is taken up by a single, well-lit workroom. Behind the house, a small and graceful garden is enclosed by a stone wall that reaches twice the height of a man. On the afternoon that we explore the cell and its garden, some of its charm is conferred by an unusual visitor, a downy, half-grown owlet perching anxiously on the stone sill of the window. Inside, taped to the one of the diamond-shaped panes of leaded glass, is a hand-written note: Please don't disturb the little owl -he is easily frightened. As we explore the garden, the eyes of the anxious little owl never leave us -- and the monk who lived here five hundred years ago would probably have responded to our visit with similar alarm. The Carthusians practice an intensely private, solitary life of prayer, work, and contemplation. Carthusians live apart not only from the world, but also from each other. They rarely speak, eat most of their meals alone, and do not converse during the meals they eat in company. If they meet accidentally, they are expected to pull their hooded cowls forward to cover their faces, and to pass without speaking. Once a week at Mount Grace, the brothers gathered to walk outside the monastery for a few hours, and during this brief outing we know they were allowed to speak to one another. Did they talk about their gardens? Share cuttings and advice? The records don't tell. About ten hours of every twenty-four was spent in devotions. The remaining hours were taken up with eating, sleeping and working. During the brief time each day that might be given to leisure, a monk could garden. Within his private garden he planted what he wished, and archeologists have found that each of the more than twenty private gardens at Mount Grace had its own layout and uses.

An Herbal Elixir and a Fine Cologne The ascetic Carthusians are responsible for two of modern life's more pleasant luxuries, Chartreuse Liqueur and 4711 Cologne. Chartreuse Liqueur, first made in the 18th century at Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the Carthusian Order, originated as a medicinal elixir, compounded from 130 different herbs and flowers. And in the 17th century, a member of this order concocted the world's oldest commercially produced fragrance, 4711 Cologne, named for the street number of the home in which the monk was given shelter. We know from medieval records that gardening had long been a well-established tradition in England. Monks of various orders played an important role, carrying seeds and plants from monastery to monastery, propagating and selling plants, developing new varieties, experimenting with new techniques, and learning all they could about how to use what they grew. The Carthusians, for example, developed a healing elixir that is still renowned today, and a cologne that has been famous for nearly three hundred years. A surprising range of plants was available to them, and sharing plants by these gardeners was as popular then as now. The summer of 1994 marked the first time in more than 450 years that anyone had set seedlings into the small garden behind the cell at Mount Grace. It is a testament to horticultural skills of those long-ago gardeners that, had a time-traveling monk accompanied our walk through the plants of this garden in 1994, he would have felt right at home. The modern gardeners at Mount Grace plan to vary the plantings in the herb garden from year to year. Plants are selected from those used in the daily round of religious life in medieval times.

In most medieval kitchens, the only sweetener at hand was honey. For this reason, care was given to planting herbs that would provide delicate scents and flavors. Such plants have been represented in the herb garden at Mount Grace by clove pinks (Dianthus caryophyllus), lavender (Lavandula spica), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), frothy plumes of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), winter savory (Satureia montana) with its tiny, shell-pink blossoms, and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). The garden may also contain medieval strewing herbs -- plants that were scattered, fresh or dried, among the rushes on the floor to provide a pleasant scent to mask other more noxious odors. Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), commonly known as Holy Herb, was often used as a strewing herb in churches. Marjoram (Origanum vulgare) was grown for use in cooking, to flavor honey, and as a strewing herb. Sweet woodruff (Asperula odorata), with its scent of new-mown hay as it dries, offered its own benison when scattered among the rushes on the floor or hung in bunches along the walls and rafters. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) was grown to provide seed that could be chewed to relieve hunger during fasts, especially during the long Lenten season. Blue-green rue (Ruta graveolens), the Herb of Grace, was used to sprinkle holy water on worshippers during Mass to preserve them from plague and other disease. The tall, dried flower spikes of mullein (Verbascum thapsus), whose velvet rosettes now grow wild among the ruins, were soaked with tallow and used as candles. To travel from the house to the garden, you pass through the cool shadows of a long, slate-roofed walkway. This walkway would have sheltered the monk from the elements (no small kindness in a Yorkshire winter) all the way from the back door of the house to the cell's privy, tucked up tight against the back priory wall. But on this sunny June day, we turn from the walkway into the well of sunlight that is the garden proper.

The walls of this hortus conclusis are very high and very white in the sunlight, a situation no doubt welcomed by its gardener, who had to cope with the disadvantages of a garden planted to the north of a tallish house. The long, east-west arm of the Lshaped yard contains a rectangular plot edged with roofing slates to create a slightly raised bed. This replanted garden, though tiny and simple, repeats several of the motifs common to medieval gardens. Its plantings are geometric and precise, creating symmetrical patterns of color and foliage. Dwarf boxwood provides the almost architectural edging so characteristic of later, ornamental medieval gardens. A stone-paved walk surrounds the bed. In 1994, the garden was planted with herbs that played a role in the daily rounds of medieval religious life, and also with those known to flavor honey. The shorter, north-south arm of the L is a tiny kerchief of daisy-dotted lawn, a "flowery mead." Standing at its southern edge is the little cloister of this cell, a shadowy, glassed-in walkway for quiet meditation. This remembered life of monastic simplicity has its appeals, and never more so than when you find yourself in the stillness of a golden afternoon, secure in a high-walled, sweet-smelling sanctuary shared only with a fluffy, wide-eyed owlet and the soft hum of buzzing bees. It was, of course, too good to last. During Christmas week in 1539, under great duress, this little garden was surrendered with the rest of the priory to the king, as ominous signs and portents had warned would happen. The monks, novices, and lay brothers who had made the monastery their home were given pensions and sent away. Mount Grace was sold to a dealer in monastic lands; over the next four hundred years it would have a number of owners, one of whom would turn the southwest range of buildings into a small manor house. Today, this manor house and its fine terraced front gardens are worth a visit in themselves. Presented to the National Trust in 1953, Mount Grace is now beautifully maintained by English Heritage.

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Church and Monastery Gardens

Mount Grace Priory National Trust Site - Mount Grace, Wikipedia -