I love to read, and I do it as often as the necessary business of life allows. Sometimes when real life is too overwhelming, and I can’t face a literary novel or a meaty biography, I turn to mysteries. As a mystery lover and a gardener, I find particular solace in the Brother Cadfael series, by the late English author Edith Pargeter, who wrote under the name Ellis Peters.
Peters’ sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is a twelfth century monk at an English monastery near Shrewsbury. Before entering the monastic life at the advanced age of forty, Cadfael had been a soldier and Crusader, professions that allowed him to travel extensively. When he finally settled down to life as brother and herbalist at the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, he brought with him a knowledge of healing arts and useful plants as well as a hoard of exotic seeds gathered on his travels.
Brother Cadfael has devotees all over the world, and most of them would probably acknowledge that the plots, especially after the first ten books or so, are somewhat formulaic. Without a doubt, the best thing about the books is the lovely, intensely atmospheric writing. Peters’ research was so thorough that she is able to put the reader squarely into the life of a twelfth century Benedictine monk. Perhaps equally important from a gardening standpoint, she puts the gardener/reader squarely into Brother Cadfael’s fruitful monastic garden. There is so much herbal lore and garden-related detail in the twenty-book Cadfael series, that a couple of English authors, Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman, were able to assemble it into a book called Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden (Little Brown & Co, London, 1996).
Brother Cadfael was the abbey’s herbalist, so his main responsibility was to grow and sometimes process all the various useful plants needed by the brothers. Then, as now, the term “herb” is used to describe a plant that can be used for medicine, fragrance, flavoring, or food. In the twenty-first century that encompasses a lot of plants. There were an impressive number in the twelfth century as well.
Cadfael’s herbs were well tended, and he took great satisfaction in the appearance of turned earth, the leafing out of the various plants, and even of the drying stalks left in the garden and the fields after a successful harvest. Though he was bound by the Benedictine Rule, which balances work with worship and prayer, and prescribes how each hour of the day is to be spent, Cadfael often found compelling reasons to spend extra time in the garden or in his herbarium workshop. Every gardener can understand his reasons.
Today Cadfael would be called a “four season gardener”. During the growing season he cultivated, planted and tended his beds. After the harvest, in the late fall and winter, he saw to the storing of the following year’s seeds, the drying of the various herbs and the concoction of the salves and potions which he and the abbey’s official apothecary used to treat illness. Then as now there was a constant supply of collicky babies, women with menstrual problems, middle aged people with aching joints and the mortally ill suffering from intractable pain. All who sought help at the monastery were dosed with Cadfael’s plant-based remedies. The collicky baby, for example, might receive a syrup that included fennel and mint. In the winter, monks with colds and sore throats were treated with a mixture made mostly of horehound, an herb that is distantly related to both thyme and Russian sage. About half of the plants in Cadfael’s garden were used in one form or another to treat digestive problems, though there were more than a few, such as field peas and members of the cabbage family, that may also have caused them.
Time after time in the books, Peters makes reference to her sleuth’s use of “poppy syrup” or “poppy juice” to treat agonizing pain. As a Crusader, Cadfael had gathered seeds of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in the Middle East, along with the knowledge of how to make the seeds into a medicine that could be given reliably to those for whom no other remedy was available. After taking up the monastic life he grew his poppies and selected seeds from the best plants each year until he arrived at a strain with the qualities that he found most useful. As someone in possession of such a potent remedy for pain, “the chief enemy of man”, Cadfael was welcome in the abbey’s small hospital and in sick rooms throughout the surrounding community.
The most appealing thing about Cadfael’s little domain—the gardens and fields and his herbarium workshop—was that it was an oasis of calm, comfort and order in the chaotic and often dangerous medieval world. The monk’s workshop, for example, was warm in winter, because a constant fire was needed to cook the medicinal syrups and potions. In the garden the plants were grown in well-ordered rows, and the herb garden was divided into easily tended sections, probably like those on display at The Cloisters museum in New York. Poisonous plants were grown in a separate area, to protect the unwary.
Brother Cadfael’s healing touch always works on me, reminding me that the garden can be a source of health and inspiration as well as a metaphor for life. The twelfth century was not so different from our own; the weapons are more dangerous now, but human nature is resolutely unchanged. When I turn back to my own beds and borders, I think that while Brother Cadfael would have been distressed by the weeds, he would also have shared my delight in the roses, mint and lavendar.