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
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.