Tip of the iceberg

This weekend I gave a lecture twice in ‘Het Klooster’ (The Convent) at Oerol, a famous week-long festival with theatre, performance and music at 63 locations on the Wadden Island Terschelling. Het Klooster features at Oerol this year and in its full capacity next year. The Dutch State Forestry Commission (Staatsbosbeheer) Firma Rieks Swarte and Peergroup will remove the topsoil of lines drawn at a field this year. The lines represent the layout of the Convent of St Gall, a detailed model from the 8th C for a monastery that was never built but nevertheless served as a ‘roadmap’ for many convents all over Europe in the middle-ages. Removal of top soil will give older seeds of rare species a chance while the map will be visible from a tower in the middle of the field and will be part of a theatre show at next year’s Oerol.

IMG_0208What if the monastery was built at Terschelling? The geometric beauty and symbolism of the design is what fascinates Rieks, how man organises man is what fascinates the PeerGroup, and in line with that, what did they eat? That’s where I came in. Food culture before the invention of the printed book in the 15th C is always surrounded with many doubts and insecurities for lack of evidence. But in the case of Convent of St Gall, everything within the walls (a village almost) was detailed to the point of which herbs were grown in the herbal medicine garden. It was fascinating to see the books in which the plan has been studied. My earlier doubts based on other historical sources about how realistic this design would be in practice were confirmed.

One small example; the vegetable garden was divided in 2 x 9 beds of equal size with 1 vegetable planned for each bed. This then meant that cabbage received equal space to dill and that unions were occupying one bed whereas chervil a complete other. While the vegetable garden as a whole was far to small to feed the approx 200 people who would live there (where did we hear that discussion lately?), it seems highly impractical to have as many lettuces as poppy, unless they had a good use for poppy of course……..

3 thoughts on “Tip of the iceberg

  1. I don’t think it’s as impractical as it seems. The “giardini dei semplici” were prominent features of all medieval monasteries, and they were, to use our terminology ‘multifunctional’ in the extreme. In the medieval world, food-lifestyle-and-health were unquestionably part of the same conceptual “package”, and for religious communities, even more so. The giardini dei semplici would have served for food, and for “medicine”/curatives, and also for something like “beauty” or “pleasure” or “wellbeing” (in other words: it’s just nice to be in a garden surrounded by pretty flowers, isn’t it?).

    Poppyseed oil was the commonly used cooking oil in Northern Europe (Made-in-Italy olive oil campaign not yet active), and the seed had lots of medicinal uses, too, including – perhaps you will not be surprised! – as a cure for insomnia and as a painkiller. Hildegard of Bingen recommended taking it with some honey before bedtime ☺

    However, I don’t think the monks were – ah – highly specialized poppy processors, shall we say.;) Anyway, they had plenty of other soothing culinary materials at hand. http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monk_sneaking_a_drink.jpg . Indeed, their vineyards are the foundations of what are today’s oldest and most esteemed ‘tenute’!

  2. Indeed the garden was multifunctional and existed in conjunction with a herbal garden. The St Gall books theorize that the herbal garden with flowers such as rose and lily were also meant as pleasure gardens. The vegetables that we now consider herbs such as dill were also used to preserve foods, such as fish. The layout of St Gall is neat in that the chickens are located next to the vegetable garden and at the other side next to the grainery. The layout did not foresee in grapevines. In countries like France or Italy those would have been located at the estates surrounding the monastery managed by the monks. In the north of the Netherlands – barely cultivated – this cannot be assumed. A Monastery in Friesland that did exist had many elements of the layout of St Gall but most likely far less variety in food items at their disposal than the map suggests.

  3. Thanks Petra! Sounds like a place with a very interesting history! What a cool opportunity you have had.

    I think it would be an interesting 2014 project to try to re-create and live in a medieval monastery more or less following similar practices, adopting (if temporarily) similar “worldviews”, and adhering to more or less similar rules (no meat today, it’s Wednesday!). Even if you excluded all of the more ‘exclusively’ religious practices and *only* considered the venture as kind of a (anti-hippie? or hippie?) commune, I think there could be a lot of “lessons” waiting to be discovered – not least about food & nature and the way we as human co-exist with both!

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