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Walafrid Strabo’s 9th century On the Cultivation of Gardens, commonly called Hortulus, is a gem. It stands out among early medieval accounts of royal conquests and saints’ lives.

Most writers of Walafrid’s time would have thought gardening too mundane. If you read only this poem, you might not guess Walafrid was a scholar, a tutor to one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, the abbot of Reichenau, and a diplomat. He was a Swabian commoner who had been at Reichenau since age 8 and apparently had a lifelong love of gardening.

He tells his readers if they’re not afraid to get calluses on grubby hands, haul cow manure to parched soil, and work hard, they can make even gravel and sand yield herbs and produce. Some of his verses have a familiar feel. The plot he wants to cultivate is overtaken by weeds, stinging nettles in fact, and mole tunnels need flattening.

Walafrid describes the plants’ looks and fragrances, refers to Roman mythology (and is sometimes confused), and goes off on a tangent about free trade. He has special praise for the lily and the rose. But most of this poem is about the healing properties of the plants. From the ninth century point of view (pretty please with sugar on top note the disclaimer), horehound is an antidote to poison an evil stepmother might slip into food. Agrimony with sharp vinegar can be used to heal open wounds. Poppy causes oblivion and heals a bad ulcer in the chest. Catmint mixed with rose oil can restore skin and hair. Lily will counteract a snakebite and treat bruises. Various herbs can help with digestive problems and coughs.

If you want to read this delightful poem, I highly recommend James Mitchell’s 2009 translation.

9th century manuscript page from Salzburg

Detail of 9th century manuscript page from Salzburg (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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