Monasteries and Liqueurs

After the fall of Rome, European medicine was dominated by the Catholic Church, which adopted the pre-Hippocratic Greek belief that illness was a punishment from God and was treatable only by prayer and penance. But Catholic monks preserved Greco-Roman herbalism by copying the ancient texts.

Among the monastic orders, the Benedictines were the most avid herbalists. They were the first Europeans to adopt the Arab practice of making tinctures. They flavored wine with digestion-promoting herbs and created the fore-runners of today’s liqueurs. One is still called Benedictine.

Charlemagne {A.D. 742-814} was so impressed by the Benedictine’s herb gardens that he ordered all of the monasteries in his vast realm to plant “physic gardens” to ensure an adequate supply of healing herbs. Charlemagne described herbs as “friends of the physician and cook.”

Around A.D. 820, the Benedictines designed their ideal monastery, known as the Plan of St. Gall. In one corner was a medical area that included an infirmary, bath, doctor’s room, and bloodletting room. It also featured a 1,000-square foot physic garden that contained two dozen herbs, among them cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mint, pennyroyal, rose, rosemary, rue, sage, savory, and watercress.

In another corner was a kitchen garden that also contained many herbs. Among them was dill, which was commonly mixed with salt water to preserve vegetables, particularly cucumbers. We enjoy them today as dill pickles.


The most notable Benedictine herbalist was Hildegard of Bingen {1098-1179}, abbess of the Rupertsburg convent in the German Rhineland. Hildegard was a Renaissance woman centuries before the Renaissance, she was a nun, administrator, composer, writer, and herbalist. She wrote religious music that is still performed today.

Hildegard claimed that visions of God commanded her to treat the sick and compile herbal formulas. Her book, Hildegard’s Medicine, combined mystical Catholicism and early German folk medicine, along with the author’s own extensive herbal experience. Hildegard’s favorite herbs included aloe, apple, basil, bay, blackberry, caraway, celery, clove, dill, fennel, garlic, hyssop, licorice, marjoram, myrrh, nettle, nutmeg, onion, oregano, parsley, raspberry, rosemary, rue, thyme, and watercress.

Hildegard’s herbal is unique. She wrote an original medical work based on her own experience at a time when the few literate Europeans-mostly monks- were content to copy the Greeks, Romans, and Avicenna. What’s more, she was the only medieval woman who let any account of “wise woman” healing practices.

Some of Hildegard’s advice sounds silly. For poor vision, she advocated rubbing the eyes with a topaz soaked in wine. However, many of her recommendations were quite sensible. She advocated eating a balanced diet and brushing the teeth with aloe and myrrh, which have antibacterial, decay-preventive properties.

While Hildegard relied on samples, galenicals continued to be valued, largely by the nobility, who had access to galenical inclined physicians and the wealth to afford all the ingredients that Galen’s polypharmaceuticals required. The men who mixed medieval galenicals were the first alchemists.

Around the time that the Benedictines invented liqueur, Germanic Angles and Saxons were settling England. They brought European herbalism with them, and they learned how the native Celts and their priests, the Druids, used healing herbs.

Around A.D. 950, a nobleman named Bald persuaded England’s King Alfred to commission the first British herbal. The book combined Anglo-Saxon and Celtic herbalism with Greco-Roman and Arab practices sent by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was called the Leech Book of Bald. {Leech comes from laece, the Anglo-Saxon term for doctor.} It discussed 500 plants, including vervain and mistletoe, both sacred to the Druids. A surviving copy is on display at the British Museum in London.

With the Renaissance, European medicine took a secular turn. After the invention of printing, monks stopped copying the ancient herbals, but they continued to tend their gardens. In 1868, an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, published Plant Hybridization, an account of his experiments with peas. It launched the modern science of genetics.