Healing from the Monastic Garden
Most civilizations have their own traditional wisdom of healing; Europe has a historic heritage of monastic medicine . Initiated around the 6th century, the medical treatment of the sick increasingly fell to the religious congregations and orders [1, 2]. These saw their duty and the statement of faith of their religion, as one to “serve God by helping people” [3, p.11], and as a consequence most of sick care of the medieval society was provided by the monasteries and the medically educated monks there . Closely tied to the clerical assignment, the primary concern of the practising monks and nuns was the spiritual salvation, godliness and integrity, and disease was frequently viewed as failure of the individual to comply with the religious laws . The medicinal component aimed at serving the ill and diseased, was therefore “incorporated in a complex doctrine that emphasized the importance of the spiritual element in healthcare” [3, p.11]. As such, both were indispensible in monastic medicine, “the spiritual and the physical treatment of man” [3, p.11], and the curative properties of medicinal herbs were believed to have their curative power from the divine alone . Therefore the efficacy of a herb or plant in treating an ailment, was always believed to be a result of Gods will .
The tradition of collecting, cultivating herbs, and deriving from them curative essences for the treatment of disease goes back to the roots of human civilisation. Initially, this knowledge was of pagan origin, in principal gained from the observation of nature . Yet, monastic medicine can hardly be considered a therapeutic discipline, but must in fact be viewed as a historic era of medicine . It can be said that monastic medicine was the ‘conventional medicine’ of its time . It´s knowledge was extrapolated from the experience of our ancestors, grounded in the wisdom of the ancient Greek scholars , and shared mutual roots with the traditional medicinal concepts of Chinese and Ayurveda medicine [2, 4].
This wisdom of medieval medical treatment was principally concentrated in the realm of the cleric, mainly due to the fact that the monks were literate, could read and write, as opposed to the general public [3, 6, 7]. The religious orders of the time had access to historic scriptures, as the prime responsibility of the monks and nuns of such orders was the copying of ancient medical and scientific texts . With access to the writings collected in the monastic libraries, and the information found therein, members of the orders were able to acquire profound knowledge in the medicinal practices . As such, the collected store of knowledge, the ancient medicinal wisdom of the early scriptures of the ancient Greek, was preserved by and for its use in the realm of monastic medicine . Therefore, Hippocrates and Galen “became the fundaments of monastic medicine” [7, p.69].
European medicine, in general, and as such monastic medicine too, relied mainly on substances derived from plants . The monks and nuns of the monasteries became educated in the healing properties of herbs and plants, and learnt of recipes and concoctions that could be applied in the treatment of those struck by illness and disease . From their experience in practice, they drew new knowledge of the efficacy of plants . Yet, it was only thanks to Hildegard von Bingen, an Abbess at a Benedictine monastery (1098 – 1179) [4,7], that locally growing plants increasingly were investigate for their curative properties, and applied to the treatment of the sick. . Initially, already in earliest times of the middle ages, plants recognized as medicinally effective were imported from foreign and faraway places . They were imported as dried herbs, or if adaptable to the local climate, as live plants that could be planted and grown in the gardens of the monasteries . Henceforth, monastic gardens were not solely used for the cultivation of food for the members of the order, but also incorporated a herbal garden with herbs and medicinal plants for treating the sick [2, 3]. Hildegard von Bingen has to be credited with the integration of European pagan and folk medicinal wisdom into the realm of monastic treatment knowledge .
Interestingly, monastic medicine had a broad view of healthcare. Not only the experientially proven plant curatives of prior times, but also a balance of rest and mobility, and the state of the soul of man became factors influential on the recovery from illness; and in fact built the foundation of this medicinal concept . Disease and healing were understood to be closely tied to lifestyle, living environment, nutrition , and hygienic cleanliness . Treating the sick therefore, not only had a therapeutic component, but became a healthcare aimed at the preservation of health. This gradually led to the renunciation of the view that illness was a punishment for committed sins or a challenge by god .
The decline of monastic medicine was heralded by an increasing secularization, towards the end of the 11th century, which led to the formation of a scholastic form of medicine. The supremacy of monastic influence in the realm of healthcare, diminished , and the church aimed at prohibiting the medicinal practice . The treatment of diseases and states of illness became a profession aimed at yielding a monetary gain, and the religious vows of monks and nuns, of obedience to the church and of living in poverty, was not compatible anymore .
The interest in monastic medicine is currently experiencing a renaissance. The confidence in the practices of the conventional medicine of today is diminishing, and patients are increasingly seeking to find alternative healthcare options. More and more of the ancient knowledge and the monastic medical wisdom is unearthed, and plants and recipes are subjected to scientific research that not seldom confirms their efficacy . Such findings provide new medicines and curative recipes of old, and supply patients with long forgotten, but not lost, healing from the monastic garden.
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