My early morning sweep of Bonnefont garden, overseen by the downy thornapple (Datura metel). Photograph by Corey Eilhardt
A quiet life has many rewards: not least of these
Is the joy that comes to him who devotes himself to the art
They knew at Paestum, and learns the ancient skill of obscene
Priapus—the joy that comes of devoting himself to a garden.
—From Hortulus by Walahfrid Strabo. Translated from the Latin by Raef Payne. The Hunt Botanical Library, 1966.
Benedictine nuns and monks like Walahfrid Strabo live by the teachings of Saint Benedict of Nursia. The simple Rule of Saint Benedict includes a precise schedule for their most important daily duty, the recitation of the Divine Office, or Liturgy of Hours:
Matins, or Vigils—about 2:30 or 3:00 a.m.
Lauds—about 5:30 a.m. (near dawn)
None—between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m.
Vespers—about 4:30 p.m. (near sunset). (Listen to a recent recitation of Vespers by American Benedictine nuns.)
Compline—about 6:00 p.m. (one hour before bedtime)
In addition to its daily prayer schedule, Benedict’s Rule is also distinguished by an emphasis on work as a crucial part of monastic life. Benedict devoted an entire chapter to daily work, which he defined as reading and manual labor. A medieval Benedictine’s daily life, for example, included chores such as brewing beer, teaching novices, or tending the monastery gardens in the hours that were not spent at prayer or at meals.
I came to The Cloisters Gardens as a summer intern hoping to enrich my knowledge of botany and medieval daily life, and also to learn how to design and cultivate my own medieval teaching garden. My hopes have been realized, thanks to the remarkable horticulture staff here. And, within a few weeks of my arrival in June, I couldn’t help but notice that my work mirrored that of a medieval Benedictine monk, right down to the timetable.
One of my garden tasks was to cut back the spearmint (Mentha spicata) growing underneath The Cloisters’ espaliered pear tree. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt
When they come out from Prime in the morning
Let them labor at whatever is necessary.
—Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 48
I arrive at The Cloisters at 8:00 a.m., shortly after Prime, and begin each day by sweeping Bonnefont garden. This is my favorite part of the day. Combing the bricks of the garden’s pathways with my broom and dustpan, I have a chance to examine the efforts of our ongoing projects and see what needs to be done each day. The light is bright and fresh, the birds sing, and there is a delightful vibrancy in Fort Tryon Park as the world wakes up. This is a very introspective time for me. I am able to get lost in thought, reflecting on many things. Benedict’s demand that contemplative monks labor early in the day makes perfect sense.
The Museum opens to the public at 9:30 a.m., just after Terce. As people begin to trickle into Bonnefont garden, they find me tending any plant that needs attention. I may be trimming new shoots on the ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), removing spent flowers on the potted jasmine (Jasminum officinale), or perhaps examining the nightshades for troublesome Colorado potato beetles. Although I arrived at The Cloisters with limited gardening experience, I have benefited from the patient expertise of the wonderful staff, and now feel nearly as comfortable in the garden as any Benedictine herbalist.
The morning becomes hotter and livelier as more people enter the gardens. Sharing what I have learned about medieval gardens with curious visitors as I go about my duties has proved the most enriching part of my time here. People often ask me about a particular plant and its function within medieval society. Some stop to share gardening stories with me. Kids will often ask me what I am doing, and if they can help. A few people have even told me that they are creating medieval gardens of their own and wonder where the Museum gets its medieval species. The genuine interest and curiosity about the gardens, from visitors young and old, is inspiring and infectious, and I take it with me when I set to study after lunch.
Just like a medieval Benedictine monk, I spend many afternoons reading and writing, either in The Cloisters library or in in the garden office. Photograph by Corey Eilhardt
After the sixth hour,
Having left the table,
Let them rest on their beds in perfect silence,
Or, if anyone may perhaps want to read,
Let [them] read to [themselves]
In such a way as not to disturb anyone else.
—Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 48
After lunch, or Sext, it is usually time for study related to my internship. Just like the Benedictines, I pore quietly over books about medieval horticultural practice and the symbolism of specific plants in late medieval art. My study has included exploring the history of gardens in the Middle Ages—both inside and outside of monasteries—researching information for two blog posts, and gathering material for a gallery talk called “Landscapes in Medieval Art” at the Museum’s main building. This has been a wonderful opportunity to learn from The Cloisters’ knowledgeable staff, and to take advantage of the Museum’s amazing libraries, compiling resources for future study and later projects. I think the Benedictines would be proud of how much I have learned in such a short time.
I never imagined I would have the chance to be a gardener in a medieval monastery, but the Met’s Internship Program has let me do just that. I’ve had a truly memorable summer, thanks to the staff and visitors at The Cloisters.
Plant a seed and make a wish!