If it can be done, the monastery should be so situated that all the necessaries, such as water, the mill, the garden, are enclosed, and the various arts may be plied inside of the monastery, so that there may be no need for the monks to go about outside, because it is not good for their souls. —The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter LXVI
The medieval cloister garden is one of the most famous traditions in garden history. Rich in flowers, fruit trees and medicinal plants—the monastic cloister was as a place for spiritual retreat for monks and nuns who had already withdrawn from the temptations of the secular world.
But the cloister garden is more than a retreat. It often served as a gathering point connecting many of the monastery’s buildings. The central water source symbolized paradise and the four garden quadrants recalled the Garden of Eden.
Our word “cloister” can be both a noun and a verb. It derives from the Medieval Latin word claustrum—meaning a sheltered and closed space.
The cloister “garth” is the central space itself, the garden open to the sky and surrounded on four sides by ambulatories.
The garth at Salsbury Cathedral, founded in the 14th century
Whereas “cloister” derives from Latin, garth derives from the Old Norse garðr and is related to the Old English geard, meaning an enclosed space or yard. Our words “yard” and “garden” are descended from this root.
The cloister garth and garden was a key space in the social life of the monastery. Beyond a place of spiritual contemplation, the garth was a place for socializing, washing laundry in the fountains, and hanging it to dry in the arcades.
Advertisement for Toro lawn mowers, c 1955
Contrary to the modern American sense of the front yard as an open, pastoral lawn, yards were long considered walled spaces, often with a purpose. Larger monasteries often had specialized cloisters for medicinal plants, infirmaries, and other functions.
Think of Harvard Yard, Train Yards, and Graveyards. Such enclosures protect and foster human needs including youthful learning, movement, death and memory. Rather than the restrictive sense that we now associate with “cloistered”—an older sense of gardens, yards and cloisters implied the opening of possibilities for nourishment and the events of life.
Harvard Yard, c 1900
With the rise of medical terminology in the 19th century, many new words were created from combined Latin and Greek roots. In 1879, the English physician Dr. Benjamin Ball coined the term “Claustrophobia” to denote the “morbid fear of being shut up in a confined space.” Here is a very different sense of enclosure from the protective and nurturing one dating to the Middle Ages.
Photo card, 1906
In the end, many of our words for gardens and landscapes are historically connected. Looking to their origins helps us to think anew, to reconsider older meanings long forgotten.
image at top: Ruins of gothic cloister at Kilconnel Abbey in County Galway, Ireland. 19th c. engraving.