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Medieval Gardens at l'Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud

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The Abbaye de Fontevraud and its medicinal herb garden make for welcome respite from the Loire châteaux circuit.

07/29/2002
Medieval Gardens at l'Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud

The Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is one of the most beautiful abbeys in France. Situated in the heart of the Loire Valley not far from the town of Saumur, it is an island of peace and a reminder of another way of life altogether. Founded in 1611, Fontevraud was one of the largest monastic complexes in the western world. Several members of the Plantagenet family were buried there, and four daughters of Louis XV brought up in the convent there.



The extensive jardin clos or enclosed garden (left) has its parterres now planted only to grass. But the maintenance of the boxwood edges to the beds helps us to imagine this serene space filled with robed monks working their vegetable patches during the Middle Ages. (See also the article in this same column on the Gardens of Villandry for more on this topic.)



A huge kitchen garden would have been necessary to feed the hundreds of people who once inhabited the abbey. The most beautiful and striking of all the compound of buildings is the vast Roman kitchen. It's roof (right) is given its striking detail by the number of chimneys which vented many huge cooking hearths around the perimeter of this round building. When you visit the interior (left), just imagine what it must have been like in its heyday, with nearly a dozen fires blazing and innumerable cooks scurrying back and forth. Unfortunately none of the original cauldrons or other kitchen paraphernalia remain, so it is quite a ghostly-feeling place.



Among the nearly countless beds in the kitchen garden would have been many devoted to medicinal herbs. A very fine medicinal herb garden has been created and maintained under the aegis of the Yves Rocher Foundation, which is dedicated to the idea that the well-being of man is intrinsically linked to his ability to live in harmony with nature. An excellent selection of medicinal herbs may be viewed there, all of which would have been in cultivation at the Abbey during the time of Charlemagne. The present garden is located not in the old jardin clos, but just adjacent to the part of the Abbey that now serves as a hotel. While the layout of the garden isn't fancy, it is evocative of the utilitarian nature of such a garden as it would have been at the time of Charlemagne.


Among the many interesting plants you can see there are the marshmallow (Malva officinalis--right), original source of the candy of the same name, but better known (still today) for its mucilaginous qualities which soothe respiratory ailments. During the Middle Ages and well beyond, such herbs constituted the entire repertoire of pharmaceutical agents available to cure or at least alleviate diseases and heal injuries.


In fact, many herbs which are perceived today as strictly culinary flavoring agents were first used medicinally. Among there number are fennel, in radiant bloom at left. Also interesting to note is that some medicinal herbs, through gradual selection of milder-flavored variants, became known to us as vegetables. A very interesting example of this is wild celery (Apium graveolens), which was used medicinally for hundreds of years before being "tamed" into its two familiary vegetable variants of today, stalk celery and celery root.


In addition to primordial wild celery, many other highly unusual medicinal herbs are on display in this garden, including absinthe (Artemisia absinthum--right), formerly used to flavor the bitter tonic alcohol absinthe in France, which was ultimately found to be quite toxic. However, small doses of this bitter herb have been used throughout history as a digestive tonic, its use already having been cited on a papyrus document from ancient Egypt.



I was happy to find in this garden an old familiar from Indiana roadsides, which I planted in a medicinal herb garden I designed at Butler University in Indianapolis for the instruction of pharmacy students. Motherwort (Leonuris cardiaca) isn't much to look at, but both its common and Latin names tell much about its medicinal importance. It acts as a gentle uterine stimulant, and also serves to reduce menstrual nerve tension and muscle rigidity (cramps). But perhaps more interesting, it acts as a hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), cardiotonic, relaxant, and anti-spasmodic. Hence, obviously, the 'cardiaca' part of its name. Significantly, this herb has a long history of use both in the western world and in traditional Chinese medicine.



Also present was another bridge between the East and West, a plant the appearance of which is likely to make most American gardeners' blood run cold: Arctium lappa (right). Recognize it? That's right, it's the horrid cocklebur, plague of pet dogs and of gardeners due to its seemingly infinitely long taproot, but model nonetheless for one of modern civilization's most important inventions: Velcro. This plant has been used by man since prehistoric times as almost all its parts are useful. Its fleshy root can be eaten as a vegetable and tastes similar to artichokes. The young petioles are aromatic, while an oil can be obtained from the fruits (e.g. those danged burs). Medicinally, the plant is what is paradoxically termed a "depurative", which means an agent which purifies the blood and internal organs of toxins.



There's also a healthy patch of Cannabis sativa in the garden of useful plants adjacent to the medicinal garden. This species, grown for millenia for its fiber, has never been abandoned by the French, who have cultivated it continuously since before the time of the Abbaye at Fontevraud. There exists today a small company in Brittany which grows and processes cannabis fiber and then weaves it to produce some exquisite clothing of cannabis cloth which is thick and strong but amazingly supple. A pair of cannabis jeans ranks among my son's favorite garments, and he'll probably die with them, as I don't think they'll ever wear out.















Wander onward around the Abbaye grounds to discover breathtaking sights like this prairie fleurie (right), of Cosmos sulphureus and Verbena bonariensis, among others. There's also an excellent bookstore with many fascinating books on plants and gardens of the Middle Ages (mostly in French), as well as this idyllic view of what I assume must have been the priory, with its doorway framed in wisteria and hollyhocks.

After viewing the excesses of the Loire châteaux (admittedly beautiful but a bit overwhelming after a while), a stroll through the grounds of this majestic abbaye will provide you with a long moment of quiet meditation on a simpler way of life.












Less than 5 minutes away from the abbey is the savonnerie whence come our wonderful pure olive and palm oil soaps. At the Domaine de Mestré, two sisters operate what may be the only remaining artesanal soap-making atelier in France. Because the saponification process--the addition of lye to the oils--is so dangerous, it has become a prohibitive liability for small operations to actually make their soap.





The sisters of the Domaine get around this by taking all the risk of the saponification upon themselves. Employees only are used for non-dangerous steps of their exacting soapmaking process. The soaps are made of 100% natural ingredients and fragrances, and are in a word, superb (and completely in keeping with the prevalent spirit of the Abbaye de Fontevraud. Here is a photo of the lovely farm where these soaps are made (soap-making barn below).

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