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Physick Garden

Ely Cathedral Physick Garden

During the Medieval period, there was a thriving monastery here at Ely Cathedral. Part of the work of the monastery was to heal the sick. Illness was primarily treated using herbs and plants that would have been grown in the monastery, gathered locally and, on occasion, purchased at the market. The developments that were made by monks here and religious communities across the world during the middle ages, contributed significantly to the development of the modern medicines that we have access to today.

Planted in 2022, this garden at the rear of the Cathedral (behind the Lady Chapel) uses indicative species to provide an insight into how a medieval physick garden may have looked, smelled, and been experienced by the monks of Ely Cathedral.

It is thanks to the generous voluntary work of Peter Earl Garden Designs that we were able to bring this project to fruition, along with donations from Ely Cathedral Trust and Iris Lacey.

Please Note:

Enjoy the sights and smells of our garden, but please don’t touch the plants as some may be irritants or even toxic to some.


Monasteries were the nearest thing to the NHS to exist before the NHS. The Benedictine monks here were bound to offer hospitality to all, including the sick. They would also have taken care of their own sick and infirm brothers - healthcare was one of the key perks of monastic life. They became centres of learning for medicine and the ways in which medicine was both practiced and researched in such institutions would lay the foundations for modern medical practice.

The importance of monasteries and abbeys for medicine was shown by the dissolution, as medical care was the preserve of the rich, fewer people could now access medical care. This was especially the case for women who may often have sought the help of nuns when they had children and the mortality rate of both mothers and infants increased after the dissolution.

In the time between the dissolution and the NHS, health was much more closely associated with wealth (though this correlation does still exist). Those who could afford it sought the help of a physician (a profession for which you did not need a medical degree until 1838 – from which time they would be known as doctors) or an apothecary. Those who could not would have to rely on what remedies they could make for themselves. Most women would have had a knowledge of healing herbs and would have grown them in their gardens if they could. Apart from the healing of the sick, the monasteries and abbeys also provided people with a place to die. The dying room at Ely was likely in what is now Powcher’s Hall, which would also have housed the bloodletting room.

The monasteries and abbeys had a better understanding of the link between health and hygiene than most people at the time. They washed their hands regularly before meals and when healing the sick. They also took baths much more frequently. Baths were avoided by many in society as much as possible because they were thought to weaken a person. There appears to have been an understanding of the importance of fresh air and ventilation in the infirmary too, some sections were quite open and this allowed air to circulate. They also recognized that different rules should apply to the sick and the well. For example, those who were being treated in the infirmary would be given meat much more regularly than others. They might also be excused from prayers – though there was a chapel in the infirmary and prayers would be said there so that even those who were too ill to leave their beds could hear them.

Diagnosing Illness

Medieval medicine followed the ancient Greek tradition of the 4 humours. This was the idea that the human body was made up of 4 substances – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Each of these was associated with an element, “energetic”, season, character, taste, age, organ, planet and astrological sign. If a person was unwell, it was because there was an imbalance in these humours. So, understanding the energies of each one was helpful – it would help to determine what remedies would help.

For example, if one had too much yellow bile (which had the energies of being hot and dry), then herbs that were cooling might be used, these might be anything with a bitter flavour such as parsley. As well as using herbs to cure these imbalances, healers might have employed methods such as bleeding. If they observed that a patient was red and hot (if they had a fever for example), then they could conclude that they had too much blood.

Blood has a hot and moist energy and so too much of it would lead to someone being too hot and moist. Equally, blood was associated with the colour red (not unsurprisingly) and so if someone presented as red – as you might if you had a fever – then this was further evidence of an excess of blood in the body. Herbs and remedies that could cool and dry the body could be used (such as agrimony, nettles or yarrow), but it was easier to simply remove some of the excess blood through bleeding or the use of leeches. A lack of blood could be evidenced by very pale skin and being too cold. This might be remedied by herbs that are warming and nourishing such a chamomile or hawthorn.

A key way that medieval healers could work out what was wrong with someone was through the examination of a urine sample. Healers would consider the colour, smell and even the taste (perhaps, but not always, diluted in a little wine) of the urine in order to make a diagnosis.

Curing Illness

Early doctors were able to use the humours, urine and the appearance of a patient to help arrive at a diagnosis. However, how would they work out what to use as a cure? Certainly the monks would have had access to medical books, including those of ancient Greece, so they would have been able to look up ideas for cures based on their diagnoses.

During the 12th century, a German mystic and nun by the name of Hildegaard of Bingen had also been writing about medicine, the monks here might have had access to her book in their extensive libraries. They might also be able to rely on their knowledge of herbs and which was related best to the excess or lack of a certain humour that they had identified. However, they may well also have relied on their faith. Namely “The Doctrine of Signatures”. This idea suggested that God had left “clues” in creation about the sorts of plants and herbs that could help with particular types of illness. If one observed the appearance, colour, habitat and scent of a plant it could reveal its medicinal properties, for example:

  • Red flowers of burdock or red clover are blood purifiers
  • Yellow flowers of marigolds and dandelions could be used to treat jaundice
  • Willow trees thrive in damp places so they could be used to treat rheumatism
  • Lungwort has speckled leaves and could be used to treat lung disease as they look like a diseased lung
  • Walnuts would be good for the brain as they look like a brain

Making Medicines

Monasteries had to be self-sufficient, as far as possible, and be able to care for all of the community, including the sick. One of St Benedict’s rules states:
Care of the sick must rank above and before all else – Rule 36

To do this, they did tend towards herbal remedies and would have had an extensive herb garden to provide herbs for use in medicine (as well as flavouring food), and also to provide strewing herbs to put on floors to keep smells, insects and other pests at bay.

The herbarian would have been responsible for the cultivation of those herbs. Though under orders in the monastery, which would usually mean not being able to go beyond the monastery walls, he had permission to go in search of those wild herbs that were not grown in the garden. He would have been very knowledgeable about them and would recognize them easily. Some things not grown in England could be obtained from travelling monks or at local fairs or markets.

Plants and roots were picked when in season and dried, ground and made into remedies that would keep until needed. There are various ways of producing the medicines:

  • Infusion: pouring hot water over the herb to extract the healing ingredients
  • Decoction: creating an extract of the herb by boiling it
  • Compress: a folded cloth moistened with an infusion and applied to the skin
  • Poultice: an ointment smeared onto a cloth and applied, often hot, to the skin
  • Unguents: clear, soft, spreadable mixtures applied to the affected area
  • Ointments: like an unguent, only thicker
  • Lozenges

While honey might be used to sweeten any medication, it also has incredible healing powers of its own. Honey, when applied to a wound, can prevent infection as well as soothing burns. In fact, honey infused bandages are still used to this day in hospitals.

Herbs and Plants

The herbs and plants in the Physick Garden at Ely Cathedral are here to provide an indication of how the monks might have experienced their own herb garden in the middle ages. The species are often indicative, as many of those that existed in the middle ages are no longer available. However, we can gain an understanding of how these plants might have been used and how the garden might have been experienced by those people so many years ago.