Walahfrid followed Sedulius in Christian literary gardening

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment philosopher-hero Voltaire ended his picaresque novel Candide with the wisdom, “We must cultivate our garden {Il faut cultiver notre jardin}.” In ninth-century Europe, the scholar-monk Walahfrid Strabo wrote a small book About the Cultivation of Gardens {De cultura hortorum}. Walahfrid apparently drew upon Caelius Sedulius’s fifth-century re-orientation of literary excellence in his Paschal Song {Paschale carmen}. These vastly under-appreciated literary works should be cultivated to support humane culture.

In the preface to his Paschale carmen, Sedulius associated modesty with gardening. Rhetoric of affected modesty has been well-known from the classical Roman writers Cicero and Quintilian.[1] Adapting the classical affection of modesty, Sedulius offered to his reader, figured as his dinner guest, not the whole world to eat but simple, meaningful food:

Do not be scornful, if you acknowledge yourself to be my friend,
and do not seek here a literary masterpiece,
but contentedly approach the solemnities of my modest table,
and drink more of spirit than satiate yourself with food.
If you are, to the contrary, more taken with great things’ sweetness
and a voluptuary who prefers riches,
feed yourself on splendid meals offered by noble men of learning,
whose vast wealth cannot be calculated.
There you will find to eat whatever grows in the sea,
whatever the earth brings forth, whatever flies up to the stars;
waxen honey gleams in jeweled containers,
and golden vessels glow with the color of the honeycomb within.
But I have picked a few greens from a poor man’s garden,
and placed them for serving on a red earthen potsherd.

{ Pone supercilium si te cognoscis amicum,
Nec quaeras opus hic codicis artificis,
Sed modicae contentus adi sollemnia mensae
Plusque libens animo quam satiare cibo.
Aut si magnarum caperis dulcedine rerum
Divitiasque magis deliciosus amas,
Nobilium nitidis doctorum vescere cenis,
Quorum multiplices nec numerantur opes.
Illic invenies quicquid mare nutrit edendum,
Quicquid terra creat, quicquid ad astra volat.
Cerea gemmatis flavescunt mella canistris
Collucentque suis aurea vasa favis.
At nos exiguum de paupere carpsimus horto,
Rubra quod appositum testa ministrat holus. }[2]

This passage presents a self-subverting contrast between low and high interests. Concern for food is classically regarded as lower than concern for spirit. Voluptuaries seeking only sweetness lack cultural sophistication. They’re attracted to gold and its sensory correlative, honey. Sedulius instead serves on red baked clay a few greens from a poor man’s garden. From a Christian perspective, Sedulius is offering to God-created humans — clay animated with spirit and colored with blood — the life that the servant-savior Jesus offers to everyone.

Sedulius’s Paschale carmen immediately repudiates the superficially affected modesty of its preface. Sedulius harshly disparages traditional Greco-Roman literary culture and boldly goes a different way:

Since pagan poets strive to trick out their fictions
with pompous phraseology and use tragic bombast
or the comic Geta, or any other style of singing
to recreate the cruel contagions of wicked deeds
and memorialize criminals in song in the traditional way,
passing on multiple lies in books of papyrus from the Nile,
why should I, who am used to chanting in songs of David
psalms for the ten-stringed lyre and standing in awe
in the holy choir and singing of heaven with peaceful words,
why should I keep silent about famous miracles of Christ the Savior,
when I can speak plain truth and with wholehearted delight
confess the thundering Lord with all my senses?

{ Cum sua gentiles studeant figmenta poetae
Grandisonis pompare modis, tragicoque boatu
Ridiculoque Geta seu qualibet arte canendi
Saeva nefandarum renovent contagia rerum
Et scelerum monumenta canant, rituque magistro
Plurima Niliacis tradant mendacia biblis,
Cur ego, Daviticis adsuetus cantibus odas
Chordarum resonare decem sanctoque verenter
Stare choro et placidis caelestia psallere verbis,
Clara salutiferi taceam miracula Christi,
Cum possim manifesta loqui, Dominumque tonantem
Sensibus et toto delectet corde fateri }

In traditional Greco-Roman religion, the Thunderer was the head god in charge of the cosmos — Juno’s husband Jupiter. Sedulius replaced Jupiter with Jesus — Christ the Savior born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Sedulius, from seeds of life nourished with divine water the Christian way offers fruit that piles up a hundred-fold in huge barns.[3] That’s not simple gardening. Sedulius didn’t literally write about gardening. He recast the Bible into the high poetry of classical epic.

Sedulius was an enormously influential author. Over four hundred manuscripts containing at least some of Sedulius’s writings have survived to the present. He was commonly part of the medieval European school curriculum:

In fact, of the “patristic poets” in general, both Greek and Latin, only Prudentius can be said to match the popularity and influence that Sedulius’s works enjoyed across the centuries. … To judge from the evidence of manuscript production, there was a great flowering of interest in Sedulius during the Carolingian Age, which continued unabated during the rest of the Middle Ages and well into the early modern period.[4]

In eighth-century Europe, the leading scholar-cleric Alcuin of York, who advised Charlemagne, studied and lauded Sedulius. So too did the sixteen-century German theologian and church reformer Martin Luther.

medieval woman and man gardening

The ninth-century scholar-monk Walahfrid Strabo developed the garden figure of Paschale Carmen’s preface differently. Walahfrid was a tutor employed by Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, the Carolingian emperor succeeding Charlemagne. Given his personal connections and his interests, Walahfrid almost surely read Sedulius’s Paschale carmen.[5] Moreover, Walahfrid literally cultivated a garden. For dinner guests, Walahfrid may have actually served on a red clay plate some greens from his humble little garden.

Walahfrid wrote About the Cultivation of Gardens {De cultura hortorum}. So humbly is that verse work constructed that modern readers have commonly received it merely as a charming medieval book about gardening. In European culture, artful, learned literature concerning agriculture has revered roots in Virgil’s Georgics and Hesiod’s Works and Days. Walahfrid dedicated his book on gardening to Father Grimold, his teacher at Reichenau Abbey:

Most learned Father Grimold,
your servant Strabo sends you his book,
a trivial gift and of no account, only so that,
seated in your own garden, where peach and apple
cast their ragged opacities
and your small students, laughing, gather up
the shining or furred fruit and bring it you
clutched to the stomach with both hands,
or put it away in bushels,
you might find some utility in it — more,
that you may prune it back,
strengthen, fertilize, and transplant it
as seems best to you. So may you at last
be brought to such flourishing
as grapples God’s trellis toward
the evergreening of unwithering life:
this may Father, Son and fruitful Spirit grant you.

{ Haec tibi servitii munuscula vilia parvi
Strabo tuus, Grimalde pater doctissime, servus
Pectore devoto nullius ponderis offert,
Ut cum consepto vilis consederis horti
Subter opacatas frondenti vertice malos,
Persicus imparibus crines ubi dividit umbris,
Dum tibi cana legunt tenera lanugine poma
Ludentes pueri, scola laetabunda tuorum,
Atque volis ingentia mala capacibus indunt,
Grandia conantes includere corpora palmis:
Quo moneare habeas nostri, pater alme, laboris,
Dum relegis quae dedo volens, interque legendum
Ut vitiosa seces, deposco, placentia firmes.
Te deus aeterna faciat virtute virentem
Inmarcescibilis palmam comprendere vitae:
Hoc pater, hoc natus, hoc spiritus annuat almus. }[6]

This vignette of ordinary life in a fruit garden enacts a theological message. Immediately preceding his series of poems on plants in his vegetable garden, Walahfrid wrote:

I take up this work now with my talents and learning,
now with my understanding and eloquence,
so that I may touch upon the names and virtues of such a
harvest, so that small matters may be adorned with vast honor.

{ Nunc opus ingeniis, docili nunc pectore et ore,
Nomina quo possim viresque attingere tantae
Messis, ut ingenti res parvae ornentur honore. }

Walafrid’s “small matters {res parvae}” subtly follows Sedulius’s self-subverting rhetoric. Read with appreciation for Walahfrid’s consistently maintained modesty, De cultura hortorum addresses the all-encompassing, vital matter of love. Walahfrid replaced traditional Greco-Roman love elegy with poetry of love for men and gardening.

The pernicious weeds of misandry, sexism, and anti-meninism are now choking out reason in our garden of enlightenment. Women and men must understand themselves and imaginative literature through the ages with appreciation for the lived experiences of ordinary men and women. We must cultivate our garden.

The closer the path
of a pure life is to the ground, the nearer it is to the sky.

{ sic purae semita vitae
Quantum prona solo, tantum fit proxima caelo. }[7]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] See Cicero, On Invention {De Inventione} 1.16.22, and Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory {Institutio Oratoria} 4.1.8. On the “affected modesty” topos in European literary history, Curtius (1953) pp. 83-5.

[2] Caelius Sedulius, The Paschal Song {Paschale carmen} preface, vv. 2-16, Latin text and English translation from Springer (2013) pp. 94-5. Sedulius wrote in the fifth century GC, perhaps in Rome in the second quarter of the fifth century. Caelius, which means “heavenly,” isn’t clearly attested as his first name {praenomen}. Id. pp. xv-xvii. He is sometimes confused with Sedulius Scottus, a ninth-century cleric-poet.

The fifth-century rhetorician Bellesarius praised Sedulius in a poem celebrating “cheap vegetables produced by a poor man’s garden {holus vile producit pauperis hortus}.” Bellesarius explicitly associated the modest food of the poor man’s garden with Jesus:

Let their minds despise riches and be content with little,
taking their lead from the Lord, who satisfied five thousand
with modest food when they all were in the wilderness.

{ Temnat divitas animus paucisque quiescat
Exemplo assumptus domini, qui milia quinque
Semotis cunctis modicis saturauit ab escis. }

“Verses of Bellesarius the Rhetorician {Versus Bellesarii Scholastici}” vv. 14-16 (of 16), Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Springer (2013) p. 230. The previous short quote is from v. 8.

The subsequent quote above is similarly from Paschale carmen 1.17-28. The verse numbers for Paschale carmen book 1 continue from the last preface verse, v. 16. The preface differs from the rest of the poem formally. It’s written in elegiac distichs, while the rest of the poem is in epic hexameter.

[3] See Sedulius, Paschale carmen 1.49-59. Springer observed:

when Sedulius assures us in his preface that as our host he will be serving up a simple rustic paschal meal, not featuring the fancy kind of food served by the pagan culinary competition, his metaphorical declaration is hardly simple or straightforward. It is the height of sophistication to claim lack of sophistication. His own sophisticated rhetoric undercuts what he is saying.

Springer (2013) p. xxxvi. John of Damascus, who died in 749, is another example of an author who subverted the modesty topos. Alexakis (2005).

Curtius put Sedulius in the class of “inflated, vain, soulless, and unintelligent rhetors”:

He demonstrates that even a recent convert could take over the frippery of the pagan school rhetor into his Christian life, could indeed make it over into Christian clothing and strut about in it. … What affected modesty! Certainly we are here dealing with a stylistic convention. But it is employed with such self-satisfaction that we cannot but doubt the seriousness of the poet’s religion. … Sedulius had a large measure of literary ambition, but he had nothing to say.

Curtius (1953) p. 460, 462. That’s as absurd a projection as is misogyny. Sedulius’s explicit and exuberant destruction of the modesty topos is better interpreted as indicating his ardent belief in the importance of what he had to say relative to pagan literature.

Curtius condemned Sedulius and Biblical epic with dogmatic academic assertions:

Throughout its existence — from Juvencus to Klopstock — the Biblical epic was a hybrid with an inner lack of truth, a genre faux. The Christian story of salvation, as the Bible presents it, admits no transformation into pseudo-antique form. Not only does it thereby lose its powerful, unique, authoritative expression, but it is falsified by the genre borrowed from antique Classicism and by the concomitant linguistic and metrical conventions.

Id. p. 462. Sedulius’s Paschale carmen transformed the Christian story of salvation into the antique epic form. For more than a millennium, readers found Sedulius’s Biblical epic helpful for incarnating the Bible in their lives and so witnessing to the continuing vitality of the Christian story.

Curtius’s assertion of Biblical epic’s “inner lack of truth” seems to draw upon the medieval interpretive practice of distinguishing surface meaning (chaff) from inner meaning (fruit or kernel). Jerome’s interpretation of the captive maiden demonstrates that perceiving inner meaning can help to reveal socially suppressed truths. Nonetheless, many today regard the inner meaning of the Bible as no more true than that of the Aeneid. Beyond that modern commonplace, Curtius seems to say nothing coherent. He seems to offer nothing but dogmatic assertions supported with a massive apparatus of surface erudition.

[4] Springer (2013) p. xviii. On four hundred surviving manuscripts of Sedulius and Alcuin of York’s and Martin Luther’s appreciation of his work, id. pp. xvii, xix.

[5] Springer includes Walahfrid Strabo among his “list of authors and works apparently influenced by Sedulius.” Springer (2013) p. xxx.

[6] Walahfrid Strabo, Book about the Cultivation of Gardens {Liber de cultura hortorum}, also less appropriately known as The Little Garden {Hortulus}, “Dedication of this little work {Commendatio opusculi},” Latin text from Dümmler (1881), vol. 2, pp. 349-50, English translation (modified slightly) from Reynolds (1964). The subsequent quote is from Ch. 3, “Perseverance of the Gardener and Fruits of the Labor {Instantia cultoris et fructus operis},” vv. 73-5, Latin text from Dümmler (1881), vol. 2, pp. 337-8, my English translation, benefiting from those of Mitchell (2009), p. 31, and Payne & Blunt (1966) p. 31.

Here’s an overview of Walahfrid’s Hortulus, a review of the plants in Walahfrid’s garden, and a reconstruction of the garden’s layout.

[7] Sedulius, Paschale carmen 3.324-5, Latin text and English translation from Springer (2013) pp. 94-5. The context of this quote is Sedulius elaborating on Jesus’s teaching of humility in Matthew 18:1-11, Mark 9:32-6, and Luke 9:46-8.

[image] Woman and man harvesting squash (cucurbite) from garden. Illumination from Notebook of Health with Medicine {Tacuinum Sanitatis in Medicina}, a Latin translation of Ibn Butlan of Baghdad’s Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥa {تقويم الصحة}. For information concerning this work, Mendelsohn (2013). Illumination on folio 22v of MS. Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644, written about 1390. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Alexakis, Alexander. 2005. “The Modesty Topos and John of Damascus as a Not-so-Modest Author.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 97 (2): 521-530.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Dümmler, Ernst. 1881. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini. Berlin: Weidmannos. (vol. 1, Internet Archive; vol. 2, Internet Archive, BnF)

Mendelsohn, Loren D. 2013. “The Tacuinum Sanitatis: a Medieval Health Manual.” Petits Propos Culinaires. 99: 69-89.

Mitchell, James, trans. 2009. Walahfrid Strabo. On the Cultivation of Gardens: a ninth century gardening book. San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear.

Payne, Raef and Wilfrid Blunt. 1966. Hortulus: Walahfrid Strabo. Translated by Raef Payne. Commentary by Wilfrid Blunt. Hunt Facsimile Series, no. 2. Pittsburgh, PA: The Hunt Botanical Library.

Reynolds, Tim. 1964. “Walafrid Strabo: With His Book, Of Gardening.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics. 3 (4): 126.

Springer, Carl P. E., ed. and trans. 2013. Sedulius. The Paschal Song and Hymns. Writings from the Greco-Roman world, v. 35. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. (Introduction)

4 thoughts on “Walahfrid followed Sedulius in Christian literary gardening”

  1. I am reaching out as a research assistant on behalf of University of Florida professor Fatimah Tuggar who is currently doing work based on Walafrid Strabo. We are searching for a map of Strabo’s original garden design to learn where exactly each of the plants were located. Do you happen to have this information, or could you please guide me to another library of institute which might be able to help me find this information?

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