It’s summer, the season of strawberries and cream. But what about strawberries and pepper? We eat fruit for pleasure, or for the sake of eating a healthy diet; in the Middle Ages, certain fruits were also believed to be useful for keeping the body in health, or for use in medicine. And, in a time before it was possible to transport fresh fruit around the world, some fruits were only known to the Anglo-Saxons from writings that originated from beyond northwestern Europe. What did Anglo-Saxon writers have to say about fruit, and what sort of ideas was it associated with?
Let’s start at the very beginning, when everything went pear-shaped because of an apple. The Book of Genesis tells us that God created Adam and Eve and planted a garden full of delicious fruit for them to enjoy – oranges and apricots, kumquats and kiwi-fruits, tangerines and nectarines, peaches, plums and passion-fruits – plus some random one that they weren’t supposed to eat, and which they might not have been at all interested in if a serpent hadn’t slithered up to Eve. One minute she is obeying God’s command not to eat the fruit, the next she is doing as the snake suggests. I’m not sure that I understand that kind of instant certainty. If I had been in the Garden of Eden, I would have carefully noted the snake’s theory, asked God to clarify his earlier comments re. fruit-eating, performed a few controlled experiments involving the animals, and consulted Adam for a second opinion. I think this may be why I became an academic.
The Old English prose Genesis translated by Ælfric of Eynsham reports the story thus:
Ða geseah þæt wif þæt þæt treow wæs god to etanne, be þan þe hire þuhte, and wlitig on eagum and lustbære on gesihðe, and genam þa of þæs treowes wæstme and geæt and sealde hire were; he æt þa.
Richard Marsden, ed., The Old English Heptateuch, p. 12.
(Then the woman saw that the tree was good for eating from, as it seemed to her, and beautiful to the eyes and desirable in her sight, and then she took of the fruit of the tree and ate and gave it to her man; then he ate.)
Here, the fruit is referred to by the generic term wæstm.
However, the story was also retold in a more dramatic style, in a poem known as Genesis B (so called because it was inserted into the text of an originally separate poem called Genesis A), where the fruit is more specifically named as an æppel:
Sum heo hire on handum bær, sum hire æt heortan læg,
æppel unsælga, þone hire ær forbead
drihtna drihten, deaðbeames ofet.
(She carried one in her hands, and one lay at her heart, an unblessed apple, which the Lord of lords had forbidden her before, the fruit of the Tree of Death.)
But why fixate on that one fruit? Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were free to eat every single other fruit in the garden. What might they have been? The peaches of perfection, the watermelons of wonder, or the pears of perseverance? Let’s move away from the forbidden fruit and onto those more licit. Which fruits would an Anglo-Saxon writer themself have eaten and been familiar with? And which other ones did they only know about from reading books? The Bible must have been a fruitful source of such information, with its vineyards full of labourers and figtrees getting cursed and so on. Take Numbers 11.5, in which the Israelites complain that they have nothing but manna to eat in the desert. In the Latin Bible, they say:
Recordamur piscium, quos comedebamus in Aegypto gratis; in mentem nobis veniunt cucumeres et pepones porrique et cepae et alia. (Vulgate)
(We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free cost: the cucumbers come into our mind, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic. [Douay-Rheims])
In the Old English prose translation, this verse appears thus:
We hæfdon cucumeres ðæt sind eorð æppla 7 pepones …
(We had cucumbers – that is, earth-apples – and pepones …)
The Anglo-Saxon translator felt the need to explain cucumeres by interpolating the native term eorðæppla, but pepones is left in Latin alone: perhaps there was no English word for these. How many readers and writers in England at the time knew what one of these exotic plants was? Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury in the late seventh century, came from Tarsus (now in Turkey), and brought valuable knowledge of Greek and Middle Eastern culture to the English church. Michael Lapidge has noted how, in Theodore’s biblical commentaries, he was able to explain this presumably perplexing verse, whilst slipping in a bit of local knowledge about the Syrian city of Edessa:
Cucumeres et pepones unum sunt, sed tamen cucumereres dicuntur pepones cum magni fiunt; ac saepe in uno pepone fiunt .xxx. librae. In Edissia ciuitate fiunt ut uix potest duo portare unus camelus.
(Cucumbers and melons are the same thing, but cucumbers are called pepones when they grow large, and often one pepon will weigh thirty pounds. In the city of Edda they grow so large that a camel can scarcely carry two of them.)
(Text and translation from Michael Lapidge, ‘The Career of Archbishop Theodore‘, p. 7.)
Melons are the same thing as cucumbers? It seems strange now, but they do belong to the same family of plants. When you think about it, they are both basically just fleshy water-containers, as this interesting National Geographic article discusses? It goes to show how much selective breeding over the years has given fruits and vegetables an opportunity to specialise.
But were exotic fruits ever discussed in a more practical context? A couple of months ago, I was reading through the tenth-century medical collection known as the Leechbook and came across a reference to peaches.
For þon þæm mannum deah þæt him mon on fruman þa mettas gife þe celunge 7 strangunge mægen hæbben swa swa beoþ æppla nales to swete ealles ac surmelsce 7 peran 7 persucas 7 hlaf gedon on ceald wæter oþþe on hat be þære gelicunge þæs magan þe þa yfelan wætan sceorfendan 7 scearpan hæfð.
(Cockayne, ed. Leechdoms, II, p. 176.)
(Because it is good for the person that first of all one give them the foods which may have the power of cooling and strengthening, just as apples are, certainly not too sweet, but sweet and sour, and pears and peaches and bread put into cold water or into hot, according to the preference of the stomach which has the gnawing and pain of bad humours.)
I didn’t think I’d ever seen a reference to peaches in Anglo-Saxon literature before, and I was right: I have searched the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus and found this to be the only use of the word “persuc” or “persic” in surviving Old English texts, bar a couple of glosses. While apples and pears may well have grown in early medieval England, peaches did not arrive until somewhat later. It is likely that not all of the ingredients recommended in the Leechbook would have been available to its readers.
And that’s the core of the matter: when it comes to Anglo-Saxon fruit references, we really are comparing apples and oranges. Old English doesn’t even have a word for ‘orange’, and I’ve not come across any references to arancia in Anglo-Saxon Latin texts. In fact, the word ‘orange’ isn’t attested in the English language until the fifteenth century.
Whereas grapes are believed to have been brought over to England by hedgehogs. Obrazki nunu and Discarding Images.
Nevertheless, while fruits may not have travelled far, books did. The Leechbook is known to make use of Mediterranean medical knowledge: an English reader must have translated this dietary information and passed it on, but not necessarily with the expectation that all of it would be put to use. Medieval writers often come across as being indiscriminately in love with all the knowledge that they could get their hands on, and this may well be one of those occasions.
That said, other kinds of fruit might have been easier to grow in an English climate. The medical book known as the Herbarium has a chapter on strawberries, including some of the more palatable-sounding medieval remedies that I have come across to date:
(This plant, which one calls fraga, and by another name ‘strawberry’, arises in dark places and clean ones, and also on hills.
Against spleen pain: take the juice of this plant, which we called fraga, and honey; give to drink; it works wonderfully. The juice of this same plant, when drunk mixed with honey and with pepper, does great things against constriction and against internal pain.)
I think Innocent Smoothies do one of those!
Fruit might seem like an odd topic for a blogpost, but by looking at the fruits that Anglo-Saxon writers wrote about, we can glimpse a little of the world that they lived in – both the world around them, full of plants for use in food and medicine, and also a world beyond their own experience, that they showed their interest in through the books they read, wrote and illustrated. Now isn’t that just peachy?
Oswald Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, Rolls Series 35:1-3 (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1965).
Hubert Jan de Vriend, ed., The Old English Herbarium and Medicina de Quadrupedibus, Early English Text Society, o.s. 286 (Oxford: OUP, 1984).
Michael Lapidge, ‘The Career of Archbishop Theodore’, in Lapidge, ed., Archbishop Theodore: Commemorative Studies on his Life and Influence (Cambridge: CUP, 1995).
Richard Marsden, ed., The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novo, vol. 1, Early English Text Society, o. s. 330 (Oxford: OUP, 2008).