Old apples

In our Middle English reading group today, we were reading “Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London,” a verse description of a pageant welcoming King Henry VI as he returned to London from France in 1432. It was written by the prolific writer and monk John Lydgate, who represents the political performances and allegories alongside a rich scriptural tradition. The king progresses through a series of entrances while being met by a variety of officials and allegorical representations celebrating his kingship over England and France. He is legitimized through verses from the Psalms and Proverbs as well as by important representations of lineage and authority like the Jesse Tree.

Lots of medieval poems feature catalogues or lists of things. Stones, trees, animals, flowers, fruit. Ovid’s got one in  Metamorphoses. Chaucer has several including in the Parlement of Fowles. These lists are a way of showing off a poet’s ability to rattle off lots of items in an artful manner. They also amplify a particular description through a forest of detail.

So, apples: this poem contained a list of fruits. Lydgate is describing a group of carefully arranged trees displaying a plethora of different fruits. This artificial bounty is a spectacle of wealth and trade:

Ther were eke treen, with leves fressh of hewe,
Alle tyme of yeer, fulle of fruytes lade,
Of colour hevynly, and ever-yliche newe,
Orenges, almondis, and the pomegernade,
Lymons, dates, theire colours fressh and glade,
Pypyns, quynces, blaunderell to disport,
And the pomecedre corageous to recomfort;

Eke the fruytes which more comune be —
Quenynges, peches, costardes and wardouns,
And other meny ful fayre and fresh to se;
The pomewater and the gentyll ricardouns;
And ageyns hertes for mutygaciouns
Damysyns, which with here taste delyte,
Full grete plenté both of blak and white.

[There were also trees with leaves fresh of hue
All times of the year, full of fruits laden,
Of color heavenly, and ever like new,
Oranges, almonds, and the pomegranate,
Lemons, dates, their colors fresh and glad,
Pipins, quinces, blaundrell to enjoy,
And the pome-citron courageous to restore.

Also the fruits which more common be –
Quenings, peaches, costards, and wardouns,
And many others very fair and fresh to see;
The pomewater and the noble ricardine;
And against hurts for relief
Damson plums, which with their taste delight,
Very great plenty both of back and white. ]

Some of the fruits are familiar ones, whether under their own name: oranges, almonds, quinces, pomegranates, lemons, dates, and peaches. Others are better known under other names: the pomme-cedre (literally “apple-citron”) or citron, the wardoun or plump pear, and the damysyn, a variety of plum.

The rest are apples: Pypyn, blaundrell, quenyng, costard, pomewater, and ricardoun. Six distinct varieties of apple!

These apples represent an early foray into what we now know as selective breeding. These apples represent the finest fruits of their time. The blaundrell, for instance, corresponds roughly to the calville blanc apple available today, and in that form remains a fruit much-loved by European chefs. It’s a cooking apple, but all of these apples would have been cooked, because raw apples and other fruits were suspected of transmitting diseases. They especially went into meat dishes, adding a sweetness that most of our meat dishes today don’t have.

So in a way the apples represented the dinner table turned out, returned to the tree. They also display London’s wide-ranging influence. As a port it had become by the 15th century an important nexus of trade. Goods from around England came to London, while its port received ships from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.In the first stanza, non-native plants like dates and oranges represent England’s contact with sources of Mediterranean wealth. These trees grow green all year. Then with the second stanza, the “fruits which more common be,” show off local varieties, perhaps to prove what wealth England already has. Apples show up in both lists, as if the kingdom’s hunger for apple is insatiable.

Finally, the list of fruit trees evokes paradise. Enoch and Elijah soon appear to greet the king. Both are Biblical figures who at the end of their lives were “translated” into what later authors assumed was an Edenic paradise. The actors playing Enoch and Elijah, combined with the trees themselves, suggest that Henry VI’s reign should be paradise on Earth. It’s a paradise by conquest, horticulture, trade, and the projection of power.

I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while though. Apples. I have several questions. Were these real trees, or English trees bedecked with other fruits, or representational trees like the Jesse tree? What happened to these fruits – were they cooked up for a feast later? What’s the story behind all of these varieties of apples? And – a question I’ve had no time for – what does it mean to take a visual representation of plenty and turn it into a textual catalogue? If we trace the appropriations of plant material, what is happening between the grove, the market, the traders, their procural, their display in the pageant, their consumption at that time, and their textual lives?

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