Friday, January 16, 2009

The Palm

Potted Date Palm in Saint-Guilhem Cloister Detail from The Start of the Hunt A capital in Cuxa Cloister

Above, from left to right: young date palm growing in a pot in Saint-Guilhem Cloister; a juvenile date palm represented in the northern European landscape of The Start of the Hunt; a date palm flanked by lions in a column capital in Cuxa Cloister.

A plant of ancient cultivation, grown for some five thousand years and with an equally long presence in art and architecture, the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) was and is both economically and symbolically important. Date palms have provided an important food, an intoxicating liquor, a sweetener, and a building material. Identified in the ancient Near East with the Tree of Life, the palm has both religious and artistic significance in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian tradition as a symbol of grace, elegance, victory, wealth, and fecundity and is frequently associated with Paradise in medieval and Renaissance art and literature. There are forty-two Biblical references to the date palm (Moldenke and Moldenke, Plants of the Bible, 1952). An emblem of victory in Greco-Roman tradition, the palm was adopted as one of the earliest and most important plant symbols in the Christian Church, and was an emblem of the martyred saints in their victory over sin and death.

The palm is native from North Africa eastward to Asia Minor, Arabia, and Iraq, and has been introduced into many other places that enjoy a Mediterranean climate, including California, Mexico, and Australia. The botanical name of the genus is not thought to derive from the mythical bird, but rather from the Greek designation for Phoenicia (Anderson, German Herbals to 1500, 1984).

Although dates do not seem to have a wide application in medieval medicine, regimens like the Tacuinum Sanitatis recognize their value as a food stuff and recommend sweet, fresh dates as the best kind. Classified as cold in the first degree and dry in the second, fresh dates are said to be good for the intestines, although bad for the chest and the throat. The danger could be mitigated by eating the dates with honey (Luisa Cogliati Arano, Tacuinum Sanitatis: The Medieval Health Handbook, 1976).

—Deirdre Larkin

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