Archive for November, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hips and Haws

Rose hips in Bonnefont Cloister Detail of Rose Hips

Above, from left: The ripe fruits of the white rose tree in Bonnefont garden are held on their stems late into the fall, and provide food for birds and wildlife; the fleshy red fruits of the rose are known as “hips” and contain seeds that were used medicinally in the Middle Ages.

Apples, roses, and hawthorns are all members of a single botanical family, the Rosaceae. The fruits of the hawthorn are known as haws. The fruits of the rose are known as hips, a word of Germanic origin that appears in the glossary compiled by the Anglo-Saxon grammarian Aelfric in the ninth century.  (The Romans had designated the rose hip as malum roseum, or “rose apple”.)

While all roses bear hips, it was the fruit of wild roses such as the briar rose or eglantine (R. rubiginosa) and the dog rose (R. canina) that seem to have been used for food and medicine. The cookbook of Apicius, compiled in the fourth or early fifth century A.D., includes rose hips in several recipes, but in both ancient and medieval cuisine rose petals are used more often than the fruits. Wild roses seem to have been a famine food gathered in case of need rather than a delicacy. In the fourteenth-century Middle English translation of the Romance of William of Palerne, two lovers, William and Melior, flee to the woods disguised in bearskins, where William is given advice by his cousin—who has been transformed into a werewolf—as to what foods they may sustain themselves on, in addition to their love. It is suggested that they forage for wild plums, blackberries, hips, haws, acorns, and hazelnuts (”haws, hepus, & hakernes & hasel-notes”):

(For acorns as famine food, see last week’s post, “Pigs and Pannage“.)

William Turner, in his New Herbal of 1565, warns that those who make tarts out of hips should take heed to remove all the “down” from the fruit. These little hairs inside the hips are quite irritating to the skin. (I once made hedgerow jelly from hips, haws, and sloes, while in England, and found the process of removing the fibers from all those little hips pretty unpleasant, as well as tedious.) Dioscorides also recommended that this wooly matter be removed before the fruits were dried as a medicament to “stop the belly.”  Albertus Magnus specified the seeds contained in the hips as a remedy for diarrhea in infants.

Rose petals and oil of roses are more frequently recommended in medieval herbals than the fruits. Although garden roses were characterized as cold in the humoral theory of the Middle Ages, wild roses were classified as hot. Hildegard of Bingen says that the hips are very hot. As such, they would be considered efficacious in a complaint of  “a cold cause,” such as catarrh.) Hildegard recommends rose hips as a cure in Book LII of the Physica:

One who has pain in his lungs should crush rose hips with their leaves. Then he should add raw honey and cook these together. He should frequently remove the froth, then strain it through a cloth and make spiced wine. He should drink this often, and it will carry off the rotten matter from his lungs, purging and healing him.

Despite the flower’s ubiquity in medieval art, rose hips are rarely depicted in paintings or illuminations. However, a leafy stem of rose hips does appear in an early sixteenth-century book of hours commissioned by Anne of Brittany and painted by Jean Bourdichon. The painter shows a single “robin’s pincushion” or rose gall, formed by a parasitic wasp. (For the illumination, see the British Library Images Online.)

The gall, which is especially common on the wild field rose (R. arvensis) and the dog rose, is created when the wasp deposits its eggs in autumn. The larvae overwinter in the plant tissue, which provides both food and shelter until they hatch out in spring. This rose gall, known as a “bedeguar,” was powdered and used to treat internal ailments.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:

Fisher, Celia. The Medieval Flower Book. London: The British Library, 2007.

Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.

Touw, Mia. “Roses in the Middle Ages,” Economic Botany, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan.–Mar., 1982).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pigs and Pannage

November calendar page from the Belles Heures thumbnail November activity thumbnail The Zodiacal Sign of Sagittarius thumbnail

Above, from left to right: Calendar page for November from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, 1405–1408/1409. Pol, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1); detail of the activity for the month; detail of the zodiacal symbol Sagittarius. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

“September’s Husbandrie” from Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, 1580.

The term “mast” was applied to any autumnal fodder on which pigs might forage, including beechnuts, haws (the fruit of the hawthorn), and acorns, as well as fungi and roots. Acorns were the principal fodder in fattening up swine to be slaughtered and salted for winter food. While green acorns contain toxins that are poisonous to cattle and to people, they are not harmful to pigs. (Pigs were not reared in winter. Once the boar had sired a litter, he was sacrificed. Bacon and hams were cured after the November slaughter. Bacon grease replaced butter as the principal fat in the winter diet.)

“November’s Husbandrie” from Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, 1580.

A swineherd carrying a pole or stick to knock down acorns for his pigs frequently appears in the calendar tradition as the activity proper to November, as in the detail from the Belles Heures shown above. A very similar scene is depicted on the November page of the Très Riches Heures.

The same subject is drawn in ink on the lower left margin of the November calendar page of the Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, currently on display in the Treasury at The Cloisters. Jeanne, queen of France, retained the right to the income from the harvest of acorns in the forest of Nogent for her lifetime.

jeanne november calendar_detail

Jean Pucelle (French, active in Paris, ca. 1320–1334). Detail from the November calendar page from The Hours of Jeanne d’Évreux, ca. 1324–1328. Grisaille and tempera on vellum; 3 1/2 x 2 5/8 in. (8.9 x 6.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.2). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.

In medieval forest law, certain rights and privileges were afforded the tenants on the lord’s woodlands; the term “pannage” was used to designate both the practice of bringing pigs to the wood to forage for mast, and the right or privilege to do so. The term could also be applied to payment made to the owner of the woodland in exchange for this privilege, or to the owner’s right to collect payment, or to the income accruing from the privilege.

In England, where the tradition of foraging swine in oak forests was an important part of the agricultural cycle, the Saxon rights of pannage were much reduced by the Norman enclosure of game preserves, and the Saxon diet was greatly reduced when their pigs were deprived of acorns.

Acorns contain fat, carbohydrates and protein. The acorns of the common oak of Britain and northwestern Europe (Quercus robur) have a high tannin content and are too bitter to be palatable, but have been eaten in times of famine. They were ground into a meal that afforded a coarse bread. Alan Davidson notes that both acorns and bread or cakes made from them have remarkable keeping powers.

The Mediterranean holm oak (Quercus ilex var. rotundifolia) bear acorns that are much sweeter, and these are still enjoyed in Spain and Portugal, much as chestnuts are. It is probably the acorns of this species, when roasted and eaten with sugar, that are recommended as a health-giving food in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a late medieval health handbook based on an eleventh-century Arabic source.

—Deirdre Larkin

Sources:
Arano, Luisa Cogliati. The Medieval Health Handbook: Tacuinum Sanitatis. New York: George Braziller, 1976.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Husband, Timothy B. The Art of Illumination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Pérez-Higuera, Teresa. Medieval Calendars. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Late Bloomer

Arbutus unedo 'Compacta' Detail from The Unicorn at Bay  thumbnail Detail of Arbutus unedo in fruit and flower

Above, from left: A strawberry tree growing in a sheltered corner in Trie garden; Arbutus unedo in fruit in the woodland of The Unicorn At Bay; the evergreen strawberry tree bears flowers and fruit simultaneously in late October.

A native of the Mediterranean, the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is valued as an ornamental evergreen whose late-blooming flowers and red fruits enliven the garden in late fall and early winter, when few other species are of interest. The common name derives from the description of the tree made by Pliny the Elder, who compares the fruit, with its thin, rough, red rind, to that of the strawberry, Fragaria vesca. Read more »