Above: Both bitter and sweet oranges were introduced into Europe from Asia, but the bitter species preceded the sweet species by five centuries. The bitter Citrus aurantium var. myrtifolia, a sport, or spontaneous mutation, of the medieval species suitable for pot culture, overwinters on the sunny side of the Cuxa Cloister arcade. The fruit of Citrus aurantium is economically important as a flavoring, although it is too bitter to eat out of hand. The sweet orange, Citrus sinensis, depicted in The Unicorn is Found, would have been introduced only about fifty years before the tapestry was designed.
The bitter orange, Citrus aurantium, spread from its native China to India in ancient times. The orange is mentioned in an early Ayurvedic medical text, Charaka Samhita. According to food historian Alan Davidson, the Sanskrit “naranga” became naranj in Arabic, narantsion in post-classical Greek, and aurantium in Late Latin. Albertus Magnus, the first medieval writer to describe the bitter orange, called the fruit “arangus,” from which the Italian arancia and the French and English “orange” all derive.
Unknown to the Romans, the orange was introduced into the Mediterranean basin by the Arabs, perhaps as early as the ninth century. Grown in Sicily by the eleventh century, C. aurantium was established in Spain by the end of the twelfth century. A subtropical tree, the bitter orange could only be grown outdoors in the warmest ranges of southern Europe. The creation of shelters for growing tender plants like the orange was a Renaissance development; even in central Italy, it is necessary to over winter the plants in a limonaia or orangerie. Glasshouses were unknown to the Middle Ages, and their development was directly linked to the cultivation of citrus in the more northerly regions of Europe.
The sweet orange, Citrus sinensis, is also a native of China, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Sweet oranges did not reach Europe until about 1450. (The sweet orange depicted in The Unicorn is Found, woven about the year 1500, would have been a relatively recent introduction.) The sweet orange could be eaten out of hand, but the bitter orange of the Middle Ages was unpalatable, and could only be enjoyed when candied.
The dietary prescriptions of the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a late medieval health handbook based on an eleventh-century Arabic source, were sumptuously illustrated in several fourteenth-century manuscripts produced in Northern Italy. The text that accompanies the bitter orange tree (see image) specifies that the pulp and the fruit of the orange have different qualities: the pulp is cold and humid, while the skin is warm and dry. The candied skin of the perfectly ripe fruit is recommended as good for the stomach, although it is difficult to digest—a difficulty that can be moderated by washing down the sweetmeat with the very best wine. Confectio aurantii was still being prescribed as a stomachic in the nineteenth century:
—Excerpt from The elements of materia medica and therapeutics by Jonathan Pereira, 1842
For a medieval recipe for candied orange peel, adapted from a famous fourteenth-century handbook on household management, Le Ménagier de Paris, see Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes, and Modern Adaptations by D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully.
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.
Stannard, Jerry. “Identification of the Plants Described by Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus, lib. VI” (XV, 287) in Pristina Medicamenta: Ancient and Medieval Medical Botany. Ed. Katherine Stannard and Richard Kay. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.
Van Wyk, Ben-Erik. Food Plants of the World. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005.