A young fig tree flourishing in a sheltered corner of Bonnefont garden; detail of the ripe fruit (click to see full image)—note the tiny hole in the base of the fig at the lower right, and the milky sap that exudes from the stems when the figs are picked. This latex was a medicament and a rennet; it was also used as a mordant in medieval gilding and as a binder in the preparation of egg tempera. Photographs by Deirdre Larkin
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
—Genesis 3:6, 7
Much of the plant lore of the Middle Ages, like many other aspects of medieval culture, was a synthesis of classical and biblical tradition. The Tree of Knowledge is not named in the biblical account of the Fall; more than one species has been identified with the forbidden fruit, and the fig is among them. In Greco-Roman culture, the fig was associated with fertility and with the female genitalia. D. H. Lawrence explores this complex of cultural associations in his remarkable poem “Figs” (listen to a reading of this poem on YouTube).
The fig was identified both with the old Eve and the New Eve, the Virgin Mary. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was sometimes represented as a fig, as in this detail from a painting by Giuliano di Piero di Simone Bugiardini, where the serpent who tempts Eve is also female. Compare this image with the superb fresco of a serpent ascending a fig tree on the wall of a cubiculum in the House of the Fruit Orchard at Pompeii (available through the Pompeii Project website created by The British School at Rome and The University of Auckland).
Ficus carica, a plant of ancient cultivation throughout the Mediterranean basin, is mentioned thirty times in the Old Testament, and twenty-seven times in the New Testament. Like the vine and the olive, it is regarded as one of the staples of life and a symbol of abundance and prosperity. The blasting of a fig tree is equated with destruction. The fig is ubiquitous in Greek myth and literature, from Homer’s description of the ever-bearing orchard in the garden of Alcinous to Athenaeus’ enthusiastic catalogue of the many varieties and virtues of the fig in Book III of the Deipnosophists.
The Roman natural historian Pliny names twenty-nine varieties of fig known to him, and dilates on the sacred character and mythological significance of the fruit, including the fig’s dedication to the archaic goddess Rumina, protectress of suckling animals, who presided over the rearing of infants and to whom offerings of milk were made. (Historia naturalis, Book XV, 19-21.) The milky sap exuded by the broken stems of the fig informed this symbolic identification. Pliny also describes the process of caprification, the ancient practice of hanging branches of wild fig in the canopies of cultivated fig trees to insure a good crop. (For an extended discussion of the history of caprification, see The Fig: Its History, Culture, and Curing, by Gustavus A. Eisen.)
The fig was prized as a delicious, if fattening, food, but also as a medicine. The Greek herbalist Dioscorides devotes three chapters of Book I of the De Materia Medica to figs (I. 183–186.) Medieval herbals upheld the fig’s ancient reputation: consumption of the fruit benefited the throat and lungs, counteracted poisons, and cleansed the kidneys. A plaster of figs was applied to boils and inflammations; the milky sap removed spots and warts, and was dropped into cavities to stop toothache. The fruit was used as a laxative, and as an aid in childbirth.
Hildegard of Bingen freely prescribes figs for the infirm, but restricts their consumption by the healthy. The warning she appends to her discussion may derive from the fig’s association with temptation and sin in the Christian Middle Ages:
The fruit of this tree is not good for a person who is physically healthy to eat, since it affords him pleasure and gives him a swelled mind. He will seek honors and tend toward greed, and will have changeable morals, so that he does not remain in one state of mind. . . . It irritates his humors to evil, as if it were their enemy. . . . If a healthy person wishes to eat it, he should first soak it in wine or vinegar, so that its inconstancy is tempered. He should then eat it, but in moderation. (Physica, XIV)
(For more information on Hildegard of Bingen and Physica, see “Mutter Natur,” October 10, 2010.)
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides, translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint: New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Hildegard von Bingen. Physica. Translated by Priscilla Throop. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Moldenke, Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke. Plants of the Bible. Waltham, MA: 1952. Reprinted. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.
Pliny. Natural History, Vol. V, Books XVII–XIX. With an English translation by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1950, reprinted 1961, 1971.
Thompson, Daniel V. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. With a forward by Bernard Berenson. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1956.