How much fruit and veg should we be eating? Five portions a day, or seven? How much is a portion, and what counts? The Medieval Manuscripts Blog claims no authority on the matter, but seeks out the wisdom of the middle ages. According to Dr Hartmann Schedel (b. 1440, d. 1514), author of the Nuremberg Chronicle, ‘five things dispose a man and make him prone to incurring the plague’: famine, women (sorry), exertion and remaining stationary (evidently conflicting dietary advice is no modern invention), and...fruit.
Detail of the story of Adam and Eve, from the Bedford Hours, France (Paris), c. 1410-c. 1430, Add MS 18850, f. 14r
The first fruit-related health warning was issued by God, when he forbade Adam to partake of the Tree of Knowledge, under the threat of death. Adam and Eve ignored this prominently displayed advice and went ahead and ate it anyway – an experience I think we all relive between the first and second pieces of cake.
Detail from the Bedford Hours, Add MS 18850, f. 14r
The consequences were disastrous, to say the least: expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a lifetime of toil and pain.
Detail of a framed miniature illustrating Dante, Virgil and Statius and the Tree of the Gluttonous on the fifth terrace of Purgatory, from Dante Alighieri, ‘Divina Commedia’, N. Italy (Emilia/Padua), 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 943, f. 103v
Fruit-trees make an appearance in Dante’s Divine Comedy: the gluttonous are tormented by the sight of the heavily laden boughs of this tree, the fruit forever just out of their reach.
Detail of a portrait of King John from the Rous Roll, England (?Warwickshire), c. 1483, Add MS 48976, Membrane 2
The over-eating of fruit has been recorded as the cause of death of several famous people. Though current scholarship has tended to view such accounts as mere figments, nonetheless there was a close association between gluttony, fruit and sinfulness in the medieval imagination. Rumours that a surfeit of peaches did for King John began to circulate shortly after his demise. Contemporary monastic chroniclers were glad to see the man go – his reign had plumbed the depths of poor kingship and resulted in a papal interdict in 1208 – and seized reports of a gluttonous death as emblematic of his personal failings.
Spare a thought too for Pope Paul II, who fell victim to eating chilled melons. Melons of the unrefrigerated variety were said to have prompted the death in 1493 of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor – but, on the scale of things, it was probably having his gangrenous leg amputated before adequate anaesthesia, disinfectant and antibiotics had been invented.
Scatter border containing fruit, flowers and insects, surrounding the beginning of a letter dedicated to Edward VI, concerning the recent peace with Henry II of France, France (Paris), after 1547, Royal MS 16 E XXXII, f. 2r
We hope, despite these grim tales, that you still find fruit appealing – not least because the pages of our medieval manuscripts are heavily laden with depictions of fruit of all kinds. There is a particularly heavy crop of strawberries, especially in the ‘scatter borders’ common in fifteenth-century manuscripts.
Detail from a herbal, N. Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 30r
We also find cherries, such as in the pages of this herbal.
Detail of a coat of arms in a border, from St Augustine, ‘De civitate Dei’, N. Italy (?Padua/?Verona), c. 1440-c. 1470, Burney MS 292, f. 9r
Pears are incorporated into a wreath surrounding the arms of the Donati family of Venice, in this copy of Augustine’s De civitate Dei.
A vine border containing grapes and an owl, from a Book of Hours, Use of Worms, S. Germany (?Worms), c. 1475-c. 1485, Egerton MS 1146, f. 58r.
Grapes are often found dangling from the vines in elaborate foliate border decoration.
Roundel of men and women harvesting grapes, from the Huth Hours, Flanders (Valenciennes, Bruges, Ghent), early 1480s, Add MS 38126, f. 9v
The harvesting of grapes, the pastoral activity for the month of September, is also commonly depicted in the calendars attached to books of hours.
Detail of the border from the Leaf of a Commission, N.E. Italy (Venice), c. 1570-c. 1577, Add MS 20916, f. 15r
There is a whole harvest-basket of fruit on this Leaf of a Commission from the Doge of Venice Alvise I Mocenigo to Marco Corner: grapes, apples, and something that looks like a bit like a quince.
Detail of a man harvesting and eating fruit in an orchard, from ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’, E. England (East Anglia), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3954, f. 64r
By far the best to eat is the fruit that brings long life, from orchards recorded in Mandeville’s Travels. Where these trees might be, or what the fruit is, remains sadly unknown.
This post does not count as one of your five a day.
- James Freeman