Later On

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The forgotten medieval fruit with a vulgar name

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Zaria Gorvett writes at BBC of a once-popular fruit now almost forgotten:

In 2011, archaeologists found something unusual in a Roman toilet.

The team were excavating the ancient village of Tasgetium (now Eschenz, Switzerland), ruled by a Celtic king who was personally given the land by Julius Caesar. It was built on the banks of the river Rhine, along what was then an important trade route – and as a result, its remains have been steeped in water ever since. What should have rotted away centuries ago was uncovered in a remarkable state of preservation, protected by the lack of oxygen in the boggy conditions.

It was here that, nestled among the remains of familiar foods such as plums, damsons, cherries, peaches and walnuts in an ancient cesspit, the archaeologists found 19 curiously large seeds. Though they were, let’s say, “deposited” there nearly 2,000 years ago, they almost looked fresh enough to have been found yesterday – except that the fruit they belong to is now so obscure, it can baffle even professional botanists.

The polite, socially acceptable name by which it’s currently known is the medlar. But for the best part of 900 years, the fruit was called the “open-arse” – thought to be a reference to the appearance of its own large “calyx” or bottom. The medlar’s aliases abroad were hardly more flattering. In France, it was variously known as “la partie postérieure de ce quadrupede” (the posterior part of this quadruped), “cu d’singe” (monkey’s bottom), “cu d’ane” (donkey’s bottom), and cul de chien (dog’s bottom)… you get the idea.

And yet, medieval Europe was crazy about this fruit.

The first record of the medlar’s existence is a fragment of Greek poetry from the 7th Century BC. Eventually the fruit is thought to have fallen into the hands of the Romans, who brought it to southern France and Britain. In 800AD, Charlemagne included it on a list of plants that were mandatory in the king’s many gardens, and nearly 200 years later, the English abbot and writer Ælfric of Eynsham first committed its rather rude sobriquet to the public record.

From there, the fruit’s popularity steadily increased. It became a staple of medieval monasteries and royal courtyards, as well as public spaces such as village greens.

It’s featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the two-time queen consort Anne of Brittany’s Book of Hours – a kind of illustrated religious manuscript popular in the Middle Ages. Henry VIII had the medlar planted at Hampton Court, and gifted his French counterpart with large quantities.

The fruit reached its peak in the 1600s when it was widely grown across England – as ordinary as apples, pears, mulberries and quince. From this lofty pinnacle, it underwent a steady decline. It was still widely known until the early 20th Century, though less celebrated. Then in the 1950s it abruptly vanished from the public consciousness altogether.

Once a household name, described by one Roman commentator as amounting “almost to a craze“, now the medlar is primarily grown as a romantic relic from the past – a niche plant for eccentric gardeners and a historical curiosity at palaces and museums.

Just a few decades after it disappeared, it was already mysterious to many greengrocers. In 1989, one American academic wrote that “probably not one in a hundred” botanists had seen a medlar. Today it’s not sold at a single British supermarket. Where there are still plants growing in public spaces, they often go unrecognised and are left to rot on the ground.

What was it about this strange fruit that gripped medieval Europe, and why did it disappear? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 March 2021 at 10:07 am

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