Rembert Dodoens and Henry Lyte, on Apples

Illustration of an Apple tree from A Niewe Herball, Henry Lyte, 1578

Of The Apple Tree

There are divers sortes of Apples, not onely differing in figure and proportion of making, but also in taste, quantities, and colour, so that it is not possible, neither yet necessarie, to recite or number al the kindes, consydering that all Apple trees are almost lyke one another : and all sortes of Apples may be comprehended in a few kindes, for the playner declaration of their natures, faculties, or powers : as into sweet, sower, rough, astringent, waterish apples, and apples of a mixt temperature, as betwixt sweete and sower, &c.

The Vertues

Apples do coole and comfort the hoate stomacke, especially those that be sowrish and astringent of taste, and they may be used in hoate agues, and other inflammations or heates of the stomacke, and aginst thirste : but otherwise they are hurtful to the stomacke, causeing windinesse and blastinges in the belly.”

Henry Lyte, A Niewe Herball, 1578 (trans. from Rembert Dodoens’ Cruijdeboeck met voorstellingen van planten, 1574)

This description of the apple tree comes from a sixteenth century herball, a volume dedicated to the medicinal properties of plants, according to the understanding of the time.

The ‘of the apple tree’ section could demonstrate one of two things: either the range of apple varieties grown in sixteenth century England was genuinely limited – which seems unlikely when other sources of the era regularly recommend the selection and transplantation of (genetically diverse) seedlings for orchard use. Or, more likely, the author simply wasn’t interested in cataloguing varieties of apples because, for his purposes, it was enough to lump them together according to their “vertues“.

These, of course, were part and parcel of the prevalent ‘humorist‘ mode of thought (a key part of the ‘magical thinking’ paradigm that was touched on in a quote-post on planting by the phases of the moon), in which a person’s health was dictated by the balance of one of four ‘humours’ or bodily fluids: yellow bile, black bile phlegm and blood, as was their general temperament: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic or sanguine.

These, in turn, were linked to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, which in turn were said to possess a combination of ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘dry’, or ‘wet’ characteristics.

Image: ‘Alchemic approach to four humors in relation to the four elements and zodiacal signs.’ from Quinta Essentia by Leonhard Thurneysser
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ailments of the body were believed to be caused by an imbalance of the humours, which had to be addressed by the application of something possessing an opposite characteristic, in order to restore the body’s balance.

Apples were said to be “colde and moyste”, therefore a remedy for “hoate” ailments such as “inflammations or heates of the stomacke”. Although clearly there was a risk of “windinesse and blastinges in the belly” if you ate the wrong type. This last part seems to be a sensible warning, given the number and variety of sour, wild apples and cider apples that must have been available to forage and scrump from orchards at the time.

Personally though, the next time my stomach is feeling hot and inflamed, I don’t think I’ll be reaching for sourish apples. No offence to Messrs Dodoens and Lyte, but I think a nice mug of ginger tea would do me more good.

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