John Gerard (and Others), on the Vertues of Apples

Frontispiece to the John Norton edition John Gerard’s Herball (1597)

John Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes, a volume of plant lore that’s very firmly rooted in sixteenth century magical thinking, was based on Rembart Dodoens’ Latin translation of his own, earlier Cruijdeboeck, plus several other sources (to the point where Gerard was accused of outright plagiarism).

Presented as a guide to the “vertues” of different plants and their uses in medicine as it was understood at the time, when humorism was still the predominant doctrine used to attempt to cure the sick, it’s essentially a collection of folk remedies for the common ailments of the day, rather than a gardeners’ or growers’ manual. Which is why under the entry for ‘Apples’ there’s very little information on how to plant, grow, or select apple varieties.

Gerard mentions a “worshipful Gentleman” who lives two miles outside Hereford called “M. Roger Bodname” (presumably of the Bodenham family of Rotherwas) who has so many trees of all sorts that “the servants drinke for the most part no other drinke, but that which is made of Apples”. Gerard then advises Gentlemen that “have land and living” to: “graffe, plant and nourish up trees in every corner of your grounds, the labour is small, the cost is nothing, the commoditie is great, your selves shall have plentie, the poor shall have somwhat is time of want to relieve their necessitie, and God shall reward your good mindes and diligence” but that’s about it for practical advice. And he only mentions six types of apple: the ‘Pome Water’, the ‘Baker’s ditch’, the ‘King’ apple, the ‘Queen’ apple or ‘Quining’, the ‘Sommer Pearemaine’ and the ‘Winter Pearmaine’.

Gerard does, however, have plenty to say on the subject of the “temperature” of apples and their “vertues”:

The temperature: All Apples be of temperature cold and moist ; and have joyned with them a certaine excrementall or superfluous moysture : but as they be not all of like coldnes, so neither nave they like quantitie of superfluous moysture. They are soonest rotten that have greatest store of moysture, and they may be longer kept in which there is lesse store : for the abundance of excrementall moysture is the cause why they rot.

Illustrations of two apples, using woodcuts re-cycled from earlier works, in John Gerard’s Herball (1597)

Then, after a discussion of the various “moysture” levels of “Sweete”, “Sower” and “Harsh or austere” apples, he gets into his swing with those vertues:

The vertues: Rosted Apples are alwaies better than the rawe, the harme whereof is both mended by the fire, and may also be corrected by adding unto them seedes or spices.” A sentiment that was echoed nineteen years later by Gervase Markham in La Maison Rustique, or The Countrey Farme. There’s more from Gerald: “Apples be good for an hot stomacke: those that are austere or somewhat harsh, do strengthen a weake and feeble stomacke proceeding of heate.” This is clearly straight out of the Dodoens and Lyte play-book, in A Niewe Herball (1578).

Illustrations of four apples, again using woodcuts re-cycled from earlier works, in John Gerard’s Herball (1597)

They can also be applied as a poultice: “Apples are also good for all inflammations or hot swellings, but especially for such as are in beginning, if the same be outwardly applied.” Apple purée for your arthritic knees, anyone?

Back to those internal applications: “The juice of Apples which be sweete and of a middle taste” (neither sweet nor sour) “is mixed in compositions of divers medicines, and also for the tempering of melancholie humours, and likewise to mend the qualities that are drie : as are Serapium ex pomis Regid saporis, Antidotum ex granis Cocci Baphici, and such like compositions.” (I tried searching online for said concoctions and drew a blank, even with Holland and Barrett, but it sounds like Innocent weren’t the first to try flogging super smoothies by quite a long chalk.)

External applications again: “There is likewise made an ointment with the pulpe of Apples and Swines grease and Rose water, which is used to beautifie the face, and to take away the toughness of the skin, which is called in shops Pomatum, of the Apples whereof it is made.” A moisturiser that leaves you smelling of bacon and apples? Actually, I’m quite intrigued. (And hungry…)

Afflicted by an ailment of the gentleman’s water-works? Gerard has just the thing: “The pulpe of the rosted Apples, in number fower or five, according to the greatnesse of the Apples, especiall of the Pome-water. mixed in a wine quart of faire water, laboured together until it come to be as Apples and Ale, which we call Lambes Wooll, and the whole quart drunke last at night, within the space of an hower, doth in one night cure those that pisse by droppes with great anguish and dolour ; the strangurie, and all other diseases proceeding of the difficultue of making water ; but in twise taking it, it never faileth in any : oftentimes there hapneth with the foresaid diseases the Gonnorrhaea, or running of the raines, which it likewise healeth in those persons, but not generally in all ; which my selfe have often prooved, and gained thereby both crownes and credite.

And one more which is less relevant than it used to be thanks largely to the efforts of Edward Jenner: “Apples cut in peeces, and distilled with a quantities of Camphere and butter milke, taketh away the marks and sears gotten by the small pockes, being washed therewith when they grow unto their state of ripeness : provided that you give unto the patient a little milke and saffron, or milke and mithridate to drinke, to expell to the extreme parts that venome which may lie hid, and as yet not seene.

So there you have it, Apples – roasted, not raw – as a cure for a hot stomake, pissing in drops, dry skin, Gonnhorrhaea and to help reduce the scars left by smallpox. Quite the medicinal c.v., and that’s just the cultivated types; let’s not forget the humble crab apple:

Illustration of crab apples from John Gerard’s Herball (1597)

The juice of wilde Apples or Crabs, taketh away the heate of burnings, scaldings, and al inflammations : and being laid on in short time after it is scalded, it keepeth it from blistring.” Which makes a sort of sense: applying something cold and moist to a burn ought to help soothe the wound, surely? But wait, there’s more: “The juice of Crabs, or Verjuice, is astringent and binding, and hath withall an abstersive or clensing qualitie, being mixed with hard yeest of Ale or Beere, and applied in maner of a cold ointment, that is, spred upon a cloth shirt wet in the Verjuice and wroong out, and then laide to, taketh away the heate of Saint Anthonies fire ; all inflammations whatsoever, healeth scabbed legs, burnings and scaldings wheresoever it be.

Well, with that in its locker, it’s a wonder that Verjuice isn’t available at every pharmacy in the land.

John Gerard – portrait of the author from the 1597 Norton edition of the Herball

Yes, I know, I’ve been poking fun. It’s easy and perhaps a little unfair to mock our predecessors and the state of their knowledge at the time. But by quite a few accounts Gerard was a bit of a crook and a charlatan, so this time I don’t feel too guilty about it.

Next up: John Gerard on pears and then, perhaps, John Gerard on other orchard fruit. (This mini-series could run and run…)

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