Long-Lost Medieval Orchard Manuscripts Rediscovered?

I was recently browsing through one of the online archives that I habitually check every so often, and came across something I’d not seen before, so I thought I’d share it here.

Une Compilation d’œuvres d’Art Médiévales Liées Aux Pommes et aux Vergers (A Compilation of Medieval Works of Art Related to Apples and Orchards) appears to be a nineteenth century text – the publication date isn’t given but the general style and composition of the title page is indicative – that,as the title suggests, gathers together orchard-related artwork from much earlier sources.

The credited – but in all likelihood pseudonymous – author is one Monsieur “Pruner D’Artin”, a writer I’d not encountered before. (I say this is probably a pseudonym because Artin is a small village near Limoges in south-central France, and ‘Pruner’ is of course French for ‘plum’, so it seems the author is calling themselves “Plum of Artin”, or “Artin Plum”? Unless ‘pruner’ is a direct reference to or pun on the English noun for someone who prunes fruit trees? Either way, it doesn’t seem likely to be a proper, given name. But I digress.)

I’m no art historian, but it seems to me that the imagery could have been sourced from a variety of late medieval manuscripts, or possibly some a Renaissance work? Sadly, none of the sources are quoted – a shocking oversight – and the accompanying text is in a dialect of French, which is a language I’m by no means fluent in, and even Google Translate couldn’t make much sense of it. So I’ve had to guess at what most of the images represent. Some are fairly obvious. Some… not so much. Bearing that in mind, please do bear with me if any or all of the following seems a little perplexing.

The first part of the text contains numerous representations of assorted orchard work, including several rather interesting images that show various orchard tasks being undertaken. There’s also a second section of food and drink related images. And then, this being, a medieval / Renaissance manuscript collection, there are plenty of images with biblical themes as well.

Here’s a selection of my favourites.

Working in the Orchard

This image clearly shows farm workers planting apple trees. I’m assuming the tree in full fruit is a symbolic representation to indicate the type of tree being planted, rather than an indication that the work might be undertaken in high summer. That’s a rather interesting axe/hoe combination that the worked on the left is using, and the spade/fork in the top right looks useful, too.

It looks like this chap might be top-grafting in order to add a new variety to an existing tree.

These two orchardists could be grafting, or they could be performing some sort of tree-training operation? Perhaps those sticks are going to be used to tie-in branches in order to encourage them towards the horizontal? Or, given the general shape of the trees – vertical cordon, or even spindle, unless I’m much mistaken – perhaps those are measuring devices intended to attain an optimal distance between fruiting sections of the tree? It all looks quite technically accomplished, anyhow.

This looks like some sort of pruning operation, with an orchardist trimming the trunk of a paradise rootstock tree to avoid the development of competing limbs below the fruiting canopy.

And… I’m going to say this is pruning as well? Over-pruning, by the looks of things, there’s not a lot of fruiting wood left on that one tree. I’m not sure I recognise all of the tools being used here either, but I suppose they would have done things differently back in the day and I’m sure they knew what they were doing.

Using an axe to either prune a tree or harvest apples is a new one on me, but perhaps he artist was aiming to show a general pruning tool rather than a specific method? Again, it looks like the apples are on paradise rootstocks, given their small size.

I’m on safer ground here: gathering apples in what appears to be quite an extensive orchard setting. The figure on the right seems to be wearing a full-face hood, but perhaps they have allergies?

Food and Drink

The next section of the book collects images of fruit processing, cookery and what looks like cider-making in action.

Here are two rustic fellows washing apples in a barrel fitted with some sort of spigot, whilst a pair of horses look on, hoping for a few bruised rejects to come their way.

Next up: apple pressing. Or possibly washing again. I’m not sure if that is a pounding device or a washing device. Definitely a device of some sort though. I mean, look at it. It’s got “device of some sort” written all over it, no?

Could this be some sort of screw-driven scratter or apple crusher? It looks jolly ingenious, whatever it is, although the chap on the right-hand side clearly isn’t all that impressed. Maybe they’re loading the thing too slowly, or he thinks the old ways are best. Let’s face it, there’s always someone who thinks the old ways are best, hanging around and making “helpful suggestions” when you’re trying to get a job done… am I right, or am I right?

I’m going to say this is a bottling and blending party. The presence of two or three monks and a gang of layman labourers would suggest a monastic setting? Although perhaps it’s a bottling, blending and sampling party, ‘cos the chap in red – father abbot? – seems to be performing his oh, so hilarious “look I’ve got a bottle-up-my-sleeve” routine. Silly father abbot.

More sampling! The chap in the middle must have had a few already, as he seems to have forgotten where his mouth is.

Fruit cookery methods are also well represented. Here’s a cook chopping apples ready for… juicing?

Two more cooks are shown here preparing apples for a pie, using what seems to be a traditional “coffin” of thick pastry. I think they might want to do a but more prep than that though! Unless the idea of leaving the stalks on is to enable diners to pick the roasted apples from the coffin via the stalks, rather than diving in with a spoon? Actually, that could be quite clever. Sorry! As you were, chaps!

And here’s a whole gang of chefy-types, apparently discussing the best way to serve up a giant apple pie. “With custard, you fools! Always with custard!” “No, no! We should offer a choice of cream or ice cream!” “Bah! Stick a raw apple on the top, I say!” What larks.

Biblical Apples

The term “apple” is only mentioned a few times in the bible, and of course scholars of the subject have hotly debated whether “apple” is in fact the correct interpretation of the original, given the generally accepted unlikelihood of it having grown well in Bible Lands, back in Bible Times. But of course, medieval artists were fond of representing a familiar fruit in biblical contexts, hence this miscellany of apples in various biblical scenes. Or so I assume. But what do I know?

Let’s start with an obvious one. This looks like the serpent, in the form of a “wyrm” or dragon, coiled around the tree of knowledge. Scrumper beware!

More Old Testament stuff here with Noah’s Ark coming to rest in an orchard-filled valley. Handy to have all that fruit to eat after a long voyage Just the thing to stave off scurvy!

Here’s Moses, back down from the mountain, bearing his tablet of Commandments. Looks like he’s meeting with the editorial committee to discuss the latest draught of his proposals.

Here we have Saint, er… Somebody-or-Other, either blessing or healing, er… Someone. The figure on the left could be angelic? Or some sort of living caduceus, maybe representing Hermes, patron of physicians? And the central figure – very saintly indeed, I think we can all agree – seems to have two right arms. But that’s probably symbolic of, er… Something.

This is “David et Goliath”, with the latter shown in beastly form. Looks like there’s some mighty smiting about to occur!

Back to the Garden of Eden? I’m assuming so, given the presence of the serpent, and the saintly Eve holding an apple. And presumably that’s Cain and Abel in the background, with Cain caught in the serpent’s clutches? Naughty Cain! Adam does not look like a happy fellow though… I really wouldn’t like to be that serpent in about ten seconds’ time.

And finally, well, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. The Ascension, sure, with Jesus being taken up into heaven in a heavenly chariot of some sort, with plenty of disciples and/or apostles gathered to see him off. Lots of flying apples, too. Which is… nice.

To Conclude

Well that was all rather odd, wasn’t it? To be honest, I’m really not sure what to make of the whole thing. It’s fascinating, of course, but part of me wonders whether I might not have fallen for some sort of hoax or practical joke?

In any case, I must extend my sincere thanks to Professor M. Bing of the University of Ayprulphules for their invaluable assistance with the interpretation of the majority of the imagery. Much appreciated.

For more on the inspiration behind Monsieur Pruner D’Artin’s work, please click here. And if you have any questions or thoughts on what you’ve seen here, please do feel free to post a comment below.

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