Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Medieval oranges

Recently I read A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. One of the characters was named Seguina d'Orange, which made me wonder just when Europeans would have been introduced to the orange fruit. I soon learned that oranges (at least, the bitter or sour orange) may well have been a reasonably common item at the docks in the England of Chaucer’s time, though they were almost certainly too expensive for most inhabitants of London to enjoy. A treatise by Georges Gallesio and other sources suggest that lemons and bitter oranges were first brought to Europe during or just after the Crusades – too late for my sixth-century characters to have savored an orange. Sweet oranges were even later to arrive. The only citrus fruit documented by early writers such as Dioscorides was the citron (Citrus medica).

Harvesting bitter oranges. Figure from folio 18v of the manuscript Nouvelle Acquisition Latine 1673, a 14th-century (approximately 1390-1400) copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Bibliothèque nationale de France, held in the Mandragore database of illuminated manuscripts.
Because sixth-century physician Alexander of Tralles is known to have traveled widely, I wondered whether he might have encountered the orange. The French translation of his work does list two instances of orange, in Volume 2 of Brunet’s translation. But when I looked more closely at these references to oranges, I found that neither one was well supported.

The first citation was in Alexander’s treatise on fevers. Brunet’s French translation lists citron juice or orange juice as one of the ingredients in a remedy for quartan fever, but Puschmann’s German translation only specifies citron juice. A sixteenth-century Latin translation (p 95) renders the original Greek as succo citrii (or similar phrasing in other Latin translations (p 69b)), which we have no reason to believe is anything but citron juice.

The second reference to oranges was in Alexander’s medical book 1, in the chapter on paresis. In a section on dietary recommendations for a certain type of paresis, Brunet’s translation lists oranges as a fruit to avoid. But looking at the text more closely, the literal translation is the fruit called golden apples (ceux appelés pommes d’or in Brunet’s translation; die sogenannten Goldäpfel in Puschmann’s translation; qua vocantur mala aurea in a sixteenth-century Latin translation (p 108)). A “golden apple” could be an orange, but it could equally be some other fruit. We cannot be certain that Alexander of Tralles had the orange in mind when he made this recommendation.

Harvesting bitter oranges. Figure from folio 16v of the manuscript Latin 9333, a 15th-century copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Bibliothèque nationale de France, held in the Mandragore database of illuminated manuscripts.

Oranges may be relatively recent arrivals to Europe and the Americas, but they were quick to leave their mark on the diet. Once very expensive, they are now an everyday food or drink in much of the world.

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