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Nigel Jones suggests that the humble apple is possibly the world’s most important fruit, Devon has certainly benefitted from its perennial bounty over the centuries.
DNA analysis indicated that our modern apple owes its existence to Malus sieversii, which originated in an area around Kazakhstan’s mountainous region next to its border with the Tien Shan mountains in China. It can still be found flourishing today (see map). Gradually the apple is thought to have spread along the old silk routes through Asia, the Middle East and then Europe.
The apple through the centuries
Britain’s apple history most probably starts with the Roman invasion, and although it’s thought Britain already had apples of a sort in the Neolithic period, the Romans introduced varieties that provided much improved taste and sweetness. The Romans regarded the apple as a luxury fruit, the Norse gods supposedly owed their immortality to apples, and it’s reputed that a golden apple (inscribed with “For the fairest”) started the Trojan war, when it was thrown down amongst the assembled gods. Apple plantations in the Nile are mentioned in a papyrus dated to the reign of Rameses II (1279-1213 BC), apples and orchards were also referred to in Homer’s Odyssey. Today, the humble apple is the world’s most important and largest grown fruit crop, with production at 84.6 million tonnes in 2014, China consuming nearly half that quantity.
Early propagation / grafting
It’s important to note that apple trees grown from pips will be entirely different from their parents so if an apple was found to have all the properties desired to make it exceptional, such as good eating, resistance to pests and blight, etc, then it was necessary to ensure no changes occurred once the desired properties were found. This is why grafting was so important in terms of securing the properties of the existing strain. It’s said that the Chinese first worked-out how to graft apples, and it’s known that the Ancient Greeks also carried this out practice. It’s also said that the Celts were using grafting, pre Roman invasion, so there’s some debate about the widely held view that the Romans made a major input to our strains of apple.
Apple culture in Roman times was advanced, Columella describes cleft and rind grafting and they had also developed a method of propagation similar to the modern patch budding technique. Pliny noted that apples had the highest value amongst fruit and that apple cultivation was very profitable.
In Europe the monasteries became major producers of apples, particularly after Charlemagne* was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor in AD800, because he introduced a law that every crown-owned piece of land should have gardens planted with herbs and fruits, apples and pears to be amongst these. (*The title of Holy Roman Emperor was held in conjunction with the rule of the Kingdom of Germany).
The Norman Conquest & Christianity
In England following the Norman Conquest, monasteries and priories planted many apple orchards. They brought with them much expertise in apple cultivation from France. In 1086, twenty years after the invasion, half of the land in Kent was owned by the Christian church and St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury, so you can imagine the Norman/Christian influence on apple production across England. Two cultivars of apple became widespread in the thirteenth century, ‘Pearmain’ and ‘Costard’, there being records of their rootstocks being bought and sold. Cider became a popular and safe beverage, diluted for children, and cider became a valuable product with which to pay workers, also a popular drink for pilgrims. When you consider that ale required the production of an annual crop, whereas cider apples appeared year in, year out, perhaps for 70 years once the tree had started to fruit, then the value of the apple was inestimable, particularly because they could be cold-stored, providing they were kept frost-free. In addition, cider had a much longer shelf-life than ale.
Adam and Eve
It’s a question for debate whether our Christian forebears formed an uneasy alliance with the apple, and although the apple is not given as the forbidden fruit in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis story about Adam and Eve (nor is any other fruit given), artistic speculation and interpretation of this story in the mediaeval period eventually began to include the apple. For instance, an engraving by Albrecht Durer in 1504 shows Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit being an apple. Again in the 16th century, Lucas Craach’s (1472-1553) Titian shows Adam and Eve under an apple tree with a single apple held jointly between them both (see image). The apple theme was further propagated by artists in subsequent generations. It’s interesting to note that Malus – the Latin name for the apple, means both ‘apple’ and ‘evil’.
Henry VIII played his own part in the history of the apple in England. Following the Black Death and the War of the Roses, apple production had declined dramatically in England. Henry VIII imported French gardeners and instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and produce new varieties at his orchard in Kent. The red skinned Pippin was introduced from France, but in Tudor times the Queene was the most common variety.
Cider for wages
Cider was once used to pay employees, and it’s said that employers who produced the best ciders could attract good quality employees, because much of their wage was paid in lieu of cider.
The Truck Law
Of course there was a major flaw with paying employees in goods, as it was down to the employer to decide on the value of goods given to employees in lieu of money. It was very much in the interest of the employee to value whatever goods that were given as highly as possible, leading to much swindling, (for want of a better word). When researching the Truck Law, I’d found reference to it in 1464, although no information was forthcoming, although there were amendments listed for 1725, 1831, 1887, 1896 and 1940. It appears that employee payment with goods was finally made illegal in 1887 but I stand to be corrected. Editor