The air is turning crisp outside and the orchards are ripe with bright red apples. As you are going out to enjoy some fresh apples int eh beautiful autumn weather, you may be delighted to know that Shakespeare enjoyed this same tradition as well, with a variety of apples available in England for the 16-17th century. 

Shakespeare uses the word “apple” in his works a total of 9 times, including references to crab apples, rotten apples, and the apple of your eye, among others. The word apple was used to describe the round, edible, fruit we know today, but could also apply to other fruits. In fact, some 16-17th century references use “apple” as a generic term for any fruit that included a nut. There’s even one expression from the Middle ages called “appel of paradis” which refers to a banana. The apple fruit features prominently in religious artwork for the 16th century, as well as being useful for cooking, apple cider, and of course, the famous Christmas beverage enjoyed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, Apple Wassail. To explore the history of apples in England, we are excited to welcome Nigel Deacon to show today, who will be sharing with us not only how apples are cooked for Shakespeare’s lifetime, but other more surprising places you might find them in the 16-17th century as well.  

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Nigel and Alison Deacon both worked in education for 30 years, Nigel teaching Chemistry and Alison teaching Maths, ICT and German. In 2002 they started researching and then locating the heritage apple varieties from Leicestershire in the centre of England, finding and re-introducing all but one of the 14 varieties originating from the County. Their website, SuttonElms, put them in touch with many others also interested in heritage and unusual apples, and they now have a collection of 200 rare varieties. They have a particular interest in wild apples and red fleshed apples and are now involved in a project with a leading nursery in the UK breeding new apple varieties for the garden and retail markets. 

I’ll be asking Nigel and Alison Deacon about:

  •  Were there any wild apples that grew on trees in England for Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • Were there apple orchards, and apple farmers, who were growing this fruit commercially in the 16-17th century?  
  • What was the most common type of apple for Shakespeare’s lifetime?  
  • …and more!

Resources Recommended by Our Guest

 Joan Morgan, The Book of Apples.

Story of the Apple, by David J. Mabberley and Barrie E. Juniper videos of apple tasting and information on English apples

“…she’s as like this as a crab’s like an apple…”

— King Lear (I.5)
Derived from :Image:Romanbritain.jpgFosse Way | Neddyseagoon at English Wikipedia | Derivative works of this file:  Stane Street (Colchester).png | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source

Wild English Apples

Apples are not native to England, but there are some that grow wild simply for having been planted there by a scattered seed. Apples were imported in large numbers to Europe from places like Kazakstan, and travelers would eat them along the road. One famous Roman rode, the Fosse Way, has many such apple trees scattered about its’ edges. Nigel and Alison share with us in today’s episode that they themselves were apple to count over 80 apple trees on their recent visit to this ancient road. 

The distribution of apples was a hyper-local affair. With no commercial orchards available, individuals were either wealthy enough to have their own private orchards, or they picked apples from some of the road side trees that sprung up from dropped seeds. 

In England, there are several plant spaces that are known as hedgerows, where wild plants spring up untended. Inside these hedgerows, it was not uncommon for apple trees to appear there, and they were essentially public fruit. Anyone that knew the tree was located in that spot was free to grab the fruit from it and cook it. 

Nigel and Alison explain that many of these wild fruit trees were crab apple trees, which are small, tart, apples, that are excellent for baking, but not so ideal for eating raw. The larger, rounder, sweeter fruits were considered more luxurious, and primarily owned by wealthy people with a private orchard that provided fruit for an estate. However, if you had the right connections at a larger estate it was possible to be given fruit, or even a tree cutting, allowing you to graft a tree at home.

Gallery Images in Order from Clockwise from top Left: Apple tree, Josias Rihel, 1595, old coloured woodcut by David Kandel (1520-1590) | Pubic Domain | Source

The virgin and child with Saint Anne, between circa 1525 and circa 1550. |Saint Anne is offering an apple to Jesus | Public Domain | Source

Two young men sharing an apple, unknown date, but painted by Chrispijn van den Broeck  (1523–1591)   | Public Domain | Source

The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree, by

Lucas Cranach the Elder  (1472–1553)  | c. 1530s | Public Domain | Source

Atalanta and Hippomemes, in the foreground Atalanta kneeling to pick up an apple and Hippomemes running with an apple in either hand, in the landscape background Atalanta running, from a series of four mythological scenes | circa 1535–62 | This file is made available under the Creative CommonsCC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. | Source

16-18th century cloth | Deep horizontal band with four biblical scenes in off-white on a red silk ground, with deeply scalloped red silk needle lace on three sides. The band consists of four joined panels, each panel depicting a scene which is labeled at the top. The creation of the universe, QUADO CHE IDIO CREO IL MONDO, shows the sun and moon, flowering trees, animals and birds. The creation of Adam and Eve, ADAM ADAM ET EVA, shows at left Adam alone with a dog, the hand of God removing Adam’s rib, and at right Eve emerging from Adam’s side. The temptation and flight from Eden, ADAM ET EVA SONO SCACIAI D PARAD, shows Adam receiving the apple from the snake in the Tree of Knowledge on the left, and on the right God casting Adam and Eve out of the gates of the Garden. Cain and Abel the children of earth work, QUANO LA TERA CAIN EVEL SACRIFICANDO, shows on the left a woman nursing a child and a man tilling the soil; on the right two figures kneel before fires. The figures are reserved in fine undyed linen cloth speckled with embroidered dots, while the background is entirely covered in crimson silk long-legged cross-stitch. Guard borders with sprigs, birds, and animals border each panel. | Unknown artist, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum   | Public Domain | Source

“An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart…”

— Merchant of Venice (I.3)

[At Left] Screen capture of a 1611 dictionary that defines “Pomme d’Adam” as an “Adam’s apple” but instead of talking about the ball in the front of the human throat, this Adam’s apple is a “Certain yellow fruit that resembles a small. cowcumber” (That’s cucumber, for the unfamiliar.) The entry goes on to describe the “Syrian apple” as being as big “as an Orange.” |Randle Cotgrave – A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) | Source

Growing new apple trees

With apples, even if grow a tree from a seed, you are producing a new variety of tree. No apple seeds grow exact replicas of their parent tree. If you want to copy a tree, you have to clone it, or graft it, from the variety you would like to produce. 

All apples are different from the one you started with. To copy it properly, you have to clone it, which is through grafting—you take a piece of it and splice it onto another tree (Called a root stock) the stock supplies the roots The scion forms the branches and the fruit. They did this in Shakespeare’s time, and we use the same methods today. Graft stock and scion are familiar words used in other contexts and they do appear throughout Shakespeare’s works. If you graft a decent pale onto a crab, the tree is transformed into something much better. 

Fun Fact: A manual published in 1600 states that if you write “Taste and see that Jehovah is good” onto the skin of an apple and lay it in a vat of wine, the wine will not go bad.

Image at the left and right are two pages from A Survey Of The Ancient Husbandry And Gardening Collected From Cato Varro Columella Virgil, 1600, Source They demonstrate the wine vat and inscribing the apple to prevent it going bad.

There are several kinds of apples that were grown in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The manual above that talks about how to graft apple trees, mentions Quince apples, as well as Dagonille apples, to name two. 

And these are Newtown Pippins.

Newtown Pippins.  photo by Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA | This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic license. | Source

Henry VIII was an avid apple grower (I’m not sure Henry VIII could be said to have done anything by halves, to be honest). This legacy is continued today at The Kent Garden, which was begun for Henry VIII by intrepid fruitier, John Harrys. The specific kind of apple that Harrys planted for the King is called the “pippin.” Harrys grafted pippin apple trees from France to grow the orchard for the King. One website describes the process: “Returning with his finds he planted trees on some land at Teynham. So impressed was King Henry with the initial crops that he gave Harrys more land so the market-gardener had a total of 105 acres – at Oziers Farm and New Gardens – and by the end of the 16th century, Teynham was home to England’s first large fruit collection. It came to be known as ‘The chief mother of all other orchards in England’. (Source)

“Some stern untutor’d churl, and noble stock Was graft with crab-tree slip; whose fruit thou art, And never of the Nevils’ noble race.”

— Henry VI Part II (III.2)

Types of Apples in Shakespeare’s lifetime

If you’re a commoner, or poor people with no lands, you would gather wild apples, mainly crabs, but you might know of a sweet apple from a hedge somewhere, or you might know someone at the big house who might graft you a tree. Someone in between, yeoman, you might have a few trees—Example: Isaac Newton’s original tree. Isaac Newton discovered gravity from a falling apple in 1666, and the tree he sat under for this event still lives in England today. 

Also known as the Gravity Tree. In the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham. It is the descendant of the tree under which Isaac Newton sat in 1666 when an apple fell onto his head inspiring him to come up with the theory of gravity. The original tree blew down in 1820, but the trunk remained rooted and this tree grew from it. Now maintained by the National Trust. | Photo by It’s No Game from Leicestershire, UK | This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic license. | Source

Map of Lincolnshire, This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.Attribution: Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right | Source

Newton’s apple tree is on the left, and a map showing where in England the tree is located is on the right. 

Recipes and Uses for Apples in Shakespeare’s Lifetime

Someone like John Shakespeare, who was a middling sort, he had a house Stratford Upon Avon, so it was possible they had trees of apples planted in the garden to supply their home. For most people, ,apples were for cooking and were not often consumed raw outside of long travels. 

A booke of the art and maner, howe to plante and graffe all sortes of trees : how to set stones and sowe pepins, to make wilde trees to graffe on, as also remedies and medicines. With diuers other newe practises by Mascall, Leonard, -1589; Wight, John, -1589, bookseller; Brossard, David. Art et manière de semer pépins et de faire pépinière | Dated 1582 | Public domain. The BHL considers that this work is no longer under copyright protection. | Source

Popular recipes for apples include roasted crabs and of course, apple wassail. The wassail bowl was consumed on the 6th of January every year to celebrate the end of the Christmas season. In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck compares a woman’s lips to roasted crabs in a bowl. That’s Act II Scene 1. 

Again in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Don Adriano refers to “When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,” Act V, Scene 2, and contrary to what many who first encounter this play are apt to believe, he’s not referring to sea creatures, but to apples. 

There were three common varieties of apples from Shakespeare’s lifetime: 

Coster—green or yellow skins, cooking/Cider

Codlings — similar, but smoother, still around today

Pomaines/Pippins, red skin color, much sweeter, still with us today, eaten raw. 

Coster is a word used in Shakespeare’s plays as a slang term. This word was used as a slang term for a person’s head. A related word, “costermonger” shows up in Henry IV Part II, when Falstaff says ” Virtue is of little regard in these costermongers’ times that true valour turn’d berod…” The term costermonger is someone who sold fruit, including coster apples. 

Correction to the audio: Our guests refer to Lover’s Labour’s Lost as the play where “costermonger” is used, but I was unable to find it in LLL. I did find it however, in Henry IV Part 2, which is what’s listed here. 

“We have some old crab-trees here at home that will not Be grafted to your relish…”

— Coriolanus (II.1)
“Apples of Love” by John Gerard, in The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes, 1597 | No known copyright | Source

Other Recipes for Apples

In addition to apple wassail and roasted crabs, you could also find verjuice made from apples. For DIY History, we make it from grapes, but any fruit will do. Verjuice from apples is not unlike Apple Cider Vinegar. It was used alot in cooking, particularly. for sauces. 

Apple cider was another popular food to make with apples. Foxwelp was a popular one in this time period. It was a bitter sharp apple, recorded in 1600, from Gloucestershire—used in the best ciders, West of England. You have to be careful making it because if you overdo it, then the brew is harsh, and unpleasant to taste. 

It wasn’t only the fruit from a tree that was known as “apples” in Shakespeare’s lifetime. As you can see from this screen capture shown above, Gerard’s Herball, calls yellow tomatoes “Apples of Love.”

You can also see references to pine apples, in this herball from 1595.  (They are cited as good against spitting blood, and as a counter measure to the King’s Evil.) Apple was a term that was used in several herballs from this period to simply mean “seed” or “fruit” of any plant. As another example, in this Herball to the Bible from 1587 (shown below), the center of a mandrake is called an apple.

An herbal for the Bible. Containing a plaine and familiar exposition of such similitudes, parables, and metaphors, both in the Olde Testament and the Newe, as are borrowed and taken from herbs, plants, trees, fruits and simples, by observation of their vertues, qualities, natures, properties, operations, and effects | Lemnius, Levinus, 1505-1568 | Source

“How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow, if thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!”

— Shakespeare, Sonnet 93

Apples Came to North America with English Colonists

In North America, Apples weren’t native. By 1600, you could find a few crab apple trees because these apples were popular on board ship. Sailors ate them to stave off scurvy. For long shipboard journeys, you needed apples that would store for long periods of time. The apples would be packed in bran, sawdust, or even sand, to keep them from spoiling. 

Colonists packed seeds from apples they had eaten, and saved them to eventually plant in North America. In the 1600s, you see colonists on the east coast of America establishing orchards of apples. The first American apple was planted. in1625, by William Braxton. All of his trees were grown from seeds, which means all of his trees were new varieties.  As his orchard became more established, he grafted some of his own trees to copy the good ones exactly. 

Overall, the settlers in the New World, relied on getting apples from seeds because cold winters provided good conditions for germination. The grafted European trees did not do well in the climate. In 1623, nearly all land owners planted apple trees, and new seedlings, as well as apples were soon well established in Virginia.These early varieties were Roxbury Russet, Right Oxsweet, and Rhode Island Greening. 

“I think he will carry this island home in his pocket and give it his son for an apple.”

— Tempest (II.1)
A Gipsy Family sharing an apple. Woodcut in Cosmographie_Universelle_of_Munster from anno 1552 | Public Domain | Source

See Nigel and Alison Deacon show apple varieties and learn about how they taste in this episode they did with Julie Drake on YouTube: 

Related Episode:

Potatoes Arrived in England During Shakespeare’s Lifetime

In the play, Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff declares “Let the sky rain potatoes!” Potatoes are thought to have arrived in the late 1580s or early 1590s, and in 1597, the same time frame we think Merry Wives of Windsor was written, John Gerard added the first printed picture of the potato to his Herball. Here today to help us sort through what it was like to see a potato for the first time, as well as how potatoes were used in Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest and expert in the history of plants, Sally Cunningham. 

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard!