History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Medicine Jar

Medical vase c. 1515 for storing herbs, roots, syrups, pills, ointments, and sweetmeats.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Apples are good to eat and drink – but they could also heal. Long before we thought that “an apple a day kept the doctor away” (a relatively recent development), doctors and other healers used the fruit medicinally. A 14th century Italian medical book mentions that apples cure more effectively when served hot and sprinkled with sugar and other spices (medicinal apple pie, if you ask me). These roasted or baked apples were thought to ease digestion after a big meal. If you needed an excuse to eat pie, now you have an ancient medical justification for its benefits.

Cooked apples could also be found in the Arab pharmacopeia. Some of the first recipes for fruit pastes, sweets, and jams involving apples came from medical books not cookbooks. People in the Middle East pioneered the growing and refining of sugar on a large scale and more often used this sugar as medicine rather than as a tasty sweetener.

Raw apples also had their benefits. The fibrous apples kept English monks regular in the 14th and 15th centuries, and some believed that an apple at the start of the meal stimulated the stomach and heart. Eaten at the end of the meal, apples gave teeth a fairly good clean. While certainly not a substitute for a toothbrush, in the Middle Ages, this was pretty advanced preventative dentistry.

Apple pulp provided a vehicle for many medicines in the medieval pharmacy. Apple-based medicines were applied to the skin and some apples also appeared on ingredient lists for beauty products. The origin of the word pomade, the waxy substance used to style hair, traces its name to apple pulp.



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