Reviving the Old Apple and Pear Varieties in the Southern Marches.

A Butt Pear from The Herefordshire Pomona.


The following references were mostly collected while studying for other purposes, and as such may be rather eclectic. There is strong evidence to show that apples held a place in the laws, poetry, and medicine of Wales before the Norman period. The sources generally date from the C11th to C13th centuries - a time when Wales remained fairly independent of Norman rule, and the Cistercian monasteries in particular were very actively recording much older verbal traditions - often under the patronage of Welsh lords and princes. Many authors have traced signs of earlier oral verse forms or events in these texts, together with knowledge of classical teachings that were probably present in Western Britain independently of the Saxons or Normans. Most C19th and C20th writers assume that the Romans introduced the propagation and cultivation of tree fruit into this country. Some have also assumed that this ended soon after their departure, and was only eventually revived under incoming Norman or late-Saxon influences. The examples listed here may throw more light on this subject.

Joan Morgan outlines possible references to young fruit trees known as 'imps' in the Laws of Hywel Dda. These were composed in about 930 (although written down much later), and contain references to both 'sweet' and 'sour' apples. The 'sour' apples could easily be native crabs, but the reference to 'sweet' apples, and the monetary value placed on these 'imps', strongly suggests the cultivation of seedlings from choice fruit, and quite possibly the propagation of graft wood from such trees.

There are references to apples and the attractiveness of apple blossom to be found in early Welsh poetry. The most substantial and beautiful of these is undoubtedly the Afallennau (Merlin's Apple Trees), included in the 'Black Book of Carmarthen' - a place name which means, literally, Merlin's Tower. This was transcribed in about 1250, but events mentioned in the text are much earlier (possibly from as far back as the late C6th), and it is generally considered to be a collection of much earlier oral works. In the Afallennau a tree (or series of trees) is praised at the start of each verse, before launching into prophecies. Merlin seems to be seeking protection amongst the trees, and perhaps to need their assistance in inspiring his foresights:

"Sweet apple-tree with branches sweet,
fruit-bearing, much valued, famed...
...Sweet apple-tree, luxuriant green, with laden branches...
...Sweet apple-tree that grows on the river bank - steward can reach its glistening fruit...
Sweet apple-tree with flowers foxglove pink."

The sweet apples which Merlin admires do seem probably to be wild, although they are obviously tasty, and therefore of value to the household. Perhaps they are the wilding remnants of former orchards. Whatever the cultivated status of the trees, they are certainly very powerfully linked with magic and prophesy in this important piece.

The most reliable of the sources relating to the Physicians of Myddfai, contained in the Red Book of Hergest, from the late C12th or early C13th, is accredited to the personal doctors of an influential Welsh prince in Carmarthenshire. It is largely a very practical collection of herbal remedies, yet one of the three references to apples shows them being used in a charm or invocation. Charms and invocations were common elsewhere in medical writings of the pre-Norman period, such as the Anglo-Saxon Leechbook of Bald. However, in the Book of Hergest this is the only example - underlining the special magical status of apples to the Celts, as seen in the Afallennau. For the record, the fruit are recommended for cooling drinks; are used to remove the taste of a complicated potion for curing fevers (and therefore, in both cases, are 'sweet' apples); and the charm itself is to combat 'all sorts of agues'.

Turning briefly to pears, we have so far come across no firm reference that is definitely from pre-Norman times. Perhaps the earliest is in another medical document, Havod 16, but the date cannot be established with any confidence.

The most enigmatic reference to tree-fruit in this early period is in 'The History and Topography of Ireland', written in 1185, by Gerald of Wales, working for the Norman court. The text is unashamedly sensationalist and propagandist, but has nevertheless provided careful scholars with some important information. The quite lengthy description of the miraculous 'fruit of St Kevin' bears a tantalizing resemblance to Pyrus salicifolia - the Willow-Leaved Pear. If any Irish connections have thoughts on this I would be delighted to hear from them.

Finally, folk tradition, supported by some documentary evidence, suggests that Wales may be able to boast a kind of patron Saint of apples.

According to the archives of Llandaff Cathedral, St Teilo (one of the three most influential Welsh saints) travelled from Wales to visit St Samson in Brittany during the early 500s. Together, they are said to have planted extensive orchards between Dol and Cai, known as the groves of Teilo and Samson. There are several links to churches in Brittany, including Landeleau, which he founded, and which today is in an important cider-growing area. A Breton custom related to the Saint uses the alignment of pips in an apple to predict the fruitfulness of the following years' crop.

Of course, the true antiquity of the connection between Teilo and fruit trees is very difficult to establish, but the links to Brittany and apples were well known in Wales in the C17th when the keeper of his relics predicted that a vast bearing of fruit would mark the return of his skull to the Cathedral. The supposed skull was eventually reinstated in 1994, and it would be interesting to see any crop records from South Wales for 1994 and 1995.

There has always been something of a rivalry between Llandaff and Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, where Teilo retired. I have sought in vain for ancient carvings or other evidence relating to fruit at either location, and would be grateful for any information on the subject. Fruit trees do not grow at either of these religious sites today, but it should be observed that Carmarthenshire has yielded a number of 'unknown' indigenous varieties in recent years. Perhaps a MAN identification trip, taking specimens from Wales to Brittany is in order one autumn.

If the Teilo tradition is true, it indicates Welsh knowledge of cultivated apples in the C6th (about 200 years after the last Roman garrisons left Britain). The Afallennau is generally considered to have been composed sometime between the C6th and C9th. In the C10th we find the possible references to cultivation and propagation in the Laws of Hywel Dda. Around the end of the C12th come more references to sweet apples in the 'Red Book of Hergest' and elsewhere.

These accounts, many apparently written down after many centuries of verbal transmission, do not prove conclusively that orchard skills continued uninterrupted until the Norman period. There are, in particular, problems with the texts written towards the end of this time. Norman influences would have been steadily growing, and the monastic scribes themselves could have been influenced by cultivation methods introduced from their mother churches on the Continent. There do seem, however, to be considerable hints regarding the esteem, continued use, and probably cultivation, of sweet apples in the Celtic nations during this post-Roman period.

John Powell, June 2000

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