Brief history of the decline and fall of the fig

I want to illustrate at ridiculous speed the change in status of Ficus carica – once found outside the back door of farmhouses around the Mediterranean – over the last couple of thousand years. Since you’re all familiar with Genesis 3, I’ll start a bit later, with the Ethiopic version of the Apocalypse of Peter. This is one of many often highly vivid early texts in which the well-being of the figtree is crucial to community survival. As the Lord says (translation and notes by MR James),

Understandest thou not that the fig-tree is the house of Israel? Even as a man that planted a fig-tree in his garden, and it brought forth no fruit. And he sought the fruit thereof many years and when he found it not, he said to the keeper of his garden: Root up this fig-tree that it make not our ground to be unfruitful. And the gardener said unto God: (Suffer us) to rid it of weeds and dig the ground round about it and water it. If then it bear not fruit, we will straightway remove its roots out of the garden and plant another in place of it. Hast thou not understood that the fig-tree is the house of Israel? Verily I say unto thee, when the twigs thereof have sprouted forth in the last days, then shall feigned Christs come and awake expectation saying: I am the Christ, that am now come into the world. And when they (Israel) shall perceive the wickedness of their deeds they shall turn away after them and deny him [whom our fathers did praise], even the first Christ whom they crucified and therein sinned a great sin. But this deceiver is not the Christ. [something is wrong here: the sense required is that Israel perceives the wickedness of antichrist and does not follow him.] And when they reject him he shall slay with the sword, and there shall be many martyrs. Then shall the twigs of the fig-tree, that is, the house of Israel, shoot forth: many shall become martyrs at his hand. Enoch and Elias shall be sent to teach them that this is the deceiver which must come into the world and do signs and wonders to deceive. And therefore shall they that die by his hand be martyrs, and shall be reckoned among the good and righteous martyrs who have pleased God in their life. [Hermas, Vision III.i.9, speaks of ‘those that have already been well-pleasing unto God and have suffered for the Name’s sake’.]

SoriaAlthough I haven’t yet found a fig text, apocalyptic prophecy was also widespread in mediaeval Iberia, and probably much more so than is generally thought. However, while mass millennialism was obviously facilitated by early forms of globalisation, the introduction of French- and Arab-influenced monetary systems also helped emphasise the importance of empirical as opposed to revealed truth. For example, article 239 of the 1196 Soria Legal Code (fuero; source: RAE corpus), on which the following table is based, imposes fines that price the vandalism of fruit trees in terms of their short- to medium-term utility:

    trunk primary branch other branch
fruit trees eg apple, pear, quince 5 maravedí 1 maravedí 1/2 maravedí
  eg fig, mulberry, walnut, cherry 3 maravedí 5 sueldo (?: ss) 1/2 maravedí
  eg plum, grapefruit, medlar 2 maravedí 1/2 maravedí 1 sueldo
others   5 sueldo    

There was still a large body of fig-related myth around for folklorists here to notate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the process of demystification and commodisation was completed by rural depopulation and the irresistible spread of cars and supermarkets to villages that were virtually inaccessible until the 50s. Trees that once provided farmers both with spiritual and physical protection from the sun-god and with a metaphor on which could be hung ideas about human fruitfulness and multiplicaciousness now often get chopped down to provide extra parking space. However, dear holiday home owner, at night things may change. “And the figtree shouts at me,” writes Lorca, “and advances, terrible and multiplied.”


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Last updated 23/08/2019

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Federico García Lorca (38): Federico del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús García Lorca, known as Federico García Lorca was a Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director. García Lorca achieved international recognition as an emblematic member of the Generation of '27, a group consisting of mostly poets who introduced the tenets of European movements into Spanish literature.

Fig (1):

Israel (44):

Kaleboel (4307):

Mediterranean Sea (73): The Mediterranean Sea is a sea connected to the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by the Mediterranean Basin and almost completely enclosed by land: on the north by Southern Europe and Anatolia, on the south by North Africa, and on the east by the Levant.

Natural history (512): Natural history is the research and study of organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment, leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study.

Quince (3):

Spanish literature (171):

Translation (788):

Tree (284):


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