31 October 2008

What's a medlar?

The title of the novel I'm planning to start (in the sense of "write half of") during NaNoWriMo and finish (in the sense of "write the other half of") in December is called The Medlar Tree. It's a journey through the world of medieval and renaissance theatre - and its secret history as a major tool in the war against the zombies and vampires that threaten human society. I don't think I'll actually be calling them zombies and vampires, though. But what they are is animated bags of disease that can walk and (sort of) talk and feed voraciously on human flesh and fluids. Sometimes they have sentience and consciousness and are powerful; sometimes they're just walking corpses. It all depends on how successfully pathogens meet and propogate within them.

So what's a medlar? A medlar is a type of fruit that, while still grown here and there, is no longer widely available. It's something between an apple, pear, and rosehip.

But the thing about medlars is that they are only good to eat when they begin to rot.

In the Renaissance, medlars became a common metaphor for moral decay, as well as the physical decay that was often strongly associated with moral decay. This association was aided by the rise of syphilis in the late 15th / early 16th century. As an STD, syphilis meant that those who crossed moral boundaries often displayed the results of their transgressions in physical symptoms of rot.

To call a woman a "rotten medlar" was to call her a ripe, juicy, and appealing - but pocky - whore.

The lovely Barbara Wilde writes on her site Au Potager about medlars. Some choice quotes:

"Its thick, russeted skin remains dark gray-olive green well into autumn, and the flesh is hard and inedibly astringent until...until it starts to rot. Oh no, forget I said that. Scratch 'rot' and substitute 'blettir'--a French word that means 'to soften by undergoing the initial stages of decomposition.'"

"To eat a medlar, you have to get rid of its skin...and of the 5 rather large seeds contained within the fruit....What is left after you get rid of the skin and seeds? A curious, soft, non-juicy dark copper pink pulp the color of a bruised apple with a flavor that is complex and subtle. It's like a mixture of apple and pear, with notes of caramel, cider, spice and sweet wine, with a mildly acidic undertone--a mixture of vegetal and bacterial, as the fruit is slightly fermented when it is ready for eating. In fact, as for a fine cheese or a mellow wine, a bit of bacterial action is needed to render the medlar delicious."

The medlar is something beautiful, in Barbara Wilde's discussion, and maybe even something essential. But it's also something that has been touched by death.

In my vision, the world of Renaissance England is also touched by death. The dead walk among us, only by virtue of the internal rot that animates them.

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