Bartholomew the Englishman

On Pepper

Introduction by Juris Lidaka

Bartholomew says: "The pepper is the seed or fruit of a tree or shrub which grows in the southern part of the Caucasus mountains, facing the burning heat of the sun, as Isidore says in book 17 [Etymologies 17.8]. Its leaves are similar to the juniper. Serpents guard the forests it grows in, but the inhabitants of the region where the forests grow naturally set fire to them, and the serpents flee the fire's violence, and from this burning the seeds of the pepper, which started out white, are accidentally turned black and wrinkled.

"There are three forms, as the same man says; there is the long pepper, namely when it is immature, and white pepper, namely when it is unchanged by the fire, and black pepper, namely when it is black and red on its surface from the scorching heat of the fire. Black pepper keeps its strength for a longer time than the others, and can be stored securely."

Original Latin

Pepper as Medicine

Many cultures determined that pepper can be used not just as a spice but also as a medicine. As Bartholomew notes, it is calidum et siccum in quarto gradu ("hot and dry to the fourth degree"). Galenic medicine worked out the system of degrees: just as there were four elements (fire, air, earth, and water), four qualities (hot, cold, dry, and moist), and four seasons, there were four humors. Things people ate shared in the elements and qualities.

There were therefore also four degrees, with the first being the weakest and the fourth having the strongest effect - for good or bad. Physicians needed to know the properties of patientsí ailments and the properties of foods or medicines to treat patients correctly. Even before that, patients needed to keep their four humors in proper balance, partly by eating the right foods for their personal humoral status.

Scholastic physicians and philosophers knew, of course, that pepper was not actually physically hot. Instead they thought that it was virtually hot. In other words, it had the power to moderate the effects of cold.

Since medievals also believed that many illnesses resulted from an excess of cold humors, it is easy to see why they might think that prescribing pepper was a good way to restore the proper humoral balance.

All kinds of peppers

The ground pepper we use with our meals is common black pepper. Cooks often use it whole - as round peppercorns. Note that Bartholomew talks about peppercorn, but also says there are long peppers too. For a long time long peppers were common in European kitchens, but after the Middle Ages Europeans stopped eating them.

Both types of pepper came mostly from India and are related to each other. Pepper is actually the fruit of the pepper vine, and our common black form is just the dried fruit. Depending on when it is picked and how it is prepared, it could also be white, green or red.

There is another kind of pepper, the chili pepper. This is related to deadly nightshade and is much spicier and hotter than black pepper. Varieties grow in the Americas as well as India throughout Asia.

When the New World was introduced to Europe, many of its foods came along. Since varieties of the chili pepper will grow in parts of Europe, its popularity continued and slowly grew.