– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

a question of apples

From Balliol’s MS 354, the commonplace book of Richard Hill, a London Grocer in the first half of the 16th century, a medieval riddle, or rather an arithmetic word-problem of the kind we used to get a lot of in school. Plus ça change…

Oxford, MS Balliol 354, p.448 (detail)

Oxford, MS Balliol 354, p.448 (detail)

transcript:
a question
Ther was a man went in to an orchard & toke
sertayn apples //and he must pass vij gattes
and ye porter of ye first gate will not latt hym passe
except he geve hym half his aples & on mo
& so he gave hym / and than he commeth to ye ijde
gate & ye porter toke from hym half his apples yat he hade left &
i mo / and so seruid hym ye iijde portter / & ye iiijth
portter & vth & vjth & vijth porter / So at ye laste
he bare but on apple a way // how many
apples had he at the first /

modern English:
There was a man who went into an orchard and took a certain number of apples. On his way out he had to pass through seven gates: the porter at the first gate would not let him pass unless he give him half his apples plus one more, and he did so. And then he came to the second gate, and that porter took from him half the apples that he had left, plus one more, and the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh porters did the same. So in the end he carried only one apple away. How many apples did he start with?

Answer (from the manuscript) tomorrow!

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