Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Murimuth Learns a New Word

So, I have been mysteriously silent of late.  This is the silence of a) trying to finish a thesis proposal while running frantically about getting ready to go home for a month and b) stressing about finances and whether it will actually be in any way possible for me to stay in Canada for long enough to finish my Masters, with money even more not-there-at-all than it has been for the last year and c) being lazy and not thinking about anything that is not my thesis proposal[1].

I am now sitting in a very pleasant little coffee shop[2] near the beach in Adelaide, sipping GOOD coffee which has been nowhere near North America and its evil evil coffee-betraying habits (sorry, people, but it’s true), waiting for my sister’s hair appointment to finish.  She takes approximately an hour and a half longer than I do, because of the colouring.  We have had a morning of family haircuts, because A Very Special Family Event is happening on the weekend.  We will soon go home and get down to little details like cleaning out the cobwebs from behind that painting in the hall, making sure all the outdoor chairs are adequately oiled and preventing the beagles from investigating the fact that the side fence is being replaced and that their domain has therefore expanded dramatically.

Meantime, I have been looking at microfilms of the two manuscripts I’ll be working on – Cotton Cleopatra D IX and Additional 54184 – and translating Murimuth’s chronicle (well, parsing it and annotating difficult passages so that I can read it easily).  It’s rather interesting watching the pace of his narration slow dramatically with the opening of Edward III’s declaration of war against France.  [Over x of the y pages of the chronicle are devoted to the ten years Murimuth lived after the war began, leaving only z for the years from 1305-36.]  That said, a good deal of the bulk is his careful transcription of letters and proclamations related to the diplomacy of the war; but even with these excised, his own narration is far more detailed and interested – and, one feels, impassioned – than it is for the first three decades.

An interesting feature of this is the expansion of his vocabulary.  Words are appearing that are in no Latin dictionary I can find, mostly imported from the vernaculars.  His martial and naval vocabulary in particular become much more nuanced, and seek out new words for what seem to be new concepts.  Some words are simple enough.  ‘Admirallus’ may not appear in the dictionary, but in the context of the sea battle of 1340 at the [mouth of the Swinbourne?], this is hardly ambiguous:

… [comes] Huntyngdoniae, qui fuit dux et admirallus navium de Quinque Portubus, et dominus R[obertus] de Morley, qui fuit admirallus et dux navium borealium…

The Earl of Huntingdon and Robert de Morley were commander and admirallus of, respectively, the fleet of the [Five Ports] and of the north. I don’t think it’s necessary to spend too much time hunting obscure fourteenth-century Latin word usages to determine that admirallus doesn’t mean a small kind of brass teaspoon.  But I find it interesting that he still feels he must say dux et admirallus, as if admirallus lacks the cultural weight to stand up on its own[3]. 

Another term that he embraces more whole-heartedly, however, and that did confuse me slightly at its first occurrence, was galea.  The first time it appears, we are informed that fifty galeae attacked the city of Southampton on the Monday following the feast of St Michael in 1338.  Apparently a galea, in Latin, is a helmet; so I hypothesised that this may be a usage similar to ‘lance’, denoting a soldier or a particular unit of armed men.  But mark the sequel!  for the armed men carried away everything they could to their helmets.  And then they set fire to all the houses, and returned to their helmets.  Clearly, there was a flaw in this theory, unless Phillip of France had pioneered a really large make of helmet in which his men could paddle.

So I went to the OED and looked up ‘galley’.  That confirms that a mediaeval Latin galea/galeia existed, derived from ancient Greek but with the ultimate etymology unknown.  But apparently it wasn’t very common, and for Murimuth it was quite recent: there is one attribution for c. 1300, and one for c. 1330.  The Anglo-Norman dictionary has it attributed a few more times, towards the end of the 1200s.  So it seems to have been circulating as a concept only reasonably recently, suggesting (perhaps?) a new kind of warship, a new trend in ship-building, which only really forced itself on Murimuth’s notice when it suddenly became relevant with the naval battles and coastal attacks of the early years of the  Hundred Years War.  Thereafter, he uses it frequently, and seems to distinguish consistently between galeas  and naves. 

Everyone becomes an armchair strategist in times of war, I suppose – but Murimuth seems to have been sitting as close to Westminster as he could as often as he could, getting close access to all the most recent war news and letters, professionally interested in the manoeuvring of diplomacy and its subtleties as well as in the more dramatic aspects of the war.  And, of course, he’s in his sixties and seventies, and enjoying it – it was 1338 when he proudly began to insert, alongside the annus domini and the regnal year of the current king and of the pope, his own age as a counter (sixty-four, in that year). You can just see him sitting around pontificating on exactly how the war is going and correcting everyone with precision, and becoming an expert on the precise terminology and functions of everything related to war.




[1] Which I think I will post.  It may interest some people at some point in some tiny measure of its being.

[2] Which uses GOOD milk for its coffee, sells pre-made soups and sauces made on-site that actually look good, and offers cooking classes like ‘Pasta and Risotto’, ‘Vietnamese and Cambodian’, ‘Balinese’, ‘Simply Spanish’ and ‘Moroccan Spice’.  Cook’s Pantry, it’s called.

[3] No, that’s not a mixed metaphor, so long as the weight is appropriately distributed for optimum balance.

1 comment:

jill said...

i would love to hear more!