The Easy Yoke of Strict Science
Lecture in memory of David Trotter (1957-2015) given at the University of Aberystwyth
If we wanted to know more precisely what a lexicographer is or does, we might open the incomparable Oxford English Dictionary, which would tell us that a LEXICOGRAPHER is “a writer or compiler of a dictionary”. That is clear, but doesn’t say much, apart from that there are dictionaries written by individual authors, and dictionaries compiled as a collaborative undertaking. As per OED’s predecessor, the Dictionary of Samuel Johnson, published in 1755, a lexicographer is “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words”. Now we come much nearer to the truth: the lexicographer traces the history of the words and he explains in detail their signification. Besides that, he is characterised by Dr Johnson as a ‘harmless drudge’; I look up the entry DRUDGE, which I see defined in his dictionary as “One employed in mean labour; a slave; one doomed to servile occupation”. Again, we are near the truth, and, besides, we get a feeling for one of the characteristics of some lexicographers, their sense of humour, well represented in David’s speeches and publications.
Dr Johnson’s definition of the word LEXICOGRAPHER represents the methodological core of our science where every word is described as an object of history, and as an element of the language used by an author or a speaker in a given period, in past or current history. Thus, we might say its description has both a diachronic axis and a synchronic one. It is essential to know that you cannot work on just one of these two axes.
As an example, if we take the word PUDDING, it’s nice to know its French origin, which is, as you can read in every dictionary with some etymological information, Old French boudin ” a sort of sausage, black pudding”. This seemingly answers to the diachronic question: the English word pudding stems from French boudin (in fact pronounced in OF [bodín], and [budín], the modern [budẽ] with its nasal final syllable not having developed until around the 16th century). But an inquisitive mind sees at once that the sense is only partly the same, so that we feel invited to find out what its sense has been in different historical periods. As we have recipes for the Old French boudin, we can say that it was a sausage made from gut filled with a stuffing composed of one quarter of onion and one quarter of pork fat, with the remaining half being pig’s blood or, in some cases, liver, seasoned with ginger, clove, and some pepper, then cooked in the slaughter day’s broth of other sausages and entrails. It didn’t contain cereals.
When passing from Anglo-Norman to Middle-English we can expect either continuity or change. The detailed developments are interesting, as around 1450 a pudding may be made from porpoise, then it can be a stuffed sheep’s stomach, or stuffed poultry necks, or a haggis as a round variant of pudding, then we find somebody buying tripe, eggs, bread, pepper and saffron to make a white pudding, and so on. Sweet puddings appear from the 16th century on, but we have to wait until 1659 to find oatmeal in a pudding (at least according to lexicographical documentation). The other observation is that the pudding passes from a sausage to a stuffing and then to a dish cooked from mixed ingredients, typically with suet, and having a specific form, the upside down bowl shape; its size is guaranteed by the very British pudding basin. (You wouldn’t be able to buy one of those on the Continent.) When we read a phrase like every thing hath an end, and a pudding hath two (Thomas Nashe, 1592), we would have to consider whether this speaks of a sausage or, possibly, of a pudding prepared in a pudding-cloth. By the way, this phrase from the Elizabethan age recalls the jocular German Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei, although what would be the corresponding saying in English, *everything has an end, only a sausage has two does not exist. The OED3, in its online edition, gives a series of citations, the last one dating from 2006, confirming the still living broad sense of the word; moreover, the corresponding citation seems typical of our crazy age, as it says: An average haggis includes about 19g of carbohydrates and around 10g of protein per 100g of pudding. (By the way, this analysis doesn’t care about the US regulations on the haggis, as you know, since Boris Johnson told you, probably not about the EU ones either).
From there the way is free for the multitude of more or less local dishes bearig the common name: Yorkshire pudding, a rather anaemic variant, or the Christmas pudding or plum pudding, being a pudding without or sometimes with plums, or a Welsh variant, the pwdin Eryri gyda saws gwin. Think also of bread pudding, or of modern stuff like vanilla pudding and so on. If we were to discuss within this audience only the actual significations of the word pudding, and the recipes of the objects designated by the word, we wouldn’t finish before midnight. The lexicographer must accomplish this semantic discussion all alone not solely for the synchronic cut of today, but also for other cuts, going back to the origins. This is inevitable because language changes constantly – it has even been said that language is change.
I spare you the etymology of the French word boudin, which is uncertain, and the question why the initial [b] of boudin shifted to its unvoiced fellow plosive [p] of pudding, a Middle English sound change that is not very common (compare purse from Anglo-Norman burse).
Our first conclusion is that the proper questions of linguistics represent only an array of tools, first to analyse the texts bearing our word, then to find out the changes in form and sense. What really matters is the history of this piece of culture.
The linguistic analysis of modern speech is of interest for the scholar working on past periods, because the conditions of language change don’t vary fundamentally. You know that English is a very special language due to its origins, and it is leading in the world for reasons you know better than me. One important fact is that English is the most mixed and the most versatile language. Eighty percent (others say sixty) of its vocabulary is French, Latin or Greek, the smaller part is Germanic. But this part counts more for the most frequent words, and the grammar is Germanic anyway. English is also a fine example for the importance of culture for the growing of a language and of a nation. We don’t think that every spot on the earth, where excavation brought to light a fragment of a CocaCola bottle, has been settled by the Stars and Stripes People, or that the Bell Beaker People from the Continent erected the triliths of Stonehenge, and that they delegated the Amesbury Archer to give advice for the enlargement of the circle. In the latter case I would say that he spoke Archi-Proto-Romance or Archi-Archi-Anglo-French, given that he came from Martigny in the Valais around the year 2300 BC. In reality a culture spreads by contacts, by currents, by exchange, much less by migration. In any case, we must consider historical facts on the canvas of beliefs or assumptions, because beliefs are much more convincing and long-lived than knowledge and facts. This assertion can be validated by philological proof. Let’s illustrate that, first by a simple example, then by a more extended one.
First the simple one. We all know that mediaeval people thought that the earth is flat. You can hear that regularly in radio and television programs and we have it on the word of our parents and grandparents. It figures as a commonplace illustration of the comparative quality of modern scholarship and our modern intellectual superiority, in contrast to the ‘Dark’Ages.
But the mediaeval sources don’t document that idea. The Image du monde or Imago Mundi for instance, in a long chapter, counting more than 2000 verses on astronomical matters, says very clearly: la terre comme pomme Est reonde de toutes pars, ‘the earth is round from all sides, just like an apple’, and explains the change of day and night and the solar eclipse, and so on, comparing the Earth to an apple and the Sun to a candle moving around it.
The Earth as a globe is well documented by texts, pictures and objects from the mediaeval period: the Earth as a pancake isn’t documented at all.
Why do we believe such a nonsense? Because the bright and arrogant scholars of the nineteenth century made the mediaeval world look silly. And why do we stick to that nonsense? You’ll give the answer to your children yourself.
Another instance of certain knowledge is the profession of Jesus Christ. We all know that he was a carpenter. It’s true that if you ask a man in the street on the Continent (as I did), he might say ‘I don’t know’, or ‘Oh yeah, he was a carpenter’, though most of those giving the latter answer will then add ‘but, wasn’t that the profession of his father, Joseph?’. I guess it’s the same over here (unless it was a Welsh street, where the answer might be saer). The hesitation about father or son is due to the evolution of the Gospel from the year 40 to the year 100. The oldest version, dated to around 40, identified by the name of Mark, is clear: in the scene at Nazareth, where Jesus is preaching, the people reject him saying ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…? And they were offended at him.’ The Latin Vulgate reads nonne iste est faber, filius Mariae? (6, 3). The Greek term in the original text is τέκτων. Some two or three decades later, the Gospel version attributed to Matthew transfers the named profession to Joseph, saying ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary?’ (13, 55). The almost contemporary version Luke and the version from some 40 years later known as Gospel of John omit the profession entirely.
The term τέκτων has been translated in the Latin Vulgate by faber: both words designate any artisan working with wood, bone, stone, metal or wool. In the East the kind of τέκτων Jesus or Joseph was is soon specified: the Proto-evangelium of James, from the second century, tells us that Joseph was called to the temple as one of the candidates to take Mary to wife: he drops his adze and rushes to the temple. Accordingly, the eastern texts, like the Armenian (5th century) and the Coptic ones, use a term directly linked to a woodworker.
In the West, things seem different. The Latin word faber has still the sense of ‘artisan’, but from the middle of the 4th century texts appear which suggest or assert the identification of the profession of Jesus and Joseph with the smithy. The first is Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, who writes plane hic fabri erat filius, ferrum igne vincentis ‘evidently he was the son of the artisan who subdues the iron with the flame’. He is followed by others, especially, at the end of the sixth century, by Leander Hispalensis, the elder brother of Isidore of Seville, who simply states that Joseph was a faber ferrarius, an ironsmith. Isidore himself gives in his Etymologiae the etymology of faber in this way: Faber a faciendo ferro inpositum nomen habet, ‘Faber got this name by working the iron’. And in his Regula he says directly Ioseph… faber ferrarius fuit, ‘Joseph was an ironsmith’.
The Etymologiae of Isidore were not only wide-spread: the thousand surviving manuscripts suggest that every Western European library had a copy of this encyclopedia, a book up to 700 leaves thick. Thus, everyone knew that the Jesus family were smiths. Accordingly we find in the Old English Nativity of Mary (3rd qu. 11th c.) an elegant solution between the Vulgate and the Isidore texts and their opinions, as it combines both, saying He wæs smið and mænigtéawa wyrhta, ‘he was a smith and a manifold skilled artisan’, some manuscripts giving only smið and omitting wyrihta. It’s exactly the same in the earlier Lindisfarne Gospel of Matthew (ca. 700 / ca. 970) and in Anglo-Saxon and Northumbrian Saint Mark Gospels, naming Jesus a smith.
Luckily enough, Thomas Aquinas gave lectures in Paris in the year 1269/70), where he says Secundum Chrysostomum, Ioseph fuit faber lignarius, ‘according to Chrysostom Joseph was a woodworker’. In another chapter Thomas explains Ipse enim putabatur filius Ioseph, qui non erat faber ferrarius, sed lignarius: quamvis etiam posset dici filius fabri, qui fabricatus est auroram et solem. Psalmus lxxiii, 16. ‘He was held to be the son of Joseph, who had been not an ironworker but a woodworker: but one could say also, son of the worker who has made the aurora and the sun’. At the end he adds the reference to a Psalm versicle which reads in the King James Version ‘When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me’. We may imagine Aquinas being troubled by this contradiction: the smith matches with the tradition and with the role of God as creator, but the Byzantine Chrysostom must know better, he seems nearer to the sources and must be right in making Joseph a carpenter, but, in that case, what about the role of God?
Let us help Thomas by some linguistic investigation. We said that Greek τέκτων and Latin faber could both name very different artisans, but the Indo-european etymology inclines τέκτων towards a worker making mechanical constructions, using instruments like chisel, adze or axe, whilst faber is nearer to putting together in some creative fashion. Faber developed in French and other Romance languages to fèvre, fabbro and so on, having the sense of “smith”. We can conclude that the twofold reading of the Biblical texts is the result of purely linguistic conditions and evolutions, and that ‘smith’ is as close to the original sense as ‘carpenter’.
At this point, a social or theological question arises: can the Christian religion cope with the idea of an artisan being the son of God, and is his being a smith a better version than being a carpenter? At the time of Jesus, an artisan was certainly the best option for a leader of a new popular religious movement, because being an artisan meant having a solid standing and an honest income. The Gospel of Matthew added the biblical royal descent of Jesus, probably because this seemed favourable for typological identifications with the Old Testament, but the suppression of the genealogy in the late John version was certainly wise.
When considering the identification of the profession with that of carpenters, we can take this as a natural statement or evolution, since even the Temple of Jerusalem was mainly the work of carpenters. In the West, the movement towards the smith was equally very plausible, as the smith became the most important worker in a rural village and in town. Both fit with God’s qualities as constructor of the world and creator of the elements and the sun. The proximity of the divine creator to a workman is also found in the Mesopotamian and Greek cosmogonies, or conceptions of the origins of the world.
We can nevertheless have the impression that Thomas Aquinas would have been happier with a family of smiths, as we find in his somewhat earlier lecture on Matthew the identification of the profession with the smithy according to Hilary of Poitiers, without further comment.
The vernacular languages of the East stick to the carpenter, those of the Latin West to the smith. We find Jesus and Joseph called herrero in Spanish (from ferrarius, an ellipsis of faber ferrarius), fabbro in Italian, faure in Occitan, fevre in Old and Middle French and in Anglo-Norman, also smit in Middle High German. And so on. The picture changes slowly in the 14th century. That is to say that Jesus was a smith for 1000 years – and we didn’t know!
Now you might ask me why I expound this story – perhaps in order to furnish you with a tale for your family, to be told towards Christmas, sitting by the fireplace with a nice Christmas pudding and a good bottle of vintage port on the mantelpiece? But no. Our topic is scientific beliefs. Let me add to that some evidence from philology:
We heard the citation from Hilary ‘evidently he was the son of the artisan who subdues iron with the flame’. Can you believe that its modern editor, a professor of Latin, translated this text by saying ‘it’s true that he was the son of the carpenter who subdues iron with the flame’ – didn’t that editor have doubts about what a carpenter is supposed to do with a flame, apart from setting fire to the roof?
Then, we saw the Old English smið. The dictionary of Bosworth and Toller gives several quotations, all of which document the sense of “smith”. Nevertheless, they define ‘a smith, a worker in metals or in wood’, without sufficient rationale for mentioning the woodworking option. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon reader adds three more citations for the word, defining it simply and correctly by ‘smith’. Nevertheless, astonishingly enough, Holthausen, an experienced anglicist, knowing all this, edits a text dealing with Iosepe ðe smiðe, translating that – again you won’t believe it – by ‘Joseph the carpenter’. The OED, that most marvellous dictionary, gives for smith, on more or less the same grounds, the definition ‘one who works in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman’. But then, right above the section with the citations supporting that definition, the OED adds the remark: ‘In the early examples referring to Joseph, the word does not mean “carpenter”, but is simply used to render Latin faber’. As the research necessary to understand the background hadn’t been done when the OED entry was compiled, this formulation was rather wise. It’s a pity that subsequent lexicographers, such as the compilers of the Middle English Dictionary didn’t attend to this remark: its authors, as others, continue to confound smith and carpenter, always on the grounds of the Gospels.
Now, in order to comprehend the linguistic argument against that false interpretation, we need to have a look at semantics. Generally, a word, as a form of expression, has no intrinsic connection with an object in the extra-linguistic world. If not, you couldn’t name an object with different names, for instance a dog, the animal, by dog, or ci, or hound, or Hund, or chien. A spoken form or sound sequence becomes a word only through a signification, a meaning linked to that form. This signification is a mental concept referring to an object, which we call a referent. But most words have more than one meaning: the English word dog means “quadruped of the genus canis, with wild species and breeds”, but it may name especially the male, the female being the bitch, and it may be used of a person with different connotations (just like bitch! [today a Trumpism]). More interesting are those metaphors like the ‘dog’ in a lock mechanism or in a machine, or the ‘dog’ atop a well-boring shaft, or the ‘dog’ as an often smaller form of a fire-iron.
What we can observe from this single example is that the additional significations have a certain proximity to the original sense, which is the quadruped. The other senses are created as metaphors, or the like. This is because semantic changes occur within certain boundaries and according to certain rules. A word, as part of a language, comes along in our minds already charged with a meaning, this meaning being part of the linguistic knowledge of a speaker. William Faulkner’s dictum, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’, is particularly true for the language.
To conclude this point, we can say that, on the grounds of linguistics alone, the word smith cannot have the meaning of ‘carpenter’, because this is not a shift of meaning within the possibilities of language change. We see nevertheless that the lexicographers, very generally do not trust their science, or do not make use of it, but, instead, revert to their beliefs, as all humans do. Jesus’ case is a rather striking one, but less monstrous ones are very frequent, because the lexicographer uses, and must use, the context to find the meaning of a word. The error is that he does not start by establishing the history of the word, its original sense which has to be understood in its context. Instead he starts his interpretation by translating the text into a target language, normally his own, and he mistakes the meaning of the word he found in this target language as the meaning he ought to have looked for in the source language. That is a very common erroneous procedure.
The lexicographer’s skills are merely tools, what finally counts is the understanding of texts. Without that result, it’s like hammering on an anvil without having heated the iron. Only the result justifies the effort.
Now I still owe you a justification of my introduction that ‘Those were great times when the French adopted English law’. The idea alone seems crazy. English law is considered on the Continent to be entirely abnormal and of no use for regular Continentals. Nobody ever heard of any statute as having crossed the English Channel southwards. To give nevertheless some evidence, if not proof, we have to begin with the 1066, the year of the Conquest. William the Conqueror didn’t import any law, he simply endorsed the body of laws of the Anglo-Saxons, as it was reasonable and fitting the time, place, and mores, ripened on parchment since the Kentish Codex Æthelberth of around 600, and especially since William wanted to be explicitly the ‘king of the English’. The famous Laws of William the Conqueror, or Lois de Guillaume, written in Anglo-Norman, were not established by William at all, but much later, by a jurist near to the year 1150, towards the end of the Anarchy period. They contain 32 paragraphs of Anglo-Saxon law, 13 of Danish (an inheritance of the Dane-law) and 6 of Roman law, with no sign of continental French influence.
It was Henry II who ended the anarchy resulting from the power struggle between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, or Maude, the first English queen. Resolutely, sometimes by despotic means, Henry reorganized the administration and put an end to excessive lawsuits, especially about possession and property, the two essential elements in any feudal system. To speed up court proceedings, Henry developed the ancient writ into an incisive instrument. The writ had been a simple written order, called breve in Latin and bref in Anglo-Norman. It’s a smaller piece of parchment sealed by a strip half cut from the same sheet and used to close the folded parchment. The text, written in landscape format, was short and terse. Its language was originally Old English, and under the Anglo-Normans it became, not French, but Latin. Also, to shorten and to fix the period of time allowed for the lawsuit, Henry introduced a time-limit. Initially, the suit had to refer to a matter dating from after his most recent absence from England: subsequently a further limit was added was added, a requirement that the matter postdated the last session held by his justices in eyre.
Those special writs were called breve de nova dissaisina, bref de nouvelle dessaisine, or writ of novel disseisin. The expression novel disseisin is seems clear enough as it stands, but it is important for accurate lexicographical treatment and correct historical understanding to define novel in direct relation to the period laid down in legal procedure: the matter must be not merely ‘recentl’, but ‘recent and within the time allowed by law’.
An example of a typical writ allows its spirit to be felt:
Henry, King of England, to Robert, sheriff of Essex, greeting. N. has complained to me that R. unjustly and without judgment has desseised him of his free tenement in such-and-such a vill since my last voyage to Normandy. I command you to do right… If you do not do so, l shall do it myself or my justices shall.
The success of this assize was exceptional. The historian Beckerman is enthusiastic, saying: ‘The assize of novel disseisin was one of the glories of the medieval English common law, a speedy and rational procedure for recovering real property’ (though the word ‘property’ is not correct here, since it was possession rather than ownership that was at issue).
Now, having arrived in my own, Romance field of investigation, I could explain how the miracle happened that this assize passed over to the Continent, where it became part of the royal French Right. That would take me no more than couple of hours. But instead, let me just summarise the main steps, allowing us to understand how this ‘refugee’ could pass the Channel without Chunnel, and why the link remained unnoticed by French historians up to this day (2015).
At the time of the accession of Henry, Europe, in certain ways, was much more international than today, especially since nation states didn’t exist. Let me rapidly mention a few names and places. The school of law at Bologna, still in its infancy, relied heavily on the works of Anselm of Laon and Ivo of Chartres, himself a pupil of Lanfranc of Canterbury, born at Pavia, a colleague of Anselm of Canterbury, born at Aosta. At Bologna, Gratian wrote his Decretum towards 1140, and we find his pupil Roger Vacarius two or three years later at Canterbury and Oxford where he wrote his Liber pauperum, nine books about Roman law thanks to which English law students for the next six centuries were referred to as pauperists. Little later, the future archbishop of Cologne on the Rhine, Rainald of Dassel, the chancellor of Frederick Barbarossa, having studied in Paris, founded with Gerald Pucelle, a familiar of Thomas Becket of Canterbury, the Cologne school of law, branching out to Metz in Lorraine. And so on. Under these conditions, a Brexit was unthinkable, and we understand now why the so-called Laws of William, written in that time, represent Anglo-Saxon law, and contain nevertheless Roman law.
The assise of novel disseisin is characteristic for this situation; its substance represents (or is akin to) Roman law, but the procedure, especially the writ, the jury and the recognition, are entirely English. The regulations were developed with precision and well established by Henry’s Chief Justice Ranulf de Glanville before 1189. So we are not surprised to find it in Magna Carta.
On the Continent, we find novel disseisin soon after Ranulf de Glanville in the Customary of Normandy, and, some 50 years later, in the thickest French lawbook of the Middle Ages, written by Jean d’Ibelin in the Holy Land before 1266 and a real doorstopper. And the action crept into French law. Initially, I found it in the Customary of Picardy of the year 1283, where the author speaks of an establissement le roi, then of a nouvele constitucion que li rois a fete, and before describing exactly the assise of novel disseisin. Commentators on this text tried to follow up the hint of the existence of a constitution established by the French king, but they couldn’t find any document, because they abandoned the trail too soon. In fact, the first mentions of actions called nova dessaisina appear already in reports of lawsuits from 1258 on, then in a lawbook written in French at Orleans about 1260, and in several others. Even the mentioned royal constitution can be found in manuscripts from the end of the 13th century on.
On the whole, we can say that the English assize and its Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Latin designation really were integrated into French law. But its original trace got lost in the 15th century, as the name became simplified into nouvelleté, ‘novelty’.
I admire your enormous patience while listening to this case of juridical osmosis!
Perhaps a citation from the introduction of Sellers York memorandum book may soothe the pain; he writes ‘It is to be hoped, however, that the account given will send readers to the originals, where the terse Latin, the quaint Anglo-French, and the racy English enhance the charm of the narrative’. But my purpose was to show the nature of the multi-layered research accomplished by the lexicographer. He is constantly incompetent in all fields of knowledge he encounters when following the pace of his enemy, the alphabet. This problem is not new, as the fortuity of the alphabet gives you always the picture of a kaleidoscope – interesting, but senseless.
The same problem arises with the encyclopedia. Diderot discussed that point when he explained his very extended system of onomasiological or ontological references linking each article to its field of knowledge placed at higher levels. He didn’t invent that: his model, Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia likewise indicated for each entry the corresponding field of knowledge, for instance ‘in Physicks’, ‘in Geometry’, ‘in Law’, and so on. But D’Alembert and Diderot furnished the readers of their Encyclopédie with a large printed sheet covered with a Système figuré des connoissances humaines. There are three columns of equal importance for their authors, memoire with the bracket histoire, raison with philosophie, this column comprising most of the technical knowledge, and the third, imagination with poesie. At the top you see the centrepiece: entendement. That is the real, deep, thorough understanding, understanding in a philosophical sense, defined as the soul itself, receiving and conceiving ideas. Depending on the philosophical school, this entendement can be understood in different ways. We can take it more simply as a guideline for our own work: only what you understood and understand is reality for you. Entendement thus is the supreme principle.