Medieval Pottage

My usual approach during the Judith project is to focus on the devotional aspects of Hrabanus’ commentary. That is after all the main purpose of the book. However, today I’d like to look more closely at the life of the Blessed Hrabanus himself.

Back in chapter 10, I discovered a discrepancy between how the Douay-Rheims translation rendered a word and what Hrabanus himself thought a word meant. Today my primary purpose is not to discuss the correctness or incorrectness of either (though we might as well explore that a little while we’re here). What I find most interesting is that we can see a little piece of the world of Hrabanus’ times.

In chapter 10 verse 11, we find the following paragraph. I have highlighted the word of interest in bold.

Of course this maid—that is to say, a multitude of corporeal ones—does bear things, the Holy Church giving her a bottle of wine and a vessel of oil, parched corn and bread, whenever she reverently observes the holy sacraments prepared in grain, wine and oil, clearly the body and blood of the Lord and the anointing of unction. [12] She also bears pottage and cheese whenever she stores up the verdure of faith and the richness of love in her heart. For they say that pottage is food made with vegetables and cheese is curdled milk, which can each represent, in faith and in love, food for souls.

There is a word in Hrabanus’ writing, lapates, which in the Clementine Vulgate is palathas. Palathas was basically borrowed from the Greek παλάθη, and through metathesis (i.e. the transposition of sounds or letters in a word) seems to have evolved into a homonym of lapates. (It’s not too hard to imagine our contemporaries transposing a few letters to turn Pilates into lipates.) The Douay-Rheims translates this word (from the Clementine Vulgate) as dried figs whereas Hrabanus seems to interpret it as pottage. The fact that he talks about it as food made from vegetables and uses it as a metaphor for the verdancy of the faith is a good indicator.

Out of curiosity, I looked up Judith 10:5 and found it in the oldest extant manuscript of the Vulgate (p. 715v), which was produced around 700 AD. In this Codex Amiatinus, we find lapates as I have underlined above. Consequently, it is clear that there were editions of the Vulgate at that time that provided lapates where the Clementine edition provides palathas.

The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources provides both definitions for lapates, noting that, as I said above, the second definition came from metathesis of the Greek word. So, while Hrabanus was probably just following the most common definition of the word, it is probably anachronistic in the Book of Judith. It is, after all, hard to imagine the poor maid carrying a pot of green soup across the no man’s land between Bethulia and the camp of the Assyrians. On the other hand, scholars consider many other things in the book to be anachronistic, so this would not be the first.

I find medieval times to be fascinating and this is just a tidbit that helps me get into the mindset. The following video, produced by Modern History TV, is a delightful exploration into what a peasant might have eaten in the middle ages. Keep in mind that the middle ages are a fairly lengthy span of time and that Hrabanus Maurus lived very early in this span. What is shown in the video is probably close to what might have been true during the middle or later middle ages. But what you see here probably evolved from what was true in Hrabanus’ time. Be sure to watch for the peas pottage (or maybe “peas porridge hot”) at about 3.5 minutes into the video.

Through the process of figuring all of this out, I also took a fun detour to learn a little more about the Codex Amiatinus. Khan Academy has the following brief introduction to it. The miracle of the internet has made it possible for amateurs like myself to access these treasures from the comfort of our own homes.

For further information about this translation project, please see my series of posts on Judith.

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