02 October, 2007

Decameron 8.9: pun and pumpkin

Gourds have always been important in human culture. In the late Middle Ages, schoolteachers would cut Latin words onto the surface of squashes and gourds as an aide-memoire for young children. This is, in fact, where we get the very word 'word', via the earlier Anglo-French guord (cf. Guillaume > William, guard > ward), which in turn is simply a variant of gourde or coorde (Latin cucurbita), and from which we have gourd and courgette.


Boccaccio was well aware of the symbolic significance of gourds, as we discover in Decameron 8.9, one of the work's pithiest novelle. In this story, two painters named Bruno and Buffalmalco—a recurrent duo—play a trick on Simone, a greedy and foolish physician from out of town. They convince him that they are secretly wealthy, thanks to the machinations of a cabal of necromancers; they encourage him to come along to a meeting, then push him in a ditch at night. So far, so mediaeval. But it is the imagery that here interests us.

Maestro Simone arrives back in Florence from Bologna (the university for law and medicine par excellence), where he settles in a street named Via del Cocomero—'Watermelon Road'. When Bruno addresses him early on, he calls him zucca mia da sale, 'my salt squash', and praises vostra qualitativa mellonaggine da Legnaia. Legnaia is a region of Florence then noted for its large pumpkins, and 'mellonaggine', which connotes stupidity, comes from the mellone or melon. Later on, Buffalmalco addresses Simone as Pinca mia da seme. Pinca, the etymological dictionary of Pianigiani (online here) tells us, is an archaic word for a species of cetriuolo or cucumber, and da seme means 'full of seed'. Finally, Buffalmalco mocks Simone: it is evident that the physician 'non apparaste miga l'abicí in su la mela, come molti sciocconi voglion fare, anzi l'apparaste bene in sul mellone, ch'è cosí lungo'—'did not learn the ABC on an apple, as so many idiots do, but instead learned it well on a melon, which is rather longer'. (J. M. Rigg's 1903 translation perhaps renders the pun best: 'twas on no pippin, as many a dolt does, but on the good long pumpkin that you learned your A B C'.)

So, what's with all the squashes? Wikitalia's article on the melon claims that it was originally considered a symbol of fecundity because of its large quantities of seed, later coming to symbolize a wild, generative capacity, opposed to intelligent reason—a fool. 'Uno stolto veniva chiamato mellone e una scemenza, mellonaggine'. But it is not just the melon—the entire family of Cucurbitaceae recurs through the novella as an unstated leitmotive, tying Simone's foolishness to his environs (cocomero), his education (mellone), and his interpersonal relations (zucca and pinca). He cannot escape it.


Anonymous said...

I hope your gourd->word etymology is facetious, because near as I can tell it's totally off base. The word 'word' and its Germanic relatives healthily predate the Late Middle Ages. The official party line is that it comes from an IE root and is thus cousin to 'Woort', 'Wort', and 'Verbum'.

If I've missed a subtle jest, I apologize. I'm sure you understand the wealth of bogus etymological information on this here internet, and subsequently my itchy fingers.

M.W. Nolden said...

Conrad ~ I really do enjoy this kind of post from you.
So seasonal as well!

Epaphroditus Bainton said...

I was just about to comment on the etymology. The OED Etymological Dictionary seems to confer on the IE root, through Germanic languages. Classic argument from authority.

But also - this blog is incredible. The writing and connections are marvellous, and I'm consistently stimulated and entertained. Sorry to gush, but thank you for your blog.

Phanero Noemikon said...

Made me think of David Wilbur,
the semi-feral Astronomer of
18th century Rhode Island near to
Westerly parts. He was sometimes called "The Pumpkin Scratcher"..
He's mentioned in Carl Sifakis
little monograph, and as a lead
in to a discussion on the Cucurbita pepo which is quite interesting
considering it must've been derived from pepon meaning 'cooked by the sun'

so i guess it goes


at any rate
in the word secrets game
one ends up

pumping one's kin
rather often for the kith
to ken with

getting the poup
so to speak


"kookoo your biter"

chew, little chu..

Conrad H. Roth said...

OK, you got me; I was just having a little etymological fun. Anyway, Gregory and MW, thanks; I should have waited until the end of the month to post this, but what the hell.

Good catch, Phano; Google Books has "For sixty years, from 1778 to 1848, David Wilbur of Westerly, Rhode Island, known forever after as "the New England pumpkin-scratcher," took to the woods and remained there, shunning humanity and living off the land, his only human contact being the strange hieroglyphs and signs he scratched onto his neighbor's field pumpkins". Intriguing!

Anonymous said...

As for the tie of the Cucurbitaceæ to folly, what about Seneca's Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii? Like many one-time students of Latin I was told this was translated as the Pumpkinification of the divine Claudius.

Yet the pumpkin is a new-world species, and would not have been known to the ancient Romans. My suspicion is that Seneca meant literally what he said - the old-world colocynth, Citrullus colocynthis, which Squire (Companion to the British Pharmacopœia, 17th ed. [1899]) describes as "a powerful drastic hydragogue cathartic, dangerous in large doses..."

Another of the cucurbitaceæ with similar properties is Ecballium elaterium, the squirting cucumber, described by Squire as "the most powerful hydragogue cathartic." It is indeed so powerful that its active principle can be absorbed by the skin with untoward consequences. Mrs. Grieve (I recall) relates the account of a French scientist who picked some of the fruit while visiting the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and put them in his hat to carry them home. Their mere contact with his scalp resulted in great distress.

Could the amusement associated with the Cucurbitaceæ possibly arise from these associations? There is a long history of scatological joiking. "Pills to purge melancholy" - indeed!

chris miller said...

I have in my minimal collection of world art -- a small gourd (2" diameter) on opposite sides of which have been engraved in Chinese style the figures of two, naked, buxom young beauties -surrounded by various flora with what appear to be sea and sky in the background (lots of stuff for such a small object!)

Is there a possible etymological connection between "eros" and some variety of Chinese gourd ?

John Emerson said...

Girardot's "Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism" has a lot about cucurbits as a standin for "The Cosmic Egg". "Hun-tun" = "original chaos" = wonton may have been a cucurbit. Or maybe not.

Anonymous said...

I must say I enjoyed your etymology far more than the non-fabricated version.