The rudest tree you ever did see written about

To continue, a lighter note in the knells of Zimmermann critique for once! Just at the close of chapter 6 of his immense Écrire et lire en Catalogne, Michel Zimmermann references as an amusing throwaway a document which I had seen before, but mislaid my reference to, and of which I was delighted to be reminded. The document is an ordinary land-grant, albeit by a count, although it has its own fascinations: among the things granted are ‘waste churches’, for example, which have been made to bear far too much significance in the past1 but which leaves an intriguing tale untold. It may possibly have something to do with the fact that on the boundaries of the property there was a guardia maurisca, if that’s correct a Muslim guard-tower, although we have seen that often when such things are invoked they were actually Carolingian and a tower is a more likely Carolingian than Muslim feature out here.2 But the reason to love the document is that one of the other boundaries is, as the scribe puts it:

On the tip of the higher pine tree, which has a mendacious and malformed name, a name which is however perfectly well-known to everyone, which on account of its deformity we avoid writing… 

Did you get that? The scribe is refusing to tell us what the boundary tree is called because it has a rude name. And that’s why Zimmermann mentions it, and for once tells us where the document can be found.3 But ladies and gentlemen, the story does not end there. That name that could not be uttered, the place where the scribe wouldn’t go? We’re going there. (Here are some preparatory instructions.) Because, not every scribe shared this fine sense of language, you see, and the property is also referred to in a later papal confirmation by Pope John XV, from which we can supply the name.4 Now I know I said there had to be more swearing on this blog but I want to be sure you’re ready for this so I’ve run it through ROT13 in consideration of your tender minds and gentle souls. Those who feel strong enough to decode it should run the following string through this web-page. Ready?

PNSENYVB

Oh, and I also put the Latin in this footnote, oops.5 Now, this is actually more interesting than it might appear, on inspection. I can’t myself see anything up with this word—and okay, if I’m going to discuss it I suppose I have to name it, Cafralio. But if I bend my brain suitably, I can imagine that a scribe who was looking back at an unfamiliar script with closed letters `a’ might somehow read “coprolio” and there I start to see the problem, although it is a problem in Greek.6 So it’s interesting, because whereas the script change in this area and time was generally from Visigothic bookscript (what the palæographers of the area call escritura condal), which has an almost-triangular letter `a’, to Caroline minuscule which has a rounder one, here we appear to have a scribe who didn’t recognise what must be Caroline script. But that itself is a problem for me, because this ought to being done from notes, and I can’t imagine that people made notes in Caroline, it’s a book hand. The notes should be cursive, and any cursive I know of in this area would have had open letters `a’, I think, not that there’s much to go on.7 And there is also the fact that while John XV’s scribes were happy with the name, an earlier and much more contemporary papal Bull from Benedict VI does not feature it.8

Sample of text in escritura condal

Sample of text in escritura condal, reading "& ipsas meas equas ·IIIIor·", from Arxiu Capitular de Vic, Calaix 9, I, no. 50, photograph by me

Sample text in Caroline-influenced escritura condal

Sample text in Caroline-influenced escritura condal, reading "In hac vero audiencia", from Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins C 20; note that the scribe used both forms, differing at the beginning of `audiencia' from the end

So, OK, one option is that there was an earlier document, perhaps written by a Frankish scribe or from one of those flash guys near Barcelona, and Sant Pere de Rodes’s scribe couldn’t read it but thought he could. That seems awkward to me because Caroline is supposed to be legible, that’s the point, and there would be lots of other letters to compare these with in the document which ought to prevent the mistake. Okay, maybe it wasn’t very good Caroline. But the other option is that the first scribe is right about what the name is—and he does say that it’s well-known to everyone—and while they didn’t dare put it in the text they used for Pope Benedict (which was probably this same charter9), they decided later on that they really needed the boundaries of this property (which was much contested) in a papal Bull and so bowdlerised it to Cafralio for the text they took to Rome for John XV. That sounds pretty silly, but it does seem to me less improbable… Or, is there a Latin reading that would make more sense that I’m just too innocent to see?


1. Albert Benet i Clarà, “La incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942″ in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 9 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 568-574, uses any indication of a destroyed or abandoned church to map the progress of the Magyar raid into Catalonia and Spain in 942; I’m not sure that’s what they spent all their time doing, myself… See my “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú’” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (ed.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127 at pp. 115-119, which also contains my worst academic pun committed to print. SO FAR.

2. I’m sure there is literature on this but it won’t come to mind; the one I’m thinking of is the supposed Torre dels Moros astride the Casserres peninsula, discussed most thoroughly in Antoni Pladevall i Font, Sant Pere de Casserres o la Presència de Cluny a Catalunya (Manlleu 2004), pp. 51-55.

3. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (siècles IX-XIII), Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, I p. 423 citing Petrus de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniæ, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. Étienne Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972 & 1989), ap. CXVI, which must by now be reprinted in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I’m not in a position to look that up just now: “In sumitatem de ipso pino altiore qui habet inhonestum atque incompositum nomen, cujus tamen nomen omnibus notissimum est, quem nos propter deformitatem scribere devitamus.”

4. That being de Marca, Marca Hispanica, ap. CXL, which certainly must be better edited in Harald Zimmermann [no relation I believe] (ed.), Papsturkunden 896-1046(Wien 1984), but again I don’t right now have the access to check.

5. “Cafralio”. <looks around nervously>

6. That doesn’t actually prohibit it, however. On this Zimmermann is quite good, as far as I’m any judge: see Écrire et lire, I pp. 297-312. He sees the use of Greek words here mainly as stylistic showing-off by borrowing from word-lists and glossaries, but that would do for this case.

7. The local palæography is covered in M. Josepa Arnall i Juan & Josep M. Pons i Guri, L’escriptura a les terres gironines (Girona 1993), but there just isn’t really any preserved cursive from this era as far as I know, except the odd chancery-like signature.

8. De Marca, Marca Hispanica, ap. CXVII, again presumably better edited in Zimmermann, Papsturkunden, if only I could reach it.

9. That’s how papal documents of this era tended to be done, with a model you brought with you and got copied up in advance: see Hans-Henning Körtum, Zur Päpstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995).

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25 responses to “The rudest tree you ever did see written about

  1. Could it be an arabic-derived word? qafra = wilderness, solitude. Not sure this would be your ‘rude’ tree name though… how does the later citation go?

    NB. Just throwing that into the mix… I’m no philologist!

    • I must get the full text of the later citation; my notes don’t have it, annoyingly. Still don’t own the whole Catalunya Carolíngia! But this would be too late for that anyway… The Arabic suggestion is an interesting one; it would need to be a bilingual mashup, `little solitude’, but that’s not actually impossible, some Arabic does still litter this landscape here and there in this period.

    • Your comment also makes a lot of sense to me, the biblical goat-capra in the wilderness is Azazel, yet another goat-shaped mithical figure.

  2. Cat. Car V. (Girona) D.523 p.465-468 corrects the word as ‘Caralio’, still in use in catalan, it makes a lot of sense for a tree name.

    • Thankyou Joan, you have solved it! For some reason I had John XV’s dates wrong in my head and hadn’t thought that the Catalunya Carolíngia might be online anyway. Annoying that it doesn’t include Ordeig’s note! So that does in fact provide our explanation, marvellous. And five hundred years before the Glossa believes it’s in use, too. I note that this second instance is the whole mountain, not this special tree. Maybe they’d cut the tree down to clean up the landscape!

      • I should note also that neither of the Catalan word-lists on my shelf choose to give this word! The distaste continues…

        • The word also exists in galician and castilian.

          The etymology seems to be uncertain, it could be a really old word (maybe iberian? kar=rock or indoeuropean?), but i am not a etymologist, at all.

          The capra/cabra play that Alex is pointing at, it’s also very interesting. Pan/Faunus/capra match both simbols, phallus and capra, and it was a western god in greco-roman mithology (Pan->Pania->Hispania, Plutarc).

          As a foot-note, don’t forget to add to this catalan word-lists also carallot, the meaning is more evoluted, but (imo) it’s the most usual usage of the word currently.

  3. Might it not be ‘little Billy Goat’ a eupehmism for the gentleman in the nether regions?

  4. capram cabra (chabra, craba) cabra chèvre ciaura cavra capra cabra cabra craba capră ‘goat’

  5. Celtic for goat is ‘gabro-’ a cognate rather than a loan from Romance. the second consonant (b) becomes /v/ in both Irish and Welsh.

    capreolus is a wild goat in Latin

    • Making in an unusual name for a Christian bishop – Capreolus of Carthage (5th c.). He’s the one who cried off going to the Council of Ephesus because of those pesky Vandals.

      Mark H.

  6. and English ‘goat’ is cognate with Latin ‘haedus’ a kid. It is one of the many examples of ‘infantilising’ domestic animal names in English cf rabbit for coney, dog for hound, pig for swine (cognate with Danish ‘pige’ – little girl).

  7. ‘bird’ for ‘fowl’ is also an infantilism. cf Bird Ellen in the Childe ballads.

  8. highlyeccentric

    *snickers* Oh, that improved my afternoon greatly.

  9. Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 4: A Golden Hoard of Links « Heavenfield

  10. Pingback: The awesomeness of implied landscape | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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