Cloves and Carnations
One of the problems you come up against in attempting to identify Indonesian spices in medieval European texts is that the names for these spices were often applied — usually later on, usually in early modern/post-medieval texts — to local European plants as well. The ‘spice’ meaning is nearly always the original one, and these names are generally derived from the names of the spices and not the other way around. But the confusion can lead historians and translators to treat what ought to be obvious references to Indonesian (and other Asian) commodities as references to European plants instead.
Galangal is a good example of this. Originally the name ‘galangal’ (vel sim) was given to a number of different plants in the ginger family, usually Alpinia galanga and A. officinarum, both of which come from South and Southeast Asia. The European words are loanwords, probably ultimately from a Chinese source (cf. Sanskrit kulañjana, Arabic khūlanjān [خولنجان]). In English, however, names derived from ‘galangal’ have also been applied to Cyperus longus, the ‘galingale’, a completely unrelated plant that also produces a large rhizome. Both ‘galangal’ and ‘galingale’ come from words that originally and unambiguously referred to the Asian spice and not the European sedge, and most medieval mentions of galangal occur in recipes where (true) galangal would or should be used or in lists of spices, all of them exotic. When we look at references to galangal in medieval European texts we probably aren’t looking at culinary uses of Cyperus longus. The potential for misunderstanding is present nonetheless.
The same problem afflicts zedoary, known occasionally in English as setwall. The original referent of these words was Curcuma zedoaria, a plant in the ginger family whose Latin and English names come from the Arabic word jadwār (جدوار). Variants of the same name were later applied to valerian (Valeriana officinalis), however, and translators of medieval European texts, particularly Middle English ones, often translate ‘setwall’ and its variants as ‘valerian’ (mistakenly, I think).
Valerian grew in Europe; zedoary was imported from tropical Asia. This is not a trivial difference. It seems important to get it right.
The most frequently encountered of these confusions is that between cloves (the dried flower buds of Syzygium aromaticum, an eastern Indonesian tree — Figure 1) and ‘gilliflowers’ or carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), flowers from the Eurasian mainland with a clove-ish scent. The overlap is found in many languages: the modern Portuguese word cravo means both ‘clove’ and ‘carnation’, as does the Albanian word karafil — as do many others. This means that words in medieval texts that must be references to cloves are sometimes translated as ‘gilliflower’ or ‘carnation’, which can make it seem as though cloves (and other Indonesian commodities) were less common in medieval Europe than they actually were.
The clove/gilliflower colexification is thus the subject of this post, and I want to pay particularly attention here to the supposed use of gilliflowers in so-called ‘peppercorn rents’ in medieval England. I strongly suspect that all of the supposed references to ‘gilliflowers’ are actually references to cloves. We’ll come to that in a minute.
There spryngen herbes, grene & smale,
The licorys, and Cetewale,
And many a clowe Gylofre
And notemuge, to putte in ale,
Wheither it be moyste or stale,
Or for to leye in cofre
Editors and translators tend to translate Cetewale here as ‘valerian’ and clowe Gylofre is often given as ‘gillyflower’. The definitive reference to nutmeg (notemuge), which is never anything but itself, should make it clear, though, that these aren’t supposed to be European flowers growing locally in Flanders (where the story — a parody of chivalric romances — is supposedly set). They’re supposed to be exotic plants from far away and their presence is supposed to be absurd. To my mind, Cetewale is best translated here as ‘zedoary’ and clowe Gylofre — without question, really — as ‘clove’.
Chaucer uses the compound term clowe Gylofre, and that’s rather convenient for our purposes here because it’s made up of two parts that both meant ‘clove’. The clowe part is the ancestor of our modern word ‘clove’, and it comes from the Old French word clou ‘nail’, ultimately Latin clavus, ‘nail’. Cloves were so named because they look like nails (see Figure 1). The same logic is also found in the Chinese word 丁香 (dīngxiāng) ‘clove’, literally ‘nail fragrance’, and in the Hungarian word szegfű ‘clove’, literally ‘nail grass’ (first attested as zeg fiw). (See also the Danish, Dutch, and German names.) The clowe part of Chaucer’s formula thus originally meant ‘clove’ (dried flower bud of Syzygium aromaticum) and not ‘carnation’ or ‘gilliflower’.
Gylofre is the part that became the ‘gilli-’ in ‘gilliflower’, but it also originally referred to cloves. The word comes from the French girofle (vel sim), which meant simply ‘clove’; girofle came from the Latin gariofilus (originally cariofilus), which came from the Greek καρυόφυλλον, both of which meant nothing other than ‘clove’. The Greek word is sometimes analysed as ‘nut leaf’, but that’s probably a folk etymology; it’s more likely to have come from Arabic qaranful (قرنفل), which in turn came from Tamil kirāmpu (கிராம்பு) or another Dravidian source (although the precise origin is still a matter of some debate). Significantly, all these words originally meant ‘clove’, the eastern Indonesian spice, and not ‘carnation’.
Carnations smell a bit like cloves and were named after them in many languages for this reason. But this is a secondary meaning, the result of a chance resemblance. There are plenty of medieval texts in which we find relatives of both clowe and gylofre with the basic meaning of clove (see e.g. Figures 3 & 4), but I can’t think of a single one where the ‘carnation’ meaning is unambiguously intended.
‘Peppercorns’ and Cloves
In some cases it might be difficult to say whether ‘clove’ or ‘carnation’ is meant by a phrase like clowe Gylofre, particularly when there isn’t much of a context to go by. Both elements originally referred to cloves and not carnations, however, and the contexts in which such terms are found suggest ‘exotic spice’ much more often than ‘local flower’. In most such texts, where a clowe/clou/gariofilus (etc.) appears in a list of spices or in a recipe, translators tend to opt for ‘clove’. And they are right to do so.
Variants of such terms are nonetheless routinely misinterpreted as references to ‘gilliflowers’ where the necessary context is lacking. The Wikipedia page for ‘gilliflower’, for instance, lists a number of medieval ‘peppercorn rents’ supposedly paid with ‘gilliflowers’. A peppercorn rent is a nominal fee ‘paid’ by (for example) a tenant to a landlord such that the landlord retains rights to the land without compelling the tenant to actually pay money for their use of it. A contract without such consideration is not valid and some payment is demanded; traditionally such nominal rents were paid with a single peppercorn, which is where the name comes from. And according to Wikipedia and apparently several scholars, it was possible to pay a peppercorn rent with a carnation in medieval England.
When you look at the terms used in these medieval peppercorn rents, though, it becomes clear that the tenants weren’t paying with gilliflowers or carnations (or parts of them, as is sometimes claimed). They were paying with cloves — which makes sense when you consider that both peppercorns and cloves were small dried spices from Asia, valuable enough on their own that they could stand in for the very idea of value. When you look at the words used in such contracts they do not in fact say ‘gilliflower’, a term that first appears as such in the middle of the sixteenth century; they always use terms that in other contexts clearly referred to cloves, usually the Latin clauum gariofilum. This is unequivocally a clove.
This brief article about a supposed late-thirteenth-century ‘gillyflower’ peppercorn contract in the English Midlands, for instance, says that the sum demanded was unum clavum Gariofilum, which is there translated as ‘one clove of gillyflower’. It should be clear, however, that this is supposed to be ‘one clove’. The contract does not say ‘gilliflower’ in so many words; it uses two words that both mean/meant ‘clove’, and which in a recipe or list of customs duties would always be translated as ‘clove’. We have few to no indications that clauum gariofilum meant ‘carnation’ until centuries later, if it ever meant such a thing.
A ‘cariofilus nail’, a clowe gylofre, a clove — a flower bud harvested from a tree in the far east of Indonesia (Figure 5), not in the meadows of Nottinghamshire. That’s the peppercorn rent in that English contract.
Whatever some scholars might say, though, philology isn’t an exact science. Determing the precise meaning of a term in every text and context in which it appears is not possible, and it cannot be said with certainty that every reference to a clauum gariofilum (or similar) is a reference to an eastern Indonesian flower bud. But I have yet to come across an unambiguous reference to a gillyflower or carnation under any variant of the name gariofilus in any medieval European texts, and such terms occur so often in ‘spicy’ contexts that, unless we have good reasons for thinking otherwise in specific cases, they should always be translated as ‘clove’.
I’m pretty sure that these ‘gillyflower’ peppercorn rents were actually paid using Moluccan cloves, which fits better with the original peppercorn practice and with the usual meanings of the words themselves in medieval texts (not to mention their etymologies). If you disagree with my reasoning then feel free to let me know, but it seems to me that this is yet another example of plants grown and harvested by the people of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago assuming a position of importance in the lives of people in medieval Europe (just as they did in other parts of the hemisphere).
More next time!
A. J. West — Leiden, May 2020
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