Today’s passage from Wonders in the Sky (2009) by Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck is not “wrong” per se but rather an example of the authors substituting their own ignorance for doing such simple research as opening a dictionary. The account they present says what they say it does, but somehow they manage to bungle it anyway, actually weakening their own case!
In the thirteenth century, Salimbene de Adam, a monk, wrote in his Chronicle that after the naval battle of Meloria in 1284 a story circulated that the fight between Genoa and Pisa had been predicted at some unspecified point in the past by a light show in the sky. It is a post hoc construction, and almost certainly fictitious—one of an infinite number of imagined and distorted prodigies medieval people projected into the sky, and one of many similar events Salimbene records, ranging from shooting stars to eclipses. This is not among the most interesting passages in Wonders in the Sky, but it is a little strange that the authors didn’t use a dictionary to translate the Latin. Here is how they give it:
It should be known that this battle and massacre between the Genovesi and Pisani had already been foretold and announced long before it happened. In the town of Saint Ruffino, in the diocese of Parma, some women peeled [washed?] the linen at night: and they saw two great stars meeting in the sky. They drew away from each other and still collided again, and chased one another, and more than once...
Allow me to translate it a bit more accurately, from page 305 of the linked edition:
And note that this battle and massacre, which took place between the Genovese and Pisans, was foretold and revealed a long time before it had occurred; for, in the town of San Ruffino, in the bishopric of Parma, women, who by night were cleaning flax, saw two great stars doing battle with one another. They withdrew after many exchanges, and they fought each other again and again in many clashes. (my trans.)
It’s a bit unclear here how the word I’ve given as flax (linum) is being used; it can mean rope, net, flax, and linen cloth. Because Salimbene has provided no context and does not use the word again so far as I can tell, I can’t determine which meaning was intended—or why women would be out cleaning any of that stuff in the middle of the night. In the broader context of his Chronicle, I suspect that the intention was to imply that the women were trying to get supplies to make more rope for the war effort.
The Latin word purgare means to “cleanse,” so I can’t see how the authors mistook it for “peeled” (glubere). Similarly, the participle praeliantes (variant of the verb proelior) has only the meaning of “doing battle,” not “colliding,” so here the authors actually weaken their own claim by leaving out the most important part of the translation: the stars doing battle!
But this is where it gets interesting: Salimbene’s earlier English translator, the famous medievalist George Gordon Coulton, didn’t think that he meant star at all when he used the word stella. Look at how he translated the same lines in 1906:
And note that this murderous fight between Genoa and Pisa was foretold long before it happened. For in the town of San Ruffino in the Bishopric of Parma, women who were bleaching linen by night, saw two great oxen fighting and retreating, and again meeting to fight with each other. (trans. George Gordon Coulton)
I can’t say that I understand how Coulton got “ox” out of “stella.” As best I can determine, Coulton is simply wrong, unless the manuscript version he consulted contained a textual variant, which would make the entire prodigy much less extraterrestrial. Coulton was working from a collation of manuscripts provided by a French scholar and the critical edition published by the German scholar Oswald Holder-Egger, whose edition makes no mention of oxen. It seems that the difference in wording is buried somewhere in the French collection of manuscripts by L. Clédat, whose transcription must vary from that of the published versions, or else Coulton just screwed up badly. It seems, overall, that oxen is an inferior reading.
Now let’s look at how the standard 1986 translation by Joseph L. Baird et al. gives the same passage, drawn from the more recent critical edition of Scalia in 1966, the one cited by our authors as their source:
And take note that this battle and this slaughter was forecast long before it took place. For in the village of San Ruffino in the bishopric of Parma, some women who were washing flax by night saw two large stars fighting with one another, and they drew apart many times and came back together in battle.
Baird prefers to read linum as “flax” rather than “linen.” I recognize that this is the least important part of the sentence, but it goes toward Vallée’s and Aubeck’s sloppiness that they translate the word as “laundry,” about the only thing it can’t mean. In sum, even when our authors are more or less right, they still engage in such sloppiness that their material is unreliable.
3/24/2015 08:24:01 am
"... women who were bleaching linen by night, saw two great oxen fighting and retreating, and again meeting to fight with each other."
3/24/2015 09:16:17 am
And no one got an anal probe. Unless "washing linen" is some obscure euphemism.
3/24/2015 11:28:20 am
More like an immediate assumption that needs no checking, made from seeing the words 'women' and 'linen' together. What else but washing could women possibly be doing with linen at night??? Make a sailboat to escape the drudgery and look at the stars to get a bearing? Beats the flax out of me.
3/24/2015 11:40:58 am
"Beats the flax out of me."
3/24/2015 11:50:36 am
All flax is rope! :P
3/24/2015 05:56:45 pm
Truly sorry, 't was a euphemism.
I would suggest that in this sense cleaning does not mean washing. Natural fibers need to be "cleaned" prior to spinning or weaving. Wool needs to be carded, cotton needs to be ginned. Hemp and flax need to go through a longer process of retting, scutching, and heckeling, before they can be used.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.