Friday, November 1, 2013

The small, tart plum of my eyes

Most French people know the word prunelle from one phrase: "la prunelle de mes yeux". This has been translated as "the apple of my eye", but even idiomatically that is not correct. The American phrase refers to something that is precious in one's sight; the French phrase refers to sight - or the organ of sight - itself. It is sometimes translated as "the pupil of my eyes" and in fact that is probably how most speakers understand it: something is as important to the speaker as their own pupils.

Other than a dim idea that it means "pupil" (which it once did, but no longer does), very few people in France today know what a prunelle is. When I asked two different French friends, in both cases I was met with a blank stare. When I helpfully pointed out that a prunelle was a fruit, each then said brightly, "Oh! For making jam! Like mirabelles!" And in fact, today, that is not far off. But in previous centuries the answer would have been different.

In English, prunelle is "sloe". But this is likely to mean little more to most English speakers than prunelle does to the French. Drinkers of a certain age will remember the "sloe gin fizz", but may never have particularly thought about what "sloe gin" is, much less "sloe". If anything, punning drink names of the Seventies ("Sloe comfortable screw") probably left a vague impression that the word has to do with reduced speed.

The sloe (Prunus spinosa) is, in fact, a small, tart cousin to the plum. In French, this relationship is clearer: plum is prune, sloe is prunelle (that is, little plum). As it turns out, the sloe today is sometimes used to make jam, as well as various drinks, including, yes, sloe gin (which may be made with vodka or even neutral spirits).

In earlier times, however, the sloe was a perfectly edible fruit. How early? Ötzi, the Iceman, whose mummified body was found in 1991, was carrying dried sloes. He lived roughly 5,000 years ago and so the sloe was being eaten at least that far back.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it was still a standard food in France in the Medieval period. It is not unusual to find sloes in archaeological digs, along with some more familiar fruit (especially plums) and hazelnuts. The carpologist Marie-Pierre Ruas found that sloe remains were as common in the South of France during the Medieval period as fig and plum trees. At a Carolingian site in Auvergne, she found an "abundance and ... diversity" of both plums and sloes, identifying at least three different varieties of the latter. This was part of "one of the aspects of fruticole expansion in Europe, apparent from the first centuries of the Christian era".

Ruas links this with clearings in wooded areas:
The presence of woody species with edible fruits (sloe, hazelnuts, blackberry brambles) gives a glimpse of the existence of sunlit woods formations such as forest selvage, clearings, copses or hedges, established on a soil rich in nitrates, clay-sand or loess, and limestone.
Still, the sloe's presence in domestic contexts was surprising, if only because it has generally been considered a wild fruit:
We were surprised at the predominance of sloe pits over other forms of plums. ...The sloe is always considered as a wild fruit species whose fruits continued to be gathered after Antiquity.
...The frequent use of [sloes and other fruit] in food or other paths of consumption no doubt favored, intentionally or not, the proliferation of these species which particularly affects more or less neglected spots on the edges of habitations or cultivation.
Other digs have also uncovered sloes; Corrie C. Bakels, for instance,  also found evidence of sloe consumption in Picardy in the same period.

The sloe was probably always a humble food, gathered freely from the woods. The fourteenth century poet Eustache Deschanps described shepherd's meals as consisting of "dark bread, sloe and buds, cheese and milk" ("Pain bis, prunelles et boutons, Fromage et lait"). In 1421, a diarist said that people in Paris ate apples and sloes left by pigs during a severe shortage.

By 1602, Olivier de Serres mentioned sloe only as a way to color "wine" made from pears and apples. Around the same time (1607) a religious text translated "pupillam oculorum meorum" as the "prunelle de mes yeux"; that is, "the pupil of my eyes" and in fact the word was then used far more often in that sense than to refer to the fruit. But already before that, in 1535, Olivetan used the term in his translation of the Bible (in Solomon's Proverbs Ch. vii).

Did the second usage start as a metaphor for the first? Possibly. But archaic as it now is, it has largely outlived the original. Yet once upon a (Medieval) time, the sloe was as common a fruit as a plum, or so archaeology suggests.


Home › Ötzi – the Iceman › The Circumstances of the Iceman’s death › When did he die?

Productions agricoles en Auvergne carolingienne d'après un dépotoir découvert à Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier) / Farming productions in caroungian auvergne from a refuse pit recovered at Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier).
M.-P. Ruas    lien Revue archéologique du Centre de la France  lien   Year   2000    lien Volume   39    lien Issue   39    lien pp. 137-160

Productions agricoles en Auvergne carolingienne d'après un dépotoir découvert à Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier) / Farming productions in caroungian auvergne from a refuse pit recovered at Saint-Germain-des-Fossés (Allier).
M.-P. Ruas    Revue archéologique du Centre de la France  Year   2000     Volume   39     Issue   39    n pp. 137-160

Corrie C. Bakels-Dury "Le Moulin" (Somme). Étude des restes botaniques [Article]

Paulin Paris-Les manuscrits françois de la Bibliothèque du roi

Denis Godefroy, Josè Maria Fonseca de Evora -Jean Jouvenel des Ursins-Histoire de Charles 6. roy de France, et des choses memorables aduenues durant 42. annees de son regne, depuis 1380. iusques a 1422. Par Iean Iuuenal des Vrsins, archeuesque de Rheims 1653

Olivier de Serres-Le Theatre d'Agriculture et Mesnage des Champs d' Olivier de Serres-1603

Olivetan-La Bible qui est toute la Saincte escripture 1535

Pierre Richelet-Dictionnaire de la langue françoise ancienne et moderne 1758

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