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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Word of the Month: PIE!

Who doesn’t love pie? The love of meat pies, or pasties, dates back to the Middle Ages – the OED notes that the earliest use of the word pasty dates from 1296, first used as a surname. Do you think Adam Pastey was so named because he made pasties or because he loved to eat them?

Image from the 15th century chronicle of Ulrico de Richental

The OED suggests that the word pasty came from the Anglo-Norman word paste. Paste derives from the Latin pasta [FEW 7,744a; DMBLS 2138b pasta] and is used for dough, as well as things that are pasty, like glue, mush for animals or medicinal pastes.[1] Amid these senses, the idea of ‘meat pie’ stood out like a sore thumb.

We decided to have a closer look at the citations currently defined in the AND as ‘pie’:

poucyns, musserons, estornelx, roitelx, pestiez en graunde pastez Man Lang ants 7.21
(chicks, sparrows, starlings, wrens, baked in big pies)

Et qe nulle pestour qi fait payn tourt vend sa flour as keus pur pastes faire Lib Alb 265
(That no baker, who makes large loaves of unsifted meal, should sell his flour to cooks in order to make pies)

While these were originally read to be paste, the editors now think that these citations represent the word pasté, that is, that the final syllable was accented. The word may have begun as a past participle of the verb paster, 'to bake'. These will now be given their own entry, and their etymological link to the English pasty is more evident.

Despite all the baking and kneading going on in Anglo-Norman – you’d have a pasteir or pasteler or pestriser to paster or pestrer your pies – we were having difficulty locating any pastry.  The OED suggests that the word is a derivation of paste or perhaps related to the Latin pasteria ‘kneading trough’ [DMLBS 3128c]. Within the OED’s entry, we found a use of the Anglo-Norman word (and a Middle English one!) within a Latin text (this type of cross-language borrowing is very common for the period):

De j tabula pro le pastree, vocata pastrybord Test Ebor iii 112
(One table for the pastry, called a pastry-board)

A pastry-board in action

Additional proof of the Anglo-Norman word was found in a series of glosses on the Latin word pastillos (vendendo clericis pastillos; ‘clerks selling pies’ TLL i 198) glossed as pasteus (pastel, ‘pastry, pie’), pastriesz and pasteys. Here pastriesz seems to be used in the sense of ‘pasty, pie’.

The revision of P has turned up a number of words that are alluded to in the OED’s etymologies, but which seemed to be missing from the AND. If you would like to hear more about paste, pasty, pastry and other ‘missing words’ in Anglo-Norman, the editors are giving a presentation on this topic at OxLex 4, at Pembroke College, Oxford, on March 25th.


[1] A reminder: all of the AND entries beginning with P- are currently under revision. One has to be careful not to confuse this word with past, meaning ‘food, meal’ which derives from the Latin pascere [FEW 7,697v]. Also, pasta in the modern sense of strands, sheets or other shapes used in Italian cooking, though ultimately deriving from the same etymon, is a later creation (attested in Italian from the end of the fifteenth century, but borrowed into English only from the first half of the nineteenth century).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Word of the Month: Fitchews and mitching

Despite what is often thought, Anglo-Norman’s influence on English extends well beyond the domains of the court, the law, and towns, with an interesting number of modern English dialect words ultimately being traceable back to the language of the Norman invaders.

Two such are fitchew (“a foumart, polecat”, Mustela putorius), which the 1896 article in the OED derives from “OF fissel”, and mitch v., tentatively associated in the same dictionary with Anglo-Norman mucier (AND’s muscer): “Apparently < Anglo-Norman muscer, muscier, mucer, mucier, muscher and Old French mucier, (chiefly Picardy and north-east.) muchier to hide, conceal (oneself)” (OED article from 2002). Both words, now, are regional. Mitch is so designated in the OED (“regional”) and the sense which concerns us here (“to absent oneself without authority; (esp.) to play truant from school” is described (rather imprecisely) as “now Brit. regional and Irish English”.

Fitchew is not labelled as regional in the OED and it is not listed at all in Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905). In the mid-twentieth-century Survey of English Dialects (IV.5.7) it is only attested in Warwickshire, north Devon and Cornwall. This is a geographically strange distribution which points to the word having once been more widespread; perhaps that is why the OED does not indicate that it is regional, because it was not a regionalism at the end of the nineteenth century, whereas it was by the middle of the twentieth (and it is now probably obsolescent). For its dialectal distribution, see the map in the section of our website for “non-specialist visitors”, and map 108 in Harold Orton/Nathalia Wright, A Word-Geography of England (London, Seminar, 1974).


Anglo-Norman has a surprising number of words available to designate the polecat: fitchewfulmardfoliartfwyneputois and mauputoisEnglish has even more names for it: polecat (1320); foumart (c.1400) and a dialectal variant, thummart (1696); fitchew (1418) and variants: fethok (1424); fitchet (1535); fitch (1550); fitchock (1616); martret (c.1450); boussyng (1481); flewen (1494), the last two from Dutch. It is perhaps noteworthy that none of these is attested before 1400. That may just be a documentary accident – polecats are probably not something very often written about – and the range of words available suggests perhaps that if not well documented at an early period, they must have been widely discussed: there would not otherwise be so many words for them.

To return to Anglo-Norman. Foliart may well be a corruption of fulmard (folmard?), itself a Middle English word derived from the Old English *fúl mearð, “foul marten”, and the only attestation of mauputois, in Bibbesworth’s vocabulary-teaching treatise (“E maudist seit li mau putois ... ”) is possibly to be read (as the editor, William Rothwell, takes it) as mau putois, “the evil polecat”. But what Anglo-Norman – like English – shows is the retention of words from several languages: putois is from French put, “stinking”, a reference to its odour (the word survives most notably in pute and putain, both meaning “prostitute”); fwyne is French fouine, originally from *fagina (Old French fou, “beech-tree”, replaced in the northern half of France by the Germanic hêtre), and means “beech-marten”, Martes foina.

Weasel in thirteenth-century Bestiary, Thérouanne, Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 3, fol. 91v

The marten and weasel families are now distinguished by zoologists, but used not to be. There is a fair amount of confusion which probably goes back at east to Pliny’s Natural History.[1] Old French has two words for weasel: mustele from the Latin, and belet(e), originally a diminutive meaning “fair little one”, which is what the Trésor de la langue française calls a “propitiatory antiphrasis”, i.e. a nice name given to a nasty little animal, in the hope that it will somehow be made to seem (and who knows, become) less nasty. Both mustele and belete are found in Anglo-Norman and so is the one-off diminutive mustelete, in Philippe de Thaon’s Bestiary of c. 1130 (Philippe has a particular fondness for diminutives, especially at the rhyme). Fitchew, the term we are interested in, derives from Latin vissio, a noun meaning “stink”, and it thus obviously emphasizes the smell of the polecat, as indeed do putois and foulmart. Fwyne is in fact the only “neutral” term in Anglo-Norman. The most immediately recognizable French dialectal forms which look like English fitchew are from Picardy in the north-east – and we know that Picard dialect did influence and contribute to Anglo-Norman.[2]

The underlying meaning of fitchew and Anglo-Norman ficheu, referring to the malodorous nature of the animal, is entirely “invisible” in both English and medieval French: in neither language is there any connection with any related word falling within the same semantic field and speakers will be unaware of the etymology or its sense of “stink” (unlike French putois, or English foulmart, where the word contains elements familiar to the modern speaker). Vissio survives only in Gallo-Romance (French and Occitan), and is absent from the other Romance languages. Within France, it covers a range of animals: weasels, dormice, martens, polecats, ferrets. In Virton, close to the French border in Belgium, it can mean a badger. What this suggests is a familiar pattern in pre-scientific medieval languages: a broader semantic range than modern animal taxonomy would regard as acceptable. In parts of north-eastern France (Metz) and Belgium (Mons) the word has an extended meaning of a “wily individual”. Clearly, popular culture associates with polecats, weasels and their ilk, smelliness, malevolence, and cunning. Weasels in particular have various metaphorical connotations in a range of languages including English, Greek and Japanese; it comes as no surprise that they are the baddies in The Wind in the Willows.

Bibl. Nat. de France, fr. 1951, fol. 7v

Mitching is an activity which is possibly cunning, though probably not by and large malevolent. It seems to refer quite specifically to playing truant from school and it appears to be (now) quite geographically restricted. It is (for example) in current use amongst schoolchildren in Aberystwyth, but a Welsh colleague says it is not part of her (north Wales) English. The English Dialect Dictionary (mitch vb. and sb.1) says it was (in the late-nineteenth century) “In gen. dial. use in Irel. Eng. and Amer.”. In other words, widely distributed, but recognizably “dialectal”. Quotations for the sense of “to play truant” are given by the EDD from Ireland, Herefordshire, Pembrokeshire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. The underlying sense of the suggested etymon, mucier, is “to hide”, and it is is one of a number of Old French verbs with that meaning. The medieval language seems to have a wider vocabulary for the concept than does modern French: see, for example, AND’s abscondre, celer3, conceler, tapir, atapir, cuter, acutir …. English mitch used to have a far wider range of meanings than it now does, although attestations before 1500 are rare (one from Gower’s Confessio Amantis, one from the 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (a sort of dictionary) and one from Wynkyn de Worde’s Dives & Pauper. All these mean “to steal, pilfer”; sources with the core French meaning of “to hide” are not found until 1558 (in a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid) and not until 1580 do we find the modern regional sense of “to absent oneself without authority”, especially from school. So it rather looks as if the reflex of Anglo-Norman mucier found its way into English – and into written texts, only belatedly – with the central Anglo-Norman meaning of “to hide”, before undergoing semantic extension to cover also the idea of “to play truant”. Now, in modern English, that is its only meaning, and only in certain areas. The connection to “hiding” is probably lost because that core sense has fallen out of use, and it is highly unlikely that its French origin in mucier is known to truanting[3] schoolchildren.

Mitch, like fitchew, belongs to that susbtantial number of English words which derive from Anglo-Norman, but from Anglo-Norman words whose French equivalent has now become obsolete.[4] As a result, even English-speakers with a decent knowledge of modern French are unlikely to make the connection between the words they use, and their distant French (or Anglo-Norman) ancestors. Thus is lost not only part of the history of English, but also part of the story of the role, and the extent, of Anglo-Norman as an influence on English.

Some further reading on Anglo-Norman and its influence on English dialects:

David Trotter, ‘L’anglo-normand à la campagne’, in Comptes-rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Paris, juin 2012, 2012, II (avril-juin), 1113-1131.

David Trotter, Saunz desbriser de hay ou de clos: clos(e) in Anglo-French and in English’, in Claudia Lange/Beatrix Weber/Göran Wolf (eds.), Communicative Spaces: Variation, Contact, and Change: Papers in Honour of Ursula Schaefer (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012), 197-214.

David Trotter, ‘Tout feu tout flamme: le FEW et l’anglais few’, in Yan Greub/André Thibault (eds.), Dialectologie et étymologie galloromanes. Mélanges en l’honneur de l’éméritat de Jean-Paul Chauveau (Strasbourg: ELiPhi, 2014), 245-258.


[1] See Lewis, “Ancient Names of the Cat”, Notes & Queries 196 (1859), 261-263.
[2] There is an interesting parallel with English (now dialectal) urchin, “hedgehog”, for which the closest corresponding French parallel is also Picard, in the form of (h)irechon.
[3] “Truant” is also an Anglo-Norman word, related to but not entirely synonymous with French truand, “petty criminal”. See the AND entry truant.
[4] For which, see Edmond Huguet, Mots disparus ou vieillis depuis le XVIe siècle (Paris: Droz, 1935 and [Geneva: Droz] 21967), available via GoogleBooks, p. 81 (musser) and Hugo Brüll, Untergegangene und veraltete Worte des Französischen im heutigen Englisch (Halle a. S.: Niemeyer, 1913), p. 122 (*fisse > fitchew), p. 176 muce (> mitch).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Words of the month: ‘pedigree’, ‘pé de colum’ and ‘péage’

As was the case for the last two years, 2015 will see this blog continuing to highlight rare, interesting or curious words of the Anglo-Norman language, gathered in the process of revising the Anglo-Norman Dictionary. And we thought we'd start off the year with not one but three different words 'of the month' for January. Can they be any more different? Firstly, the English word pedigree is, broadly speaking, a synonym for genealogy or line of descent, often presented visually as a tree-structure or chart; secondly, the Anglo-Norman phrase pé de colum translates as ‘foot/claw of a dove’; and thirdly péage is a Modern French word used for the toll that’s payable on motorways in French speaking countries.

With the AND editors currently working on words beginning with the letter P (with Q, in un-alphabetical order published earlier this month!), it turns out that these words are related on an etymological level, and that, with a few surprises thrown in as well, they all derive from the same etymon.


Let us begin with pedigree. This English word has had numerous different spellings through the centuries, each of these possibly reflecting different (pseudo-)etymological interpretations. In some late-medieval and sixteenth-century English sources, for example, it can be found spelled as pedegree, peedegree, pedugree, or even divided into two words pee degree  – suggesting a link, perhaps, with word degree. Early etymologists struggled to explain pedigree as a conflation of par degrees, a French/Anglo-Norman phrase which could be translated as ‘by degrees (of relation)’ and thus refer to the ‘degrees’ or ‘steps’ in descent.[1] However seemingly plausible, this explanation is incorrect for two reasons: firstly, not only would it be very unlikely for the preposition par (cf. Latin per), especially when used as a prefix or conflated into another word, to lose its final ‘r’,[2] but also, the other attested spellings of the word are often too far removed from degree.

For example, also during the late medieval and early modern period, the word pedigree is often attested spelled quite differently as pettigree or petygrew, with the first two syllables suggesting an understanding of the first element of the word as an instance of French petit (‘small’) – rendered in English as petty.[3] As for the second half, gree is attested in Middle English (and later) as a synonym for degree, borrowed from Anglo-Norman gree1.[4] This interpretation is evident in two sixteenth-century attestations of the word, found in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (New Edition 1577-87), where apparently an attempt was made to express this explicitly in the spelling:

To fetch their petit degrees from their ancestors’ (Description of Ireland, vol. 1, p.33)
‘Twelve petidegrees of the descent of the crowne of England [,..] by the bishop of Rosse’ (vol. 3, Contin. 1370/2)

There is, however, no explanation as to why the degrees or steps in line of decent in pedigrees should be considered to be ‘petty’ or ‘small’.

(BL, Royal MS 14 B VI)

The initial attempts to discover the origins of the word pedigree seem to fall within the realm of folk etymology As the OED (third edition, 2005) confirms, the word first appears in English from the 1420s, with the earliest attestation found in Lydgate’s Troyyes Book (using a very intriguing spelling):

‘Who so liste loken and unfolde þe pe-de-Grew of cronycles olde [...] He shal fynde þat he is justly born To regne in Fraunce by lyneal discent’ - Troyyes Book v.3388

More than a century earlier, in a court document of 1308, the word is already attested in Anglo-Norman:

‘Jon E. et Luce porterent bref vers Willem et fesoynt un title et counterent par la pee de gru sicut patet - YBB Ed II vi ciii
(John E. and Lucy submit a writ against William and establish a claim, [which] they account for by means of the genealogical line, as follows [showing a brief family tree of the sisters Julia, Lucy and Alice and their children]).

It seems that Anglo-Norman and this early spelling as a locution, pee de gru, are the key to understanding the etymology: the phrase used here translates literally as ‘foot of a crane’ (cf. AND 1 and grue1). W.W. Skeat, in his early nineteenth-century Etymological English Dictionary already deduced that ‘we may feel sure it is French’ and that ‘there may be a reference to F. grue a crane’ (p. 430). That interpretation has persisted, and has been reinforced, with some hesitation perhaps still apparent in their use of the adverb ‘probably’, by the OED’s etymological discussion of the word (third edition, 2005) and the MED’s entry pedegru(e n.

(Cranes, BL, Harley 4751, fol. 39r)

The suggestion is that this sense arose from the use of a conventional three-line mark in medieval manuscript genealogies to indicate succession and/or kinship. This symbol could be interpreted as the three toes of the bird, or, suggested elsewhere, its tracks. From this, the word for the symbol then came to refer, as a pars pro toto, to the entire genealogical representation.

Although this explanation seems to be generally accepted now, I have not seen any examples of the use of such a symbol in medieval genealogies. I would be very grateful to any medievalists or genealogists who could provide us with examples of these ‘crane’s feet’ in manuscript genealogies, and help us to corroborate this theory.

The same word or word group is not found in Latin[5], and is also absent from Continental French until the nineteenth-century, when pedigree is borrowed directly from English.[6] Therefore, it appears that pedigree is an insular formation, originating in Anglo-Norman and appearing a century later in English. It seems it quickly lost its original association with the claw-like symbol, only to be subjected to various forms of (mis-)understanding of its original significance and re-interpretation of its spelling.

(Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Typ 216)

Further editorial work on the (large) AND article for 1 (‘foot’) is bringing together other Anglo-Norman word groups that, similarly, refer to feet of birds: pé de cok (cf. cok1), pé de colum (cf. colum), pé de corf (cf. corf1) and pé de corbel (cf. corbel1). Ironically, just as for pé de grue, none of these seem to be attested designating the actual feet of cockerels, pigeons, crows or ravens. To take pé de colum (‘dove’s foot’) as an example:

‘Et memes ceo fait un herbe que est apelé pié de columb’ - A-N Med i 64
(And the same is achieved (=to cure anthrax) by a herb which is called ‘dove’s foot’)

(Doves, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, fol. 81v.)

In this case, the ‘dove’s foot’ is the name of a plant, and the same phrase is still used in English to refer to the Geranium molle, also known as (rather confusingly in the present context) the ‘crane’s bill’. Medieval Latin produced pes columbinus (DMLBS 386a) with, apparently, the same sense. Medieval botanical names can be notoriously difficult to pin down precisely, and additional Anglo-Norman attestations (usually from medicinal recipes) gloss the same pé de colum with Latin herba fetida (‘stinking herb’) and English maewort (probably mat-wort, if not med(e-wort or mug-wort) and culverfot (culver). Ultimately, it is the name of a type of wild Geranium, which in the shape of either its leaves or its flowers must have been reminiscent to the medieval mind of the bird’s foot.

Similarly, all of the above Anglo-Norman birds’ feet are in fact plant names, sometimes also attested in English, but never, according to the DMF, in medieval Continental French. The present AND article for 1 already confirms that animal feet seem to have been a prime source of inspiration for plant names, with other examples such as pé de cheval (‘coltsfoot’, cf. cheval), pé de leun (‘lion’s foot’, cf. leun2), pé de levere (‘hare’s foot’, cf. levere1), and pé de pulein (also ‘coltsfoot’, cf. pulein1).

(early fifteenth-century representation of possibly a Geranium plant
Voynich MS, Yale, Beinecke Library) 

The third word, péage, now seems quite a departure from the above discussion on genealogy, birds’ feet and plant names. It is included here, because it is, after all, less out of place than one might expect. Firstly, the word is already well attested in medieval times, and appears in Middle English, Continental French and Anglo-Norman with the same sense of 'road toll' – a fee paid in exchange for the right to use a certain road or bridge:

'quietes de toun et pontage et passage et paage et stalage, et tayllage' - Three Chronicles 22
(exempt from toll, bridge toll, passage money, 'péage', stall-fees and tallage)

'Derechef je quit, e enfraunchi [...] touz les pelerins Engleys, alanz e venaunz par mon poer, ou que seit; e voille que il soient frans e delivrés de totes maneres de paiage' - Foedera i 504 
(Henceforth, I exempt and relieve all English pilgrims, coming or going, under my jurisdiction, wherever that may be; and I wish them to be free of and exempt from any kind of 'péage')

Since péage is a type of payment extracted, the word may very easily have acquired an association with the verb paier in Anglo-Norman - 'to pay' in English. After all, Anglo-Norman spellings of that verb include paer, peer or peier. In the early stages of working on the P- revision, the editors almost made exactly that mistake, including the substantive in the group of words going back to the Latin etymon pacare. However, when confirming its etymology,[7] it soon became obvious that once again this word was related to 1, 'foot'. The post-classical Latin word for this toll is pedagium (DMLBS 2163b),[8] which is a clearly a derivative of pes (and its declined form ped-): ‘foot’. Late Medieval and Early Modern English also has spellings like podage or pedage that leave that link more apparent. In Anglo-Norman we also find petage, which is probably the same word:

‘lui avoit donné [...] le dit pourvosté d’Ax, ovesqe le petage et autres revenemenz et profit et molimenz apertenauntz a cele’ - Rot Parl ii 214
(he had given him the aforementioned stewardship of Ax, together with the ‘péage’ and other revenues, profits and dues that belong to it)

(Medieval gate tower to collect bridge toll on Monnow Bridge, Monmouth)

The thought-process behind this word, originally, must have been not so much that it was a ‘payment’, but that that the toll was paid for travelling ‘on foot’ or for ‘setting foot’ on certain roads or bridges. Then again, a word like paiage must have sounded like a perfectly acceptable synonym for paiement, and there are numerous examples in Anglo-Norman where it seems to have meant just that:

‘por celui paiement fere as termes […] le devantdit E. lui eit assené et obligé le devantdit paage en la manere, qe est contenue en la devantdite lettre’ - Foedera i 48
(in order to make a payment to him in installments [...] the aforementioned E. had assigned and obliged him to make the aforementioned payment in the manner stipulated in the aforementioned letter)

To conclude, just like pedigree also peage not only turns out to have a somewhat unexpected etymology leading back to the word for ‘foot’, but also has that origin eclipsed by later competing etymological interpretations – which, in turn, were influenced by or produced variant spellings. Part of revising the AND is to detect and disentangle these etymological families, and to classify these words in the correct categories.

(One-legged sciapods in Jacob van Maerlant's Van Der Naturen Bloeme,
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16 (XVI 9869))


[1] See for example the brief note by S. O. Addy in Notes and Queries  9:5 (1900), p. 233, which refers to the mid-fifteenth-century Promptorium Parvulorum and its definition of the word as ‘a lineage in steps’.
[2] See for example the (obsolete) interjection perfay, borrowed in English from Anglo-Norman par fei, and meaning ‘by my faith’. The word (or sometimes phrase) is attested in English from the early-fourteenth until the mid-nineteenth century in a great variety of spellings, though always starting with par-, per-, pur- or even pro-.
[3] English still has expressions like petty cash or petty jury.
[4] Both vernacular words, gree and degree, ultimately derive from the same Latin etymon gradus (‘step’, ‘stair’, etc., DMLBS 1091b), with degree adding a de- prefix (degradus (‘stairway’), DMLBS 596a).
[5] The DMLBS lists pes originationis as a expression meaning ‘pedigree, lineage, descent’ (pes 2251b). However, this phrase is attested only once in a text from 1461 and is not relevant for the present discussion.
[6] TLF pedigree.
[7] FEW pes 8,300b
[8] The DMLBS also includes paagium (2073a) which has the same sense and appears to be a Latinized form of the vernacular word, and pedaticus (2164a).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Word of the month: fitonesse

Prophecies and divinations were very much a part of the medieval spiritual landscape and the Christmas miracle, and the coming of Christ the Messiah, was one of the most important events in Christian theology foretold in several passages of the Old Testament.[1] Prophecy, however, even if considered as the only legitimate channel for predicting the future as decreed by the Church, was not the only means for foretelling things to come. This is reflected in the variety of Anglo-Norman vocabulary we have for describing not only the acts of divination, e.g. devination, geomancie, garmenterie, but the practitioners themselves, such as devineur and nigromancien, using various and often, to the modern eye, dubious methods to predict the future. But whereas the headwords such as prophete, devineur and nigromancien come with a string of related words in the AND, some of which are still in use today in modern English and French[2], albeit in different form, fitonesse stands out as a more unusual term.
Fitonesse is currently defined in the AND as ‘sorceress’ but this definition is to be changed to ‘soothsayer’ to better reflect the content of the single citation used to illustrate the headword:
‘une manere de divinaille se fet par le mal feie par laquel la fitonesse suscita Samuel qi garni Saul de sa mort’ Mir Just 16
(One manner of divination is done by the demon/Devil by which the soothsayer raised Samuel who forewarned Saul of his death)
The citation is from the Mirror of Justices, a curious legal treatise or commentary from the late 13th century. The metaphor of a ‘mirror’ was one of the more popular literary conventions of the late Middle Ages, and it has been argued that the text was designed not as a record of what courts of the time did but of what the author, by reflecting the lawyers’ defaults and defects through his textual mirror, thought they should do.[3] Fitonesse appears in a passage where the author explains the crimes of ‘lese-majesté[4] (lese-majesty), i.e. any offence against the king’s authority – including the King of Heaven. According to the author, all manners of divination that are not prophecy are types of heresy and crimes against the celestial king and therefore forbidden. His example, our citation, refers to the Samuel I 28:3-25 where a woman soothsayer from Endor summoned the prophet Samuel’s spirit at the order of king Saul of Israel. In a related section of the Old Testament such practice was specifically forbidden[5], and this is undoubtedly why the author of Mirror of Justices chose to use this particular religious element in his text.

(Oedipus kneeling before the Delphic oracle (British Library MS Stowe 54, early 15th century French manuscript)

Fitonesse is an Anglo-Norman variant of medieval Latin pythonissa (DMLBS 2593a), a term derived from ‘Pythia’ or ‘Pythian’ referring to the high priestess of Apollo at Delphi. ‘Pythia’ is in turn named for the ‘Python’, the monstrous serpent slain near Delphi by Apollo. According to one form of the legend, the oracle originally belonged to or was possibly guarded by the serpent, and, on the extermination of the latter, became the oracle of Apollo. Therefore, as Corinne J. Saunders have noted, the term ‘python’ is used to indicate a prophetic or divining spirit, which takes possession of a person and it finds its origins in the mythological Python slain by Apollo, and consequent Greek poetic use of ‘python’ to indicate a monstrous antagonist.[6] She continues by noting that diviners and soothsayers consequently became known as ‘pythons’[7], and from this source came the name of medieval female diviners and soothsayers as ‘pythoness’ (OED pythoness, MED phitonesse). In the OED the etymology of Python n. 2 is given as post-classical Latin python-, i.e. familiar or possessing spirit with powers of divination, person possessed by such a spirit (Vulgate) and its etymon Hellenistic Greek πύθων familiar spirit, demon possessing a soothsayer (New Testament)'. Middle English also has a variant spelling fetonisse which, similarly to the Anglo-Norman fitonesse is a metathesized form of phytonisse/phitonesse, i.e. the 'h' moved forward to the 'p', producing ‘ph', which then, in turn, became an 'f''. Other variants of medieval French have the medieval Latin form (Godefroy, DMF pythonisse). 

Exorcism of a woman believed to be possessed by demons

The term appears first in Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate Bible to refer to the soothsayer consulted by King Saul. In the Vulgate the woman is referred to as mulier habens pythonum, that is, a woman 'having the python' to signify that she is possessed.[8] The element of possession by a spirit or a demon which in turn enables the prediction of future is also present in our citation (se fet par le mal feie) as well as in the OED and DMLBS in addition to the more general definition of ‘female soothsayer, medium, sorceress and/or witch.’ In addition to pythoness, OED has an entry for Pythonissa which refers to the proper name often used for the Old Testament soothsayer. The Middle English phitonesse is also at times capitalized to refer to the particular soothsayer encountered by Saul in the biblical text, especially in Chaucer and Gower. In Gower’s Confessio Amantis we have 
Samuel out of his kinde, Thurgh that the Phitonesse hath lered, In Samarie was arered Long time after that he was ded’[9]
and in Chaucer’s Friar’s Prologue and Tale: 
‘Som tyme we [devils] aryse With dede bodyes..And speke as renably and faire and wel As to the Phitonissa [vr. phitonessa] dide Samuel’[10].
It should be noted that apart from a passage in Chaucer’s House of Fame where phitonesse is linked with other users of magic in the dreamer’s vision:
‘Ther saugh I pleye jugelours, Magiciens, and tregetours, And Phitonesses [vr. Fetonisses], charmeresses, Olde wicches, sorceresses, 
That use exorsisacions (ll. 1260-1263), the word is primarily used in Biblical context in Anglo-Norman and Middle English. In other forms of medieval French though, the word seems to be more widely used as a more general term for magician/sorcerer or soothsayer, or for the act of predicting the future, than with its Biblical connotation. For example, in Middle French it also signifies the act of divination as well as ‘l’art de phytonisse’, i.e. ‘divinatory art’ (DMF pythonisse, sense B). Similarly, in a later text, Rabelais’ Le Tiers Livre, phitonisse is listed both as a term for female soothsayer in addition to sorciere ('sorceress') and Sibylle ('Sibyl')[11] as well as in a capitalized form for the Old Testament soothsayer. It seems then that even if in Anglo-Norman and Middle English fitonesse/fetonesse is more a biblical or historical reference rather than a proper substantive, the continental French word pythonisse seems to have  been more lexicalized.

Detail from a manuscript of Le champion des dames by Martin Le France (c. 1440)

Phitomie is another entry in the AND that is related to fitonesse, and provides an adjectival form that only appears in Anglo-Norman, as far as we know. Once more, the term is found in a Biblical context in a fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman translation of the ‘The Acts of the Apostles’.[12] The citation in AND reads:
                Et une pucelle qe out l’espirit phitomie les encountra [...] disant paroles divines (Actes XVI 34)
                (And a maiden who had the spirit of Python met them [...] uttering divine words)
 The author has translated the original Latin ‘habentem spiritum pythonem’, the accusative case of python, with the elsewhere currently unattested phitomie. This entry is slightly dubious and as it is in the section of ‘P’ that is currently under revision, it may be subject to change. Without any further etymological evidence to explain the ‘m’, it is tempting to see the word as simply a misreading of phitonne or phitoune  and possibly a substantive rather than an adjective. In any case, the two entries will also have to be brought together under the same letter of the alphabet, probably (and for etymological reasons) under ‘P’.


[1] See for example Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, Daniel 9:25.
[2] Prophete: prophecie, propheciement, prophecioun, prophetesse, propheter, prophetizement, prophetizer; nigromancien: nigromance, nigromancerie, nigromancie, nigromançur, nigromant; devineur: devin, devinaille, devinance, devination, devinement, deviner.
[3] See e.g. Maurice H Keen: England in the Later Middle Ages: A Political History (London: Routledge, 1973), pp. 82-4.
[4]  [Just make a live link]
[5] ‘There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or and observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee’ (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
[6] Corinne J. Saunders, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (Boydell and Brewer, 2010), p. 44.
[7] Ibid, p.44.
[8] See the OED definition for Python n. 2, especially ‘a spirit which takes possession of a person’.
[9] The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 2 vols., EETS ES 81 (1900; reprint 1978); 82 (1901). vol. 1 pp. 1-456; vol. 2 pp. 1-478.
[10] The Text of the Canterbury Tales , eds. J. M. Manly and E. Rickert (1940). vol. 3, pp. 286-300.
[11] François Rabelais, Le tiers livre, ed. by M. A. Screech (Geneve: Librarie Droz, 1995), p. 185; pp. 399-400
[12] Edition and Study (Mostly Linguistic) of a Section of an Anglo-Norman Translation of the Bible (14 th Century): ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ in MSS B.N. fr. 1 and 9562 , ed. N.E. Ratcliff, Ph.D. thesis, St Andrews, 1955.