Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dante saves the day: The offa-l truth

Recently, while procrastinating on writing my current book by doing some research for the next one, I stumbled across a translation problem - one of those frustrating situations where the definition of one elusive word makes all the difference.

It seems that the redoubtable Corso Donati, head of the Black Guelf faction in Florence in the late 13th century and very early years of the 14th, may have had a way to avoid suffering any consequences for his more homicidal actions.  Or at least, the people of Florence believed he did.

Corso, in a not-atypical street altercation, was accused of having slain a man - in this case his own cousin.  This wasn't the first such accusation and Corso wasn't the only one; Florence's nobles were notoriously highhanded, taking the law into their own hands and claiming immunity from any rules that applied to the little people.  Sometimes the mercantile interests of the city fought back.  Sometimes even the truly little people fought back.  But nobody had yet managed to bring the wealthy and powerful under control.

Corso's fellow Florentines fervently believed that the Guelf leader would magically protect himself from prosecution (or subsequent vendetta) by the simple expedient of eating something called "offa" over the body of his victim, sometime during the nine days following the killing.  Furthermore, they firmly believed that Corso did this sort of thing all the time - a kind of preemptive snacking that provided him with immunity.

Below, you see part of the excavation beneath Florence's present-day cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, which exposes some of the area of the older cathedral, Santa Reparata.  It is probable that Corso's cousin, and victims of similar altercations, were laid to rest in Santa Reparata:

Santa Reparata

So did Corso really manage to eat "offa" over the graves of his victims?  Considering that families who could manage it actually provided guards over said graves for the requisite time period, it must have been a challenge. 

But this got me wondering:  what, exactly, was "offa"?  It's not in my Italian dictionary.  I know that Offa was an early king of Mercia, but I was pretty sure that wasn't the right definition:

Offa of Mercia

 OFFA is an acronym for Office for Fair Access (UK), Office of Francophone and Francophile Affairs (Canada), One Filmware For All (a sortware porting group), and the blog Organic Food For All, not to mention the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.  None of these helped.

One linguistic blind alley I attempted to follow told me that "offa" was a shortened form of "offetta" - an earlier version of "fetta," which is Italian for "slice."  It further claimed that this was the origin of the name for feta cheese.  Was Corso eating feta cheese over his victims' graves?  Somehow I couldn't see him downstairs in Santa Reparata munching on a Greek salad.  I didn't think that was it.

Feta cheese

If not feta, then what?  I was pretty sure it wasn't going to be black pudding (blood sausage); Corso had once been accused of poisoning several young members of the opposing party by seeing that they were fed a toxic black pudding, and he was always very conscious of his reputation, so it seemed unlikely that he would choose to remind everyone of that unfortunate occasion.

Black pudding

Clearly the Florentines thought he was eating something over people's graves.  The internet was not particularly helpful in this matter.  Was it just a matter of eating any sort of snack?

Assorted snacks

(We might at least show you authentically Florentine snacks - see below.)

Italian bar snacks, Florence

It nagged at me.  I needed to know what they were talking about.  Surely it wasn't just anything - "offa" had to be something in particular.  But what?

I went to the university library and found an earlier Italian dictionary.  It only went back to the Renaissance, so it was still hopelessly modern, but it suggested that "offa" might mean sops in wine (bits of bread soaked in red wine), and further, it mentioned a Latin derivation.  

A Latin dictionary, in its turn, told me that "offa" referred to a ball of moistened meal, and as an extension of that, to anything that was a moist, soft mass.  Like a tumor, it said.  Yuck.  But bread sops in wine might match that description, so that seemed like a possibility. 

And this is where Dante comes in.  In the Purgatorio, the second book of his masterwork The Divine Comedy, Dante's beloved Beatrice, who is now showing him around (Virgil, his previous guide, having been left behind), describes to him how divine punishment works:  "... let him who is to blame believe that God's vengeance fears no sop."  (from the Robert Durling translation)

In other words, eating sops will not protect you from divine retribution, regardless of what it can do for you in the physical world.

Sop.  ("Suppe" in the Italian.)  Aha.  I checked two more translations that I happened to have handy.  The Carlyle-Wicksteed translation also said "sop."  John Ciardi said "soup," but then, his was a poetic translation, so it doesn't count.  

And I checked the notes to those volumes.  Carlyle-Wicksteed said that the custom was a Greek one; C-W and Ronald Martinez (who wrote the notes for the Durling translation) agreed about the nine days, and eating sops.  

Odd as it seemed, I had it.  Sops in wine.  So was that a bowl of liquidy stuff, like this?

Bread in wine

Or might it have been something a bit tidier, like this Catalan version, where the wine and sugar form a thick syrup that adheres to the bread?

Bread and wine, Catalan style

Whichever it might have been, I still find it hard to believe that Corso and his entourage would stride into the crypt, confront the deceased's guards, and proceed to defiantly and flagrantly chomp at them.  But who knows.  People certainly believed it, which only goes to show that human beings were very suggestible even before the days of social media.

And in closing, let me just say that this is probably the only blog post you will read all day that manages to combine Offa of Mercia, bar snacks, Santa Reparata, feta cheese, and Dante.  Cheers.

Images in this post are in the public domain, with these exceptions:  photo of Santa Reparata is licensed to Sailko via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons; photo of feta cheese is licensed to Dominick Hundhammer via the same type of license; photo of blood sausage is licensed to Rainer Zenz via the same type of license, at German language Wikipedia; photo of assorted snacks is licensed to Jeffrey O. Gustafson via the same type of license at the English language Wikipedia; photo of bread in wine is licensed to RichardBarley via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license; and the photo of bread and wine Catalan style is licensed  to Mcapdevila via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.


Judith Starkston said...

You've missed your calling as a historical comic. Oh wait, there is no such thing, but if there was that'd be you. Thanks for the good laugh. Somehow I needed it more than I should have.

Tinney Heath said...

You know, sometimes I start off trying to write something serious, but then the sheer silliness of some aspect of it catches up with me, and I just can't resist. Research has a lot of moments like that!

Judith Schara said...

Hello Tinney, What a timemly post for me. I just finished writing a scene where the crew of a 5th century sailing ship are down to eating hard bread soaked in wine - sops! I had seen this term used in a some other historical novels (I seem to think it was the Aubrey/Maturin novels) and it just popped into my head as the right term. I hope I'm ok and some very correct stickler for unauthenticated use of words does not call me out for it. The picure is marvelous and just as I imagined it.

Tinney Heath said...

That's interesting, Judith. I had always associated sops with the middle ages, but it sounds like they go much earlier and later, as well. They don't sound all that appealing to me - but maybe if you used something like panettone in vin santo it could be good. Also, I keep reading about it as a sort of informal breakfast dish.

Αικατερίνη Βορδώνη said...

Well, "offa" is something like greek orthodox christian communion - small bits of bread in red wine - the wine used for this type of communion is called "Mavrodaphne". It represents tge blood and the body of Jesus Christ. Also, it looks like a soup. I suppose that Corso Donati ate offa for absolving hhis own sins. Your blogis simply amazing by the way! My last name is Bordoni and I had read that Corso Donati and Gherardo Bordoni were allies in the black guelf party. So if you know anything about Bordoni family ,please sent me an e-mail or a link.

Tinney Heath said...

That makes a lot of sense. Corso certainly had plenty of sins to atone for! Yes, Gherardo Bordoni was Corso's loyal ally in the Black Guelf party (at least at the end - there had been an earlier rift between them) and was killed in the same fracas that killed Corso, though they were in different places when they met their respective dooms (October 6, 1308). Here's a link to Machiavelli's comments: and one to Villani's: and a way to download Dino Compagni's version as translated by Daniel Bornstein (the Italian original is also available online): (look for Book 3, Chapters 20 and 21) and the entry on Gherardo in Treccani's Dizionario Biografico (in Italian): and, finally, an illustration from an early edition of Villani's chronicle showing the deaths of Corso (in red) and Gherardo (in pink, note his hand cut off at the wrist as described in the chronicles): I hope some of this is useful to you!