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:
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.
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.
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?
(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.