Medieval grammar proves to be dilly of a pickle

Three mislabeled leaves from medieval manuscripts in Stanford University’s Green Library have been discovered to be more intriguing than expected. Instead of a lesson on Hebrew grammar, they explore the medicinal properties of pickles and other fermented foods.

Historian Rowan Dorin discovered the anomalous fragments while looking through the library’s collection of medieval texts. The three parchment leaves had been catalogued as fragments from two copies of a grammar and dictionary of the Hebrew language written by eminent lexicographer Jonah ibn Janah in the 11th century. Born in Cordoba in Al-Andalus, Rabbi Jonah wrote his seminal study of Hebrew in Arabic. It was only translated into Hebrew in the 14th century by Judah ibn Tibbon. Kitab al-Tanqih (“Book of exact investigation”) is the earliest complete text on the study of Hebrew to survive.

These fragments were acquired in 2012 from the Dictionary collection of Thomas Main Rodgers from whence the erroneous cataloging likely springs. Mr. Rodgers must have been unaware that instead of pages from a renown Hebrew dictionary in keeping with the motif of his collection, he had bought three leaves from two unidentified 14th century medical texts written in Judeao-Arabic using Hebrew script.

Two of the leaves were written in Hebrew script in Judaeo-Arabic on a palimpsest parchment whose undertext is 13th or 14th century Hebrew. There are margin notes in Castilian. While the full main text hasn’t been translated yet, it is organized according to illness and their cures and include the headings “On the causes of hiccuping” and “On the treatment for hiccuping.” (I vote hyperventilating.)

The single leaf, written in square Hebrew script with Latin notes in the margin, discusses the medicinal uses of several foods, a salient section of which is titled “On the effect of pickles and sour substances.”

Dorin said the rare parchments showcase the sharing of knowledge that was happening among societies around the Mediterranean Sea during the Middle Ages, the historical period between the 5th and the 15th centuries.

“Most people associate the Middle Ages with plague, war and ignorance,” said Dorin, who is also an affiliated faculty member at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. “We don’t usually think about the dialogues between different cultures or open exchanges of knowledge that were happening throughout that time. These documents are evidence for the conversations occurring among people from different linguistic backgrounds.”

After more than a year of research, Dorin, with the help of other scholars around the world, determined that the pages came from two different texts. One was first written down in northern Africa sometime in the 14th century and ended up in Spain, where it was recycled as scrap parchment. The other was probably written around the same time on the island of Mallorca, a diverse hub of commerce in the western Mediterranean, Dorin said.

Dorin believes that the knowledge the texts carry was passed down from the ancient Greeks.

Researchers have yet to identify the authors of the two medical texts, or of the Hebrew undertext. However, with the aid of Jewish historian Ezra Blaustein, part of the leaf on pickles has been translated. Items of note: fish jelly “cleanses the stomach of viscous phlegm” but if consumed to excess it “corrupts the blood and causes mange.” So much for mites then. Preserves makes you hungry, thirst and horny. Pickled caper, while “ruinous for the stomach,” is a sure-fire diet aid which “makes thin one who is fat.”

As I am obsessed with pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi, it delights me to see the clear distinction made between true pickles (which are fermented and replete with billions of microorganisms) and vinegar brined foods.

Pickled dill is good for one who wants to prevent ruin if he ate too much food and he urinated as well. All pickles correspond to the thing from which they are made, and acquire from the salt and putridity a second nature, with increased dryness, heat and sharpness. As for vinegarized food, it acquires from everything increased dryness, and it fills up and cools the liver.

Bring on the putridity, man. I can take it.


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Comment by WandaSue
2018-07-25 18:55:54

Probiotics, baby.

Comment by ambrosius
2018-07-25 22:42:25

Most cases of hiccup are caused by trapped air pockets in the digestive system. My go to hiccup remedy is a small sip of water followed by a small burp, repeat three times while holding your breath for the entire time (less than 15 seconds) . Works 9 times out of 10.

Comment by Leo
2018-07-26 01:36:48

In case of an acute shrew mice attack, keep calm, there is a remedy :boogie:

Pliny, Bk 23:27 (“vinegar, 28 remedies”): …Taken by itself it dispels nausea and arrests hiccup, and if smelt at, it will prevent sneezing: retained in the mouth, it prevents a person from being inconvenienced by the heat of the bath. It is used as a beverage also, in combination with water … and it has the property of healing leprous sores, scorbutic eruptions, running ulcers, wounds inflicted by dogs, scorpions, and scolopendræ, and the bite of the shrew-mouse. …

Bk 23:32 (“lees of vinegar”, 17 remedies): …employed topically, is good for the stomach, intestines, and regions of the abdomen. It has the property also of arresting fluxes of those parts, and the catamenia when in excess; … reduces swellings of the mamillæ when gorged with milk, and removes malformed nails. Employed with polenta, it is very efficacious for the cure of stings inflicted by the serpent called cerastes; and in combination with melanthium, it heals bites inflicted by crocodiles and dogs.

Comment by Trevor
2018-07-26 04:45:32

And I thought that the texts were upsidedown…

But what is it about the Ancient Greeks that so many people worship them? The knowledge probably originated from any number of sources.

Comment by Νεικώ
2018-07-26 07:14:40

A toad, …what you need is a toad.

“Phryne (Φρύνη, or ‘toad’), born c. 371 BC, was an ancient Greek courtesan. She is best known for her trial for impiety, where she was defended by the orator Hypereides. “Φρύνη” was a nickname frequently given to courtesans. Phryne’s real name was Mnēsarétē (Μνησαρέτη, “commemorating virtue”), but owing to her yellowish complexion, she was called Phrýnē (“toad”). She was born as the daughter of Epicles at Thespiae in Boeotia, but lived in Athens.”

PS: Trevor, “Greeks” influenced and were influenced within an area beginning from what today is Spain up to India and even China (plus, they knew an alphabet that included vowels). Notably, Egyptians, Indians and Babylonians might have been important influencers.

Yet another famous courtesan, trafficked overseas into what is now Greece in ancient times, was “Europa” (Εὐρώπη), and she even gave the name for that entire part of the world. Rumor has it that she brought Phoenician letters.

Comment by Emily
2018-07-26 07:27:23

My go to remedy which never fails to stop hiccups is to drink a small amount of water from a glass upside down, that is, lean over and place the upper rim of the glass on your upper lip and take a few sips.

Comment by Susie
2018-07-26 10:43:47

חיים ארוכים למי שאוכל חמוצים

Comment by Drew Badour
2018-07-26 15:32:45

To write in the wrong direction and not to use vowels seems to be a severe condition, which –I’d say– needs as a remedy ‘stuffed wine leaves’, i.e. pickled ones ;)

Comment by dearieme
2018-07-26 18:10:53

“the Middle Ages, the historical period between the 5th and the 15th centuries”: not at my primary school. There were the Dark Ages before (about) 800 AD. Then the Vikings turned up, spreading sweetness and light.

Comment by dearieme
2018-07-26 18:16:34

Moreover, the Middle Ages were “mediæval”: them wuz the days.

The most exciting bit of primary school history was learning that our ancestors had been headhunters. Coo! Only later does the idea occur that everybody’s ancestors had probably been headhunters.

Comment by Ambrosius
2018-07-26 22:49:32

Another good one Emily, I used it for many years before I happened on the sip/burp technique. I managed to get water up my nose a few times with the upside down sipping method which certainly shocked the hiccups away. :lol:

Comment by Karen
2018-07-27 08:23:35

I get hiccups a lot. I never got the hang of the upside-down drinking trick and cannot burp on command, but my go-to has only failed me once in the many, many, many times I’ve tried it: take a sip of water and exaggeratedly gulp it down. Move your head forward like a cartoon character, make a loud gulping noise, and everything. It only works with an actual sip of water — saliva isn’t enough — but it works within the first few sips.

Next time I’m trying vinegar first though, for science!

Comment by Susie
2018-07-28 08:07:24

I dont think this needs to be a wrong side of the road argument. Since Hebrew came first, seems that it is written in the “right” direction.

Comment by Drew Badour
2018-07-29 00:29:23

:no: !slkcp ms vh ,lkcq .nmrd tsj .. !?!llr -mjhcL

Comment by Susie
2018-07-29 08:10:40

ואני עדיין חושבת שאני צודקת

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June 2021


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