Monday, November 26, 2012

Melere Cake, Solved

The ‘melere cake’ in my recent post Treats from the Dictionary piqued some interest and led to a number of comments and emails about the possible nature of the cake. As with so many intriguing topics, the answer was both obvious and delightful, once it was discovered. 

One of the references that turned up when I searched for ‘meleres’ cake was an entry in a glossary to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

cake. In Wright’s Glossaries, ed. Wülker [1884], col. 788, l.36 we find, ‘Hic panis subverucius, a meleres cake’; on which Wright remarks: ‘Perhaps this name alludes to the common report that the miller always stole the flour from his customers to make his cakes, which were baked on the sly.’

This is the point at which the cake puzzle becomes obvious, for the word ‘miller’ is very ancient, and therefore has had many, many spellings through the ages. They are all listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, and include mellere, and melener. So, meleres cake is miller’s cake. I don’t know how I missed this, as my usual first step in unravelling a word mystery is the bleedingly obvious one - to plumb the depths of the OED.

This is also the point at which the story becomes delightful. How delightful is that phrase panis subverucius?  Surely, given the explanation in Wright’s Glossary, it means ‘subversive bread’? And how much fun is that?  A minor setback appeared to pop up when I could not find subverucius in any Latin dictionaries or indeed the OED. In fact, the one and only reference to subverucius I found was in the quotation given above.

The OED ultimately came good however, with the origin of the word ‘subversive’ being subversivus which comes from the post-Classical Latin verb subvertere, meaning “to overturn, to cause the downfall of, ruin, to overthrow, destroy, to undermine, to upset, in post-classical Latin also to corrupt (a person), to cause (a person) to lose (faith.)”

 Subverucius must surely be an alternative (can we call it a post-post-Classical Latin version?) of subversivus, must it not? Or perhaps a simple misspelling? Either way, I am satisfied that panis subverucius is indeed ‘subversive bread.’

We can add a literary delight to this linguistic delight. It may be our old fourteenth century friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who perpetrated the story of the thieving miller. In the Reeve’s (Carpenter’s) Tale, the Reeve, who has been offended by the Miller, gets his own back by telling a story which does not show the Miller in a good light. The story is full of plot and counter plot, and sex (a lot of sex.) In essence, the miller steals some of the flour he has milled for some customers, and has his wife make it into ‘cakes’ while the unwitting men go off to find their escaped horses (how they got ‘lost’ is another part of the story.)

And when the myller sawh that they were gon,
He half a busshel of the flour hath take,
And bad his wyf go knede it in a cake.

Later, however, his daughter who has spent a lusty night with one of the clerks,  gives her father’s game away when she tells her lover where he can find the cake.

Whan that thou wendist hom-ward by the melle,
Right at the entré of the dore byhynde
Thou schalt a cake of half a busshel fynde,

That was i-maked of thyn owen mele,
Which that I hilp myn owen self to stele.

The story does not end there of course, there is yet more confusion and subterfuge to follow, and if you are interested the full tale is easy to find on the web in its original language or a more readable interpretation.

Now, what to give you for the recipe for the day? ‘Cakes’ in Chaucer’s time were not cakes as we know them now, for it was to be many centuries before baking powders were invented. A cake at this time was made from bread dough, enriched with dried fruit or milk or eggs or butter and spices. I have given recipes for such ‘cakes’ in the past, so today’s recipe is not for millers bread, but can be said to be inspired by the original discussion we had on the meaning of ‘melere.’

Several of you – and I myself – thought that ‘melere’ might indicate ‘mel’ or honey. One of my dictionary searches turned up the following:

Spanish Melcócha: cake made of honey, gingerbread [1854]

So, here is a recipe for ‘Spanish Gingerbread’ which sets off a whole other set of mysteries. I cant see anything ‘Spanish’ about this recipe, but it sounds good anyway.

Soft Spanish Gingerbread.
I cup of butter                          1 cup of molasses.
I cup of sugar                          1 cup of sour cream.
4 eggs.                                                 3 cups of flour.
I tablespoonful of ginger         1 teaspoonful of cinnamon.
I teaspoonful of cloves                        1 teaspoonful of soda.
Mix part of the flour with the butter, sugar, molasses and sour cream, to which add the yelks of four eggs well beaten, then the spices, and last the whites of four eggs and the rest of the flour. Bake moderately fast.
175 Choice Recipes, by members of the Chicago Women’s Club (1887)


Les said...

Would I have Melere Cake if I went out and stole a cake? or is it only proper Melere Cake if I steal the flour then bake a cake with it?

Mad Latinist said...

I was responsible for the comments and emails mentioning mel (at least all of them to which I am privy!)

Good point, though, and now that you mention it, there's also the related German Mehl "flour," and its English cognate "meal."

What a strange word subverucius is, though. Not only is it not Classical, but it's not even in du Cange (which is amazingly complete). I do have to wonder though if this isn't a misreading of *subverticius, which is also unattested, but much easier to explain.