Last week I got to visit the manuscript that started it all. The one with the brilliant little note in the margin insulting some unpopular cleric with one of the earliest recorded instances of the word fuck:
What this picture shows is one full page of a fifteenth-century manuscript. The two main columns are a section of Cicero’s De Officiis – a moral treatise on good behaviour – which was the second-most frequently copied text of the Middle Ages. And at the bottom of these two columns someone has come along and written the following:
1. false are the works wich this Abbot writ in the abbie of Osney alias Godstow 1528
2. O d fuckin Abbot
This handwriting is found on several pages throughout the manuscript and, very unusually, it gives us a date – 1528 – so we know exactly when it was added.
Writing notes on manuscripts was common practice. Manuscripts weren’t viewed as they are now, and they weren’t equivalent to our modern books. We see a printed book as a complete object; to write on it is to defile it. Medieval manuscripts, despite being rarer than our mass-produced books and MUCH more expensive, were constantly added to, first by editors and correctors, then by later readers or students. In fact, this was a practice which continued for centuries, as described in this excellent post about Mr Bennet’s library.
On this manuscript there are actually two layers of annotations: the handwriting shown here, and the work of a second, much more prolific person, who wrote all over it, clearly engaging very closely with the main text.
But to get back to the fuckin Abbot.
The first line tells us something about the possible identity of the abbot: the Abbot of Osney in Oxford in 1528 was John Burton and, as it happens, he wasn’t a particularly popular abbot.
At that time fuck was a word used to describe sex. It wasn’t used as a swearword as we’d use it today. So the ‘fucking’ here is probably being used literally: ‘Oh, that abbot who fucks a lot’. (Someone has tried to find evidence of this but the worst they could find was one pregnant nun nearby who may, or may not, have been shagged by the Abbot. If he WAS trying for Casanova’s record, he kept it quiet).
‘BUT WHAT ABOUT THE D?’ I hear you cry.
The only mention of it that I’ve found suggests that it’s an abbreviation of damned or damn, as in, ‘O damned fuckin Abbot’.* This isn’t an unreasonable thought: as I discussed in an earlier post, medieval scribes loved abbreviating. They loved it more than they loved doodling in margins and sharpening their quills.
However, when they abbreviated they typically added a mark – a dash, or a squiggle – to show that something had been missed off. Not always, but enough that the absence of such a mark here is unusual.
But how likely was it that damn would be used then?
Unlike the so-called Anglo-Saxon four-letter swearwords, the gritty, grubby nasty ones which we like to imagine hark back to a harsh medieval life, damn is originally from Latin, and came into English via French. In Latin, damnāre meant ‘to inflict damage upon something’ or ‘to condemn to punishment’.
When damn arrived in English, some time before the fourteenth century, it had a <p> in it, as you can see in these two examples:
‘For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede’ (For had God commanded maidenhood, then he had damned marriage with the act (of consummation)). Chaucer, The Wife of Bath (c.1386).
‘He wolde pray god for hym that he myght knowe whether she was dampned or saued’. William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England (1484).
There are a few theories to explain the appearance of <p> in damn and in words like it (although I should note here that as damn arrived in English from Old French dampner it’s not, strictly speaking, exactly the same).
In Latin, Old French, and Middle English the second syllable of damn when declined was still pronounced (e.g. ‘dam-NED’). The addition of that syllable changes the way the ‘-mn-’ is pronounced. Now, the ‘n’ is silent, but in Middle English it was pronounced.
This consonant cluster falls at a tricky point in the syllable break between making an /m/ with your lips and an /n/ with your tongue on your alveolar ridge (the hard bit behind your upper teeth and before your palate), where you need to coordinate the switch between the two. The mouth’s way of getting around this is to insert a ‘transitional sound’ between them (this is officially called stop epenthesis). In the case of /-mn-/, a /p/ is produced because, like /m/, it has bilabial articulation (both lips). In English this <p> is first seen written down in the thirteenth century, particularly in the West Midlands, and when damn arrived from French it fit in quite nicely with the existing pronunciations.** The <p> was even included in damn when it wasn’t declined. In 1400, ‘I damp þe’ was ‘I damn you’.
You can see this process at work in words like dreamt or empty, where the mouth has to make a /p/ in the process of going from /m/ to /t/. Both dreamt and empty gained a <p> in their spellings in Middle English, but empty is the only word to still have it preserved in its modern spelling. It’s quite a nice fossil.***
Damn started out as a verb, to damn, and over the centuries it has become more versatile, doing all kinds of damn things, like:
becoming an adjective in the fourteenth century (appearing later in, for example, ‘Out damned spot’),
a noun by the seventeenth century (e.g. ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn‘),
and an interjection (‘Damn!’).
Then, as today, to damn had two main meanings: the first is to imply damnation, to suggest that someone is condemned to Hell. The second is a profane intensifier much like very, as in, YOU DAMN DIRTY APE! (it performs the same function as a slightly swearier very (‘YOU VERY DIRTY APE!’). By the 1500s, the date of the tricky D, this second meaning was definitely in use and it wouldn’t be unexpected to see it in this manuscript.
I just don’t think it was.
Instead, I think this is a mistake, or a false start. You can see in the picture that the ‘d’ is smudged but nothing else is. There are no other smudges on any of the other things written by that person and the letters around it aren’t smudged. I think that this was a half-hearted attempt to rub out the D which may have been an intended damn, or some other word.****
Normally a scribe will correct a mistake by scraping the vellum (animal skin) with the point of a knife. It leaves that spot a bit roughed up, but you can write over it and, if you don’t look too closely, no-one will ever know. Here, for whatever reason, the Sweary Scribbler hasn’t fully erased the mistake. Maybe because there wasn’t a knife-point to hand, or maybe because it’s time-consuming and delicate work and this isn’t formal writing meant to be presented neatly, it’s just a note.
I’m not saying it DEFINITELY wasn’t meant to be a damn(ed) fuckin Abbot, I just think it’s unlikely.
* Edward Wilson, ‘A “Damned F–in Abbot” in 1528: The Earliest English Example of a Four-Letter Word’, Notes and Queries (1993), 29-34.
**** My thanks to @mededitor for his input here.