"Schlaraffenland", the German Arcadia.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Although this blog will mostly feature travel stories I do intend to occasionally write short essays about other items of interest. Well, of interest to me at least. 
The following carries both "dullness" and "obscurity" warnings.

            755 years ago on this very day Pope Alexander IV issued a papal bull forming the Augustinian order of monks. This otherwise entirely dull and irrelevant factoid caught my attention this morning because my mind was still on the leader’s debate last night. The coincidental juxtaposition of politicians and “bull” struck me as curious.
            A papal bull was a proclamation by the pope that was sealed with wax, lead or gold. This seal was rounded and knob-like and called a “bulla”. Fans of anatomy will recognize this word in a variety of non pope related contexts. Apparently similar words from the same root mean “buttocks” in some Eastern European languages, so that does take us a little closer to the modern usage of the word “bull”, but unfortunately not all the way there.
            It turns out that bull as it relates to last night’s debate is not, as I assumed, simply a contraction of bullshit. Instead, bull derives from the old French bole, meaning deception and scheming, and has been used that way since the Middle Ages. For example: “Sais christ to ypocrites ... yee ar ... all ful with wickednes, tresun and bull.” (c.1300). On the other hand, bullshit (also bullplop, bulldust or bullbutter, depending on where you live or on your tolerance for ridicule) has only been used this way for about a hundred years. So bull came first. Go figure.
            I can picture a group of bushy eye-browed Medieval historians sitting around discussing some pope’s controversial bull and one of them blurting out “That bull was bull!” to a round of good-natured but weary chuckles, but otherwise there is no connection between last night’s bull and the Augustinian bull of 1256.
            As a side note though, the Augustinians make excellent beer, so I am grateful for the bull.

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