Jul 25 2017

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

So a while back I was reading The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School (1932) by Raymond Wilson Chambers (1874–1942), a friend of Tolkien’s, and came across this intriguing passage concerning someone I’d never hear of before, the medieval mystic Richard Rolle (1290/1300–1349):

Rolle’s date, his style and his popularity give him a supreme place in the history of English prose. In English or in Latin he was, during the latter half of the Fourteenth Century and the whole of the Fifteenth, probably the most widely read in England of all English writers. Investigation of English wills and of documents bearing on the ownership of books seems to show a dozen owners of manuscripts of Rolle for one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Such devotional books were likely to be worn to bits, and not to come down to posterity at all: yet Miss Allen has examined between four and five hundred of them, in Latin or in English, scattered through the libraries of Europe and America. [1]

And later I learned from an article by Margaret Deanesly (1885–1977):

Among English books, those of Richard Rolle seem to have been most frequent—partly because his glossed English psalter was the only biblical book which the laity might use without license.[2]

So in light of the life-long quest to understand the Middle Ages I undertook several years ago, I recently decided to read some Richard Rolle. Hence I found Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1988) edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson for the Early English Text Society.

I must say I found very little “mysticism” in Rolle. His religion seems pretty plain, ordinary, and orthodox, even when compared to a non-radical like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758),[3] but maybe that’s what made Rolle so popular.

Now it’s been a while since I dove into Middle English, and it took some slow adjusting (is his surname pronounced like rôle, or does it rhyme with Raleigh?), but I found a few gems by Rolle such as:

þe fyre of his loue lyght oure hert, and þe swetnesse of his grace be our comfort and our solace in wel and in woo. [4]

[the fire of His love light our hearts, and the sweetness of His grace be our comfort and our solace in well and in woe.]

Elsewhere Rolle writes that “loue is hard as helle.” [5]

But I was especially struck by his strange comparison of apples to castles:

Bot sum men þat loueth nat wisely, like to children þat loueth more an appille þan a castelle. So doth many; þay gvf þe ioy of heuyn for a litel delite of har fleisshe, þat is noght worth a ploumbe. [6]

[But some men that loveth not wisely, like to children that loveth more an apple than a castle. So doth many; they give the joy of heaven for a little delight of her flesh, that is not worth a plum.]

Just how old is the metaphor and phrase “not worth a plum?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “plum” and “worth” are very old words, even within Old English. Google Book’s Ngram viewer finds the phrase extremely rare before 1800, [7] peaking at about 1837 and slowly decreasing since then.

And are (or were) plumbs worth less than apples? Were they worth less because they bruise more easily?

Plums and pennies #books

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[1] Chambers, R. W. The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School. An extract from the introduction to Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life of Thomas More edited by E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers. EETS: Oxford UP. 1932. 1957. p. ci.

[2] Deanesly, Margaret. “Vernacular Books in England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 15. No. 4. (October 1920.) 349–58 at 352.

[3] Rolle doesn’t dig too deep into epistemology and ontology as Edwards occasionally does:

BEING. It seems strange sometimes to me, that there should be Being from all Eternity; and I am ready to say, What need was there than anything should be? I should then ask myself, Whether it seems strange that there should be either Something, or Nothing? If so, it is not strange that there BE; for that necessity of there being Something, or Nothing, implies it. (Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. Edited by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. NY: Signet Classic. 1966. pp. 45–46)

[4] Rolle, Richard. Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. Edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Oxford UP. EETS. No. 293. 1988. “The Form of Living” 5.

[5] Rolle, “Lyrics” i, 43.

[6] Rolle, “The Form of Living” 22.

[7] Under its entry for “nose” the Oxford English Dictionary quotes from Frances Burney’s (1752–1840) novel Ceclilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782): “Bad way too,” cried Briggs, “never get on with it, never see beyond your nose; won’t be worth a plum while your head wags!” (V, ix, 67).