Today I am excited to announce a new type of article. In collaboration with Nicola Miller, we have a glorious new mix of etymology, history and food and plant properties!
I am very pleased to have had the chance to work with Nicola on this. Nicola Miller is the editor of Bury Spy digit news and food editor for the Spy News Group. She is an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to etymology. She blogs at: The Millers Tale
Such a small word, and yet such a long history! And so important in cooking, of course.
The modern English form has not changed a great deal over the course of history. Taking a step back to Middle English, we can find it variously spelled as garlec, garleek and garlek, among others. Let’s take a look at an example from 1399, from the Forme of Cury:
Take Colyandre Powdour of Peper and garlec ygrounde in rede wyne.
This work translates as “forms of cooking” – the ‘cury’ is in fact from French cuire. It is a collection of recipes claimed to have been written by the Master Cooks of King Richard II.
Just a few years previously, Chaucer wrote in his Canterbury Tales:
Wel loued he gā̆r-lē̆k, oynons, and eek lekes.
Here, you can see that it has been written as two parts put together, and you might wonder why. The reason is, of course, simple. Garlic is indeed formed of two parts. It comes from Old English garleac or garlec in some dialects, which consists of gar and leac. We will start with the first element: gar. This meant ‘spear’. You have only to look at the shape of the cloves to see why it might be called a spear – they do indeed look similar to the shape of a spear-head. This term, gar, has of course become obsolete, but we can see a well-known example of it in Beowulf, from around the 10th century:
Hwæt! We Gár-Dena, in geárdagum, þeódcyninga þrym gefrunon
Lo! We have heard renowned the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days of yore
Let’s take a look at the second element: leac. There is nothing strange about this at all. Quite simply, it means ‘leek’, another word that remains little changed!
Ðæt greáta cráuleác; nim ðes leáces heáfda
That makes crow-garlic; take the leeks on the rise
From Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of Old English source texts.
The Old English word is thought to derive from Proto-Germanic *lauka. There are cognates to be found in other Germanic languages; Swedish lök and Danish løg both meaning ‘onion’, Dutch look and German Lauch, meaning ‘leek’.
The Plant Throughout History
Allium Sativum, or Garlic as it is more usually known has a long and noble history as food stuff and an even longer one as a herbal medicine and tonic. Indeed, for a long period of our history, the eating of garlic for pleasure alone was eschewed by many different cultures although we can find much documented evidence in the form of almanacs, treatises and records for its use in medicine by herbalists, medicine men and other men (and women) who took responsibility for the health and welfare of their community.
The ancient Egyptians possessed a medical papyri, Codex Elsers, dating back to circa 1500 BCE recorded 22 formulas for medicinal remedies with garlic at their heart. This plant polymath offered up a cure for heart disease, worms, and tumors and has been cultivated for over 6,000 years and grown in Egypt since 3200 BCE.
The Ancient Egyptians have been described as being much enamoured of garlic and legend says that slaves put to work to construct the pyramids were fed large amounts of it to strengthen their bodies and prevent infection after they were injured (and one imagines this was a frequent occurrence). Surprisingly enough, when Moses led the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (around 1200BCE), garlic was one of the ‘finer things’ they complained of missing along with cucumbers, fish, leeks, onions and melons.
Centuries later and during the First World War, British physicians mixed garlic juice with water to create a topical antiseptic for wounds with Russian doctors following in their footsteps in the Second World War. The doctors took it a step further though in supplementing their soldiers diet with both onion and garlic, giving it its nickname of ‘Russian Penicillin.’ This more recent use of the bulb as a treatment for war wounds is strongly reminiscent of the faith placed in its talismanic protection against wounds inflicted by spears and Greek battalions were presented with it to give them courage and promise of victory too.
Of course we now know that this tacit knowledge has an evidence base. The essence of what Culpeper, the renowned herbalist and apothecary said in The English Physitian back in 1653, has been backed up by empirical research:
“In choleric men it will add fuel to the fire; in men oppressed in melancholy, it will attentuate [weaken] the [melancholic] humour, and send up strong fancies, and as many strange visions to the head; therefore let it be taken inwardly in great moderation; outwardly you may make more bald with it”
The adding fuel to the fire is Culpeper associating choleric humour with an elevated temperature (fever) and in humoral physiology, encouraging a sick person to run a ‘good’ fever was seen as therapeutic, encouraging the flushing of impurities from the body. We know that garlic reduces cholesterol, the viscosity of blood and its lipids and we also know that a melancholic disposition (according to Culpeper) can be linked to an increased risk of blood viscosity. Or to be more specific, a person prone to low mood or depressive disorder which causes them to reduce their activity is at increased risk of fatty build up in their circulatory system and disorders of circulation. Clever old Culpeper.
The spear shape of garlic shoots, from the above ground foliage to the tiny spear at the centre of the bulb which slowly greens up and becomes bitter after harvesting inspires its Old English name- garleac or garlec with ‘gar’ meaning ‘spear’ as Millie explains above. Culpeper ascribes a celestial ruler to all living plants and garlics ruler is the warlike, passionate and dominant Mars. This kingship may be inspired by the warrior like (and phallic) spear of those etiolated and pointed leaves which are analogous to the glyph for Mars. Additionally let’s look at where garlic originates from: the arid and scorching lands of the Middle East and West Central Asia, migrating east toward China and west into Southern Europe, Garlic thrives in soil which is sandy, thin and allows the bulb to push its spears straight and true, unhindered by clay sod which might cause it to deviate from its path to the sun. It is not a great leap of the imagination to see why its botanical requirements caused Culpeper to ally it to Mars, the hot, red planet- depicted as sere and superheated in its atmosphere and garlic also pushes its scape (a false flower stalk), towards the light in the northern hemispheres springtime which falls in the astrological house of Aries (ruled by Mars).
The tombs of Egypt probably contain the oldest records of the existence of what the French call the ‘Stinking Rose’ with clay sculptures of its bulbs dating back to 3700BCE and paintings depicting the plant in another tomb which have been dated to 3200BCE. The Greeks and Romans did not initially share in Egypts passion though, much less ascribing the bulb a place in its high culture. Initially the citizenry of Greece, and especially its aristocracy, refused to consume garlic, finding its aroma and after effects repugnant and vulgar and banning those smelling of it from entering temples. Aristotle flew in the face of this though and included garlic in his lists of foodstuffs he deemed to have aphrodisiac effects and Hippocrates prescribed it as a panacea albeit with reservations and contra-indications: “[it] causes flatulence, a feeling of warmth on the chest and a heavy sensation in the head; it excites anxiety and increases any pain which may be present.”
The Romans, like the Egyptians, fed garlic to their slaves and labourers hoping that they would be invigorated enough to do their (no doubt) arduous work. To smell of it was a sign of low status and class and Pliny the Elder stated, “Garlic has such powerful properties that the very smell of it drives away serpents and scorpions” although he then went on to list a humongous amount of conditions cured by it. This stimulating reputation is a familiar one across many different world religions: garlic was deemed to upset the spiritual balance of Buddhist practitioners, was rejected by Zen masters and both Hindu and Brahmin observants avoid it for similar reasons. Intriguingly the reproductive nature of the bulb is the reason why Jains do not eat it or similar vegetables such as onions. Garlic reproduces itself by producing a multiplicity of cloves in each bulb which detach and fatten up to form a new ‘head’. Jains believe that each one of these is a potential new life and feel that the destruction of a head of garlic is to destroy multiple lives.
Amusingly enough, the ever pragmatic faith of Judaism recommends the eating of garlic on Fridays, the day before the holy Sabbath in its Talmud (the book of rabbinical teachings) because of those same stimulating properties. Sex on a Sabbath is considered an act of both faith and good deed, especially garlic fuelled passion! Chaucers Sommour who was ‘lecherous as a sparwe’ agreed, as in the quote from above; “Well love he garleek, onions and eek lekes” and across Central Europe, the dog, gander, bull and cockerel would be kept fierce, strong and fit on a diet of fat garlic bulbs. Its fecund ability to produce many offspring from one tiny fingernail sized clove led to the most obvious of conclusions with regards to the potency of breeding animals but it was also administered to livestock as protection against the evil eye. For their human owners, to dream of garlic was said to be a sign of hidden treasure and a clear reference to its secret life underground, swelling, growing and dividing which must have been pretty mindblowing to those yet to discover the botanical science behind its reproduction.