Technical vocabularies–serving wine in the Middle Ages

Plimpton MS 160 is a late 14th century manuscript held by this library; its texts are serious and scientific:  Euclid’s Elements, followed by theoretical treatises on astronomy and mensuration.  A while ago, I had noticed a casual drawing on f. 41v, an otherwise blank leaf at the end, but only recently made an effort to read the words on the drawing.


As it turns out, the image, casual and fun-loving as it seems, remains coherent to the book owner’s take on life, serious and scientific in its vocabulary.  The cask of wine is duly labeled "Vas vini" (and that’s pretty basic Latin); the small lidded jug into which the wine is being decanted bears the label, "Cantrum parvum."  Go to Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis (1883-1887) online (for which grace, we truly thank the Sorbonne in Paris),, and search for "cantrum"; up comes a cross reference to "cantharum" and, inter alia, it states "vas quoddam est, ad aquam vel ad vinum portandum."  Aha!

But the final word demands a high resolution image, or a powerful magnifying glass, because the word’s letters and the wine-enthusiast’s fingers intersect.  With that bit of aid, up pops a word that looks like "ducillus."  Du Cange cross-references it to a couple of options, one being "duciculus."  Well, I can live with that.  Both forms are clearly diminutives, so let’s see what "duciculus" has to offer.  One synonym offered is "Paxillus," meaning "peg."  That works.


And then there are many examples from medieval sources, from which I’ll report one here:  "Forte ille tunc promptuarium ingressus, ante vas steterat, et sudem, quæ vulgo Duciculum, a potu scilicet educendo, dicitur, in manu tenens, cerealem amphoræ potum infundebat."  But what’s it talking about?

Source of the citation is Nicholas Camuzat, Promptuarium sacrarum antiquitatum Tricassinae diocesis (Troyes, 1610); according to the online WorldCat, that book seems unfindable in the US, with the exception of a microfilm held by the Lea Library at Penn.   But push a bit on the web, and it turns out that Camuzat was simply printing an already-extant life of St. Bercharius, the 7th century founder of Moutier-en-Der.  The actual author we need to locate is Adso Dervensis, a 10th century monk who composed the life of his monastery’s founder.  Well, push only a tiny bit more, and, voilà, there’s Adso’s Vita S. Bercharii abbatis online, courtesy this time of Chadwyck-Healey’s publication of Migne’s Patrologia latina (and of this university that foots the subscription bill); the quote is at PL 137:674D.

Here’s the story.  By chance, Bercharius’s abbot called for him right as Bercharius, cellerar of the monastery, had pulled the stopper out of the barrel of beer.  With monklike obedience, Bercharius hurried off to obey his abbot’s summons, forgetting to plug the barrel.  The beer gushed forth, and when it had filled the pitcher that Bercharius had left behind, it grew itself into a column, ever taller, but never spilling.  A miracle.

That works; our image is about a man pulling out the peg, or opening the spigot of the cask.

We can do more.  Look up "dossil" in the online Websters; it has the basic meaning we’ve seen, i.e. "a plug, wad, or fold of cotton or cloth, as for a wound" , and that it derives from Middle English, "dosel."  Look up "dosel" in the online Middle English Dictionary,; the definition is "A spigot or plug of a barrel," with many citations including one from the 15th century Latin-English dictionary, the Promptuarium parvulorum, which duly offers the Latin form, "ducillus" with the definition "stoppynge of a vesselle."  A perfect circle.

And then play with the web just one more time.  Google the word "duciculus."  Someone else has had fun with this word just like I have:

I love the web.

The thirsty little spotted dog is great.

For more images of this manuscript, type its call number into the Search box for Shelfmark on this website:

Leave a Reply