Monday, April 11, 2005



In the second part of Chaucer's Parson's Tale (749-752), there is an interesting pair of related words that are now obsolete, mawmet (meaning idol) and mawmetrye (meaning idolatry):
What difference is bitwixe an ydolastre and an avaricious man, but that an ydolastre peraventure ne hath but o mawmet or two and the avaricious man hath manye? For certes, every florin in his cofre is his mawmet. And certes, the synne of mawmetrye is the firste thyng that God deffended in the Ten Comaundementz, as bereth witnesse Exodi 20, "Thou shalt have no false goddes bifore me, ne thou shalt make to thee no grave thyng." Thus is an avaricious man that loveth his tresor biforn God an ydolastre thurgh this cursed synne of avarice.
In modern English:
What difference is there between an idolater and an avaricious man, except that an idolater, perhaps, has only one idol or two, and the avaricious man has many? For certainly, every florin in his coffer is his idol. And certainly the sin of idolatry is the first thing that God forbade in the ten commandments, as Exodus, chapter 20, bears witness: "Thou shalt have no false gods before me, thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." Thus an avaricious man, who loves his treasure more than God, is an idolater, through this cursed sin of avarice.
Mawmet comes from Mahomet, whom we know today as Mohammed. The word isn't in most modern English dictionaries, but the 1913 Webster's dictionary defines mawmet as:
A puppet; a doll; originally, an idol, because in the Middle Ages it was generally believed that the Mohammedans worshiped images representing Mohammed.
If Chaucer were alive today, he'd probably be accused of Islamophobia or hate speech. So too Dante, who called some of the buildings in Hell mosques (meschite, at Inferno 8.70).

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