A selective history of eating those words

Where and when the phrase “You’ll eat those words,” the standard idiom to suggest something said or written will be retracted, originated is unknown. As far back as the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos must eat a book held by an angel (Rev.10:9). A book of proverbs printed at Cambridge University in 1670 contained the phrase, “to eat ones [sic] words,” this idiom’s first appearance in print. History might suggest that someone with enough power in the 17th century could turn the phrase into a command.

Take the case of Austrian politician Isaac Volmar, a longtime adviser to the Habsburg Empire. He played a prominent role in the defense of Breisbach, a fortress on the Rhine River, in 1638. The garrison fell to French forces commanded by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar after a four-month siege. At some point, Volmar wrote that Bernhard was a beggar prince. Volmar was among those repatriated but not before Bernhard forced him to eat what he’d written.

Six years later, Danish author Theodore Reinking was dismayed by his country’s diminished political and military power.

He wrote a book blaming the decline on “the treachery of the Swedes.” Reinking was arrested and thrown into prison. Worse for him, under Swedish law, anyone who wrote a foolish or evil book was condemned to eat it under penalty of death, according to U.M. Rose in the <em”>American Law Review in 1897. Reinking opted for the epicurean route. “It is said that he cooked his book up into some kind of a sauce, in which form it no doubt acquired a piquancy that it had not before possessed,” said Rose, a founder of the American Bar Association.

Both Volmar and Reinking had it better than Phillipp Oldenburger, a German legal scholar. His 1669 book describing intimate details of life at German royal courts was salacious enough to be confiscated in several German principalities. One young prince was so upset by satirical remarks about his love life that Oldenburger had to eat the two most libelous pages of the book. While the quantity was small, Oldenberg was flogged until he’d swallowed the last crumb, according to the March 31, 1906, edition of Scientific American.

Saint John eating the angel’s book

The 17th century wasn’t necessarily unique. A noted case occurred some 300 years before and involved Pope Urban V.

Bernabò Visconti, the Duke of Milan from 1354 to 1385, tended to wage war to capture parts of the Holy See. That was among the things that gave him the distinction of being excommunicated by three different popes. Sources differ which excommunication gave rise to this particular event and, therefore, the extent of Pope Urban’s involvement.

One version is that when Pope Urban was an abbot he and a cardinal went to Milan to deliver a bull of excommunication to Visconti. The duke either took them to or met them at the middle of a bridge over a river in central Milan. There Visconti told them, “Don’t think you can go before having either eaten or drunk in such a way that you will remember me,” according to Alice Curtayne’s Saint Catherine of Siena. Notwithstanding the allusion to the Last Supper, Curtayne reports,

The legates looked at the murky river beneath them and one of them answered, with an attempt at lightness: “I prefer to eat than to ask to drink near such a river.” “Very well,” replied Bernabò, “here are your bulls of excommunication. You shall not leave this bridge before you have eaten in my presence the parchment on which they are written, the leaden seals hanging from them and the silk cords which attach them.” In the midst of the armed guards and a huge crowd of people, the legates were forced to obey.

Immediately after he was elected pope in 1372, Urban excommunicated Visconti. Other versions of the story say it was this bull of excommunication Visconti forced the papal representatives to eat when they delivered it in 1373. At least one says that, instead of meeting on the bridge, the legates were arrested and imprisoned until they ate the parchment, lead seal, and silk cord. Regardless, there seems agreement that Visconti compelled two papal legates to eat a pope’s words.

The 21st century, of course, is more user-friendly — or over the top. In 2012, Land Rover created a guide for its United Arab Emirates customers on surviving in the Arabian Desert. The 28-page book gave a variety of survival techniques and the company wrapped it in reflective packaging, which could signal for help. In addition to binding the book with a metal spiral useable for cooking, Land Rover took an extra step. It printed the 75,000 copies in edible ink so that, in an emergency, “people could always EAT the book,” according to a Land Rover advertisement. The company claimed its Edible Survival Guide “had a nutritional value close to that of a cheeseburger.” The cheeseburger equivalent, though, had an expiration date of February 2013.

In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.

Winston Churchill, quoted in Norman Brook, Action This Day

(First posted at History of Yesterday)

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