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. A book of proverbs printed at Cambridge University in 1670 contained the phrase, “to eat ones [sic] words,” the idiom’s first appearance in print. History might suggest that’s because 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 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 disturbed 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 an article by U.M. Rose in the 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.

St. John eating the angel’s book

Both Volmar and Reinking had it better than Phillipp Oldenburger, a German legal scholar. His 1669 book describing intimate details from 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, that order required flogging him while doing so, a flogging that wouldn’t stop until he had swallowed the last crumb, according to the March 31, 1906, edition of Scientific American.

The 17th century wasn’t unique. A noted case of “eat those words” happened 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. He had the distinction of being excommunicated by three different popes. Sources differ when the excommunication giving rise to the most common story about Pope Urban’s involvement occurred.

An abbot at the time, Pope Urban and a cardinal were sent to Milan to deliver a bull of excommunication to Visconti. He either took them to or met them at the middle of a bridge over a large canal in central Milan. There he 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. She 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. Some reports say it was this bull of excommunication Visconti ordered consumed when delivered 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 ordered 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 customers in the United Arab Emirates on surviving in the Arabian Desert. The company wrapped the 28-page book in reflective packaging, which could signal for help, and bound it with a metal spiral useable for cooking. Land Rover took an extra step. It printed the book in edible ink so that in an emergency, “people could always EAT the book,” according to a Land Rover advertisement. The company claimed the book “had a nutritional value close to that of a cheeseburger.”

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 William Manchester,
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Vol. 2

(Originally posted at History of Yesterday)

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