Saturday, October 22, 2005

Medieval muzak

I am the first to complain about non-stop music in supermarkets, airport terminals, and doctor's surgeries. So I was rather chastened to find a historical precedent from a monastic order no less.

The acoemeti were 5th century monks who provided non-stop choral singing. This was achieved using a relay system with a fresh monk replacing an exhausted monk every few hours. There is a mention of the Pope having heard the akoimetoi in Constantinople in the late 5th century. The name acoemeti comes from the Greek akoimetoi, meaning sleepless.

So the next time you complain about the background Kenny G as the Starbucks barista prepares your cappuccino grande, remember you may be messing with a fifteen hundred year old tradition.

And mentioning monks and coffee, do you know how cappucino got its name? Well actually no one knows for sure. But the most popular theory is that the name comes from the Capuchin order of friars who played an important role in restoring Catholicism to Reformation Europe. The friars' robes were light brown, and their name came from the long, pointed brown cowl they wore. (Cappuccio is the Italian for hood) The first recorded use of the word cappuccino in English is in 1948, and its origin is unproven. But surely it is no coincidence that a properly prepared cappuccino leaves a brown ring round the rim of the cup which closely resembles the outline of a monk’s cowl?

The overgrown path to the akoimetoi and cappuccino came from the excellent The Know-It-All by A.J.Jacobs (publisher Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9780743250627). For more excerpts follow this link. I have only read the first thirty pages so far, but I've also learnt that the abalone is a species of snail with five anuses. Which presumably means they pick up a lot of literary awards.

Picture credit: Christis

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Lost in Translation

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