Monday, March 12, 2012

Durham, an Etymological Journey with a Cow on either end.

It was Alexander Pope who wrote:

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast"

He was not directly referring to spring as a season, but being an extremely clever fellow no doubt realized the double meaning, as the annual fading of winter and resurgence of green growing things is linked tightly to a sense of optimism.

With the first delicate signs of spring appearing here in frozen Wisconsin my thoughts turn to a couple of my annual diversions.  And I am delighted to find an etymological link between them.  And wandering through the tale is a cow.  Or at least a misplaced apocryphal bovine of some sort.

For years now I have been traveling to northern England to work on an archaeological dig at Vindolanda.  Sometimes I tack on a side trip, and this year I am planning on a day in the picturesque university town of Durham.

Officially the name Durham comes from the Old English "dun", meaning hill, tacked onto the Norse "holme", meaning island.  Although I can't help but notice that "ham" is the Saxon word for village and seems also to fit.

But there is a neat little legend that gives an alternative version.

St. Cuthbert (634-687) was one of the most beloved early Churchmen of the north.  Apparently his final resting place was threatened by marauding Vikings, so the monks of his monastery put his body into a bier and wandered around with it for quite some time.  In 995 AD this mausoleum on wheels was at the bottom of a hill and would not, could not be moved despite all efforts.  Heck, even three days of prayer and fasting did not do the trick.  (Helpful hint, fasting for three days makes you progressively less able to push a wagon up a hill).

Eventually St. Cuthbert appeared to a monk in a vision, something that actually is likely after three days off rations.  Cuthbert instructed the monk to take his remains to "dun holm".

The bier could now be moved, but none of the monks knew where "dun holm" was.  Fortunately they ran across a milkmaid who was searching for her lost dun cow.  In this context dun meant a shade of brown.  Helpfully this etymologically confused lass said it was last sighted near "dun holm" and pointed the monks in the general direction.  Arriving at the site of modern day Durham they built the first elements of Durham cathedral on the spot.

From Durham cathedral
Actually this tale contains elements of a more pervasive folk story, that of the "Dun Cow".  Sometimes benevolent, sometimes a ferocious monster, sometimes both!  A nice summary can be found courtesy of Dr. Beachcoming HERE.

There is still a Dun Cow Lane in Durham, said to be the path followed by the lost cow.

It has been a few years now, but for a decade or so early spring was also when I got fired up to coach Little League baseball.  This is no easy task, and so to steel myself for it I would have an annual viewing of Bull Durham, one of the best baseball movies ever made.  It has great stuff about being manager of a bunch of screwball underachievers, but is a delight on many other levels.  It is about love and baseball, and has an interesting sub text about what it means to grow old.

I recommend it.

In any case, the movie draws its title from the name of the minor league team, the Durham Bulls.  They get their name from their town, Durham, North Carolina.  And the link between Durham UK and Durham NC?

Durham North Carolina developed around a railroad stop called Durham's Station.  The land for the station was donated by a certain Bartlett Snipes Leonides Durham. 

He was an interesting chap.  His surname came from an ancestor John Durham from, logically enough, Durham UK.  Bartlett Snipes Leonides Durham went to a well respected medical school, but seems to have become a land speculator instead of a physician.  He built a fancy house he called Pandora's Box.  He died young and never married, although it is of note that his estate was taken to court by a woman named Sue Ann Clemens who filed a "Bastardy Suit" on behalf of her son Romulus!

In any case Durham's Station became Durham and grew quickly after the Civil War.  The product responsible for growth and prosperity in Durham was tobacco, a fine version of which grew locally.

One partnership selling the stuff was the "Bull Durham Tobacco Company".  Their logo included a bull;
Supposedly the Bull became the company mascot in a roundabout way.  There was a contemporary product called Colman's Mustard that also had a bull's head logo.  The Bull Durham folks thought it came from Durham UK.  In fact, although Durham had been a center for mustard milling for centuries the Colman firm was actually from Norwich.

So that is the wandering tale of my two springtime interests.  As told by a lost cow at the beginning and a misplaced bull at the end.  With a great movie and a Bastardy Suit in the middle.

1 comment:

next door Laura said...

I was with ya the whole way, although I am already familiar with the high points of this mental journey. Hope others hang on for the ride and enjoy your tales of springtime's promise.