Let me tell you a story about how the Internet is supposed to work. It’s also about collaborating on research, and finding truth.
A short while ago, a student of mine, Kliment Yanev, came up with an excellent theory on the botanical identity of the poisonous dust plant that Fiore calls the titimallo. It was a good theory, and made sense, so I posted it on my blog. So far so good.
Then, on the Book of Face, in the comments under my “go read my blog post about poisonous plants” update, Ilkka Hartikainen pointed out that in this translation of Il Fior di Battaglia, the translators Eleanora Litta and Matt Easton identify the plant as being of the genus Euphorbia.
You’ll note that this is offered with lots of fascinating details, but without any supporting evidence for the actual identification of the plant, so I didn’t do anything about it.
Then, Alexander Petty, one of my Facebook friends, posts this:
While your student’s run-in is no doubt intriguing, we can in fact go back to period manuscripts for reference to and a description of the plant itself. Folio 101 of the Egerton 747, a Latin herbal of Italian origin produced at the beginning of the 14th century, clearly displays “Titimallus.”
Zoom in on the picture posted and you’ll be able to see both the descriptive paragraph on the right(“Titimallus” beginning with the blue “T”), as well as the actual plant labeled as such on the bottom left. I will list a modern transcription at the bottom should you wish to exercise your Latin. Indeed, I have not bothered to look, but I am almost certain that the Sloane 4016, an Italian herbal much closer to Fiore’s work both in region (Lombardy) and time (c. 1440), would contain the same plant as well. [He goes on to add links to the relevant sources. You can find them all on the FB thread.]
From there on out, the herb is recorded well enough to our present history. Take for instance this “Tithymalus” from the late 1700's (First word to appear in the description, bottom-left): the illustration basically matches that of the above 14th century page, bottom-left, also titled “Titimallus.” I've super-imposed the two for easy viewing.
And finally this:
Then of course, to the present day, this picture matching both of the afore-mentioned illustrations. This particular species is native to North America, but still belongs to the genus Euphorbia, particular species of which Fiore was most likely referring to.
So, it turns out that a) my first post was wrong; b) Ilkka, Eleanora and Matt were right; c) there is a clear and unambiguous trail of documentary evidence indicating the identity of the titimallo. This is very exciting to us Fiore boffins, not that we would ever go about casting blinding powder out of trick pollaxes, no, not ever, really.
Perhaps more importantly, it also creates a perfect example of how the academic process is supposed to work: you have a theory, you publish it, others respond to it; if there is no contrary evidence presented, do nothing; if there is clear evidence that your theory is wrong, you abandon it for the better theory. And at every stage, you give full credit.
At the same time as this flurry of erudition unprecedented in the annals of Facebook, Kliment (who has no FB account (and never will, don't even mention it) and so couldn't see the thread) had checked with a medieval linguistics friend, who said “uhm, I don't see a way to go from ‘dittamo' to ‘titimalo'” and added “titimalo (sometimes ‘titìmalo', ‘titimàglio', or ‘totomàglio'), derived from Latin tithymallus or tithymalon, ultimately from Greek, is the name of a different plant in modern Italian, one of a few species in genus Euphorbia, apparently known in English as “spurge:s” At which point Kliment emailed me triumphantly that “we were wrong”!
On a slight tangent, Piermarco Terminiello (finder and translator of Giganti's lost 1608 book) added: “The good old “caustic blinding powder in the pollaxe” trick is also mentioned in Paride Del Pozzo’s judicial treatise, so it’s not just a flight of fancy by Fiore.” On a further slight tangent, the FB thread continued with a fascinating (to me at least, and perhaps to you too) discussion by Ilkka and Alexander on the etymology of the word titimallo.
Let me point out, in case it isn’t obvious, that if Kliment hadn’t sent me his theory, right now I would still not know the identity of the titimallo. Being wrong is often a necessary stage on the way to being right. Sharing your theories and data are the best way to test them. And the internet makes the entire process unbelievably fast. Perhaps the most startling aspect to this whole adventure has been the fact that Facebook is actually good for something other than stoopid memes!