Coincidentally: Of Cabbages and Kings

Alice was rightly perplexed in Through the looking Glass when the Walrus said it was time to talk of many things:

Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax
 Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.

On this side of the Looking Glass, not the Walrus but the vice president of the United States has written a book in which he seems to fear that the sea is indeed about to boil. And animal rights activists have decided that pigs actually do have wings, though only the pure in heart can see them. But few people today talk about cabbages and kings.

The silence about cabbages is due to hypocrisy.

Vegetarians reject the seamless garment of culinary issues: They feel sorry for roast pigs while subjecting cabbages to a thousand humiliations, from shredding to pickling, and many of them condemn the manufacture of frankfurters while relishing sauerkraut. The hesitancy about kings is due to envy. Kings will always he victims of the Green-Eyed Monster so long as there can be on average no more than one king per country.

Perhaps the Walrus was on to something. Raise the curtain on the stage of history and you will see uncanny coincidences involving cabbages and kings.

Consider three different men whom all of us associate with heroic rescues: Pliny the Elder, Diocletian, and Gallieni. Pliny (23-79 A.D.) led a rescue mission when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and died in the effort off the coast of Herculaneum. Troops of the emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletian (245-312) rescued Constantius (c. 250-306) when he was besieged by more than six thousand Alemanni at Langres. During the first Battle of the Marne in the First World War, the military governor of Paris, Joseph Simon Gallieni (1849-1916), mobilized a convoy of city taxicabs to transport eighty thousand reserves to the beleaguered troops of Manoury’s Sixth Army, repulsing General von Gluck and saving Paris. All three of these men played parts in the lore of the cabbage.

First, Pliny among many other things was a naturalist who identified six varieties of the cabbage in his Historia Naturalis. Second, Diocletian abdicated in 305 and spent his last years in Split in his native Dalmatia enjoying his favorite pastime, which was raising cabbages. Third, the troops of Gallieni rode in their taxicabs to the Marne singing songs about the “Boches,” a derogatory term for

Germans from “coboche” meaning “cabbage head,” derived from the Latin caput or “head,” which both Pliny and Diocletian used as a slang for cabbage.

I fear that in relating these things, I am only repeating the obvious. However, not everyone knows that Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme was the ancient British king, Coel of Caercovin, whose name is homophonic with “cole.” This plant, from the Latin caulis, is of the same species (Brassica) as the cabbage, and may have been the vegetable in the bowl for which the jolly old soul called. Cole, or “colewort,” is the source of cole slaw or, more precisely, colewort slaw or, more fancifully, coelwort slaw.

Coincidence explains why the typical layman today persists in the belief that Coel of Carcovin’s daughter was St. Helena. She, of course, was the wife of Constantinus and mother of Constantine. Now, Coel’s real daughter was Helena Luicdouic, who married Magnus Clemens Maximus (c. 383388), the emperor whom the emotional Welsh revere as the mythic hero Maxen Wledig. By him, Helena Luicdouic bore a son, Custennin, a variant of Constantine. Hence the widespread confusion.

The real St. Helena was the daughter of an innkeeper of Drepanum in Bithynia, which is why snobbish Diocletian, the cabbage king, ordered Constantius to divorce her. She was lovelier to behold than Constantius who, because of a pallid complexion, was nicknamed “Chlorus,” which is sometimes interpreted as “cabbage-faced.”

St. Helena brought to Cologne what she thought were the relics of the Three Kings. Later, the Farina brothers of Cologne invented a scent, which they called “Acqua Admirabilis.” After the Seven Years’ War, it was exported to Britain as “Cologne water,” and can be found today in the shops of Colchester, once known as Caercovin, or Camulodunum to the Romans, the royal city of King Coel. And in 1996 the chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, coauthored with his wife, Hannelore, a cookbook containing ten recipes for their namesake cabbage. So it-‘is, indeed, a very small world after all.

And as Alice would have said in Wonderland, it becomes “Curiouser and curiouser!”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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