Welcome to the first article in our new feature, #historystuffiscool! Like bow ties, medieval history is good, geeky fun and in this space we'll share that fun with a series of mashnotes to our beloved medieval culture. Every week, we plan to share a bit of our love, our passion, with you all.
We here at #historystuffiscool tend to be medievalists, but our historical affections are broad, from early medieval literature to 21st century pop culture’s medievalism. Sometimes our loves are lifelong, and we study and cherish every facet. Other times they are incandescent flings with times and places that capture us only briefly. At #historystuffiscool we celebrate all the coolness that we find throughout history!
Currently I am captured by coconuts. Coconuts are cool. Famously Monty Python used coconuts in place of horses in Holy Grail. Banging coconuts together was the method used by Foley to suggest the clopping of horse hooves, originally in radio but later in film and TV sound effects. Thus Python’s decision was economically efficient, a credit to Foley, and a comic masterstroke. Pretty cool.
While the entire opening debate in Holy Grail hinges on the impossibility of coconuts existing in medieval England, it turns out that coconuts were a regular import by the fourteenth century at the latest. Arthur may well have found them!
That’s pretty cool. But what the English (and other Europeans) did with their coconuts once they’d eaten them is even cooler. They trussed them up in silver and gold and made them into luxury tableware. You may have heard of gilding the lily, but the medieval English gilded the coconut.
And they kept doing it for hundreds of years. In the fifteenth century they willed coconuts to each other and gave them as donations to churches and colleges. They stole coconut goblets from each other in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They so adored their coconuts that they took them with them wherever they went. Soon, English colonists in the New World were busy constructing their own coconut cups. By 1855 when the Parisians were setting up the Exposition Universelle, the organizer could think of nothing better to represent the great state of Connecticut than coconut tableware (though in truth they may have got that wrong--the US Agricultural Society was a bit miffed when they saw).
Image via Tom Woodward/Wikimedia Commons.
In fact, Europeans of all sorts took their coconuts with them to the New World. In Mexico, Central and South America, European style coconut goblets were repurposed for indigenous American beverages. Mexican and Central American cocos chocolateros and the jícara de chocolate of South America look quite similar to European coconut cups.
This makes some sense as the Europeans added milk and sugar to their drinking chocolate, Europeanizing it quite as thoroughly as their coconuts. Yet these goblets sometimes feature narrower mouths than usual in most coconut cups, suggesting that these were modeled on traditional mate and chocolate gourds. Local culture influenced the European colonizers at times when they least expected it--even in their coconuts.
Coconut goblets were an international sensation for hundreds of years, and possibly the only European coconuts more global are those in Holy Grail. Before he is torn away to deal with a suspected witch, Sir Bedevere can be seen experimenting to determine whether or not a swallow can carry both a coconut and the weight of history. Thank you, Terry Jones. -Kathleen Kennedy
Feature image via LACMA.