Early modern word of the day: ‘collop’

NB: An occasional (not daily!) feature…

In Philip Massinger’s The Renegado, or The Gentleman of Venice, a play first performed in 1624 and published in 1630, Gazet, a bumbling and clownish servant, resists conversion to Islam, exclaiming:

                                      No, so I should lose

A collop of that part my Doll enjoined me

To bring home as she left it: ‘tis her venture,

Nor dare I barter that commodity

Without her special warrant. (1.38-42)

What Gazet is worried about is circumcision. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that a collop is an egg fried on bacon, which — though Doll might well enjoy it — doesn’t seem quite right here. The term gradually shifted to mean any slice of meat (though presumably Gazet is keen not to experience the popular dish of ‘minced collops’).

From the 1560s onwards, it could mean any piece of flesh, raising some intriguing questions about exactly what ‘pound of flesh’ Shylock, the cirumcised Jew in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is keen to extract from Antonio (Portia, disguised as a lawyer, tactfully locates it ‘nearest the merchant’s heart’). Gazet’s ‘collop’ is evidently his foreskin, a portion of ‘that part’ which Doll (a pet name for Dorothy, but used more generously as a familiar term for a woman, implying prostitution) so enjoys. The term suggests a certain historical depth behind such popular current terms as ‘meat and two veg’.

Gazet uses the language of the merchant adventurer to describe his unwillingness to trade his foreskin for a new religious identity, insisting that Doll has a particular interest in his ‘collop’ as her own ‘commodity’. As something which could profit its owner, ‘commodity’ was, in this period, not only used to describe goods that could be traded, but also as a term for a source of pleasure or for something particularly well-suited to fulfil one’s needs or desires.

Gazet’s chosen slang offers an interesting snapshot of fears around religious conversion, which centred both on the act of circumcision (referred to in several of the ‘Turk plays’ in this period, and of course in Othello, whose hero describes himself as ‘a circumcised dog’), and on the act of eating. Consuming foreign foods could, according to the physiological theories of the period, alter and make foreign the English body, nourished on a healthy, native diet of collops and other delicacies. Losing his collop, then, would physically transform Gazet in at least two ways.

The Renegado is an unusual play, in part because it includes, in the printed version, a cast list for the original performances — something which is very rare for plays from this period. We know that Gazet was played by an actor called Edward Shakerley, about whom, sadly, not much else is known. If Shakerley was a corpulent man, however, ‘collop’ might also be a joke about his generous physique, as it can mean a thick fold of flesh. Indeed, it was the 1560 Geneva Bible (the Bible used by Shakespeare) which introduced the term to English in this sense, describing the wicked man as one who ‘hathe covered his face with his fatnes, and hathe collopes in his flancke’ (Job 15.27).

Finally, Gazet’s concern about his collop might be linked to his dream of a future with Doll. ‘Collop’ also meant offspring, as when Leontes, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, calls his son Maximilius ‘Most dear’st, my Collop’. The child is imagined as a fleshly piece of its father, although — since Leontes believes his wife has been unfaithful — the term here is a dangerous and doubtful one: Leontes cannot be sure that his son is the product of his own flesh. In Massinger’s play, Gazet is terrified not only that he will lose his foreskin but that by entering into a new religion he will pervert his bloodline: a circumcised penis will not be able to produce a little English ‘collop’.

Into this one playful word — which doubtless caused much bawdy amusement among the play’s original audience — Massinger packs a huge amount of meaning, encapsulating English anxieties about conversion to Islam, and the dangers of foreign travel as an enterprise which could transform the bodies and souls of English adventurers.

(Image included for obvious reasons (just think like a groundling!) — but if you want to make a modern-day version of those original collops, try this lovely recipe for ‘Bacon and eggs in toast‘).

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