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Torres 'towering clouds' in Pearl and Cleanness.

Torres is a crux in the work of the Gawain-poet. It figures at Pearl 875, describing a shout from heaven like a torrent's roar:

And as thunder throwegh in torregh blo, that lote, I leue, wargh neuer the les.(1)

'And as thunder rolls among dark torres, that sound I believe was in no way quieter.' It occurs too at Cleanness 951, of clouds rising when fire and brimstone rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Clowdegh clustered bytwene, kesten vp torres, that the thik thunder-thrast thirled hem ofte.(2)

'Clouds massed between, they threw up torres, which the abundant lightning pierced often.'

Discussion of torres has been as follows. OED linked it with tor 'high rock; pile of rocks; hill', a word of Celtic origin found in the West Country, Derbyshire (Higgar Tor, Chee Tor, Pickering Tor, Mam Tor, Shining Tor), and Lancashire. As regards Pearl and Cleanness, OED hesitates between the meanings 'heavy mass of cloud' or 'rock mass'.

Gordon, accepting this identification with tor 'hill', translated torres in Pearl as 'hills', but in Cleanness as 'tor-like masses of cloud'.(3) Anderson also accepts the word as from tor 'hill, crag', in both cases translating it as 'clouds', since he regards torres as probably 'the piled-up thunderheads, like crags in the sky, which are characteristic of thunder-clouds'.(4) Andrew and Waldron take a different view. Although they translate 'towering clouds', thinking of thunderclouds (cumulo-nimbus), they doubt a link with tor 'hill' from Celtic. They see torres as from Old French tur 'tower', used metaphorically.(5) But this interpretation was not followed by J.A.W. Bennett, who translated 'hill-like masses'.(6) While scholars now agree that torres means 'clouds', then, they dispute whether it is ultimately from French tour 'tower' or Celtic tor.

Now, there are loans from Celtic in the language of the Gawain-poet.(7) Yet torres is hardly one of them. Tor in Welsh means 'belly; palm of the hand'; Breton tor means 'belly, paunch' (with a compound teureug-enn 'sea urchin'); Irish tart means 'belly', as in tairr-gel 'white-bellied' (of a salmon).(8) But there is no real evidence to associate these Celtic formations or English tor 'hill' with tall clouds.

Cognates of French tour 'tower', on the other hand, provide strong evidence for taking Middle English torres as a loan from Romance meaning 'towering clouds'. Von Wartburg cites ture 'nuage' in the dialect of Vaud, the Swiss canton north of Lake Geneva, and tourregat 'gros nuage' from St Pons, near Beziers in the south of France. Of special interest is his citation of tourre 'nuage orageux' (thundercloud) in the dialect of Pezenas, also near Beziers.(9) These senses are confirmed by Alibert, who lists 'gros nuage' as a sense of Occitan tor and torre 'tower', as also of torrassa (in the Cevennes) and torrogat and torregat (around Montpellier). In Narbonne dialect the verb torrejar means 'presenter de gros nuages', and the adjective torrut 'qui presente de gros nuages en forme de tour'.(10) These words are paralleled in Catalan. In Majorca, torre 'tower' has the special meaning 'thundercloud, round cloud moving with others about it' (nimbus, nuvol rodonenc i que sol anar amb altres de sobreposats).(11)

Hence these Swiss, Occitan, and Catalan uses of 'tower' in the sense of 'large cloud, towering cloud, thundercloud' present remarkable parallels to torres '(thunder)clouds' in Pearl and Cleanness. They thus help rule out any link with Celtic tor. Torres would seem rather to derive from a Romance word meaning 'towering cloud'. The Gawain-poet's torres may, therefore, be removed from the OED entry for tor 'hill', and placed under that for tower.

It is, however, odd that tour 'tower' in standard French seems not to be used of clouds. Does this mean the Gawain-poet, active in Cheshire and Staffordshire, had links with the South of France? If so, it may cast light on his identity. In Gawain and Cleanness the form enbaned 'machicolated' (from Provencal embanar) and references to Toulouse suggest contacts with France south of the Loire; if torres 'thunderclouds' had the same origin, one wonders if the poet could have served in southwest France, where Bordeaux and Bayonne were English possessions. The Gawain-poet had a poet's and countryman's eye for cloud and weather (cf. Gawain 521-5, 1998-2005, 2079-81; Patience 469-72); had he lived in the Midi, he would remember the tall thunderclouds of summer, and might use the word for them in his poems.

ANDREW BREEZE University of Navarre, Pamplona

1 Pearl, ed. E. V. Gordon (Oxford, 1953), 32.

2 Cleanness, ed. J. J. Anderson (Manchester, 1977), 37.

3 Gordon, 76-7, 157.

4 Anderson, 86, 165.

5 The Poems of the Peat Manuscript, ed. M. R. Andrew and R. A. Waldron (London, 1978), 96, 151, 352.

6 J. A. W. Bennett, Middle English Literature (Oxford, 1986), 232.

7 A. C. Breeze, 'Celtic Etymologies for Middle English hurl "rush, thrust" and fisk "hasten"', Leeds Studies in English, xxiv (1993), 123-32; 'Old English cursung "curse'", N&Q, ccxxxviii (1993), 287-9: 'Middle English tirve "strip, flay; overthrow'", ibid., 295-6; 'A Brittonic Etymology for luche "throw" in Patience 230', SELIM, iii (1993), 150-3; 'Celtic Etymologies for Middle English brag "boast", gird "strike", and lethe "soften'", Journal of Celtic Linguistics, iii (1994), 135-48: 'A Celtic Etymology for glaverez "deceives" at Pearl 688', N&Q, ccxl (1995), 160-2.

8 Cf. The Place-Names of Derbyshire, ed. Kenneth Cameron (Cambridge, 1959), III, 709-10 (a reference for which the writer thanks Professor E.G. Stanley); Joseph Vendryes, Lexique etymologique de l'irlandais ancien: Lettres T-U (Paris, 1978), T-33.

9 Emile Mazuc, Grammaire languedocienne, dialecte de Pezenas (Toulouse, 1899); Walther von Wartburg, Franzosisches etymologisches Worterbuch (Bonn, 1922-), s.v. turris.

10 Louis Alibert, Dictionnaire Occitan-Francais (Toulouse, 1965), 666.

11 Antoni Alcover, Diccionari Catala-Valencia-Balear (Palma de Mallorca, 1925-62), s.v. torre.
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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