I just finished Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen, which considerably disappointed me: Elizabeth Stuart had a long and interesting life, intimately tied up with the maddeningly complex Thirty Years’ War (which began with her husband‘s election as King of Bohemia, making war with the Habsburgs inevitable, and one strand of which was the couple’s long struggle, from their Dutch exile, to recover the Palatinate), but the book (despite the promise of the title) focuses almost entirely on an invented character, a prince of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo who after spending years as a slave in the Dutch East Indies is freed and sent to Leiden to study theology. The plot is absurd, but my main complaint is that by forcing together two utterly different histories and cultures, each complex and obscure enough to deserve (and require) its own book to establish its reality in the reader’s mind, the novel fails to do justice to either, tossing in a few facts about each more as exotic ornaments than as parts of a coherent pattern. (Contrast, say, Mary Renault, who brilliantly brings an alien time and culture to vivid life in her novels about Ancient Greece.) Furthermore, though this is a minor irritation, it’s written in standard Historical Novelese, with solemn avoidance of contractions and use of musty words and turns of phrase: “I cannot tell. Charles has no money to pay mercenaries and is not like to get any. I do not think that the war will go beyond the seas, since I cannot see that anyone will aid my brother. In any case, Parliament blockades the sea…”
However, I did learn some interesting words. For instance, did you know that spagyric is an old word meaning ‘alchemy,’ ‘alchemist,’ or ‘alchemical’? (1593 G. HARVEY Pierce’s Super. 29 Yet who such monarches for Phisique, Chirurgery, Spagirique,.. as some of these arrant impostors?; 1613 DRUMMOND OF HAWTHORNDEN Cypress Grove Wks. 127 Can the spagyrick by his art restore, for a Space, to the dry and withered Rose, the natural Purple and Blush; c1643 LD. HERBERT Autobiog. 49 As for the Chymic or Spagyric Medicines, I cannot commend them to the use of my posterity.) And in investigating the Palatinate I learned that “In the Golden Bull of 1356, the Palatinate was made one of the secular electorates, and given the hereditary offices of Archsteward (Erztruchseß) of the Empire and Imperial Vicar (Reichsverweser) of the western half of Germany. From this time forth, the Count Palatine of the Rhine was usually known as the Elector Palatine (Kurfürst von der Pfalz)”—I’m always on the lookout for impressive titles.
But what brought me up short was discovering that the word Yoruba is a recent creation; the page on Oyo linked above says it originated “during the nineteenth century, applied not by the Yoruba themselves but by outsiders to describe a series of city-states where variations of the same language were spoken.” Andrew Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages agrees: “Yoruba was originally an outsiders’ name for the language and people, but it has long been widely accepted.” The OED just says “Native name”; does anybody have any further information on the origin of the word?