Sunday, August 3, 2014


I was watching a documentary by Agnès Varda last night called 'The Gleaners and I'. (In French, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse). I don't know how I got on to it exactly, since I hadn't previously known Varda's work--it was probably through some algorithm at Netflix that it was recommended to me. Varda was already a famous filmmaker at the time she filmed it--it came out in 2000--but I hadn't heard of her. For this project, she decided to use a digital handheld video camera and just wander around France with it. After an encounter with Jean-François Millet's Des glaneuses (above), Varda became intrigued to follow around some modern day gleaners, and in the process recognized the gleaner in herself.

And I in turn became interested in the word 'glean'. Although glean in the sense shown in Millet's painting means to gather what is left after the more official harvesters have been through a crop (and actually, as one older gleaner tells Vargas in the movie, gleaning is only the activity of gathering from the ground--things hanging above the ground are picked. So you glean grain or potatoes, but you pick grapes. I'm not totally sure about fruit that has already fallen to the ground, like apples,though), we also use the word to speak about comprehension--to talk about how we have understood or come to grasp something. Varga in describing herself as a glaneuse is actually talking about both senses. She is gathering actual film images and she is trying to understand more about various things--why people glean, but other things as well.

Now I am not sure how the French etymology works, but in English, the course is a bit surprising. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the English word glean comes from the Old French glener (which modern French makes glaner) and this in turn comes from the Late Latin glennare, which meant 'to make a collection'. It goes on to speculate that the word may have come from the Gaulish (I think of Latin flowing out from Rome and being dispensed to the hinterlands, but of course it must sometimes have gone the other way, as that is how language is.) As evidence, the Dictionary cites the Old Irish do-glenn "he collects, he gathers" and the Celtic glan, which means clean or pure. I'm not quite sure how that connects, but maybe you are.

As for me, I hadn't even known that Gaulish was an ancient Celtic language till just now. I would have just thought it had something to do with France. But Wikipedia tells us that "Gaulish is found in about 800 inscriptions consisting of dedications, funeral monuments, graffiti, magical-religious texts, coin inscriptions and other similar, often fragmentary records."

In other words it would take a lot of gleaning in our modern sense of "extracting information from various sources," or "collecting bit by bit" to learn much Gaulish. It seems rather made to illustrate the concept of gleaning, in fact.

(According the ASNC Spoken Word website, this translates as  ‘To the mother-goddesses of Glanum, [X gave] a tithe in gratitude’)

This is a little bit weird. I was just looking for some examples of Gaulish inscriptions to liven things up here a little, and found the above example from Glanum quite randomly. Glanum is an archeological site of some major Celtic/ Roman ruins in the area we now call Provence. It was a Celtic city originally built by a spring dedicated to the Celtic god Glanis. (Remember glan?)

Now yesterday at around this time, I didn't know Glanis, or Glanum from Adam. But as it happens, there is a short interview in Varga's film with a French woman and her grown son, who drops into the conversation about gleaners that his mother is having with Varga. "Glaneurs?" he says--"I thought you were talking about Glanum." And Varga obliginglyshows us a picture of the archeological site.

 (Not this picture. This photo is taken by Axel Brocke and is of The Temple of Valetudo, about 39 BC, in Glanum, Valetudo being the name the Romans gave Glanis when they incorporated him into the Roman pantheon, as was their custom with the local deities of the conquered.)

Another other odd thing, is that in English, anyway, the figurative sense came first. It appears in the early 14th century, while the more literal description of scavenging after the harvest doesn't appear until the late 14th. I'm guess this happens, but I am pretty sure I haven't run into the figurative proceeding the literal since taking up this blog. I am not sure we can say the literal came from the figurative, though, because it may just have hopped the channel in some other way.

Anyway, take some time to watch "The Gleaners and I". It's one of those films that makes you think about a lot of things without being particularly heavy handed about it. I'm looking forward to watching the follow-up on the same disc, which is called "The Gleaners and I, Two Years Later."


  1. Very interesting, and a Tom Stoppard flashback at no extra charge!

  2. Although I have seen a bit of Stoppard, the flashback was caused inadvertently. Arcadia?

  3. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern spend their time pondering the king's instruction to glean what afflicts Hamlet.

  4. Ah. And to think I saw the film version not all that long ago.

  5. Maybe you were hypnotized by the coin tossing.

  6. It's ridiculous how little I actually remember of it. I guess I'm going to have to watch it again. Not that that's a hardship.