I wrote about some of the diverse uses of the bird, the single-digit salute, the flip-off—the finger—in my book Damn!, and subsequently here at Strong Language in my digital piece, “Bird is the Word.” I found roots that harked back to a passage in The Clouds by Aristophanes, and to ancient Rome, where it was called the digitus impudicus, or the “impudent finger.” In an epigram of the first century poet Martial, he “points his finger, and the insulting one at that, towards Alcon, Dasius and Symmachus.” Emperor Caligula offering of his extended middle finger, rather than his hand, to his subjects to kiss was seen as scandalous. But that was Nero for you. What else did you expect? The gesture became so abhorrent that Augustus Caesar banished an actor from Rome for giving the finger to an audience member who hissed at the man during a performance. Although my next book, the cookbook memoir Not My Mother’s Kitchen, did not contain a single cussword or allusion to one, I discovered along the way that the Italian peninsula still had their fingers on the pulse of profanity—only this time with figs.
Frederick I (1122-90), known as “Barbarossa” because of his red beard, ruled first as Duke of Swabia, then as king of the German territories, and eventually as Holy Roman Emperor. In the late 1150s Frederick marched his army to northern Italy to suppress recalcitrant cities in Lombardy. During this campaign Frederick left his wife, Beatrice, in Milan. While the Barbarossa was away, the Milanese did play. The revolting population effected an even more revolting act—at least as far as Frederick was concerned. They ignominiously drove his wife out of the city by seating her on a mule, ass backwards, as it were, so that she would face the city in humiliation as the mule hobbled away. This might have been a good joke to the locals, but the emperor would have the last laugh.
The year was 1162 when he returned and easily subdued the revolt. According to the chronicler Giambattista Gelli, Frederick got them back for the mule debacle, and then some: “The Emperor, justly incensed, urged the besieged [citizens] to yield, which they at last did… he received them with mercy upon this condition: that every person who desired to live should, with their teeth, take a fig out of the genitals of a [she] mule.” That is to say, Barbarossa gave the ringleaders a choice of being hanged (or beheaded), or saving themselves by presenting a fig to the executioner as a token of ransom. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, was that the fig had been stuck in the ass of the Empress’s ass—er, mule. The prisoner had to extract it with his teeth. He would then bring it to the executioner saying, “Ecco il fico” (translated as “Here is the fig”—but you knew that). If that was not punishment enough, he then had to replace the fig in the mule’s fundament to be ready for extraction by the next miscreant.
Supposedly the bizarre ritual was carried out in Milan’s largest square. Naturally, a few Milanese refused to participate in it and were duly executed. I mean, what’s life after extracting a fig from a mule’s hinder anyway? Of course, most of the poor saps submitted. Frederick remained true to his word, sparing their lives. However, for decades the incident was used to humiliate and insult the Milanese. You’ve seen it. The precise form is to make a fist with your thumb thrust out between the index and middle fingers and bite the thumb. The exact name of the gesture is known as “making the fig.” It was already a widespread insult in Shakespeare’s time, as he used it in Act I, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet. If you think it has lost any of its dubious charm, just try it on the autostrade when a Milanese cuts you off.
(Source: Waverly Root, The Food of Italy, 1971)