THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

13 September 2012

Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Who's Your Daddy?

Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), the bishop of Seville from about 600 to his death, is better known as an author than as an administrator.  His most famous work is the Etymologies, a work of tremendous influence throughout the Middle Ages.  One eleventh-century manuscript (Royal 6 C. i), probably copied at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, is now available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Royal_ms_6_c_i_f030r

Diagrams of the path of the Sun and the phases of the moon; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal 6 C. i, f. 30r.


The Etymologies is famous for its sometimes quirky explanations of the history of words.  In some cases, when Isidore takes the word apart based on what it sounds like, the explanation that results can be extremely engaging, if not necessarily true.  The Latin word for 'beggar' (mendicus) is now believed to derive from an earlier word meaning 'deformity' or 'lack'.  Isidore, however, speculates a much more charming story, of a 'custom among the ancients' to 'close the hungry mouth and extend a hand, as if speaking with the hand' (manu dicere).

In other cases, Isidore’s etymologies, while colourful, are spot-on.  The one he gives for the words Fornicarius and Fornicatrix (male and female prostitute) explains that these terms come from the Latin word for 'arch' (fornix), and refers to the architecture of ancient brothels.  Prostitutes were understood to lie under such arches while practising their trade.  This is the same explanation for the word 'fornicate' offered in the Oxford English Dictionary today!

 

Royal_ms_6_c_i_f082r

Etymologies of words beginning with F and G; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 10, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal 6 C. i, f. 82r.


While these vocabulary lessons are the most famous part of the Etymologies, and the section from which the work takes its name, the Etymologies is really more of an encyclopaedia, compiling all the information that it would be important for an educated person to know.  This includes descriptions of the movement of the Sun and the phases of the moon, as well as a simple schematic map of the layout of the continents.  Isidore was the first to explain the layout of the continents in what would become the classic medieval schema, the T-O map.  The world is round, with Jerusalem its spiritual as well as geographical centre, standing at the convergence between the three known continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.

 

Royal_ms_6_c_i_f108v

T-O map of the world, with east at the top; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England ,last quarter of the 11th century, Royal 6 C. i, f. 108v.


A particularly striking image in the manuscript is the affinity diagrams, laying out the relationships within members of a family.  Who exactly is your second cousin twice removed?  Fortunately for the reader, a simple chart should sort out the confusion.  'The grandfather of my paternal uncle,' it reads across one line, 'is my propatruus, and I am to him the niece or nephew of his son or daughter'.  Relationships are labelled with both the terms for the relative and the term by which he or she would refer to the reader: both grandfather and grandson, both uncle and nephew (or niece!).  Just as the world has been diagrammed, so have the intricacies of the family tree.

 

Royal_ms_6_c_i_f078r
Chart of familial affinities; from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, England, last quarter of the 11th century, Royal 6 C. i, f. 78r.

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