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[Ed. Note: Today’s post comes from Jacqueline Burek, a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of English who presented a version of this research at the graduate student workshop associated with the 5th annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, 16 November 2012]

When I was browsing Penn in Hand one day, searching for manuscripts that might provide interesting ways of thinking about historical writing, I was delighted to stumble upon LJS 477, a thirteenth-century florilegium (or, collection of excerpts from other written works) probably written by a Dominican in Oxford. This manuscript offers a unique way of understanding how a medieval friar might conceptualize the relationship between faith and what we now call “science,” because it contains both sermons and excerpts about natural history. In thirteenth-century England, these subjects were not so far removed from each other, but their appearance in close proximity, especially in a manuscript most likely intended for personal use, do suggest that the scribe may have been drawing some interesting conclusions about the relationship between the two. Indeed, my research suggests that the scribe of LJS 477 uses the idea of origins to demonstrate that all human understanding is actually the product of the divine will.

Most of the manuscript is filled with religious material, which is occasionally punctuated with clusters of information about natural history from various sources. One of those sources happens to be Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, an extremely influential work of the early Middle Ages[1]. Isidore’s encyclopedic work sought to include all of human knowledge in one place, and therefore includes information about subjects as disparate as rhetoric (book II), chronic disease (book IV), lightning (book XIII), and drinking vessels (book XX). Like the scribe of LJS 477, Isidore also includes religious materials alongside these other discussions – partly, of course, because Isidore would have seen no division between these subjects, but also partly due to his adoption of etymology as the lens through which all knowledge can be understood.

Indeed, as someone interested in the relationship between language and history, Isidore’s choice of etymology as his organizing principle is particularly fascinating to me. According to Isidore, “Etymologia est origo vocabulorum, cum vis verbi vel nominis per interpretationem colligitur”: “Etymology is the origin of words, when the force of a verb or noun is inferred through interpretation.”[2] This is often possible with Greek and Latin words, but can prove impossible with words of a foreign origin, or when no reason was used in the creation of a word. “The knowledge of a word’s etymology often has an indispensable usefulness for interpreting the word, for when you have seen whence a word has originated, you understand its force more quickly. Indeed, one’s insight into anything is clearer when its etymology is known.”[3]

Of course, modern scholars would disagree with Isidore on many of his assertions, both in the Etymologiae and in his other works. Yet what is important for a student of medieval historiography is the power that Isidore gives each word to convey meaning across words (i.e., building relationships between words with similar etymologies) and between words (i.e., tracking a word’s movement across space and time). In this way, each word becomes a form of historical writing in its own right, and that history proves necessary to the interpretation of texts.

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LJS 477: 56r. All folios that include references to Isidore of Seville follow this layout

Hence my interest in LJS 477. I was curious about which selections of the Etymologiae the scribe chose to include in his work, as well as how those selections might relate to the excerpts from other natural histories and the sermons that make up the bulk of the manuscript. And even though the current order of the manuscript is different than it was when first compiled, we do know that these different genres did originally appear alongside each other in the manuscript’s original state[4]. Thus the question raises itself: what might drive a scribe to include sermons and natural history side-by-side in this manuscript? And how might Isidore fit into the picture?

To start answering these questions, I began my study of the manuscript by hunting down the references to the Etymologiae in the manuscript. The excerpts from Isidore begin about halfway down the left-hand column on fol. 56r, and end at the bottom of fol. 60v. As the image to the right shows, this manuscript is fairly utilitarian, and does not specifically demarcate the shift to natural history – the beginning of fol. 56r is a continuation of a discussion on the wood of the cross from the previous folio.

Each reference to Isidore’s text (and to other sources, as we will see) follows a standard citational style: a set of double vertical lines mark the beginning of a new excerpt; a reference to the source author, book, title, and chapter follows; and then a single vertical line precedes the quote itself. This can be seen from the first citation, a reference to Isidore’s description of Eden: “Ite[m] ysid[orus]. l[ibro]. 14. eth[ymologiae]. c[apitu]lo. 3” (highlighted below).

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First reference to Isidore of Seville in LJS 477 fol. 56r, to Etymologiae XIV.3. Passage highlighted.

I have been able to track down nearly all of the references to the Etymologiae – many of them conveniently align with modern critical editions of Isidore’s work, although a few can prove challenging to find. One reference I have as yet been unable to locate in the Etymologiae, but I hope that further digging will reveal its source.

The selections from the Etymologiae copied into LJS 477 can be roughly categorized as follows: the location and description of Eden, the descriptions of various types of trees and plants, the layout and creation of the heavens and the Earth, the physics of spoken sound, lakes, stars, and snakes. These excerpts are located all over the Etymologiae, suggesting that the scribe purposefully selected the pieces of information that he wished to include in his manuscript.

Moreover, the scribe seems to have taken care to order the information from Isidore in the way best for his purposes, often reorganizing sections from the same chapter in the Etymologiae which could easily have been copied out en masse. For example, Isidore includes an entire chapter on snakes in the Etymologiae (XII.4). The scribe has copied the entirety of this chapter into his manuscript, but has done so piecemeal, copying one section, then skipping above or below in the Etymologiae, and then doubling-back to recopy what he has passed over. This is not an accident of a differently-ordered source text: the scribe denotes that he is still in the same chapter by citing a quotation as being from earlier or later in the same section of text in the Etymologiae. For example, in the ninth line in the left-hand column in the image below, one can see “Id[em] inf[ra],” or “Again, below [the previous quotation].”

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LJS 477 fol. 58r. Passage highlighted.

In this image, it is also possible to see in the righthand column that, in between the discussion of snakes, the scribe has inserted information on the relationship between salt and fire, which is similar to the relationship between snakes’ venom and human blood. Salt, as a water element, “flees” (fugit) when it comes into contact with fire, according to Isidore (XVI.2). Likewise, snakes and their venom are naturally cold, and drive out the fiery soul from the body upon contact with the bloodstream (XII.4). Thus, our scribe uses the opposition of water and fire to explain how snake venom causes death. From these examples, we can see that the scribe carefully selected and organized information from the Etymologies according to his own interpretive needs.

Furthermore, I very quickly discovered that these folios do not refer exclusively to the Etymologiae, but instead references other authors as well (though none so often as Isidore). Such authors are used to supplement the information copied from the Etymologiae, rather than to provide information on completely different topics. In one instance on fol. 57r, the scribe cites a description of how spoken sound, or voice (vox), works. Although this quote actually originates from Thomas of Cantimpré’s Liber de natura rerum, it has here been attributed to Isidore (possibly because of an incorrect source text)[5]. Further down in that same column, the scribe gives another description of vox (accurately cited) from Isidore’s Etymologiae [6]:

Top highlighted passage: reference to Thomas of Cantimpré, attributed to Isidore. Bottom highlighted passage: correct reference to Isidore. LJS 477 fol. 57r.

Finally, after these other two references, he cites Aristotle’s De anima on the very same subject [7].

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Reference to Aristotle, De anima, fol. 57r. Passage highlighted.

Even though the scribe is unaware that the excerpt he believes to be from book I of the Etymologiae is actually from Thomas of Cantimpré’s Liber de natura rerum, he is purposefully placing Aristotle alongside Isidore, and thus providing two authorities on this topic. Thus, the scribe does not appear to be interested in simply copying or reconstructing Isidore’s arguments on a particular subject in his manuscript; rather, he seems to be heavily using Isidore’s work, and briefly referencing the works of other authors, to compile information about the topics in which he has interest.

Moreover, these references to the Etymologiae and other sources for natural history are interspersed with exegesis, possibly for use in sermons. Across fols. 56r-60v, the scribe includes exegesis on Terra dedit fructum suum (from James 5:18, which references Psalm 66:7), Ponam vellus hoc lanae in area (Judges 6:37), and Vox clamantis in deserto (Isaiah 40:3). Certainly, natural imagery abounds here as well – the land and its fruit (and the rain referenced through Psalms); sheep; the wilderness. One could argue that the references to Isidore and the other authors are placed here to inform the exegesis of these biblical verses. But the references to natural history often occur before the biblical verse they would supposedly be supporting, making such a purpose unlikely. Moreover, Isidore’s description of vox in terms of choral music hardly seems relevant to the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” What, then, could be the organizing principle behind fols. 56r-60v of LJS 477?

I would argue that the biblical exegesis and the excerpts from natural histories work together to create a series of references back to the early chapters of Genesis. Every topic covered in these pages can easily be seen as referring to something from Genesis – whether it be the Earth, stars, trees, snakes, or even the disembodied voice of God creating the world. In this way, the scribe’s close attention to words – whether in the context of etymology or exegesis – refers back to the universal history of the Word, which, like Isidore’s word, contains within it past, present, and future. Just as a word is best understood through its origins, so too is natural history best understood through its origins in the divine will, as recorded in Genesis. Likewise, all of Scripture is a reflection of that same divinity, the true author behind the entire Bible. Neither biblical exegesis nor natural history is privileged in this conceptualization – they both offer their own pathways to understanding creation, through the medium of words. Thus, LJS 477 reveals a glimpse into the mindset of a thirteenth-century scribe, as he uses the principles of language to tie together both his faith and his interest in the science of the world around him.



[1]For a full description of LJS 477, see http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/d/medren/4745542

[2]See Etymologiae I.29. For a quick text of the Etymologiae online, see the 1911 Oxford critical edition by W.M. Lindsay. A reliable translation of the Etymologiae can be found in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, eds. Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). The citation here comes from p. 54.


[3]”Cuius cognitio saepe usum necessarium habet in interpretatione sua. Nam dum videris unde ortum est nomen, citius vim eius intellegis. Omnis enim rei inspectio etymologia cognita planior est.”  Etymologiae I. 29, trans. Barney et al., 55.


[4]Again, see the full description of LJS 477 at http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/d/medren/4745542.

[5] “Vox est aer ictus sensibilis auditu, quantum in ipso est. Omnis vox aut articulata est aut confusa. Articulata est hominum, confusa animalium. Articulata est quae scribi potest, confusa quae scribi non potest.” Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, I.14.  The text is not fully accessible online in either Latin or English; a Latin print edition is available (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1973).

[6] “Vox est aer spiritu verberatus, unde et verba sunt nuncupata. Proprie autem vox hominum est, seu inrationabilium animantium. Nam in aliis abusive non proprie vocem vocari, ut: Vox tubae infremuit: fractasque ad litore voces.  Nam proprium est ut litorei sonent scopuli, et at tuba terribilem sonitum procul aere canoro.” Etymologiae III.20. Note that the text of LJS 477 varies slightly from that in the online text.

[7] “Vox autem sonus quidam est animati. Inanimatorum enim nullum vocat, si per similitudinem dicitur vocare, ut tibicen et lira et quaecumque alia inanimatorum extensa non habent et melos et locutionem et etc.” Aristotle, De anima II.8 (cited in the manuscript as II.7). The textual history of Latin editions of De anima is fraught. For an edition of William of Moerbeke’s Latin revision of James of Venice’s earlier translation of De anima see Gauthier et al. eds., S. Thomae de Aquino Opera omnia, Tom. XLV, 1: Sentencia libri de anima (Rome:Commissio Leonina, 1984), p. 143. Do note, however, that the text of LJS 477 is slightly different. R.D. Hicks’s 1907 full English translation of the De anima can be found at http://archive.org/details/aristotledeanima005947mbp.