[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. 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.” 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.”
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.
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. 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).
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. Continue reading