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Isidoro di siviglia, etimologie, fine VIII secolo MSII 4856 Bruxelles, Bibliotheque Royale Albert I, 20x31,50, pagina in scrittura onciale carolina.jpg
Page of Etymologiae, Carolingian manuscript (8th century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium
Author Isidore of Seville
Country Spain
Subject General knowledge,
Genre Encyclopaedia
Publication date
c. 600 AD
Pages 20 books

Etymologiae (also called The Etymologies or Origines, standard abbrev. Orig.) is an etymological encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville (died 636) towards the end of his life. Isidore was encouraged to write the book by his friend Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa.

The Etymologies summarized and organized a wealth of knowledge from classical sources, containing whatever Isidore, a Christian bishop, thought worth keeping. Its subject matter is extremely diverse, ranging from grammar and rhetoric to the earth and the cosmos, buildings, metals, war, ships, humans, animals, medicine, law, religions and the hierarchies of angels and saints.

It was the most used textbook throughout the middle ages. It was so popular that it was read in place of many of the original classical texts that it summarized, so these ceased to be copied and were lost. It was cited by Dante Alighieri, who placed Isidore in his Paradiso, quoted by Geoffrey Chaucer, and mentioned by the poets Bocaccio, Petrarch and John Gower. It was printed in at least ten editions between 1470 and 1530, after which its importance faded in the Renaissance.

The Etymologies is less well known in modern times, though the Vatican considered naming its author Isidore the patron saint of the Internet. Scholars recognize its importance both for its preservation of classical texts and for the insight it offers into medieval thought.


Manuscript page from the start of the Etymologiae, showing the letters of the Greek alphabet. Codex Karolinus, 8th century. Wolfenbüttel digital library.
An early printed edition, by Guntherus Zainer, Augsburg, 1472. British Library

Etymologiae presents in abbreviated form much of that part of the learning of antiquity that Christians thought worth preserving. Etymologies, often very far-fetched, form the subject of just one of the encyclopedia's twenty books (Book X), but perceived linguistic similarities permeate the work. An idea of the quality of Isidore's etymological knowledge is given by Peter Jones: "Now we know most of his derivations are total nonsense (eg, he derives baculus, 'walking-stick', from Bacchus, god of drink, because you need one to walk straight after sinking a few)".[1]

Isidore's vast encyclopedia of ancient learning includes subjects from theology to furniture, and provided a rich source of classical lore and learning for medieval writers.

In all, Isidore quotes from 154 authors, both Christian and pagan. Many of the Christian authors he read in the originals; of the pagans, many he consulted in contemporary compilations. Bishop Braulio, to whom Isidore dedicated it and sent it for correction, divided it into its twenty books.

An analysis by Jacques André of Book XII shows it contains 58 quotations from named authors, and 293 borrowed but uncited usages: 79 from Solinus; 61 from Servius; 45 from Pliny the Elder. Isidore takes care to name classical and Christian scholars whose material he uses, especially, in descending order of frequency, Aristotle (15 references), Jerome (10 times), Cato (9 times), Plato (8 times), Pliny, Donatus, Eusebius, Augustine, Suetonius, and Josephus. He mentions as prolific authors the pagan Varro and the Christians Origen and Augustine. But his translator Stephen Barney notes as remarkable that he never actually names the compilers of the encyclopedias that he used "at second or third hand",[2] Aulus Gellius, Nonius Marcellus, Lactantius, Macrobius, and Martianus Capella. Barney further notes as "most striking"[2] that Isidore never mentions three out of his four principal sources (the one he does name being Pliny): Cassiodorus, Servius and Solinus. Conversely, he names Pythagoras eight times, even though Pythagoras wrote no books. The Etymologies are thus "complacently derivative".[2]

In book II, dealing with dialectic and rhetoric, Isidore is heavily indebted to translations from the Greek by Boethius, and in book III he is similarly in debt to Cassiodorus, who provided the gist of Isidore's treatment of arithmetic. Caelius Aurelianus contributes generously to that part of book IV which deals with medicine. Isidore's view of Roman law in book V is viewed through the lens of the Visigothic compendiary called the Breviary of Alaric, which was based on the Code of Theodosius, which Isidore never saw. Through Isidore's condensed paraphrase a third-hand memory of Roman law passed to the Early Middle Ages. Lactantius is the author most extensively quoted in book XI, concerning man. Books XII, XIII and XIV are largely based on Pliny the Elder's Natural History and Solinus; whilst the lost Prata of Suetonius, which can be partly pieced together from what is quoted in Etymologiae, seems to have inspired the general plan of the work, as well as many of its details.

Isidore's Latin, replete with nonstandard Vulgar Latin, stands at the cusp of Latin and the local Romance language of Hispania.[3]

The work forms a bridge between a condensed epitome of classical learning at the close of Late Antiquity and the inheritance received, in large part through Isidore's work, by the early Middle Ages. According to the prefatory letters, the work was composed at the urging of his friend Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa, to whom Isidore, at the end of his life, sent his codex inemendatus ("unedited book"), which seems to have begun circulating before Braulio was able to revise it, and issue it, with a dedication to the late Visigothic King Sisebut. Partly as a consequence, three families of texts have been distinguished, including a "compressed" text with many omissions, and an expanded text with interpolations.


The Etymologies organizes knowledge, mainly drawn from the classics, into twenty books:

Structure of The Etymologies
Book Topics Principal Sources
(Whole work) (Etymological encyclopedia) the Prata of Suetonius, now lost
Book I: de grammatica Trivium: grammar Institutes of Cassiodorus[4]
Book II: de rhetorica et dialectica Trivium: rhetoric and dialectic Cassiodorus[4]
Book III: de mathematica Quadrivium: mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy Boethius on mathematics; Cassiodorus[4]
Book IV: de medicina medicine Caelius Aurelianus, Soranus of Ephesus, Pliny[4]
Book V: de legibus et temporibus law and chronology Institutes of Gaius, Breviary of Alaric[4]
Book VI: de libris et officiis ecclesiasticis Ecclesiastical books and offices Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Divine Institutes of Lactantius, Tertullian[4]
Book VII: de deo, angelis et sanctis God, angels and saints: hierarchies of heaven and earth Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Lactantius, Tertullian[4]
Book VIII: de ecclesia et sectis The Roman Catholic Church and Jews and heretical sects, philosophers (pagans), prophets and sibyls Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Lactantius, Tertullian (Christian); Varro, Cicero, Pliny the Elder (pagan)[4]
Book IX: de linguis, gentibus, regnis, militia, civibus, affinitatibus Languages, peoples, kingdoms, cities and titles Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Servius, Pliny, Solinus (who borrowed from Pliny)[4]
Book X: de vocabulis Etymologies Verrius Flaccus via Festus; Servius; the Church Fathers.[4]
Book XI: de homine et portentis Mankind, portents and transformations Books XI – XX all include material from Pliny's Natural History, Servius, Solinus[4]
Book XII: de animalibus Beasts and birds Pliny, Servius, Solinus, Hexameron of Ambrose[4]
Book XIII: de mundo et partibus The physical world, atoms, elements, natural phenomena as Book XI[4]
Book XIV: de terra et partibus Geography: Earth, Asia, Europe, Libya, islands, promontories, mountains, caves as Book XI; Histories Against the Pagans of Paulus Orosius[4]
Book XV: de aedificiis et agris Public buildings, public works, roads Columella, Servius[4]
Book XVI: de lapidibus et metallis Metals and stones Pliny, Servius, Solinus[4]
Book XVII: de rebus rusticis Agriculture Cato via Columella, Pliny, Servius, Solinus, Rutilius Palladius, Varro[4]
Book XVIII: de bello et ludis Terms of war, games, jurisprudence Servius; Tertullian on circus games[4]
Book XIX: de navibus, aedificiis et vestibus Ships, houses and clothes Servius; also Jerome, Festus, Pliny, M. Cetius Faventinus, Palladius, Nonus Marcellus[4]
Book XX: de domo et instrumentis domesticis Food, tools and furnishings as Book XIX[4]

The work[edit]

Book I: de grammatica[edit]

Isidore begins with a lengthy section on the first of three subjects in the mediaeval Trivium, considered at the time the core of essential knowledge, grammar. He covers the letters of the alphabet, parts of speech, accents, punctuation and other marks, shorthand and abbreviations, writing in cipher and sign language, types of mistake and histories. He derives the word for letters, littera from the Latin words for 'to read', legere, and 'road', iter ("as if the term were legitera"[5]), arguing that letters offer a road for people who read.

Book II: de rhetorica et dialectica[edit]

This book completes the mediaeval Trivium with coverage of rhetoric and dialectic. Isidore describes what rhetoric is, kinds of argument, maxims, elocution, ways of speaking, and figures of speech. On dialectic, he discusses philosophy, syllogisms, and definitions. He equates the Greek term syllogism with the Latin term argumentation (argumentatio), which he derives from the Latin for "clear mind", arguta mens.

Book III: de mathematica[edit]

This book covers the mediaeval Quadrivium, the four subjects which supplemented the Trivium being mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy.[6] He argues that there are infinitely many numbers, as you can always add one (or any other number) to whatever number you think is the limit. He attributes geometry to Ancient Egypt, arguing that because the River Nile flooded and covered the land with mud, geometry was needed to mark out people's land "with lines and measures".[7]

Isidore distinguishes astronomy from astrology, and covers the world, the sky and the celestial sphere, the zodiac, the sun, moon, stars, Milky Way, planets and the names of the stars. He derives the curved (curvus) vault of the heavens from the Latin word for upside-down, conversus. He explains eclipses of the sun as the moon coming between the earth and the sun, and eclipses of the moon as happening when it runs into the shadow of the earth. He condemns the Roman naming of the planets after their gods – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus, and Mercury.

Book IV: de medicina[edit]

This book covers medicine, including the four humours, diseases, remedies and medical instruments. He derives the word medicine from the Latin for moderation (modus), and sciatica (sciasis) from the affected part of the body, the hip (Greek ἰσχία "ischia").

Book V: de legibus et temporibus[edit]

This book covers law and chronology. Isidore distinguishes natural, civil, international, military and public law among others. He discusses the purpose of law, legal cases, witnesses, offences and penalties. On chronology, Isidore covers periods of time such as days, weeks, and months, solstices and equinoxes, seasons, special years such as Olympiads and Jubilees, generations and ages.

Book VI: de libris et officiis ecclesiasticis[edit]

Isidore describes ecclesiastical books and offices starting with the Old and New Testaments, the authors and names of the holy books, libraries and translators, authors, writing materials including tablets, papyrus and parchment, books, scribes, and Christian festivals.

Book VII: de deo, angelis et sanctis[edit]

This book describes the basic scheme concerning God, angels and saints, in other words the hierarchies of heaven and earth, from patriarchs, prophets and apostles down the scale through people named in the gospels to martyrs, clergymen, monks and ordinary Christians.

Book VIII: de ecclesia et sectis[edit]

This book covers religion in the shape of the Roman Catholic Church, the Jews and heretical sects, philosophers (pagans) including poets, sibyls and magi, and the pagan gods.

Book IX: de linguis, gentibus, regnis, militia, civibus, affinitatibus[edit]

This book covers languages, peoples, kingdoms, cities and titles.

Book X: de vocabulis[edit]

This book is a word-list of nouns and adjectives, together with supposed etymologies for them. For example, the letter 'D' begins with the word for master, Dominus, as he is the head of a household, Domus; the adjective docile, Docilis, is derived by Isidore from the verb for being taught, Docere, as docile people are able to learn. The word for abominable, Nefarius, is explained as being not worth the grain called spelt, Far.

Book XI: de homine et portentis[edit]

This book covers human beings, portents and transformations. Isidore derives human beings (homo) from the Latin for soil, humus, as in Genesis 2:7 it says that man is made from the soil. Urine (urina) gets its name either from the fact that it can burn (urere) the skin or, Isidore hedges, that it is from the kidneys (renes). Femina, meaning woman, comes from femora/femina meaning thighs, as this part of the body shows she is not a man. The Latin for buttocks is clunis as they are near the large intestine or colon, colum.

Book XII: de animalibus[edit]

This book covers animals, including small animals, snakes, worms, fish, birds and other beasts that fly. Isidore's treatment is as usual full of conjectural etymology, so a horse is called Equus because when in a team of four horses they are balanced, Aequare. The spider, Aranea, is so called from the air, Aer, that feeds it. The electric ray, Torpedo, is called that because it numbs Torpescere (like 'torpid') anyone who touches it.

Book XIII: de mundo et partibus[edit]

This book describes the physical world, atoms, classical elements, the sky, clouds, thunder and lightning, rainbows, winds, and waters including the sea, the Mediterranean, bays, tides, lakes, rivers and floods. The sky is called caelum as it has stars stamped on to it, like a decorated pot (caelatus). Clouds are called nubes as they veil (obnubere) the sky, just as brides (nupta) wear veils for their weddings. The wind is called ventus in Latin as it is angry and violent (vehemens, violentus).

There are many kinds of water: some "is salty, some alkaline, some with alum, some sulfuric, some tarry, and some containing a cure for illnesses."[8] There are waters that cure eye injuries, or make voices melodious, or cause madness, or cure infertility. The water of the Styx causes immediate death.

Book XIV: de terra et partibus[edit]

T and O map from the first printed edition of Etymologiae, XIV: de terra et partibus, representing the inhabited world. Augsburg, 1472. The East is at the top, with Asia occupying the top half of the "globe" (orbis).

This book covers geography, describing the Earth, islands, promontories, mountains and caves. The earth is divided into three parts, Asia occupying half the globe, and Europe and Africa each occupying a quarter. Europe is separated from Africa by the Mediterranean, reaching in from the Ocean that flows all around the land.

Isidore writes that the orbis of the earth, translated by Barney as "globe", "derives its name from the roundness of the circle, because it resembles a wheel; hence a small wheel is called a 'small disk' (orbiculus)".[9] Barney notes that orbis "refers to the 'circle' of lands around the Mediterranean, and hence to the total known extent of land."[9] Isidore illustrated the Etymologies with a circular T-O map[10] which also gave a vague impression of a flat disc-shaped Earth, though authors disagree about Isidore's beliefs on the matter.[11][12][13][14][15]

Book XV: de aedificiis et agris[edit]

This book covers cities and buildings including public buildings, houses, storehouses and workshops, parts of buildings, tents, fields and roads.

Book XVI: de lapidibus et metallis[edit]

This book covers metals and rocks, starting with dust and earth, and moving on to gemstones of different colours, glass and mines. Metals include gold, silver, copper, iron, lead and electrum. Weights and measures end the book. Games with boards and dice are described.

Book XVII: de rebus rusticis[edit]

This book describes agriculture including grains, legumes, vines, trees, aromatic herbs and vegetables.

Book XVIII: de bello et ludis[edit]

This book covers the terms of war, games and jurisprudence. Isidore describes standards, trumpets, weapons including swords, spears, arrows, slings, battering rams, and armour including shields, breastplates and helmets. Athletic games include running and jumping, throwing and wrestling. Circus games are described, with chariot racing, horse racing and vaulting. In the theatre, comedy, tragedy, mime and dance are covered. In the amphitheatre, Isidore covers those who fight with nets, nooses and other weapons.

Book XIX: de navibus, aedificiis et vestibus[edit]

This book covers ships including boats, sails, ropes and nets; forges and tools; building, including walls, decorations, ceilings, mosaics, statues, and building tools; and clothes, including types of dress, cloaks, bedding, tools, rings, belts and shoes. The Latin for net, rete, is derived from retaining (retinere) fish, or perhaps (writes Isidore) from the ropes (restis) they are attached to.

Book XX: de domo et instrumentis domesticis[edit]

This book completes Isidore's encyclopaedia, describing food and drink and vessels for these, storage and cooking vessels; furnishings including beds and chairs; vehicles, farm and garden tools and equipment for horses.


1892 statue of Isidore of Seville in Madrid by José Alcoverro

Medieval to Renaissance[edit]

Isidore was widely influential throughout the middle ages, feeding directly into word lists and encyclopaedias by Papias, Huguccio, Bartholomaeus Anglicus and Vincent of Beauvais, as well as being used everywhere in the form of small snippets.[16] He was cited by Dante Alighieri, quoted by Geoffrey Chaucer, and his name was mentioned by the poets Bocaccio, Petrarch and John Gower among others. Dante went so far as to place Isidore in Paradise in his Paradiso (10.130–131).[16]

Through the Middle Ages Etymologiae was the textbook most in use, regarded so highly as a repository of classical learning that, in a great measure, it superseded the use of the individual works of the classics themselves, full texts of which were no longer copied and thus were lost. The book was not only one of the most popular compendia in medieval libraries but was printed in at least ten editions between 1470 and 1530.


"An editor's enthusiasm is soon chilled by the discovery that Isidore's book is really a mosaic of pieces borrowed from previous writers, sacred and profane, often their 'ipsa verba' without alteration," W. M. Lindsay noted in 1911, having recently edited Isidore for the Clarendon Press,[17] with the further observation, however, that a portion of the texts quoted have otherwise been lost: the Prata of Suetonius can only be reconstructed from Isidore's excerpts.[18]

In the view of John T. Hamilton, writing in The Classical Tradition in 2010, "Our knowledge of ancient and early medieval thought owes an enormous amount to this encyclopedia, a reflective catalogue of received wisdom, which the authors of the only complete translation into English introduce as 'arguably the most influential book, after the Bible, in the learned world of the Latin West for nearly a thousand years' (Barney et al. 2006, 3) These days, of course, Isidore and his Etymologies are anything but household names...[a] but the Vatican is reportedly considering naming Isidore the patron saint of the Internet, which should make him and his greatest scholarly achievement known, if but dimly, to pretty much everyone."[19]

Ralph Hexter, also writing in The Classical Tradition, comments on "Isidore's largest and massively influential work... on which he was still at work at the time of his death... his own architecture for the whole is relatively clear (if somewhat arbitrary)... At the deepest level Isidore's encyclopedia is rooted in the dream that language can capture the universe and that if we but parse it correctly, it can lead us to the proper understanding of God's creation. His word derivations are not based on principles of historical linguistics but follow their own logic... Isidore is the master of bricolage... His reductions and compilations did indeed transmit ancient learning, but Isidore, who often relied on scholia and earlier compilations, is often simplistic scientifically and philosophically, especially compared to .. figures such as Ambrose and Augustine."[16]

Peter Jones, writing in the Daily Telegraph, compares the work to the "internet":

...five years ago Pope John Paul II compounded his misfortune by proposing (evidently) to nominate [Isidore] as the patron saint of the internet. It was, indeed, a tempting choice. Isidore's Etymologies, published in 20 books after his death, was an encyclopedia of all human knowledge, glossed with his own derivations of the technical terms relevant to the topic in hand. Derivations apart, it was lifted from sources almost entirely at second or third hand ..., none of it checked, and much of it unconditional eyewash - the internet, in other words, to a T. By the same token, Isidore's work was phenomenally influential throughout the West for 1,000 years, 'a basic book' of the Middle Ages, as one scholar put it, second only to the Bible. Written in simple Latin, it was all a man needed in order to have access to everything he wanted to know about the world but never dared to ask, from the 28 types of common noun to the names of women's outer garments. Today, one internet connection serves precisely the same purpose...[1]


The 13th-century Codex Gigas, the largest extant medieval manuscript, contains a copy of the Etymologiae. The modern critical edition, superseding W.M. Lindsay's of 1911, supervised by an International Committee of Isidorian Studies, (B. Bischoff, M.C. Díaz, J. Fontaine, J.N. Hilgarth, eds.) was announced in 1974, intended to appear in twenty volumes, one for each book, with an additional volume discussing the manuscript history and presenting a general introduction.


  1. ^ Hamilton continues: "and the heading of the Wikipedia entry "Etymology" warns "Not to be confused with Entomology, the scientific study of insects".[19]


  1. ^ a b Jones, Peter (27 August 2006). "Patron saint of the internet". The Telegraph. Retrieved 15 June 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Barney, p.14
  3. ^ Examined in detail in Johann Sofer, Lateinisches und Romanisches aus den Etymologiae des Isidorus von Sevilla, Göttingen, 1930; it was extensively criticised by Walter Porzig, "Die Rezensionen der Etymologiae des Isidorus von Sevilla." Hermes 72.2 (1937), pp. 129-170.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Barney, pp.14–15
  5. ^ Barney, p.39
  6. ^ The accounts of logic in Book II and of arithmetic in Book III are transferred almost word for word from Cassiodorus, Isidore's editor W. M. Lindsay observed. Lindsay, "The Editing of Isidore Etymologiae" The Classical Quarterly 5.1 (January 1911, pp. 42-53 [p 42])
  7. ^ Barney, p. 93
  8. ^ Barney, p. 276
  9. ^ a b Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof (translators) (2010). "XIV ii 1". The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83749-1. 
  10. ^ Isidore, Saint, Bishop of Seville (2010) [11th century]. "Diagrammatic T-O map. The world portrayed as a circle divided by a 'T' shape into three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa". Royal 6 C. I, f.108v. British Library. Retrieved 16 June 2014. 
  11. ^ Brehaut, Ernest (1912). An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages Isidore of Seville (PDF). Columbia University. p. 174. 
  12. ^ Garwood, Christine (2007). Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea. Macmillan. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-4050-4702-9. "St Augustine's stance on the shape of the earth [spherical] was supported, albeit vaguely, by the most popular encyclopedist of the era, St Isidore of Seville". 
  13. ^ Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1991). Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Praeger. pp. 86–87. ISBN 0-275-95904-X. 
  14. ^ Stevens, Wesley M. (1980). "The Figure of the Earth in Isidore's "De natura rerum"". Isis 71 (2): 268–77. doi:10.1086/352464. JSTOR 230175. 
  15. ^ Grant, Edward (1974). A Sourcebook in Medieval Science. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-82360-0. 
  16. ^ a b c Hexter, Ralph (2010). "Pliny the Elder". In Grafton, Anthony; Most, Glenn W.; Settis, Salvatore. The Classical Tradition. Harvard University Press. pp. =489–490. 
  17. ^ Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi Etymologiarum Sive Originum Libri XX (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 1911; see W. M. Lindsay, "The Editing of Isidore Etymologiae" The Classical Quarterly 5.1 (January 1911, pp. 42-53 (p 42).
  18. ^ Lindsay 1911, eo. loc.
  19. ^ a b Hamilton, John T. (2010). "Pliny the Elder". In Grafton, Anthony; Most, Glenn W.; Settis, Salvatore. The Classical Tradition. Harvard University Press. p. 342. 


  • Barney, Stephen A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; Berghof, O. (translators) (2006). The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (1 ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-511-21969-6. 

External links[edit]