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(Reta Winters, in Shields (2002), 163“4)
When it™s ajar . . .
Almost every publication on Latin literature today practises citation
from Isidore. Through the twentieth century, this was a matter of itemic
consultation through a modern Index. Until 1991, the closest that many,
perhaps most, scholars ever came to reading Isidore™s magnum opus was, for
sure, the Index verborum of Wallace Lindsay™s OCT (1911a), vol. ii, 371“
442: Latin, and 443: Greek (with ibid., 444“50: Loci citati).2 Then, at a
stroke, the publication of Robert Maltby™s invaluable Lexicon of Ancient
1 This chapter (p)re-works Part I of Henderson (2007).
2 Lindsay™s work has incurred foreseen criticism for cavalier (classicising) orthography: in particular,
Greek script is unwarranted (e.g., Marshall (ed.) (1983) 12). His editorial policies did indeed privilege
and favour generations of classical users, and the resultant accessibility of his edition came eventually
to equip and facilitate the characteristic logophily of contemporary Latin studies. Lindsay™s preface
(with his article, (1911b)) sketches the impossibility of a full edition, given the myriad manuscripts
awaiting collation and the superhuman range of knowledges required of the editor. Modern schol-
arship is dominated by the three-volume synthesis by Fontaine (1959; 1983; supplemented by his
collected papers: (1988)). A Paris-based series of editions with commentary on individual books now
covers a haphazard third of the text, but we still depend on Grial™s sparse notes in Ar´vallo™s edition

The creation of Isidore™s Etymologies or Origins 151
Latin Etymologies (1991) ¬nessed this re¬‚ex from the Latinist™s apparatus
of automatic procedures: ˜[M.] has assembled all the explicitly attested
etymologies of Latin antiquity, from the predecessors of Varro to Isidore of
Seville; he has covered glossaries and scholia as well as the standard ancient
etymological source-works.™3 So, why bother further with Isidore, neat?4
For the twenty-¬rst century, he is the of¬cially designated patron saint of
computer users and programmers and of the internet: recommended for
prayer by whichever site-seeker, worldwide.5
The proli¬c and polymathic seventh-century Bishop of Seville was a
vastly in¬‚uential conduit for classical antiquity into the medieval world,
but his encyclopedic storehouse of Latin commands attention from Latin-
ists strictly as a putative witness to earlier etymological ˜lore™, otherwise lost
to us. While it is possible to write an outline history of etymological schol-
arship (spanning from ˜philosophical™ theorising to ebullient bullshit), we
have only Isidore extant as (anything like) a complete text. But because of his
date, he is virtually absent from classical scholarship. The Cambridge History
of Classical Literature is typical: Isidore appears in just the one (tralatician)
sentence that begins with Varro, then runs through the list of names down
to Isidore, in order to gesture towards his ˜all-pervasive™, if ˜not always at
¬rst-hand™, ˜in¬‚uence™.6 Publications and reviews on Isidore scarcely ¬gure
at all in classical journals.7
Yet contemporary logophilia and, in general, the graphematic turn in
criticism have emphasised the semiotic prevalence of etymologising men-
talities in Roman culture,8 so that this particular titan of taxonomic knowl-
edge is coming under the sort of pressure to deliver bona ¬de goods to the
marketplace that it has not known for a millennium. While (truth to tell)
it has proved enough for most purposes to back up a proposed ˜word-truth™
with a bare reference culled from any place within the curtilage of ˜the
ancient world™, it has been necessary to repress interest in the genesis (the
(1797“1803) for the Latin Patrology for large stretches (cf. Fontaine (1959) 20). Hillgarth (1983)
remains the best survey (+ id. (1990)). The paper by Codo˜ er (1994) re-theorises Isidoran etymology;
Reydellet (ed.) (1984) is a model commentary (on book 9). Amsler (1989) 133“72 introduces discourse
and power to Isidore™s encyclopedic order of knowledge.
3 Jacket blurb.
4 By my reckoning, something like two-¬fths of the entries (excluding cross-references) include Isidore™s
testimony; perhaps one in eight of the words etymologised, and around a quarter of the etymologies
compiled, are given by Isidore alone.
5 Bulletin from the Vatican, 14.06.99. San Isidoro saved
Spain by politely warning Mohammed off in a dream (for his full legend, see Migne PL 81).
6 Kenney and Clausen (eds.) (1982) vol. ii: 286.
7 Concentrated in Iberian Helmantica. For the rich culture of Iberia from 470 (through 1500) ce, see
Gerli (ed.) (2003).
8 Recent work by Ahl (1985), O™Hara (1996), Paschalis (1997).
152 j oh n h e nd e rson
origins) of Isidore™s materials, and (in particular) recognition of Isidore™s
agenda. In fact, the shock that awaits anyone prepared to read the Etymolo-
gies is closely analogous to the shock that hits users of Roget™s Thesaurus
when it dawns that that monumental word-store represents the bastardisa-
tion of a determined attempt to systematise a forceful ideology. Mediated
through successive revisions of Roget™s original scheme, the teleology of
the classi¬cation led (leads) from abstract concepts through the material
universe, to humanity, and, for climax, the apex of signi¬cance: morality
and religion: ˜the imperfect forerunner of that Universal Language to which
Roget and his fellow reformists aspired™.9 The editions we use today ring-
fence the Thesaurus with dense paratextual assurances that stylistics and
crosswords dwell here, so as to tuck the distracting creationist program-
ming just out of our eyeline. But Roget had a theoretical tendency “ was an
What of the Etymologiae? When editors such as Lindsay preface Isidore,
to the contrary, with a run of his letters followed by an agglomerated
index plus scheme of chapter-headings through the twenty books ahead,
the sloganised value-system of the Etymologiae is loudly advertised up-
front, and heavily underscored for attention. The present essay will follow
these praemissa (˜prefaces™, ˜premises™) in waymarking the main principles,
categories and hierarchies of Isidore™s taxonomy, on the path that leads from
grammatica and rhetorica through to the ¬nale of instrumenta hortorum and
equorum (Equipment, for Garden and Horse). One eye will be trained on
the difference brought to his Varronian inheritance by Isidore™s position as
a Latinate Christian authority who had no Hebrew and little Greek,11 but
who posited revelation of the creator™s design through these three sacred
tongues; and the other eye will light upon the textuality and writing that
shape this vast icon of conceptual order. As the great Curtius outlines in

9 Roget (2002) xvii, cf. Roget (1852, 1st edn) Introduction (cit. ibid., xxx“xxxi), ˜a Philosophical Lan-
guage . . . the establishment of a Universal Language™. John Roget (¬lius) extended the system of
cross-references and recognised the importance of the Index “ Peter (pater) ˜Roget himself had
thought of it only as a last resort “ his original notebooks had not had one™, as the 150th-anniversary
edition rather dimly notes ((2002) xv).
10 Bp John Wilkins is the key reference here (Roget (2002), xxx n. 2). If the logical ordering of all
items nameable within the universe could be veri¬ed by systematic science and certi¬ed by the Royal
Society, the future of mankind would be to live in a world where words tell true, cf. McArthur (1986)
119“23. For the semantic programming of Roget see H¨ llen (2005).
11 This is strenuously argued by Fontaine, esp. (1988) iv, 535 (pace, e.g., Courcelle (1959)). Besides
operating at the most basic of levels (perhaps considerately), Isidore does make corking mistakes
with Greek (cf. Lindsay (1911b) 44), but when did the question ˜What is it to know ancient Greek?™
ever sustain a simple answer? (Ditto Hebrew “ and Latin).
The creation of Isidore™s Etymologies or Origins 153
his basic book on the entire Middle Ages, in this pangram, it™s downhill all
the way:12
the great Isidore of Seville, who in his great compilation of all human knowledge
chose the road from designation to essence, from uerba [˜words™] to res [˜things™],
and accordingly named his work Etymologiarum libri . . . The importance of this
work . . . can hardly be overestimated; it may be called the basic book of the
entire Middle Ages (Grundbuch des ganzen Mittelalters). It not only established the
canonical stock of knowledge for eight centuries but also moulded their thought
Where Lindsay could only disqualify his text “ ˜this encyclopedia is not
a literary work of art™13 “ Curtius invokes the requisite category of ˜power-
book™. For sure, this mighty spree of articulated knowledge plays across the
world visible to etymology while enactively creating a world from etymol-
ogy. In relays of feedback loops, what can and cannot be learned about the
universe from its dividends for etymology feeds into and on what can and
cannot be learned about etymology from its stocktake of Creation. All the
while, the writing models the belief system it subtends, as the monumen-
tal text morphs through its taxonomers™ paradise of totalisation through
system, dramatising power as power over knowledge. Performative display
of the power/knowledge nexus takes a scholastic turn to cosmogonic enu-
meration as interpretation builds its shrine to interpretation. Here mapping
inculcates an unfolding world of values, as exegetic modality delivers its par-
ticular blend of protreptic regimes: pedagogic, devotional, ecumenical, rev-
elatory “ classical/post-classical, through pre-medieval, to pre-modern . . . ?
The clerical authority valorises his schedule of the known, af¬xes limits to
the knowable; but this clerk of words writes with appreciation and awe,
warms or boils as he records and preaches. He discriminates for and against,
as well as between . . . the items and grids he chooses to love or list; favours
his favourites, scolds the demonised, recommends this tool or that technol-
ogy, plots his narrative to beguile the reader no less than shape nature. One
constant dimension is, happily-cum-necessarily, language consciousness, a
textualising semiotic of book culture “ a cult of the book that lines up a
˜liberal arts™ manual as ¬‚agship and bearer of a mission to educate. Isidore
pro¬les civilisation as inherent within the structures he avers: ¬xing ori-
gins for a permanence glossed as eternity; placing, contextualizing, opening
out traditional schooling as conduit to the one-world superpower ideol-
ogy of universal Rome, Rome pegged to Christ as the continuous present
realm of Latinitas wherein ˜we™ dwell. Language-centred, -obsessed, but
12 13
Curtius (1953) 496“7, cf. Bischoff (1966), Hillgarth (1983) 883“93. Lindsay (1911b) 50.
154 j oh n h e nd e rson
not -blinded or -bound, Isidore™s lexicographical, indexical, sign-¬xated
world nevertheless serves a speci¬c Iberian catholicising politics within a
durable Mediterranean cultural habitus.14

Our preliminaries begin with brisk epistolary cross¬re between Isidore and
Braulio of Saragossa, followed by a one-liner dedication to King Sisebut
(˜I“VI™). In the ˜Spanish™ group of manuscripts,15 two letters from Isidore
establish paradigmatic terms of Christian ˜friendship™ with the archdeacon
Braulio (˜A“B™).16

The ¬rst sends (1) a pair of etymologies to go with presents of a band and
a gown:
the band on account of our bonding, and the gown for the garment of our agreement,
which is where in days of old it got this name from
anulus propter nostrum animum et pallium pro amicitiarum nostrarum amictu, unde
antiquitus hoc traxit uocabulum

and (2) a folder of regulations. Neither of these genial puns, take note, will
recur in the Etymologiae, or indeed any other Latin text. But twinning and
(so?) equating of (seal-)ring and cloak with enclosed prescriptions entwines
mandate with pledged affect in a double-barrelled or two-pronged offer
of prayerful humility and playful amiability that cannot be refused. The
programmatic work effected here is substitution of word for thing that
forms the core of etymological mentation. ˜Embracing™ the letter as stand-
in presence for its writer sets up its inaugural play on words ahead as
word play, while contriving to consecrate its symbolic grasp on the trinity
˜friend-cloak-Isidore™ in one and the same all-embracing gesture (pro amico
amplectere . . . pro eo . . . complexentur . . . pro . . . amictu . . . ora igitur pro me;
˜Grab tight for being agreeable . . . for that . . . be they hugged tight . . . for
garment . . . So pray for me™). And the arch-Christian etiquette is formally
re-af¬rmed when the letter is sealed with the sign-off ˜My darlingest master
and dearest son™ (dilectissime mihi domine et karissime ¬li), where affective
rhetoric annuls hierarchic distance.

14 Cf. esp. Fontaine (1959) 733“888, ˜La culture d™Isidore de S´ville™.
15 [Hence Lindsay™s enclosure of both letters within square brackets. See (1911b) 45“9 for diagnosis of
double recension and supplementation by the Spaniards.]
16 For Braulio, see Lynch (1938).
The creation of Isidore™s Etymologies or Origins 155
The second letter redoubles the formula, still more pointedly. For this time
the missive trades a parcel of Isidore™s own work for a package of canonised
scripture: Braulio has ˜the Sixth Decade of St Augustine™ that Isidore asked
for;17 he now gets Isidore™s Synonimarum libellus that he wanted. Together
with its bearer, a boy, who is Isidore™s stand-in “ as innocent, vulnerable
and promising as the sender is af¬‚icted, and languishing ˜for in¬rm Flesh
and sinful Psyche™:
I entrust this boy; and I entrust myself also . . . plus both weaknesses of the ¬‚esh
and guilt of mind. In both respects I claim your protection, since shares in me
trade at zilch.
commendo autem hunc puerum; commendo et me ipsum . . . et in¬rmitatibus carnis
et culpa mentis. in utroque tuum praesidium posco, quia per me nihil mereor.
This boy is fetching Isidore™s most passionate and poetic work, Synonyms:
or On lamenting the sinning soul, and it must be worth a sackful of sacrosanc-
tity.18 No etymology tasters here, or in the rest of this prefatory epistolarity,
but the insistent lesson of humility from the master extending over the
whole ¬eld of mutually supportive exchange lodges the work ahead where
it belongs in the prelate™s mission on earth. It will be Braulio™s service to
image and valorise this latest latter-day ˜Church Father™™s addition to scrip-
ture. Expect no vainglory straight from its author™s pen, whether here or in
the creation to come.
Next (in the ˜Spanish recension™; for openers, in the ˜French™ and ˜Italian™
manuscripts), a chain exchange of ¬ve letters dominated by Braulio, now
raised to the episcopate, ushers us toward the dedication.

Isidore starts the ball rolling with the plain unprompted wish to see Braulio
˜before I die™ “ and, thereunto, to feature in his prayers. Graceful warmth
derives from pressurising the formulaic ˜so God ful¬l my prayer some day
before I die™ (aliquando impleret Deus uotum meum, antequam moriar) to
divulge the prayer:
To God . . . , that both in this life He ful¬l my hope and in what will be grant me
a share of your blessing.
Deo . . . ut et in hac uita spem meam impleret et in futuro beatitudinis tuae consortium
mihi concedat.
17 This probably means the Explanatio in Psalmos LI“LX (so Migne PL 80: 649, n. a).
18 A ¬ercely ascetic self-dialogue, ˜On the Lamentation of the Sinner Soul™: Migne PL 82: 826“68.
156 j oh n h e nd e rson
A sentence or two, no more, and maestro™s generous address rises to accord
the pupil beatissime domne et frater (˜most blessed master and brother™).

Braulio in response pours a cascade of (would-be) super-suave supplication:
such a long time, such a hard time, since they met: ˜a thousand obliga-
tions, and a thousand cares™. Enough of a profusion to warrant another
double-barrelled request: (1) ¬rst, a full-throttle demand for Isidore™s Book
of etymologies, at long last. He™s heard it™s completed, and reminds the Arch-
bishop, full circle, who it was in the ¬rst place that helped get the big
˜sweat™ started (sudasti). Matched by (2), an equally urgent request for the
Conference Papers of the Synod (Gesta Synodi) starring Isidore as scourge
of the heretic.19 This time twinning of the requests is thuddingly emphatic
(˜I suggest . . . to despatch “> be they despatched . . . , and our. . suggestion™;
suggero . . . . dirigere “> dirigantur . . . et nostra . . . suggestio,). A clumsy
conceit has it that Isidore should shell out ˜¬rst™ to Braulio, who helped get
him going, so he can star ˜¬rst™, in the councils of the saints, and this alibis
the hyperbolic slide into the spectre of the ¬re-wielding scourge Isidore in
the Universal Synod (˜for that reason, ¬rst prove generous, so that in the
congregations of the Saints you may be counted fortunate and ¬rst. The
Proceedings of the Council, too, in which . . .™; . . . ideo in me primum existe
muni¬cus, sic in sanctorum coetibus et felix habearis et primus. gesta etiam
synodi in qua). This letter™s huff and puff measure in advance the mighty
epic on its way to us. It will be a pressing part of Isidore™s crusade for the
truth: ˜a blazing lamp, never dimming™, as the sign-off pictures him (lucerna
ardens et non marcescens).

Isidore™s reply briskly de¬‚ates Braulio™s puffery, nicely dents our
anticipation: he still longs to meet up, but at least knows his friend™s alive “
because his letter did arrive. As to the message, umm, he got called away by
a royal page before he could read it through; on his return, the letter had
got lost, plus anything else in the envelope. So, shucks “ could you please
give it another shot?
This charming little shuf¬‚e somewhere between cock-up / put-down
works by making us see Isidore seeing the damn letter clear as clear “ had
it right here in my hand I did:
19 Viz. King Svinthila (Sintharius, 621-?31?). For the proceedings, see Collectio Canonum S. Isidoro
Hispalensi Ascripta, Migne PL 84: 364“90.
The creation of Isidore™s Etymologies or Origins 157
I wish while in this body I could see the sight of the person whose well-being I
have ascertained. I shall make clear . . . I was not worthy of reading your pearls
through . . . I took delivery of your card . . . I gave that card . . . in order to read
through afterwards and write back . . . I couldn™t ¬nd the words you wrote . . . I
didn™t read through your pearls . . . Write it me back over . . . I™ll take delivery . . .
utinam cuius cognoui salutem, in hoc corpore aspicerem et uisionem . . . mani-
festabo . . . non fui dignus tua perlegere eloquia . . . accepi pittacium tuum . . . dedi . . .
illum pittacium . . . ut postea perlegerem et rescriberem . . . scripta tua non inueni . . .
non perlegi eloquium tuum . . . rescribe mihi . . . iterum . . . recipiam.
The engaging simplicity of this epistolarity polarises tellingly against the
unctuous courtesies that sandwich it. In ˜write back . . . Write it me back
over™ here, Isidore parades the embarrassment of having to write back ˜please
re-write™. He doesn™t mean to demand a re-think by ˜return to sender™, by
˜return post™. But the door is open for some self-re¬‚ection. What would a
Christian snub look like? If a saint could chide . . .

Invitation accepted. Braulio does what he™s told. And how, in a mock for-
mal (re-)petition, full-blown as any oration and out to tell us as much.
Announced with: ˜Now without more ado, I shall start to set out the case™
(sed iam causam exordiar). Out pour out-pourings, learned quibbling on
˜tearful calumnies, calumniating tears™ (et lacrimabiles calumniae et calum-
niabiles lacrimae). He gives it the works, then tells us so:
I have spared wordiness not a whit and, it may be, gone full-tilt for the foolhardy . . .
How about all that for bravura . . . ?
nec uerbositatem carui et temeritatem fortassis incurri. . . . ecce quantum audaciae . . .
You see: the Etymologiae deserve all the stops pulled out, they will be
worth the wait, they call to be imaged by, and weighed up against, nothing
less than a litany of (eight) citations from Holy Scripture: Matthew 7, 2
Corinthians 11, Luke 14, Galatians 5, 1 Peter 4, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians
12.11 and 13, 21“23, 1 John 4. Such an apostolic salvo, dominated by Pauline
epistolarity. All power to this bishop™s elbow.
It is now over six years since Braulio ¬rst tried to winkle the Origins out
of Isidore. It has been one story of prevarication after another story of no
reply: ˜Not yet ¬nished; not yet written up; yr. letter never arrived; etc etc™.
It™s enough to try a saint: nothing for it but to blast the book out of him
with a hail of querulous clamorous ¬‚agitation “ a sonorous tumultuous
158 j oh n h e nd e rson
All this so you™ll at least bestow what you refused through {your} humility, through
{my} riotous skulduggery
tantum ut, quod noluisti per humilitatem, saltim tribuas per tumultuantem improbi-

To quell this storm, Isidore must just post to Braulio his Etymologies “
not as already in many a reader™s hands, ˜a headless chicken, chewed to bits™
(detruncatos corrososque), but specially for him, ˜copied out whole, checked,
good and coherent™ (transcriptos, integros, emendatos et bene coaptatos). If
this ultimate plea has pushed polite rhetoric to (“ beyond (!) “) the limit
and risked pumping up the volume to the point of challenging gospel, it
has melodramatically set before us the vital importance to the ful¬lment of
the Etymologies of their “ its “ ˜accurate, full-length, perfectly transmitted,
thoroughly articulated™ state. The ˜sacredness™ of this precious consignment
of text is signalled here at the gate. Fortissimo.
One more twist to come, before this uproarious screed is done. A mutual
friend: Braulio once again links the fate of ˜their™ book with their ministry,
by adding the recommendation that Isidore make a particular recommen-
dation to ¬ll a newly vacant see. Here, administrative patter between col-
leagues performs the return to ordinary businesslike lobbying now the big
book has received its meed of turmoil:
I suggest that . . . you suggest . . . Same for the suggestions I™ve made here as for
these complaints I made above
suggero ut . . . suggeras . . . tam de his quae hic suggessimus quam etiam de his quae
supra questi fuimus

Rude, importunate, hybristic, ˜complaints™ they may style themselves,
but these scripture-invoking urgencies have couched as characterful a trailer
in anticipation of the long-awaited blockbuster as any urbanity could wish.
Publication is needed “ urgently: ˜Seek and you will ¬nd + Knock and open
sesame “ so I am yelling to you “OPEN UP!” I™m an oaf, you™re the word
emperor, so do what the good book says: Suffer a fool gladly.™
The book of words is a public service, benefaction to the community:
˜stop hoarding the talents entrusted to you to share out. Feed your 5,000,
with self-renewing fuel that belongs to everyone™. This is no academic study:
˜this gift is yours to give, ours to receive™. The governing metaphor is of
˜stewardship appointed of God™: ˜to administer the treasury departments
of wealth, salvation, wisdom and knowledge™ (oeconomiam thesauri sui et
diuitiarum, salutis, sapientiae et scientiae). The special focus is on encyclo-
pedic ˜multi-tasking™: on the one hand ˜this grace of God is multiform™, and
The creation of Isidore™s Etymologies or Origins 159
on the other ˜the faith measures as limbs making up one organism™. The
operation at the heart of everything in creation and in the book is, exactly,
comprehension through compart-mentalisation, or ˜division™:
One and the same Spirit provides this comprehensive service, delivering individual
portions by division, according to plan.
haec omnia operatur unus atque idem Spiritus, diuidens singulis, prout uolt.

At the same time as risking assimilation of Isidore™s work to ˜divine
creation and administration™ (sic itaque creator noster et dispensator cuncta
moderatur), this outspoken pretend rant from Braulio next huffs and jests its
mock-vulgar way toward installing his Archbishop atop the power-structure
of their church: there™s ˜a foot, anyhow one of the less glorious body-parts,
there™s a belly grumbling, ingesting, digesting, and . . . and at the top there
is the head running the out¬t™ (sitientibus . . . fame; pes; aluo; membra;
inhonestiora membra; egerere; principatui capitis).
All this brash hype and rudery sel¬‚essly unblocks the proper path of
saintly reluctance. The vast tome must be prised from our author™s clutches
without compromising his exemplary humility. Where it is OK for the
lowly servant to push and puff, we shall ¬nd, Isidore can only deliver once
he has no choice, when the Synod that is the purpose of his ministry is
here, and only if he is meant to arrive, supposing he gets there in this life.
But along the way, these meta- as well as para-textual preliminaries will
have brokered a deal with publicity: Braulio™s picture of the Etymologies
as already in a parlous state of neglect, damaged samizdats bootlegging
abroad, even before they are ¬nished and ready to satisfy an eagerly waiting
world, busts through Christian reserve, supplying terms under which the
steward can trade. This confessedly sorry half-baked project is part of a
transaction in process, aetiologised as rooted in accessing God™s truth to
the faithful, and inaugurated as an enterprise designed to require for its
realisation participation on the part of editor, publisher and readership.
The whole, ˜multiform™, Team Isidore.

Turns out, you see, next and only just in the nick of time, that Braulio™s
letter found Isidore in his element, and in fact at the apex of his spell on
earth, at the (Fourth, and supremely magni¬cent) Council of Toledo, which
in truth he utterly dominated. He received Braulio™s deacon messenger
plus message at court, and, buoyed up by his own New Testament motto
160 j oh n h e nd e rson
(Romans 5.5: Hope does not fuddle through charity, which ¬‚oods in our
hearts, confundit . . . dif fusa), still hopes to see him again: there is good
news and there is bad. The bad news is (1) that Isidore has been ˜too ill

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