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Page of Etymologiae, Carolingian manuscript (VIII century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium

Etymologiae (or Origines, standard abbrev. Orig.) is an encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville (died 636) towards the end of his life, which 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.



Etymologiae presents in abbreviated form much of that part of the learning of antiquity that Christians thought worth preserving. Etymologies, often very learned and far-fetched, a favorite trope of antiquity,[citation needed] form the subject of just one of the encyclopedia's twenty books, but perceived linguistic similarities permeate the work. Isidore's vast encyclopedia systematizing 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.

Statue of Isidore of Seville in Madrid (J. Alcoverro, 1892).

"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,[2] 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.[3] In the second book, dealing with dialectic and rhetoric, Isidore is heavily indebted to translations from the Greek by Boethius, and in treating logic, Cassiodorus, who provided the gist of Isidore's treatment of arithmetic in Book III. Caelius Aurelianus contributes generously to that part of the fourth book which deals with medicine. Isidore's view of Roman law in the fifth book 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 the eleventh book, concerning man. The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth books are largely based on the writings of Pliny and Solinus; whilst the lost Prata of Suetonius, which can be partly pieced together from its quoted passages in Etymolgiae, seems to have inspired the general plan of the "Etymologiae", as well as many of its details.

Isidore's Latin, replete with nonstandard Vulgar Latin, some of which is identified as such, also stands at the cusp of Latin and the local Romance language of Hispania.[4]

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, showing Isidore's continued popularity in the Renaissance, rivalling Vincent of Beauvais.

First printed edition, by Guntherus Zainer, Augsburg, 1472): title page of book 14 (de terra et partibus), illustrated with a T and O map.

A stylized T and O map featuring the world as a wheel appeared in the editio princeps, the first printed edition, published at Augsburg, 1472. The continent Asia is peopled by descendants of Sem or Shem, Africa by descendants of Ham and Europe by descendants of Japheth, the sons of Noah.

The shape of the Earth

Isidore taught in the Etymologiae that the Earth was round. His meaning was ambiguous and some writers think he referred to a disc-shaped Earth; his other writings make it clear, however, that he considered the Earth to be globular.[5] He also admitted the possibility of people dwelling at the antipodes, considering them legendary[6] and noting that there was no evidence for their existence.[7] Isidore's disc-shaped analogy continued to be used through the Middle Ages by authors clearly favouring a spherical Earth, e.g. the 9th century bishop Rabanus Maurus who compared the habitable part of the northern hemisphere (Aristotle's northern temperate clime) with a wheel, imagined as a slice of the whole sphere.


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. ^ The accounts of logic in Book II and of arithmetic in Book III are tranferred 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])
  2. ^ 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).
  3. ^ Lindsay 1911, eo. loc.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Isidore, Etymologiae, XIV.ii.1 [1]; Wesley M. Stevens, "The Figure of the Earth in Isidore's De natura rerum", Isis, 71(1980): 268-277.
  6. ^ Isidore, Etymologiae, XIV.v.17 [2].
  7. ^ Isidore, Etymologiae, IX.ii.133 [3].

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