Etymologiae

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Missing image
Etymologiae_Guntherus_Ziner_1472.jpg
first printed edition of 1472 (by Guntherus Ziner, Augsburg), title page of chapter 14 (de terra et partibus), illustrated with a T and O map.

Etymologiae (or Origines) is an encyclopedia compiled by Isidore of Seville (died 636) towards the end of his life, at the urging of his friend Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa. 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, form the subject of just one of the encyclopedia's twenty books. 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 current compilations. Bishop Braulio, to whom Isidore dedicated it and sent it for correction, divided it into its twenty books.

  • Book I: Trivium: grammar
  • Book II: Trivium: rhetoric and dialectic
  • Book III: Quadrivium: mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy
  • Book IV: medicine
  • Book V: law and chronology
  • Book VI: Ecclesiastical books and offices
  • Book VII: God, angels and saints: hierarchies of heaven and earth
  • Book VIII: The Catholic Church and Jews and heretical sects, philosophers (pagans), prophets and sibyls
  • Book IX: Languages, peoples, kingdoms cities and titles
  • Book X: Etymologies
  • Book XI: Mankind, portents and transformations
  • Book XII: Beasts and birds
  • Book XIII: The world
  • Book XIV: Geography
  • Book XV: Public buildings and public works
  • Book XVI: Metals and stones
  • Book XVII: Agriculture
  • Book XVIII: Terms of war, games, jurisprudence
  • Book XIX: Ships, houses and clothes
  • Book XX: Food, tools and furnishings

Through the Middle Ages it was the textbook most in use, regarded so highly as a depository of classical learning that, in a great measure, it superseded the use of the individual works of the classics themselves, full texts of which were no longer copied and thus were lost.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 10 editions between 1470 and 1530, showing Isidore's continued popularity in the Renaissance.

A stylized map based on Etymologiae was printed in 1472 in Augsburg, featuring the world as a wheel. The continent Asia is peopled by descendants of Sem or Shem, Africa by descendants of Ham and Europe by descendants of Japheth. All three were the sons of Noah. This map reflects Isidore's 6th century view; we now know that, although undoubtedly a brilliant scholar, Isidore was not always correct in his suppositions.

External links

The text of the Etymologiae is available online at:

  • LacusCurtius (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Isidore/home.html)
  • The Latin Library (http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/isidore.html)


In the second book, dealing with dialectic and rhetoric, Isidore is heavily indebted to translations from the Greek by Boethius. Caelius Aurelianus contributes generously to that part of the fourth book which deals with medicine. 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 seems to have inspired the general plan of the "Etymologiae", as well as many of its details.

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