Tuesday, February 3, 2009


John Henderson, The Medieval World of Isidore of Seville. Truth from Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 232. ISBN 978-0-521-86740-5. $99.00.
Reviewed by Marco Formisano, Humboldt University and Columbia University (mf2625@columbia.edu)

[The reviewer apologizes for the delay in submitting this text.]

When I first saw Henderson's (H.) book on Isidore I was working on a project on ancient encyclopaedism and its transformations in early modern culture. My attention was immediately caught by the fact that a renowned Latinist, a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, had taken the trouble to write a monograph on a normally understudied author within Latin studies, one seen as a source of imaginative etymologies and fanciful information. The feeling of a challenge, which characterizes the relation of reviewer and reviewed and which is similar to that of a fencing match, is in this case sharpened by the abstruseness of H.'s language. Those who are familiar with his other works know his style, a style which tends to emphasize hidden assonances between words, to create new terms, to subvert and unmask the common meaning to serve one which supports his own ideas, and to reinstate the forgotten etymon. And precisely this kind of preface seems to be a topos in other reviews of H.'s works.

This demanding and continuous subversion and reconversion of language makes the reading of H.'s book especially tough for foreign readers, who sometimes might share feelings analogous to those of Jerome as he flung Persius' work into the flames... While reading H. the reviewer must resist the temptation to challenge him on his own linguistic terrain, neglecting the standard scholarly language explicitly required by the BMCR editors. Since in this case the reviewer has chosen to write in his poor English, this will be, to the benefit of the readers, not feasible. H.'s language and style are nearly impossible to paraphrase, so in this review I will very often quote his words directly. Particularly intriguing are his translations from the Latin text, where the author seems to be an archaeologist of his own language, (pseudo-)etymologizing words and searching for Latin roots. As an example I shall here report H.'s translation of the famous opening passage of the Etymologiae (words in italics are in bold in H.'s text):1

DISCIPLINE + ART. Disciplearne got its name from learning: ergo it can also be called science: you see, sci-earnce is short for psychal learning, because none of us plies sciearnce without applied learning. On another line disciplearne's the word because it does plenary learning. The etymo-logy of Art is arid artillery, a combo of heartly 'ard dictates (sc. rules). Others bespeak the word's importation from the Greek '<à la arete>, i.e. 'from the complete article', the perfection they dubbed science (1.1.1-2; p. 27).

I quote H. at length here, since the major issue is precisely the language itself; that is, the Latin language, the language of Isidore and, of course, H.'s own language. Which other Latin author could have offered the chance to display H.'s continuous linguistic différance than Isidore of Sevilla?

Here it is worth recalling that the Sevillan Bishop authored a wide range of works before delivering at the end of his life in 636 his masterpiece, which would come to represent the pillar of medieval culture and of all future encyclopedias. Among those other writings, particularly interesting are the differentiae, de differentiis rerum and the synonimorum libri, all with a linguistic focus.

Isidore has been much neglected within classical studies and, particularly in the Anglo-American scholarly context, he is considered a topic which falls under medieval studies, as often happens for other late antique authors as well. H. himself recognizes the problem, all too briefly perhaps, when he argues that because of the age in which Isidore lived (7th century Visigothic Spain), he "is virtually absent from classical scholarship" (p. 5).2 H. also reports Lindsay's disqualifying opinion on the Etymologiae: "this encyclopedia is not a literary work of art" (p. 7). H. (the co-author of "Classics. A very short introduction") instead defines it as "a very grand introduction to classics" (p. 9). This would have been a good opportunity to attempt to explain the sense of studying such an author and to take a position within the disciplinary discourse of the classics. One might wonder if H. would ever suggest Isidore or similar authors to one of his students as the subject for a doctoral thesis.

Considering the bibliography and the kind of close readings offered in this book, it seems clear that H. wants to look at Isidore from the perspective of classical Latin scholarship, and not so much from that of the late antique or medieval Latin, in which obviously the Etymologiae represent an authoritative text. Yet the title puts emphasis precisely on Isidore's "medieval world." H.'s book represents, nonetheless, the heritage of the best tradition of modern criticism on literary languages, a tradition which tends to rehabilitate certain texts normally not considered in their literary dimension. And these texts may contain so sophisticated a language that they finally end up becoming not only literature, but models for the renewal and subversion of literary language. Exemplary in this case is Roland Barthes' Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Paris 1971). Interesting methodological input to the study of the Etymologiae is to be found in Umberto Eco's reflection on dictionaries and encyclopaedias, in which he explains why the first has to be superseded by the most recent. In an encyclopaedia, in fact, the double distinction between natural language and model-language on the one hand and between meta-language and language as object on the other is no longer valid.3

H's brilliant work does not disappoint the reader, giving exactly what the subtitle leads one expect: "Truth from Words". It would be impossible to go through all the details of this close reading of Isidore, so I will briefly comment on its structure. In his Preface H. reminds us of the paradoxical nature of a reference work such as the Etymologiae sive Origines: "This foundational encyclopaedia is also a monument to efficient organization of data for purposes of consultation. Book culture has made it possible to produce and use such books without reading them." (p. x). H. divides his investigation in two parts, the first called "Preliminaries," the second "Reading the Etymologiae." In the first (p. 11-24, which is a revised version of a contribution to J. Koenig and T. Whitmarsh (eds.), Ordering Knowledge in the Roman Empire, Cambridge 2006, cf. BMCR 2008.10.39) H. tells the story of the epistolary exchange between Isidore and his friend the archdeacon Braulio of Zaragoza, who urged Isidore to complete his work on etymologies. Braulio was an "interventionist reader" (p. 18), who was responsible for dividing Isidore's encyclopaedia into 20 books. Here H. states that in his sequential reading in the second part he will not take into consideration the "perfunctory wind-down" of labels and book division, since "only a reading open to telling narrative self-transmutation can even contemplate strategy in any such soul-opening trek from 1 through 20, front to back" (p. 23). H. will resist "the peremptory intercession of the apparatus of headings, as so many obstacles and deterrents to reading" and instead "[pay] them respect only where they point up exegetic continuity, proportion, or direction" (p. 24). In doing so he carries through on his promise to show modern readers how to approach a reference work as literature, presenting it as a "reflexive and processual narrative" which ends up creating "an intelligible world to read" (p. xi).

In the second part (25-209) H. goes through all the themes present in the Etymologiae dividing them into those falling into "primary education" (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and "secondary education" (from arithmetic to astronomy, from medicine to church history, from geography to technology). This is the core of H's investigation, based on the traditional knowledge system distinguishing between the trivium and quadrivium which constitute liberal education. H. points out how Isidore's text works and which logical system has been used to compose it. This is a book on the "knowledge of knowledge" (p. 31), which discusses "how to consider, infer, discuss, civilization, insofar as its genesis is open to its own inspection" (p.34, which is also, after all, the opinion of Curtius, quoted by H. at p. 6). At the basis of this interpretive procedure is of course the alphabet of the Latin language and its intrinsic analytical strength. Considering the concept of grammar, Isidore tightly connects it to the alphabet, since "Grammar got its name from letters, for the Greeks call letters grams" (p. 32). This is an example of what H. defines as "characteristic of the Liberal Education", i.e. "the Roman bilingual lesson in self-positioning through cross-referencing Latin with/against Greek" in order to "direct the novice to look within language for truth-production through language" (p. 29).

Another point of interest is the way H. treats Book 6 of the Etymologiae on "scripture and Christian duties" (p. 99-110). Here "the Bible is itself a library, an archive, a history; and the history of its writing is another, sacred, way to write the history of the chain from Moses to Christendom" (p. 99). The Bible is presented by Isidore as the history of writing the Old and the New Testament and as "a multi-authored anthology of poetry, Psalms" (p. 100). And both the Testaments present various complications in their making, since both deal with apocryphal writings. The Bible becomes, in this sense, the original library containing all human knowledge. This way of considering book culture and the history of writing in its multiple implications reflects recent trends within Latin studies. I recall here the monograph by Antoinette Novara on Vitruvius which focuses on the "Latin philosophy of the book".4 The study of the archive in particular has represented for at least fifteen years a major issue in cultural studies (cf. the path-breaking works on "cultural memory" by Jan and Aleida Assmann). This could have offered an interesting perspective on the late antique world (I would say) of Isidore. And more in general, a comparison with what we today erroneously call "technical" writing could have also given an additional stimulus to this close reading of the Etymologiae. As one example, under the heading "Rhetoric," H. in his vivid translation speaks of "such a stock pile, such a vast range, of material from the long line of gurus that wonder comes easy to the reader, but grasp is out of the question," concluding: "Moral: keep conscious of textual materiality, keep Etymologiae handy" (p. 43, n. 38). This is indeed atypical and the strongest argument for presenting the book in terms of its immediate utilitas, and is obviously meant to emphasize the author's role in this procedure of shaping and transmitting knowledge.5

H.'s fascinating investigation unfortunately does not take into consideration the scholarly debate on the origins of medieval encyclopedism, in which Isidore's reception plays a major role,6 or on the general issue of the systematization of knowledge. For instance, medieval and early modern "encyclopedias" could have offered very interesting and pertinent parallels to this late antique work. Those works may follow the same language-based criterion as Isidore, or they may create new criteria in order to explicate the secret universal harmony of knowledge.7 A reference to the development of the encyclopaedic genre could have been an occasion to contextualize the Etymologiae within the long run of the history of knowledge in Europe, showing its relevance and modernity, especially considering our "contemporary logophilia and, in general, the graphematic turn" (p. 5).

Apart from these minor criticisms The Medieval World of Isidore of Seville. Truth from Words not only offers an important contribution to scholarship on Isidore, but shows how classicists can and should expand the borders of Latin studies into new fields and methods. In the end, the demanding reading more than rewards itself: it gives Latin scholars the passing, intriguing illusion of being able to watch over an ancient author's shoulder while he writes. Notes

1. DE DISCIPLINA ET ARTE: Disciplina a discendo nomen accepit: unde et scientia dici potest. Nam scire dictum a discere, quia nemo nostrum scit, nisi qui discit. Aliter dicta disciplina, quia discitur plena. Ars uero dicta est, quod artis praeceptis regulisque consistat. Alii dicunt a Graecis hoc tractum esse uocabulum ἀπὸ τῆς ἀρετῆς, id est a uirtute, quam scientiam uocauerunt.

2. Registering his surprise, H. gives the topographically nearest bibliographical reference, the famous Chuckle (for non-Cantabrigienses this means The Cambridge History of Classical Literature).

3. U. Eco, "L'antiporfirio", in Sugli specchi e altri saggi, Milan 1985, 334-361, see esp. 355-360 "L'enciclopedia come labirinto".

4. Auctor in bibliotheca. Essai sur les texts prefaciales de Vitruve et une philosophie latine du livre, Louvain 2005.

5. In the field of ancient book culture and its Christian transformation, including the change of material aspects, see A. Grafton and M. Williams, Christianity and the transformation of the book: Origen, Eusebius, and the library of Caesarea, Cambridge MA 2006.

6. Cf. at least M. Picone (ed.), L'enciclopedismo medievale, Ravenna 1994; F. Eybl et al. (eds.), Enzyklopädien in der Frühen Neuzeit, Tübingen 1995; Ch. Meier (ed.), Die Enzyklopädie im Wandel vom Hochmittelalter bis zur frühen Neuzeit, München 2002.

7. Cf. for instance U. Dierse, Enzyklopädie : Zur Geschichte eines philosophischen und wissenschaftstheoretischen Begriffs, Bonn 1977; W. Schmidt-Biggemann, Topica Universalis. Eine Modellgeschichte humanistischer und barocker Wissenschaft, Hamburg 1983; Th. Leinkauf, Mundus combinatus. Studien zur Struktur der barocken Universalwissenschaft am Beispiel Athanasius Kirchers SJ, Berlin 1993.

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