Monday, April 23, 2012


Olga Spevak (trans.), Isidore de Séville: Étymologies. Livre XIV, De terra. Auteurs latins du moyen âge, 22. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011. Pp. lxv, 208. ISBN 9782251336480. €45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Roger Wright, University of Liverpool (

Version at BMCR home site

The plan to publish an edition and translation of each of the twenty Libri of Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae as separate books is still trundling cheerfully along after thirty years. The books that have appeared so far are XVII (in 1981), II (1983), IX (1984), XII (1986), XIX (1995), XIII (2004), XVIII (2007), III (2009), XI (2010), XX (2010), XVI (2011) and XIV (2011, the book under review). VI and VII are said to be in preparation. Of the twelve that have been published, six of the translations are in French, three in Spanish, two in Italian and one in English. It's unclear whether to be impressed by the project's diligence and tenacity, or bemused by the faintly absurd air that now hangs over it (I'm both). The immediate need for such an enterprise was overtaken on the inside almost at the start by the publication in 1982 of the edition and Spanish translation of the complete work by José Oroz Reta and Manuel A. Marcos Casquero of Salamanca (Madrid, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos), whose lengthy introduction by the late and much lamented Manuel C. Díaz y Díaz (pages 1-257) has not been superseded, in particular as regards his assessment of the life and personality of Isidore himself.

Isidore himself is hardly visible in Olga Spevak's account, however, which is resolutely textual. Since she is by training, and in most of her research work, a Latinist and linguist (at the Sorbonne), the focus of this edition includes a welcome and acute appreciation of many linguistic features of the text. Where Lindsay classicized, or simply changed, genuine manuscript readings when he felt the need (e.g. entitling the book as "De terra et partibus", a title which is in no manuscript), and Oroz Reta at times went further in this same direction, Spevak prefers to let the manuscripts' readings survive in the edition; as the title page puts it, this is a "texte établi, traduit et commenté" by herself rather than derived from Lindsay. Even so, she feels sufficiently in awe of Lindsay to list all their 215 textual differences in one of the appendices (195-203); many of these, understandably, involve place names. The text is helpfully presented, with the Latin on the right-hand (recto) page and the French translation of exactly the same section opposite it to its left; copious notes run continuously beneath both texts, with an apparatus criticus also inserted under the Latin. It does not seem from the new translation that Olga Spevak has made use of the previous Spanish one.

Book XIV is entitled DE TERRA. This is the land, as opposed to the sea; the world, and indeed all manifestations of wetness thereon, appeared in the preceding Book XIII, confusingly named DE MUNDO ET PARTIBUS. Book XIV is not a long book; there are just nine sections, respectively entitled "De Terra" ("La Terre" in the translation), "De Orbe" ("Le monde habité"), "De Asia" ("L'Asie"), "De Europa" ("L'Europe"), "De Libya" ("La Libye", but meaning "Africa"), "De Insulis" ("Les îles"), "De promuntoriis" [sic] ("Les caps"), "De montibus ceterisque Terrae uocabulis" ("Les montagnes et les autres vocables concernant la Terre"), and "De inferioribus" ("Les lieux souterrains"). Spevak spends most of her introduction going through other writers' attempts at analysing terrestrial geography, not all of which were known to Isidore, and shows, for example, how the slightly odd-looking method of categorising islands (anywhere) and promontories before everything else is related to the tradition of maritime itineraries prepared by and for sailors going along the coasts.

Studies of the Etymologiae have often been largely concerned with the search for sources. Much of the textual detail probably did indeed have a written source within Isidore's admirable library, and where we can see what a source was for a particular idea or phrasing, this gets indicated in the notes. When a source can't be found the editor tends to leave it at that, but in fact these are probably the most interesting sections to consider further; for it is probable that some of the observations, particularly those concerning southern Iberia, might be his own. Perhaps, in general, it is now time for editors to give writers credit for their own ideas, rather than complaining that in their editorial research they haven't been able to pinpoint a source somewhere else. Such input from individual experience is at a higher level than just guesswork or invention, at least. For example, it seems likely (though not certain) that Leander and Isidore's family grew up near the South-eastern coast. Roger Collins has already suggested that this fact in itself helps explain why Isidore knew some African scholarship; he had lived close to, and probably met, some actual African scholars.

Some of Isidore's geographical comments in Book XIV might have a similar status. For example, subsection 16 of the list of mountains in section 8 reads in its entirety as follows: "SOLURIUS a singularitate dicitur quod omnibus Hispaniae montibus solus altior videatur siue quod oriente sole ante radius eius quam ipse cernatur,", translated as "Le SOLURIUS s'appelle ainsi d'après sa singularité parce qu'il semble être le seul (solus) plus haut que toutes les autres montagnes en Espagne ou parce que au lever du soleil (sol), on voit les rayons qui tombent sur lui plus tôt que le soleil lui-même". This is a good translation, and the inserted parentheses with italicized Latin words indeed clarify the etymological ideas that inspired the original text. The appended note reads "Solorius mons, qu'Isidore nomme Solurius, est l'actuel Mulhacén dans la Sierra Nevada, le plus haut sommet de la péninsule ibérique; il est mentionné par PLIN. Nat. 3, 6. Nous ignorons la source de ce passage" (pp.152-53). But Isidore was a real person. Anybody who has been to Granada knows how astonishing the snow-covered Sierra Nevada looks in the morning sunlight (even in summer); Isidore tells us here that when the sun is rising, it's possible for you to see the sunlight on the mountain before it has actually risen where you are. This can apply only if the viewer is to the East of Mulhacén. Since this is where we think Isidore and his family grew up, this alternative explanation is likely to have been his own additional idea. So why does it need a "source" at all? (The Spanish edition makes no comment here of any kind; for comparison, their translation runs as follows: "El Solorio recibe su nombre por encontrarse solo, porque parece el más alto de todos los montes de Hispania [o quizá porque al salir el sol se ven en él los rayos solares antes que el sol mismo]", p.207, without indicating that this is Mulhacén, and casting doubt on the text with square brackets). Olga Spevak does, however, allow Isidore to have updated his sources on purpose from time to time, rather than assuming (as Lindsay might and Oroz Reta does) that inexact transcriptions are the result of carelessness or incompetence. Some of these updatings are linguistically significant; for example, on two occasions he converts the word of his source (probably the third-century writer Solinus), duodeviginti, "eighteen", a word no longer in use in seventh-century Iberia, to decem et octo, the direct source of later Ibero-Romance dieciocho (3.9 and 6.27). Isidore is also liable to insert apparently unnecessary prepositions into his source's remarks in the Romance manner.

The study of the manuscripts of books 11-20 is easier than that of the first ten books, which were a separate entity at first, known under the name Origines; but it is still complicated enough. For present purposes, Spevak has mainly consulted two eighth-century manuscripts, including the Toledo MS now in Madrid, and six from the ninth century. The apparatus criticus shows how much variation there is, though it is mostly of a minor kind. There are several indices at the end of the edition: an Index fontium, of the sources that have been identified, whose most useful sources for Isidore's purposes, of the 26 entrants, seem to have been Jerome, Orosius, Servius and Solinus (175-78); an Index auctorum, of authorities mentioned by name in the text: there are nine authors here, including most notably Vergil (179-80); an index of 37 Greek words, printed here in the Greek alphabet, although not consistently so in the Latin text; a long Index geographicus (181-88); a shorter Index lemmatum (189-91); a three- page Index rerum notabilium (192-94), many of which notabilia appear in one or both of the previous lists (the raison d'être of this one is left unclear); the list of changes made by Lindsay, mentioned above; and a two-page map, roughly mapping some of Isidore's geographical nomenclature onto a modern outline.

So the heroic Belles-Lettres enterprise is continuing, and will one day be complete. The differences between twenty editions prepared by such different scholars over so many decades will be fascinating, if less than conducive to cohesion in the overall collective work. This one is a highly competent addition to the shelf, though, and we can only wait for the remaining volumes with patience.

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