Gregory Halfond

title.none: Henderson, The Medieval World (Gregory Halfond)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.018 08.05.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gregory Halfond, Framingham State College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Henderson, John. The Medieval World of Isidore of Seville: Truth from Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 232. $99 978-0-521-86740-5. ISBN: $99978-0-521-86740-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.18

Henderson, John. The Medieval World of Isidore of Seville: Truth from Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xi, 232. $99 978-0-521-86740-5. ISBN: $99978-0-521-86740-5.

Reviewed by:

Gregory Halfond
Framingham State College

The twenty-first century has been very kind to Bishop of Isidore of Seville. Not only has his encyclopedic opus, The Etymologies, appeared in an impressive new translation, [1] but he has been awarded the honorary (and perhaps dubious) designation of patron saint of the internet. Now, John Henderson has produced a methodical commentary of Isidore's labyrinthine Etymologies, a work he calls a "compelling attempt to systematize the conceptual archive of Roman memory," and one of the most popular and influential works over the course of the Middle Ages (x). [2] Henderson does not merely attempt to untangle the threads of Isidore's vast compendium of classical knowledge, but also to demonstrate that the work is not a series of disparate entries loosely organized into topical categories, but rather a narrative that reveals "truth from words."

Another of Henderson's working assumptions is that Isidore's text is a naturally mischievous one, a legitimate conclusion considering the playfulness (some would say ridiculousness) of some of its proposed etymologies. Henderson chooses to follow Isidore's lead, and adopts a Joycean prose style (more Finnegan than Ulyssean), filled with puns, idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax, and layers upon layers of playful academese. Additionally, Henderson intersperses his forests of dense verbiage with odd, offhand witticisms, which range from cute to exasperating. For example, when evaluating Isidore's discussion of arithmetic, Henderson concludes, "Cogito, ergo sums" (52). In my favorite example, our commentator reaches truly impressive levels of ostentatious prose: "Getting the measure of measurement really hits the heights, however, once a soaring Isidore, now into volumetrics, confronts the measure for measure, and rockets from the mode of matter up to the revealed truth of Creation. Here the engines roar" (187). Henderson's translations are equally creative: e.g. "quarum decursus" is translated as "a whizz of an excursus through all this" (79), "malefici" as "mafiosi" (117), and "implevit" as "filled 'em to the brim" (172). Many similar examples could be cited. Henderson is perhaps a little too clever in his prose, and risks trying the patience of even the most tolerant reader. In fact, in the end, his book resembles less a systematic commentary than a jazz improvisation upon a theme. Distinguishing between commentator and author can be a challenge, as can wading through Henderson's dense verbiage. So, while there is much to enjoy in Henderson's reading of Isidore, it more often confuses than elucidates the Bishop's meaning.

Henderson's book is divided into two parts: "Preliminaries" and "Reading the Etymologiae." He begins with a brief introduction in which he presents his thesis that Isidore attempted in his work to recreate the world through words. He observes that Isidore is read by modern classicists primarily as a source for otherwise-lost etymological information. While antiquity produced etymological works "spanning the spectrum from cosmogonic theorizing to ebullient bullshit," only Isidore's text survives in its entirety (5). Unfortunately, because of Isidore's late vintage, classicists tend to neglect him as an original author, let alone a man of his time. Isidore's heavy reliance on the works of earlier encyclopedists and lexicographers makes it easy to underestimate the originality and context-specific nature of his work. Henderson does not offer much discussion of Isidore's own place in the Latin encyclopedic tradition, which stretched from Cato the Censor to Pliny the Elder to Cassiodorus Senator, [3] nor the study of etymology, which dates back to fourth- century Greece. [4] An important model for Isidore to whom Henderson does devote some necessary attention was Marcus Terentius Varro (2nd Century BCE), whose writings probably never made their way directly into Isidore's hands. Beyond Isidore's influences and sources, Henderson also never sufficiently explains how the Bishop of Seville's writings reflect "specific Iberian catholicizing politics within a durable Mediterranean cultural habitus" (7). In fact, the title of this book is a far less accurate indicator of its contents than its subtitle: "Truth from Words."

Henderson uses Part 1 of his book to examine the organization of Isidore's etymological encyclopedia. He begins with the epistolary exchange between Isidore and Bishop Braulio of Saragossa, at whose request the former had begun his Etymologies, and who divided the unedited work into twenty books after Isidore's death. As Henderson rightly notes, the Index Librorum that appears in the manuscript tradition cannot be Isidore's own work, but may instead be Braulio's. Moreover, the following Capitula Librorum of W. M. Lindsay's standard (albeit dated) edition is based on the headings of the respective books and sections of the manuscripts, and suggest that Isidore might have envisioned a twenty-two or twenty-four book work as opposed to Braulio's twenty. Using Book 20 as an example, Henderson persuasively demonstrates how a narrative superstructure underlies Isidore's entries sorted under the seemingly-miscellaneous heading of "Provisions and Various Implements." In Book 20, Isidore systematically leads the reader back in time from the dining room table, to the contents of the meal, to the storage of those contents, to their transportation, and back to their origins on the farm. In his efforts to uncover narrative, Henderson consciously resists "the preemptory intercession of the apparatus of headings as so many obstacles and deterrents to reading," and instead pays "them respect only where they point up exegetic continuity, proportion, or direction" (24).

Having established his modus operandi, Henderson moves on to his reading of Isidore in Part 2. Henderson goes book by book through the Etymologies, glossing Isidore's text in a clearly erudite, but exceptionally idiosyncratic manner. Henderson approaches the text like an educational syllabus whose purpose is to impart worldly (and otherworldly) knowledge. He observes how Isidore begins his educational-cum-artistic program with the Seven Liberal Arts (Books 1- 3), beginning with grammar and individual letters. Isidore's method, as Henderson explains, assumes that a student must learn one discipline before he can move on to the next, i.e. grammar before rhetoric before mathematics. The fuel of Isidore's educational program is word-derivations, since, as the Bishop explains, "One's insight into anything is clearer when its etymology is known" (Etymologiae, I.xxix). [5] For Isidore, the history of humanity is simultaneously the history of etymology, and words offer the means to understanding the fruits of Creation. Isidore's progress through the Liberal Arts, in fact, ends in the heavens (i.e. Astronomy), although Henderson perceives a subtle warning in Isidore's chosen destination, as the mythological origins of the names of the celestial bodies prove that "school can warp as well as weave" (63).

Isidore follows his tour through the Liberal Arts with post-graduate coursework in Medicine, Law, History, and Theology (Books 4-7). The Bible, for Isidore, is a book as well as a library, which "lifts our schooling to a higher level" (99). Books 8-15 take on the ambitious task of organizing the universe by language, nation, species, and environment. The final five books, in Henderson's estimation, deal with "the evolution of human culture through the exploitation of resources by the proliferating technologies pooled and developed in the world accessed by Isidore's words" (182). Henderson concludes that although etymology has been the driving force of the Bishop of Seville's educational program, word-derivations are ultimately less important to our author than "a project in cultural mnemonics" in which the reader gets to view all of Creation from the end-point of "geopolitical history" (210). This is certainly a valid, and largely convincing, reading of Isidore's opus. Unfortunately, Henderson's strange and confusing journey through the Etymologies was not its ideal means of expression. Erudite and learned though it may be, The Medieval World of Isidore of Seville will leave most of its readers more befuddled than satisfied, and anxious for a more traditional commentary of Isidore's great encyclopedia.


1. Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, and Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

2. On the medieval afterlife of Isidore's masterwork, see J. N. Hillgarth, "The Position of Isidorian Studies: A Critical Review of the Literature, 1936-1975," Studi Medievali 24, 3rd Series (1983), 883-93.

3. See Jacques Fontaine, "Isidore de Séville et la mutation de l'encyclopédisme antique," Cahiers d'histoire mondiale 9 (1966), 519-38.

4. Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Introduction), 11.

5. Translation from Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 55.