The so called Cosmography of Aethicus Ister is one of the most difficult and puzzling early medieval texts. Posing as St. Jerome, an anonymous eighth-century author claims that his description of the world was largely based on the work by an otherwise unknown Scythian philosopher Aethicus. The two narrators, "Hieronymus presbyter" and Aethicus, take turns describing the structure of the universe and travels to known and unknown lands, also discussing other random subjects, such as types of ships and alphabet. Written in idiosyncratic Latin, the Cosmography has the appearance of a serious scholarly treatise, and it also parodies certain conventions of the contemporary learned discourse. The first modern edition of this text was produced by Otto Prinz in 1993.  The Cosmography, however, has been an object of intense study since the appearance of its earliest editions in the 1850s. The text's sources, Latinity, and literary characteristics have been thoroughly investigated; ingenious hypotheses concerning its goals, authorship, and time of composition have been proposed and rejected.  Many problems still remain, beginning with the anonymous author's language, strongly deviating from classical Latin and full of rare or invented words. Until now, this text has never been fully translated into any modern language and much of the research has been published in German. Professor Herren's book, based on his research of many years, is a significant milestone in the study of the Cosmography. The book includes a detailed 113-pages introduction, a new critical edition of the text, a translation, and a comprehensive commentary.
The introduction begins with a useful summary of the current state of the question and goes on to explore all aspects of the text, from its sources, language, and literary features to hypotheses concerning authorship to the principles of the new edition. Most scholars nowadays seem to agree that the Cosmography should be classified as a literary forgery, and the introduction meticulously investigates the text's narrative structure and literary features. Further developing arguments that he proposed in his earlier work, Herren demonstrates how the anonymous author deliberately employed different style for each of his both chief characters and used other narrative devices, such as telescoping of time (xvii). After analyzing the contents of the work, Herren turns to exploring how the anonymous author worked with his sources, classifying the usage into five broad categories, from works cited verbatim to sources that inspired the style and structure of the work. The conclusion that the anonymous author used a relatively small number of books appears well-founded. Herren's evidence shows that while Isidore's Etymologies and the Bible were most extensively used, other sources (which may have included a Latin translation of Cosmas Indicopleustes' Topographia Christiana provided only a narrow range of quotations. This evidence also suggests that the anonymous author may have made excerpts of potentially useful works while travelling to various libraries (lv).
Herren's hypothetical reconstruction of the milieu in which the work was composed and of the author's life is both imaginative and solidly grounded in historical investigation. On the basis of dated sources and internal references to contemporary events, the Cosmography is dated not much later than 727, the publication date of the Liber Historiae Francorum, a source which the anonymous author definitely used (lxi). Herren further suggests that the author travelled extensively through Western Europe (including Ireland and England), collecting excerpts for a future work. For the work's composition the author would require a good library that had copies of Isidore's Etymologies and Orosius' Histories, as well as more rare books. After examining various possibilities, Herren comes to a convincing conclusion that Bobbio, a continental center that had good connections to monastic libraries in the region of Lake Constance and historical Bavaria, is an attractive candidate (lxxiii). From Herren's tentative chronology of the anonymous author's life, there emerges an intriguing figure, a man who may have started out as an indentured shipwright, then escaped and wandered through Francia, Ireland and England. That man received some education at a monastic school and may have been involved in ecclesiastical administration. After he settled down at Bobbio, he completed his Cosmography and died probably around 740 (lxxvii).
This reconstruction finds further support in the next section of the introduction that discusses the anonymous author's Latinity. Herren gives a detailed analysis of the text's linguistic features, with a particular emphasis on morphology, syntax, and vocabulary as the areas that had previously received less attention. Demonstrating that his linguistic data are consistent with those of literary texts from Francia and northern Italy produced between the late sixth and later eighth century, Herren argues that from the standpoint of language the Cosmography should be placed in the context of continental works such as the Liber Historiae Francorum and the Chronicle of Fredegar (xcix-c).
The new edition is based on the same manuscripts as the recent edition by Prinz (namely, the five oldest witnesses to the text that date from the late eighth century to the last quarter of the ninth century), but it differs in its approach. In order to bring more clarity to the Latin text, Herren goes further than Prinz, addressing many omissions and lacunae that Prinz had left alone and correcting a larger number of erroneous readings. The new edition also has a different punctuation that makes it easier for the reader to follow the Latin. The major changes made to Prinz's text are helpfully listed (cx-cxii). Herren's editorial decisions serve to clarify the text without correcting it according to classical norms. Rather than seeing the errors as a product of faulty transmission, Herren accepts that some of them may have been made by the author himself, and some may have been intended as neologisms.  For instance, where in one case Prinz choses the more familiar reading "philosophorum" (Prinz, p. 152.14), Herren follows the manuscripts that have "philosophomorum" (58b.11), translating the word as "the lovers of false wisdom." In his commentary, he suggests that this word, formed from three Greek roots, was intended to complement or gloss the reference to 1 Cor. 1.20 (220).
The translation successfully conveys the ways in which the anonymous author expressed himself. It follows the difficult Latin as closely as possible, reflecting the author's stylistic devices and explaining his errors and deficiencies. The detailed commentary further guides the reader by discussing textual problems, pointing out sources, identifying toponyms. The commentary reveals many details that had not been noticed before, expanding, among other things, our understanding of humor in the Cosmography. So, in one instance, the anonymous author refers to "Tullius and Cicero" as if they were two different persons. While exploring the possibility that the anonymous author made an error because he misunderstood a number of passages in Macrobius, Herren also suggests that this may be seen as the author's silly joke (xliii, 242).
With this volume, Professor Herren has brought the studies of the Cosmography to a new level. His masterful interpretation of the text opens new directions of inquiry, and it may generate useful debates. The book also makes important contributions to a broad range of questions, from the fine points of early medieval Latin to the history of scientific thought to the practices of editing difficult texts.
1. Otto Prinz, ed., Die Kosmographie des Aethicus, MGH Quellen zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters 14 (Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1993).
2. One of the most radical recent hypotheses was proposed by Vittorio Peri, "La Cosmographia dell' Anonimo di Histria e il suo compendio dell' VIII secolo," in Vestigia: Studi in onore di Giuseppe Billanovich, ed. Rino Avesani et al. (Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1984), 503-558. For refutation, see Patrick Gautier Dalché, "Du nouveau sur Aethicus Ister?: A propos d'une théorie récente," Journal des savants 3-4 (1984): 175-186. Note that in the book under review the latter author's name is cited incorrectly.
3. Michael Herren, "Is the Author Really Better than his Scribes?: Problems of Editing Pre-Carolingian Latin Texts," The Ars edendi lecture, The Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, 21 September 2010 (available online at http://medievaltexts.utoronto.ca/2012/01/papers-from-the-ars-edendi- workshop-2010/).