Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The city of brotherly love

My dear friend Emily Wilson has a delightful piece in the latest TLS on Isidore of Seville and sundry other matters:
Isidore became the patron saint of the internet in 1999. The analogy between the Etymologies and our own information superhighway is in many ways a tempting one. Like the internet, the book contains information from a bewildering number of different sources, ranging from ancient Roman proto-encyclopedias (especially Varro’s De Lingua Latina, Pliny’s Natural History and Servius’ commentaries on Virgil), through Byzantine school manuals on logic, music, grammar and architecture, to the works of Boethius, Jerome, Augustine and Eusebius. One of the few disappointments in the new English translation of the Etymologies is that the authors offer very little detailed information about Isidore’s sources. To do so would, of course, be the work of several lifetimes: more information on this subject will be forthcoming in the ongoing French edition of the Etymologies, of which so far five volumes out of twenty have appeared.

It may often seem as if Isidore, like a bad search engine, offers little or no control over all this material. Certainly, much of the “information” he provides is (from a modern perspective) blatantly false, albeit entertaining. For instance, we are assured that “Beavers (castor) are so-called from castrating (castrare). Their testicles are useful for medicines, on account of which, when they anticipate a hunter, they castrate themselves and amputate their own genitals with their teeth”. Isidore lifts this detail of natural history straight from Pliny (backed up, in this case, by a number of other ancient authorities, including Aristotle and Juvenal). As with the internet, written testimony takes on a life of its own – even in cases where you might think it would be better to go out and look at some beavers. That thought seems not to have occurred to anybody for several hundred years: the story of the self-castrating beavers was still current in the seventeenth century, and was mocked by Thomas Browne in his wonderful analysis of ancient errors, the Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646.

Emily's new book on the death of Socrates is just out and getting some very nice notices; here it is at Amazon UK (mmmm, I can't wait to read it!), and here's the US edition (not out till October unfortunately).

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