Where to find Isidore’s Etymologiae?

Featured image: London, British Library, Harley 3941/2, fol. 177r: a little map of the world squeezed in the margin of the chapter De orbe (Etym. XIIII 2)

We have all been there. Whether in the middle of a busy day or during a lazy weekend, a burning question arose in your mind that Wikipedia cannot answer. What stone did Romans consider the best remedy for a toothache? How many trisyllabic metres there are in Latin poetry? Which heretic was it again who thought the Paradise is not a real physical place, but the Resurrection was real? What was the sixth Hebrew name of God according to St. Jerome? What was the name of that funny footwear women wore in Gallia last time Julius Caesar stopped by? You are 100 % sure these questions can be answered by the most celebrated Latin encyclopaedia of the Middle Ages (and thus of all times) – the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville! All you need is to know where to find a copy, preferably an early medieval one, because there is nothing as calming and reassuring as reading your Isidore in Caroline minuscule. If you ever found yourself in this place, as I don’t doubt many of you did, you want to know where is the nearest library that holds one of these beauties. And not only that, but you can finally know where to go if you want to check several copies, just in case you want to compare and collate them to make sure you have not missed anything due to the good-for-nothingness of lazy scribes.

Rest assured: by the time you are done with this blog, you will know exactly where to find an early medieval manuscript of the Etymologiae and much more!

Today, we know of almost 450 early medieval manuscripts that transmit Isidore’s handy encyclopaedia in its entirety or parts of it. To be more precise, the number of surviving and identified medieval manuscripts with this text stands at the moment at 447 and continues to grow. Because of the complicated life that the early medieval manuscripts tend to lead, these 447 early medieval entities correspond to 487 modern items. Some medieval manuscripts were fragmented in modern times and are today scattered across four or five different institutions. In other cases, different manuscripts were bound together and were therefore assigned the same shelfmark.


Number of manuscripts


Number of modern shelfmarks


Number of locations

These 487 modern items are today deposited at 101 locations. Most of these locations are in Europe, although a handful of fragments found their way to institutions in the United States. When I write locations, I have in mind geographical places such as cities and towns, rather than institutions such as libraries, archives, or monasteries. In some cases, several different institutions in possession of early medieval copies of the Etymologiae exist at the same locations, such as in the case of various colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. I consider them a single location. There are, thus, slightly more than 101 institutions with a copy of the Etymologiae or its parts in their collections.

As can be gathered from the numbers listed above, the average number of items appearing at a single location is close to five, which may come as a surprise. In reality, this high average is a result of an extremely uneven distribution of early medieval manuscripts of Isidore’s encyclopaedia in modern manuscript-holding institutions. At 42 of the 101 locations, you can find only one manuscript, and at 18 additional locations two manuscripts of Isidore’s magnum opus. At the same time, there are 24 locations, at which you can find today at least five early medieval manuscripts of the Etymologiae and nine locations where there are at least 10 manuscripts. Among the heavy-weights with ten or more manuscript items in their collections are the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (17 identified items), Burgerbibliothek in Bern (18 identified items), the monastery of San Lorenzo in El Escorial (10 identified items), the University Library in Leiden (15 identified items), the British Library in London (15 identified items), the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich (28 identified items), and the Stiftsbibliothek of St. Gallen (29 identified items). However, the two ultimate super-holders are the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (40 identified items) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris (90 identified items).

The numbers of the early medieval copies of the Etymologiae reflect, rather unsurprisingly, the overall holdings of early medieval manuscripts across the largest manuscript-preserving institutions in the world. The Vatican Library is the largest holder of Western manuscripts, followed by the BnF in Paris, the British Library in London, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich and the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. The Stiftsbibliothek in St. Gallen is perhaps not as significant in terms of its total holdings, but it is famous for the size and the integrity of its early medieval holdings, as is the University Library in Leiden. Nevertheless, the relative differences in the numbers of identified items in these five libraries are noteworthy and relevant. In particular, the difference between the number of items in the BAV (40) and BnF (90) is striking. It begs for an explanation, as one might expect to find more or just as many early medieval witnesses of work as widely diffused as the Etymologiae in the Vatican as in Paris.

The disparity has several explanations. In the first place, the Western manuscripts in the Vatican Library have not yet been fully catalogued, which means that in the case of thousands of medieval books in its vaults, we don’t have a clear idea what is in them. This is particularly true for manuscripts that could be classified as miscellanies, handbooks, and collections as well as for fragment dossiers and fragments bound in with other texts, types of medieval textual entities that usually give researchers the most trouble. If there are ‘only’ 40 known early medieval items containing the Etymologiae from this collection, it is most likely not because there are no additional early medieval manuscripts in possession of the BAV, but because they have not yet been identified. The Western manuscripts of the Bibliothèque National have similarly not been yet fully catalogued according to modern standards. Still, Paris is substantially ahead of the Vatican in this department, and especially the early medieval material is relatively well-charted. If then, 90 items corresponding to early medieval manuscripts of the Etymologiae are in the BnF, we can be reasonably sure that the BnF owns not much more than these 90 items. By contrast, we must imagine that behind those 40 identified items in the BAV are more than just a few items that were not yet identified. How many unidentified early medieval manuscripts and manuscript fragments transmitting the Etymologiae should we think are in the Vatican Library awaiting identification can be guessed from the number of the items in Paris. Even if we adjust for the differences in the histories of the respective manuscript collections and their distinct geographical scope, it is reasonable to assume that perhaps 20-30 early medieval manuscripts of the Etymologiae in the Vatican Library need to be rediscovered.

Laon, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 422, fol. 22v: an example of one of the 447 medieval manuscripts transmitting the Etymologiae, here selectively as Isidore’s De astronomia (Etym. III 24-71)

It is not just the Vatican Library that holds early medieval manuscripts (of the Etymologiae) that escape our attention. There are other institutions which we should suspect own early medieval witnesses of Isidore’s encyclopaedia, but which do not feature on my map because their collections have not been sufficiently catalogued, their catalogues are outdated, or they do not provide information of necessary granularity. Besides the Vatican, another exemplary black hole is the Biblioteca capitulare of Verona. This institution is famous for its late antique and early medieval manuscripts, but there seems not to be a single witness of the Etymologiae in this library. There are at least three manuscripts mentioned on its website that may contain material from the Etymologiae but require further probing. Another black hole is the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, whose most recent complete catalogue dates from the 18th century. While the manuscript survey used to generate the map above contains two items from this institution, given the size of its collection of Western manuscripts, it seems most likely that there should be at least a few more items that were not identified.

Overall, the surveyed manuscripts allow to identify Italian institutions as a weak spot when it comes to the identification of manuscripts transmitting the Etymologiae selectively and as fragments. Crucially, roughly as many early medieval codices of the complete Etymologiae survive from German as from Italian scriptoria, and they are also similarly distributed today in German and Italian institutions. There are, however, roughly twice as many identified early medieval manuscripts transmitting parts of the Etymologiae in German institutions than in Italian ones. It is, naturally, possible to attribute some of this disparity to both differences in medieval production and uneven survival rates of manuscripts from particular regions, as reflected in the regions of their current preservation. Still, to my mind, the chief factor here is that the Italian collections were studied to a more limited extent than those from Germany. It is, in fact, clear that we need to thank Bernhard Bischoff for our current excellent state of knowledge of specific German collections of early medieval material, for he seemed to have not left a stone unturned in Germany. Here, his knowledge, connection and reputation helped him the most, and he seemed to have been able to access material that was otherwise beyond the reach of most researchers. As a result, Bischoff’s Katalog sometimes identifies early medieval material that is unknown even to the stewards of the respective collections. Bischoff, for example, writes of 14 folia of a palimpsest of the Etymologiae in the Staatsarchiv in Solothurn, which was unknown to the local archivists until the moment your humble narrator contacted them a few months ago. Overall, one can note that either an unusually high number of early medieval manuscript fragments of the Etymologiae surviving in small libraries and archives in German-speaking area as recorded in Bischoff’s Katalog, or, what is more likely, Bernhard Bischoff was in a unique position with regards to this material, and we lack the French, Italian, Spanish and perhaps even British Bischoffs who could similarly uncover fragments in small institutions in France, Italy, Spain and Great Britain.

Paris, BnF, Lat. 7585, fol. 8v: Here is the answer to the question about Latin poetry. A table of metrical feet from Etym. I 17

Apart from Italy, there are several other regions and locations where one could look for early medieval manuscripts transmitting the material from the Etymologiae but will find a hole in the record. Spain is one such black hole, both because it was not covered by Bischoff in his Katalog and because many smaller institutions in Spain are still a terra incognita, especially for researchers from outside Spain. More than in the case of Italian institutions, the absence of early medieval manuscripts containing the text of the great Spanish bishop is undoubtedly also due to the relatively low survival rate of early medieval material from the Iberian peninsula. I would likewise advise anyone who seeks unidentified early medieval copies of the Etymologiae to visit the National Library in St. Petersburg.

To conclude, this blog hopefully brings home that any attempt at mapping the locations of manuscripts is also an exercise in understanding how particular collections took shape, what is their historical and political Sitz in Leben, how were they managed in the past as well as today, and to what extent they are accessible to scholars and therefore mappable and mapped. The example of Bernhard Bischoff shows that even a single (prolific) scholar can have a significant impact on what part of the mappable body of medieval material we see and therefore we may accord more significance to than we would if the body of material was uniformly mapped. We must above all avoid the naïve assumption that the manuscript material as we see it (as individual researchers) represented the body of manuscripts accurately as it existed in the period when it was produced and actively used. Too often, this is tacitly assumed. Not only is our point of view distorted by the uneven loss of manuscripts (remember, perhaps as little as 5 % of manuscripts produced in the ninth century survived). It is also distorted by the uneven quality of manuscript descriptions, the limits of our personal access, and the horizons of our ever-limited knowledge (which determines where are we going to seek information).

Any manuscript corpus such as my survey of the early medieval manuscripts of the Etymologiae is extremely sensitive to the quality of library catalogues, handlists, scholarly studies, editions, and online repositories on which it relies, amplifying their strengths and weaknesses. This needs to be understood and accounted for in any corpus-based research. I can say that this mapping exercise helped me, as I can better see where the terrain is uncharted and therefore where I need to dig further (the Vatican, Verona, St. Petersburg, northern Spain). It also revealed which collections are truly extraordinary in the number of items they amassed (Paris, where I need to return to study further those precious 90 items) and where to look for fragments. Above all, it confirmed to me how extraordinary a scholar Bernhard Bischoff was and how much he single-handedly altered our perception of the early medieval manuscript culture.

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