485 manuscripts of the Etymologiae under one roof!

It is official: the Innovating Knowledge project had successfully ended a few weeks ago! (A project bilan summing up what it achieved and what are some of its tastiest outputs will be published soon, I promise.)

For now, let me introduce you to the most significant project tool: a database of all surviving and identified manuscripts transmitting the text of the most important medieval Latin encyclopaedia, the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Until the 13th century, when Vincent of Beauvais published his Speculum Maius (The Great Mirror), the Etymologies was the only widely-used encyclopaedia in the Latin-writing world.

Why was this the case? Was it because of some intellectual deficit? The poverty of intellectual life? Or disinterest in knowledge?

Not at all!

Rather, prior to the great changes of the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, people had a different idea about collecting and arranging knowledge. Instead of producing new encyclopaedias one after another, they took the one they already had – the Etymologies – and implemented any new ideas or changes they saw fitting directly into its text. That is why it acted as a sort of medieval Wikipedia – attracting “edits”. And that is why each copy of this encyclopaedia is a bit like a new version of Wikipedia. Taken together, they can be studied to assess the extent of innovation in the Middle Ages between 636 (when the Etymologies v1.0 was published) and approximately mid-13th century (when Vincent of Beauvais new encyclopaedia was put into circulation). For this, however, it is first necessary to identify and catalogue as many of the manuscripts of the Etymologies as possible, not a simple task, given how widespread and popular Isidore’s work was.

From the 1910s to the 1940s, German philologue G.E. Anspach tried to catalogue all the manuscripts containing the Etymologies or significant parts of this important text. Given the level of research techniques in the first half of the twentieth century, it may come as no surprise that he died in 1942 before completing this project, even as he could account for more than 1,100 medieval manuscripts! Of these, he estimated that almost 300 were produced before or around the year 1000. The Innovating Knowledge project followed in his footsteps. Boosted by the new digital technologies, we can now account for almost 500 pre-1000 manuscripts (and we have surely not found every single codex yet). The fact that we decided to build an online database rather than publish our findings as a printed catalogued or a similar resource means that we can continue to refine, correct, and expand our observations. And that is not the only advantage over a traditional publishing model.

The map of all known current locations of manuscripts in the database

We are currently preparing the release of v2.1 of the Innovating Knowledge database (v1.0 was released in April 2021 and v2.0 in October 2021). If all goes well, you can look forward to:

  • 485 detailed manuscript descriptions, often more thorough and detailed than you can find anywhere else;
  • 407 manuscript images, including of manuscripts the sample images of which you will find nowhere else;
  • 285 sets of full digital facsimiles, which you can open, browse through, and compare directly through the database interface (thanks to the IIIF technology);
  • 962 links to external resources, where you can find the same manuscripts described in a different context;
  • More than 600 unique relationships identified between described manuscripts;
  • Two map views allowing you to see the geographical distribution of the manuscripts.

The database will also allow you to explore:

  • 97 manuscripts embedding the text of the Etymologiae into a larger collection;
  • 87 manuscripts containing annotations;
  • 58 manuscripts containing diagrams;
  • 53 manuscripts containing notable interpolations;
  • 94 manuscripts containing other innovative features.

And of course, you can download the data powering the database, or various selections from it, directly through the database interface.

The entire Innovating Knowledge team hopes you will enjoy this fruit of our labour and find it useful. While we are working towards the release of the new version, you can also let us know if you think there is anything that needs to be improved further or if you like our database so far!

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