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.

Pre tých, ktorých zaujímajú dejiny epidémii

Váš najskromnejší rozprávač sa s vami dnes chce podeliť s malou novinkou: tento mesiac vychádza v slovenčina kniha, na ktorej sa autorsky podieľal. Ide o Epidémie v dejinách z dielne redakcie HistoryWebu. O čom táto kniha je asi samovravné.

Váš najskromnejší rozprávač prispel do tohoto titulu troma článkami. Dva z nich sú venované starším epidémiam a ich úlohe pri rozpade Rímskej ríše. V treťom článku sa dozviete niečo o tom, ako vznikol typicky morový kostým s vtáčím zobákom a kto ho vlastne nosil. Celkovo v knihe Epidémie v dejinách nájdete 35 článkov venovaných epidémiam od praveku až po 20. storočie. Stretnete sa so starými známymi akými sú bubonický mor, cholera, týfus, hepatitída, malária alebo Španielska chrípka, no tiež s niektorými menej známymi dejinnými aktérmi, akými boli rôzne hemoragické horúčky.

Pokiaľ vás úloha patogénov na chod dejín zaujíma, knihu si môžete objednať tu.

Project Bilan: After 2 Years

At the end of April 2020, the Innovating Knowledge project has silently reached the end of its second year. In normal circumstances, there would be one more year to go. However, in the altered circumstances of the corona crisis, it is evident that the project will be expanded by at least a few months. How much extra time is the project going to need will depend on when fieldwork abroad can be resumed. It is still unclear what it will mean for the health of the project and the timeline of planned outputs. It is fitting that this is the first piece of news that appears in this blog post. But now, let’s have a look at how the project has been faring in the last year.

The project’s most significant move forward was the progress in the development of the project database, which is to serve as an interactive manuscript catalogue of the pre-1000 manuscripts transmitting the Etymologiae as well as a research tool allowing for visualization of some of the most important innovations of these manuscripts. About a year ago, I reached the end of what I called ‘stage 1’ in the database development, meaning that I cleaned and enriched my original data source (Anspach’s 1940s handlist of the manuscripts of the Etymologiae) using the two key catalogues of pre-900 manuscripts (Bischoff’s Katalog and Lowe’s CLA). At the end of April 2019, the database contained, as a result, ~ 380 items (up from Anspach’s ~ 300 items). I commenced what I called ‘stage 2’ of the development, improving the data formalization model, further cleaning and enriching the data, and gathering new data from lesser sources and in-person examinations. At the end of ‘stage 2’, I hoped to have the basic component of the database ready for publication and testing. I am glad to say that ‘stage 2’ was completed at the end of March 2020. The ‘mastersheet’ now contains ~ 440 items and reached a satisfactory form. Naturally, they may be some latecomers added to the manuscript corpus. Also, there is undoubtedly a lot to check, correct and clean, not to speak of the fact that I have not been able to examine 30-40 manuscripts, which now have been itemized in the database, but for which little to no data is available. For now, however, the ‘mastersheet’ is good to go. My main goals now are to have a testable beta-version of the core database component online and to commence ‘stage 3’, which will add a new data layer to the core database component.

This being said, I have hoped for several months to see the ‘mastersheet’ online in a form that allows for basic operations (visualization, searching, filtering, download, linking to external resources). I have been assured by my manager of our institute’s digital infrastructure that a beta-version with basic functionality can be online in January. Still, there has so far been no sight of it, and even now, in May 2020, it seems to be in development. My plan has been to delegate the development of the database interface to a specialist service-provider (so that I can devote myself to research and to other project tasks and since my coding skills are minimal and I could not hope to produce anything acceptable unless it would take 100% of my time). Now, this decision is a source of immense but unavoidable frustration. To tell you the truth, I will be happy if I see the core component (aka the interactive manuscript catalogue) online eventually. I am slowly resigning on the idea of seeing any of the other components (aka the visualization tools). You will surely hear more from me about the database development soon.

Many pitfalls and frustrations notwithstanding, the database development already proved to fuel the project. It led me to make important realizations about the nature of the object studied – the manuscripts of the Etymologiae. I can now see that I need to draw lines between manuscripts transmitting the canonical Etymologiae, the various non-canonical formats of this text, which are so abundant in the early Middle Ages but badly understudied, and the fragments, which must be treated as objects sui generis. I can see that ‘innovation’ has a different meaning in the case of each of the three categories of material, requiring them to be separated for further analysis.

Another big step forward since last year concerns the digital edition of glosses to the first book of the Etymologiae. I have now transcribed glosses from all 25 core manuscript witnesses as well as from additional 37 manuscripts. This means that the raw material is more or less ready. Now is the high time to start encoding these glosses in XML (with the help of my great colleague Peter Boot who prepared a TEI schema for me!). I would wish to be busying away encoding right now but have fallen behind terribly since the beginning of 2020. I am now at least several months delayed and thus worried about producing presentable outputs (the edition). I sincerely hope I will be able to catch up on editing very soon thanks to the corona lockdown.

I can see that since last year, I have been on ten field trips, bringing the total of visited libraries to about 20. Some of the most satisfying of these trips was a visit to the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin (May 2019) and a visit to the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (November 2019). There are still almost 40 libraries left that own manuscripts which are not described satisfactorily and thus require personal inspection. It is obvious that I can visit only a handful of them. The top priority are libraries in northern Italy, Spain, Bavaria and Switzerland, as well as returning to Paris and the Vatican for another dip. In fact, I was planning to be in Italy in April and in Germany and Switzerland in May but had to scrap my plans due to the pandemic. I hope that the few months of extension I can ask for will be enough to make up for the unwanted hiatus in 2020 and perhaps some libraries will take it as a cue to speed up the digitization of their manuscript collections.

Given that about a year ago, I had only one project-related article submitted (and it is still not out), it is really satisfying to see that I was able to move on the project publications. I have successfully submitted my first case study as a license for medieval studies thesis in June 2019. I am now about to send it off to a journal (still requires some editing). A book review for Fragmentology is out since the end of 2019. I have also submitted a survey article, the first fruit of the database-powered research, in February this year. I am currently finishing an article about the materiality of the early manuscripts of the Etymologiae as a crucial pathway for innovations, which should be ready to go by the end of May. There are still several draft articles on my desk and a few more good article ideas in my mental drawer. I don’t know how many of them will I be able to submit while the project is running, or how many I will be able to finish at all. Still, my hopes are high, mostly because of how great the project data are. At times, one feels the articles are begging to be written.

I have published a call for papers for my end-project conference in February. Because of the current crisis, it is a big mystery whether it can take place physically in October as planned. Since I received more abstracts than I could accommodate speakers at the conference, making the conference digital may be an excellent opportunity to keep as many of them as possible. I see it as a call to experiment with the traditional conference format, which is not always satisfactory anyways. Any tips for how to manage a conference in the corona times are welcomed!

In the Autumn of 2019, I have also had my first project intern, a master student from Utrecht University who wrote her seminar paper about my manuscripts under my supervision. I hope it was just as useful experience for her as it was for me. Since she is probably the only intern I will have, the three months we spent meeting weekly to learn about the early medieval fragments of the Etymologiae are particularly dear to me. Thanks to her, I was inspired to revisit the question of fragments, their transmission and their importance as a test group for non-fragmentary preserved material. I have acquired images of 63 of the 78 items in my corpus that are fragments (and a few more are hopefully underway) in the hope that at least some of them can end on the Fragmentarium website. It is now more than a year since I talked with members of the Fragmentarium team about this option and I am a bit ashamed I have not moved much in this respect. I still have hope that the fragments can appear on Fragmentarium someday, although maybe not many of them and not until the very end of the project.

Last but not least, I have engaged in a lot of scientific communication about the project. In June 2019, I spoke about my project at a NerdNite in Bratislava. In November 2019, I participated in a triple-talk tour as a part of Slovak Week of Science. I was also interviewed for a podcast and for a radio show. In October last year, I organized a talk about the copyright issues connected with the ongoing digitization of historical collections. And the most fabulous update of all is that this website is up!

Looking back at what I was able to achieve in the course of the last twelve months makes me feel both happy and frustrated. I can see that the project is finally starting to take a definitive shape (and looks quite different from how I envisaged it when I submitted my grant application). It is generating first presentable results that are on their way to the press. However, I can also see that I am trying to do too many things in too short a time. I knew I was doing too much when I was starting this project in 2018. I thought that many ideas would wither away on their own, allowing me to stay focused on the few best ones. Yet, two years later, I can see I have not discarded enough ideas. I am clinging to too many exciting directions, juggling the database, the edition, the project publications, the research trips, the project conference, and a (still only potential) collaboration with the Fragmentarium. I have always had a hard time to drop down projects. I feel that in this way, I am doing a disservice to my project. If there were fewer sub-projects tied in, they would be closer to completion.

If you have any tips or comments stemming from this report, let me know!

Call for Papers: Networks of Manuscripts, Networks of Texts

The ‘Innovating Knowledge’ Project is calling for submissions for an international conference to be held on

22-23 October 2020

at Huygens ING, Amsterdam

In the last decade, methods of network analysis developed by social scientists have been increasingly applied to historical disciplines. As a result, we have seen the emergence of new bodies of researchers working with network analytical methods, such as Social Network Analysis Research in the Middle Ages (SNARMA), and new journals, such as the Journal of Historical Network Research (JHNR). Researchers studying premodern manuscript cultures have been actively engaged with this new methodological trend. Completed and ongoing projects make it clear that the methods of network analysis can be applied to the study of premodern manuscripts and manuscript texts and yield relevant and exciting results. However, it is also clear that scholars of premodern written cultures face unique challenges when engaging with network analysis stemming from the nature of the material they are working with. Not all methods devised by social scientists are applicable to manuscripts and texts, while in other cases, established methods need to be adapted to and reinvented for new needs. Working with large corpora of manuscripts and texts, and approaching premodern written cultures from a quantitative perspective bring their unique challenges to fields that have a long tradition of looking at their subjects in small quantities and with a qualitative lens. As any young methodological subfield, the study of premodern manuscripts and manuscript texts using network analysis is still in an exploratory stage, with theoretical frameworks being forged and methods tested.

This conference aims to bring together researchers applying network analysis to premodern manuscripts and manuscript texts. We would like to invite researchers working in all fields of premodern manuscript studies and researchers working with manuscript texts who engage with the methods and concepts stemming from network analysis. Key topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Theoretical reflections on the challenges and advantages of applying network analysis, including social network analysis, to premodern written cultures;
  • Application of network analysis to corpora of premodern manuscripts and texts;
  • Network analysis as a means of understanding the circulation of texts and transmission of knowledge in the premodern period;
  • Quantitative study of networks of medieval book exchange and letter exchange;
  • Network analysis as a tool of textual criticism and text editing;
  • Network graphs as stemmata of texts and genres with complex textual history;
  • Networks of co-citation of premodern authors and authoritative texts;
  • Networks of co-occurrence and compilation of texts in medieval manuscripts;
  • Network analysis as a tool for the study of annotation practices and commentary traditions in premodern manuscript cultures;
  • Network analysis as a tool for the study of citation and reception in premodern manuscript cultures.

We welcome proposals in two categories: a) 30- minute full papers suitable for presenting completed or ongoing research; and b) 20-minute exploratory papers suitable for presenting newly started research or research proposals that are still being developed. The second category is particularly intended for early career researchers who are new to the field of network analysis and wish to have their ideas tested in front of an expert audience.

A keynote by Matteo Valleriani (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin/Technische Universität Berlin/University of Tel Aviv) is included on the first day of the conference.

Proposals of between 300 and 500 words should be sent to Dr Evina Steinová at evina.steinova@gmail.com by the end of April 2020. Authors of successful submissions will be informed by the end of June 2020 and encouraged to submit full papers in the following months so that they can be circulated in advance to stimulate a fruitful discussion.

The language of the conference will be English. We offer to cover the accommodation costs for two nights and provide lunches. We also intend to provide a small number of bursaries to speakers who may need travel assistance.

For further information, contact Dr Evina Steinová at evina.steinova@gmail.com.

You can download this call for paper here.