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Holy Information: a New Look at Raban Maur's De Naturis Rerum Two major encyclopedias were compiled in Western Europe in the earlier Middle Ages: the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, in the early seventh century, and Raban Maur's De naturis rerum (usually wrongly called De universo), in the early ninth century. Between them these two works dominated thefieldof Christian encyclopedic scholarship until the twelfth century. Only then was the compilation of new encyclopedias felt to be necessary; in the years between 1120 and 1270, at least five major new works appeared, as well as several smaller books.1 The importance of Isidore's work has been emphasized by many modern scholars. D e Ghellinck, for example, says: "rarely has the title of founder been more deserved", for Isidore "is, with Cassiodorus, the chief agent of liaison and transmission between Antiquity and the Middle Ages". The Etymologiae "was used by the Middle Ages under all possible forms"; "there is no medieval author who does not make use of Isidore".2 Curtius's opinion is similar: "the importance of this work cannot be overestimated; it may be called the basic book of the entire Middle Ages". In his view also, Isidore "transmits the sum of late antique knowledge to posterity".3 There is general agreement with these views. Isidore's Etymologiae was a crucial book in the intellectual history of Western Europe, both as a summary of classical knowledge and as a source for writers in subsequent centuries. The modern assessment of Raban Maur's De naturis rerum is far less favourable. Robert Collison, in the standard history of encyclopedias, criticizes Raban's use of his sources, the structure of his work, and its purpose. The De naturis rerum is "in effect a plagiarism of Isidore's encyclopedia," says Collison, but Raban, "by omitting at leastfiveof Isidore's books and mutilating the rest produced an untidy mess". Raban's purpose "was always strictly theological. Items (in particular, the liberal arts) which he felt were not relevant to the Scriptures he omitted".4 The general impression conveyed is of an unoriginal, badly organized, and narrowly based work, a poor imitation of Isidore. Other modern authors are only slightly less harsh. D e Ghellinck accuses Raban of "shameless plagiarism" and remarks that, although his work was greatly Robert Collison, Encyclopaedias, 2nd edn.. N e w York, 1966, 49-62. 2 Joseph de Ghellinck, Litterature latine au moyen &ge, vol. 1, Paris, 1939, 28-29. 3 Emst Curtius, European Litterature and the Latin Middle Ages, London, 1953, 23, 496-497. See also: Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Siville et la culture classique dans I'Espagne Wisigothique, Paris, 1959; and Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages - Isidore of Seville, N e w York, 1912. 4 Collison, op.cil., 36-37. Raban Maur's De Naturis Rerum 29 appreciated in the ninth century, it "has not met with the same esteem among modern critics, and not without justification, it must be acknowledged". The De naturis rerum is usually described as no more than "a revised version" of Isidore's Etymologiae, "a new and somewhat altered edition".5 Are these opinions of Raban's work justified? A closer look at the structure and purpose of the De naturis rerum and at its relationship with Isidore's book suggests that they are not. There is undoubtedly a close link between the Etymologiae and Raban's De naturis rerum, but the connection is more subtle than is generally realized. Raban does quote verbatim from Isidore for most of his purely descriptive, nonmystical material. In a few chapters, however, this material comes instead from other patristic sources: on church dogmas (4.10); the contents of Biblical books (5.3); time, months, and the six ages of the world (10.1, 10.10, 10.14); torrents (11.11); and the branches of knowledge (15.1). For several other subjects, Raban dispenses altogether with descriptive material, whether from Isidore or any other source; the entries are entirely mystical: on Biblical persons (4.1); the human body (6.2-3);tight,the sun and the moon, and constellations (9.7-10, 9.12-16); fire, coals, and ashes (9.21-24); Biblical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 28-37
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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