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Isidore and the Theater Joseph R. Jones For Eric W. Naylor Modem readers of Isidore’s works have difficulty reconciling what they know about ancient drama with the accounts of theatrical matters extracted from the Visigothic bishop’s Etymologies.1 Isidore seems to say, for example, that a play, or at least an ancient play, was always recited by one person while mute actors gesticulated; that theaters served as brothels when the audience had left; that the Song of Solomon is a drama; that Horace was a dramatist; and so on. Such notions were actually widespread in the Middle Ages, surviving well into the sixteenth century, and scholars from the Renaissance to the present, with their ever-increasing knowledge of Antiquity, have blamed Isidore for perpetuating a distorted view of, among other things, Classical drama. Isaac Casaubon, for instance, in a 1605 essay on the satyr play, says with Olympian condescension that “poor Isidore” or his sources entirely misunderstood Greek comedy and satire.2 Nevertheless, both the learned bishop’s views and his sources are worthy of respectful consideration, and for untold numbers of students from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries, his Etymologies in particular provided, as E. R Curtius notes, “a stock of information concerning the theory and history of literature which the middle ages could find in no other writer.”3 Indeed, to understand medieval views on any subject, according to Curtius, one must “read the Etymologiae as the medieval reader did—as a book which is all of a piece and of binding authority” (p. 455). The study which follows consists of excerpts and translations of Isidore’s data on theatrical matters, with observations on the sources and JOSEPH R. JONES, Professor of Spanish at the University of Kentucky, has edited works by Guevara and Cervantes and is also known as a translator and author of articles on various aspects of early Spanish literature. 26 Joseph R. Jones 27 on analogues which help to “reconstruct the meaning” (Curtius, p. 439) of Isidore’s sometimes puzzling statements. What emerges is not, as the reader will see, a complete picture of the theatrical practices of the ancient world but random notes which are generally accurate, or at least are reasonable deduc­ tions, given the state of classical learning in Visigothic Spain. The medieval determination to see them as coherent and “all of a piece” is the source of certain misconceptions of which Isidore himself is entirely innocent. Before approaching the Twenty Books of Etymologies or Origins, the principal source of this study, it is useful to recall Isidore’s own description of it as a work “on the origin of various things gathered from recollections of readings in the ancients, to which are added in some places etymologies taken from the ancient authors.”4 In other words, it is not a systematic exposition but a collection of data on the origin—i.e., the invention, the discovery, the first instance—of things that caught the bishop’s eye as he read. Isidore’s description of the Etymo­ logies is, of course, conventionally modest. The book contains a great deal besides “discoveries” and pertinent etyma, even as modem dictionaries contain chronologies, maps, and an inter­ national Who’s Who. But in conception at least it is a work on origins and related linguistic matters. To put it into perspective, one should remember that Isidore also compiled a volume of “differences” between similar words and perhaps one or more of the glossaries attributed to him in the Middle Ages. Taken together, they form a notable dictionary. Isidore is our medieval Dr. Johnson. He was not, however, a Diderot, and the persis­ tent description of the Etymologies as an encyclopedia is extremely misleading. It is actually a sort of infinitely expand­ able collection of highly concentrated notes, the medieval equivalent of a scholar’s file of 3” x 5” cards. And it is, by its nature, incomplete. In fairness to Isidore, then, one must not demand of him what he never claims to have offered, a complete account of everything. With his stated purpose in mind, one is better prepared to approach what Isidore says about theater, beginning with the history...


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