Isidore of Seville, On the Nature of Things

BookIsidore of Seville, On the Nature of Things

Isidore of Seville, On the Nature of Things

Translated Texts for Historians, 66


May 12th, 2016



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For scholars in the European Middle Ages, Isidore, bishop of Seville (560? — 636) was one of the most influential authorities for understanding the natural world. Isidore’s On the Nature of Things is the first work on natural science by a Christian author that is not a commentary on the creation story in Genesis. Instead, Isidore adopted a classical model to describe the structure of the physical cosmos, and discuss the principles of astronomy, physics, geography, meteorology and time-reckoning. Into this framework he incorporated an eclectic array of ancient and patristic erudition. The fact that On the Nature of Things presents an essentially Greco-Roman picture of the universe, but amplified with Christian reflections and allegories, played a crucial role in the assimilation of ancient science into the emerging culture of the Middle Ages. It exerted a deep and long-lasting influence on scholars like Bede, one of whose earliest works was an adaptation of On the Nature of Things.
On the Nature of Things provides a new window into vital intellectual currents, as yet largely unexplored, flowing from Visigothic Spain into Celtic Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, and Merovingian France. This is the first translation of this work into English. The introduction places the work in the context of Isidore's milieu and concerns, and traces the remarkable diffusion of his book. A chapter-by-chapter commentary explains how Isidore selected and transformed his source material, and added his own distinctive features, notably the diagrams that gave this work its medieval name The Book of Wheels (Liber rotarum).


'We can no longer use the definitive Jacques Fontaine edition of 'On the Nature of Things'without taking into account the additions and corrections of Calvin B. Kendall and Faith Wallis, sufficing to show the importance of the book.'
Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2017

'Kendall and Wallis engage in a lively fashion with Fontaine and present new theories and developments in an equally thorough and lucid way. As such this volume is now, and rightly destined to be the first port of call for any Anglophone, and perhaps many non-Anglophone scholars in work on Isidore's fascinating text.
Andrew Fear, Exemplaria Classica

Author Information

Calvin B. Kendall is Emeritus Professor of English, University of Minnesota. Faith Wallis is Associate Professor in the Department of History at McGill University, Montreal.

Table of Contents

Section TitlePage
Illustrations and Table                              
Isidore’s Life, Times, and Writings
   Grammar as a principle of knowledge
   Church discipline and biblical exegesis
Isidore’s On the Nature of Things in Context
   Purposes and preoccupations
   Appeal to reason                            
   Wider ends: a Christianized erudition?
Composite Construction                              
   Text and image
   Fontaine’s theory of three Recensions
   Single or multiple authorship?
   The short recension: two types
   The medium recension
   Three Spanish interpolations?
   The long recension
   The mystical addition
Out of Spain and Into the Future  
   Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England    
   Traffic between Spain and Italy
   Germany and Switzerland: the Zofingenmeta morphosis
   On the Nature of Things in manuscript and print
Inventory of Manuscripts and Editions
Principles Governing this Translation
Isidore of Seville: On the Nature of Things
Preface: Isidore, to his Lord and Son, Sisebut
List of Chapters
1. Days
2. Night
3. The Week
4. The Months
Diagram 1: the months
5. The Concordance of the Months
6. The Years
7. The Seasons                                
Diagram 2: the seasons
8. The Solstice and the Equinox
9. The World
10. The Five Circles of the World
Diagram 3: the circles of the world
11. The Parts of the World
Diagram 4: the elements
Diagram 5: the macrocosm and microcosm
12. Heaven and Its Name
13. The Planets of Heaven
14. The Heavenly Waters    
15. The Nature of the Sun
16. The Size of the Sun and the Moon
17. The Course of the Sun
18. The Light of the Moon
Diagram 5A: the phases of the moon
19. The Course of the Moon
20. The Eclipse of the Sun
21. The Eclipse of the Moon
22. The Course of the Stars
23. The Position of the Seven Wandering Stars
Diagram 6: the planets
24. The Light of the Stars
25. The Fall of the Stars
26. The Names of the Stars
27. Whether the Stars have a Soul
28. Night
29. Thunder
30. Lightning
31. The Rainbow
32. Clouds
33. Rains
34. Snow
35. Hail
36. The Nature of the Winds
37. The Names of the Winds
Diagram 7: the winds
38. Signs of Storms or Fair Weather
39. Pestilence
40. The Ocean’s Tide
41. Why the Sea does Not Grow in Size
42. Why the Sea has Bitter Waters
43. The River Nile
44. The Names of the Sea and the Rivers
45. The Position of the Earth
46. Earthquake
47. Mount Etna
48. The Parts of the Earth
Diagram of the world: T-O map
1. The Verse Epistle of King Sisebut
2. Introductory Formulas for the Diagram of the Winds (Diagram 7) in Chapter 37
3. Extracts from Chapter 37 Arranged within the Diagram of the Winds
4. The Poem of the Winds
5. Textual Insertions in Chapter 48 and T-O Map
6. The Zofingen and English Types of the Long Recension                                                        
Index of Sources                                
General Index