Spotlight: A medieval encyclopaedia

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By | Early Medicine, From the Collections

The Etymologies of Isidore, bishop of Seville, which he began to write in Latin before 620 AD, is one of the earliest Western encyclopaedias. After Isidore’s death in 636, his student Braulio, bishop of Zaragoza, edited the final text. Based on the idea that the essential meaning or origin of a subject resided in its name, the text took the form of a dictionary, and covered a wide range of topics, including medicine and human anatomy.

Page from Etymologies

‘The tree of affinity’: woodcut illustration showing degrees of consanguinity, fo. 127v. Image credit: Elma Brenner. Wellcome Library reference: EPB Incunabula 3.e.3

Isidore’s work was popular throughout the medieval period, as evidenced by the survival of a large number of manuscripts. One of the Library’s best-known medieval manuscripts, Western MS. 372, is an incomplete copy of the Etymologies made in the late twelfth century. It is richly decorated, and contains illustrations of a T-O world map and tables of consanguinity (showing degrees of kinship). Less well known is the Library’s incunabulum of the text, printed at Augsburg in November 1472. This product of the dawn of printing sheds light on the continuing importance of the work at the end of the Middle Ages, and also marks a key moment in the history of early printing in Germany.

The book is one of more than 600 incunabula (books printed before 1501) held by the Library. With over 100 other incunabula, it was purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome from the collection of the publisher Kurt Wolff (1887–1963) in 1926. At this time Henry Wellcome already owned a large number of pre-1501 books, many obtained at the sale of the collection of William Morris (1834–96) in 1898.

Fourteen editions of the Etymologies were printed between 1470 and 1509, demonstrating that the work was still relevant and popular at this time. It was not the only early medieval encyclopaedia that continued to be read: the Library has two incunabulum copies of On the natures of things compiled in 842–6 by Rabanus Maurus (c. 780–856), which was an adaptation of the Etymologies. The printing of this work in 1467 preceded the first printing of Isidore’s text, and it has been considered to be the first printed medical book, even though it also addresses many other topics.

The Library’s incunabulum of the Etymologies is an example of very fine printing, with woodcut illustrations that correspond to those in Western ms. 372. It is the first dated book that was printed in Germany in Roman type. It has initials rubricated by hand, showing how manuscript techniques featured in the production of very early printed books. Although the pages have luxurious wide margins, there is almost no marginal annotation, suggesting that this book may have been a prized possession rather than actually being read.

Like Rabanus Maurus’s text, Isidore of Seville’s early encyclopedia remained important at the end of the medieval period as a canonical text, a repository of knowledge that signified the status and learning of those who owned it. Although, with the advent of print, the methods by which scholarly works were reproduced were changing radically, the texts that had dominated for centuries were not yet challenged or replaced.

Author: Dr Elma Brenner is Specialist, Medieval and Early Modern Medicine at the Wellcome Library.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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