Incunabula and the Keio University Library Collection


Isidorus Hispalensis [Isidore of Seville], Etymologiae ([Strassburg]: [Johann Mentelin], [c. 1473])


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Etymologiae, written by St Isidore (c. 560-636CE), who was the bishop of Seville, is said to be the oldest encyclopaedia in Western civilization, and is considered to have inspired the wealth of encyclopaedic writing that followed it. The Etymologiae was widely consulted throughout the Middle Ages. It covers a wide range of topics – not only etymology, as the title suggests, but also law, grammar, history, mathematics, astronomy, ecclesiastical practices, architecture and agriculture. Moreover, it contains entries on metals, stones and living creatures. The Etymologiae played an important part in recording for posterity the knowledge and modes of thinking of the later Roman Empire.

Isidore studied at the Cathedral school of Seville, Spain, and he was well versed in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. After he succeeded to the See of Seville in or around 600 CE, Isidore made great efforts to protect Spain from the barbarism of the Goths, who had been in control of Spain for almost two centuries, and who disdained learning. Considered to be the most knowledgeable person at that time, Isidore encouraged the pursuit of learning and advocated a knowledge of the classics. The Etymologiae, his representative work, was written in his final years, at the suggestion of his friend, the Bishop of Zaragoza. It is the product of Isidore's mature scholarship. The highly acclaimed Etymologiae was widely used in schools during the Middle Ages, and it was reprinted many times. It is steeped in the classics – in fact, it was read more than the original texts themselves.

The Keio copy was printed by Johann Menterin (c. 1410-78) at Strasbourg in Alsace. Menterin first entered the book business as an illuminator, and it is presumed that he learned to print at Mainz. An early production of his is the first so-called 49-line German Bible (published in 1460 in Freiburg). It has been estimated that he could print 300 sheets a day.

Bibliographers disagree about which edition of the Etymologiae is older: Günther Zainer's November 1472 edition, printed in Augsburg, or Menterin's edition, printed c. 1473. Of Menterin's editions, those lacking the colophon are said to be older; the Keio copy lacks the colophon. The binding is old mottled calf over boards with a pigskin back, raised bands, and black morocco labels. The binding and body of the book are still in good condition. The bookplates of Boies Penrose and Boies Penrose II appear on the pastedown endpaper, along with an illegible stamp, which may be an owner's mark.

The body text of the Etymologiae is in Latin; it is printed in roman in a two-column format, with each column being fifty-one lines long. The initial letter 'D' on the first page is illuminated in pale purple and yellow-green. The initials in the body text are decorated in red and blue, while the headlines and underlines are inserted in vermilion. The book contains figures like pie charts, and diagrams shaped like trees; it also has several marginal notes. The two watermarks are (1) an heraldic emblem on the flyleaf, and (2) flowerage on the body text pages.



Isidorus Hispalensis [Isidore of Seville]
Place of Publication
[Johann Mentelin]


Date of Publication
[c. 1473]

Old mottled calf over boards, pigskin back, raised bands, with black morocco labels.

Bibliographical Notes

leaves (of 142), wanting a1 (blank); capital at book opening beautifully decorated; initials rubricated in red or blue throughout; occasional annotations in a later hand.

Goff I182, HC 9270*, BMC I 57, IJL 171, IJL2 213, PP 64
Acquisition Year

1. The Faculty of Philosophy at Vienna, 1686 (signature). 2. Boies Penrose (bookplate). 3. Boies Penrose II (bookplate), sold at Sotheby's sale, 1971, lot 121.