The difficult Latin of Renaissance Natural History



In my last blog post I announced I had found funding to start a research project looking at a seventeenth century Latin Natural History text. I am now well underway, kindly sponsored by the Antiquaries of London and the Alice McCosh Trust.
Robert Sibbald’s (1684) Scotia Illustrata is a really important text. One of the reasons for this is that it gives a full catalogue of wildlife found in seventeenth century Scotland. Most naturalists of the time period wanted to just write down every species of wildlife known at the time. Sibbald however, restricted himself to just writing about the species he had observed or had had people write to him about. That makes it a really important work for trying to reconstruct Scotland’s pre-industrial fauna. That includes some quite surprising species, and I’m planning to publish my findings next year.

Click more to keep reading.

I’ve started translating the book and it’s going quite well. I’ve gone through the small section which has been translated before and I am now setting out on my own. My early impressions are that the text is very derivative in places – Sibbald doesn’t mind quoting for pages and pages. Also it is surprisingly medical. The last translator (Mullens, 1912) left out all the parts of the text where Sibbald talks about which species can be used for medicine, as well as which taste the most delicious. Presumably using eagles for eye drops (and then eating the remains) would not have gone down so well in the British Birds journal in the 1910s!

Robert Sibbald’s Latin has a reputation for being very difficult, and I think it’s lived up to that. The medical terminology is particularly tricky – lots of rare words for gout and leprosy and shingles and diseases which we don’t even treat as diseases anymore. His Latin is also sometimes grammatically clumsy, and he often quotes sources without attributing it, meaning the Latin suddenly changes style.

The Latin phrase I am having the most trouble translating though is something that comes up again and again. When Sibbald wants to tell his readers that some people eat a species of animal, he always explains it is ‘in cibum venit’. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Capella, sive Vanellus, the Lap-wing, or Bastard Plover. In cibum venit. Saporis boni est, nec succi improbi.

Capella; or Vanellus; the Lap-wing; or Bastard Plover. It comes in food. It is of good taste, not of poor flavour.

Mullens (1912) stopped translating this line after “lap wing” so as to avoid swearing. It’s funny to us now that his Victorian sensibilities were more fragile than Sibbald’s seventeenth century ones, but it does mean his translation only tells half the story. He customary leaves out most of the information about each species. More on that another time.

Here’s another example.

Alka Hoieri, the Auk, nostratibus the Scout. In Insulā Bassa. Ove ejus Gallinacis majora, nigris punctis interstincta. In cibum venit.

Alka Hoieri; the Auk {razorbill}; called by our people the Scout. Found on the Bass Rock. Its egg is bigger than a hen’s, with many black spots.  It comes in food.

This one’s a bit tricky. I initially fell into the trap of thinking this description was of the (now extinct) great auk (Pinguinus impennis). The auk was a bird like a penguin which used to be caught and eaten a lot because it could not fly. However, the Auk in Sibbald’s English seems to have referred to the bird we now call the razorbill (Alca torda), as Mullens translation notes. We can be certain about this because Sibbald relies heavily for his ornithological information on the descriptions of birds given in Willughby & Ray’s (1676) Ornithology, and in there the difference is quite clear.

So what about this ‘in cibum venit’?

The phrase literally means ‘it comes in food’, so the meaning is clear, but I don’t know quite how to translate it. It probably can’t be “people come to it as a food” because venit needs a singular subject.  It also can’t be “taken as food” because venit is active not passive.

This isn’t exactly a Latin problem, more of a how can I convey this in English one. Cast your votes please!



Mullens, W.H., 1912. Robert Sibbald and his Prodromus. British Birds, 6, pp.34–57.


One response to “The difficult Latin of Renaissance Natural History

  1. “In cibum venit” is more literally “it comes INTO food”. Why not translate as “It beCOMES food”, with a note that this is Sibbald’s regular expression?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s