Tag Archives: linguistic approach

The Colours of New Latin

A badger labelled with the colours attributed to it in Sibbald (1684)

Badger (Meles meles) photographed by Mark Robinson, CC-BY 2.0. Colour analysis is mine.

I’m currently working on translating and analysing a seventeenth century natural history text called Scotia Illustrata by Robert Sibbald. It’s lots of fun but there are occasional bits I have trouble with. This week I looked at how sophisticated his colour terminology is, and found something very surprising…

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The difficult Latin of Renaissance Natural History

 

himantopus

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.

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Scotia Illustrata: pre-industrial Scotland

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Scotia Illustrata: pre-industrial Scotland, is a postdoctoral research project run by recent Cardiff University postgraduate Lee Raye, starting on July 1st 2016.

This will be the first ever project to fully translate and comment upon a pre-Linnean Natural History from Britain.

Robert Sibbald’s Scotia Illustrata (1684) provides a full record of Scotland’s natural resources in the years before the Industrial Revolution.

The first phase of the project has been generously funded by the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Alice McCosh Trust.

Interested parties can find out more about the work, author and text by visiting the project website: www.robert-sibbald.co.uk.

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What is a sea swallow? (morwennawl, morwennol)

Species: ‘Swallow’ (Hirunda sp.); ‘Sea-swallow’ (=tern, Sterna sp.)

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’, the earliest Welsh prose tale.

Date: c.1100 A.D., but from the oldest-seeing part of a story with a known ninth century version.

Highlights: Our story pauses mid-way through to admire the figure of Culhwch, boy-hero. He’s so fly, even the mud off his horse’s hooves come out like swallows, and his hounds are as agile as terns.

Common tern (Stena hirundo) photographed by Tony Hisgett.

Common tern (Stena hirundo) photographed by Tony Hisgett.

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Chaucer’s Weasel: A Love Story

weasel

Least weasel (M. nivalis) photographed by Medien-gbr and licensed for use under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

In one of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, the main character Alisoun is described as a weasel. Most scholars have taken this as a parody of courtly love, a sign of Alisoun’s promiscuity or the character’s weakness. Could this actually be a complement?

Species: A ‘wesele’. The term was generic in the medieval period  but most probably referred to Mustela nivalis, M. erminia or M. putorius.

Source: ‘The Miller’s Tale’, Chaucer’s most adult and therefore most well-known story.

Date: c.1380-1400.

Highlights: Alisoun, the main female character is compared to a weasel in her introduction. How could Chaucer say that about the poor innocent girl? Oh I remember. She’s a right weasel.

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Salmon, Sea Eagles and the earliest Welsh story

Atlantic Salmon photo

Atlantic Salmon (S. salar) photographed by Hans-Petter Fjeld, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.5.

Species: Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) AT WAR.

Source: ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ the oldest native (not imported) Welsh prose story.

Date: The version we have most probably c.1100 A.D., but some plot lines of the story also found mentioned in text from 828 A.D.

Highlights: The supposedly pointless oldest animals episode in Culhwch actually makes perfect sense, if you read it like a medieval person, with a knowledge of the species being discussed.

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What is a Beowulf?

Bear vs. Woodpecker

Brown bear photographed by Makeen Osman, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Great spotted woodpecker photographed by Maarten Visser and licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0. Compilation created by Lee Raye, and hereby released under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Species Mentioned: Possibly one bee-wolf (?Ursus Arctos? Dendrocopus Major?)

Source: ‘Beowulf’ the most famous Old English story.

Date: Uh-oh, best not to ask. The version we have probably somewhere c.700-1050.

Highlights: Beowulf is the all-star hero of his story, so his name must mean something, right? It quite nicely breaks down to beo-wulf (=bee-wolf). But what could a bee-wolf be?

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