Tag Archives: linguistic drift

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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Sea-birds and Wanderlust

Species: Several, most importantly seagull (Larus argentatus) and cuckoo (Cuculus canorus).

Source: Two Old English lyric elegies: ‘The Seafarer’ and ’The Wanderer’.

Date: Seafarer c.850, Wanderer c.900 AD. (Klinck, 1992:13-21)

Highlights: Tolkien’s totally stole the idea of “sea-longing” from medieval poetry.

Now I’m not saying Tolkien was a sneaking-snaking-snarer who purposefully snuck medieval literature into his stories to educate people, but, well, they didn’t call him Professor for nothing. Photograph by Julian Nitzsche CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Now I’m not saying Tolkien was a sneaking-snaking-snarer who purposefully snuck medieval literature into his stories to educate people, but, well, they didn’t call him Professor for nothing.
Photograph by Julian Nitzsche CC-BY-SA 3.0.

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The Early Extinction Date of the Beaver (Castor fiber) in Britain: paper now available

Species: Beaver (Castor fiber)

Source: My paper looks at an exhaustive list of reliable historical documents, selected depending on their reference to other wild species of mammal.

Date: The texts range from  c.1200-1607 in south Britain and 1526-1684 in Scotland. Beavers are only found in those at the start of each period.

Highlights: If beavers were still around in south Britain after 1300 and Scotland after 1600 they must have suddenly started hiding-out.

beaver by river

Photograph of European beaver by Harald Olsen, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

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Pine trees and DEATH

Strand of Scots Pine

Strand of Scots Pine photographed by Gwen and James Anderson and licensed under CC-AT-SA. This photo is missing DEATH.

Species: ‘pin’, usually thought to be (Pinus sylvestris) but could be yew (Taxus Baccata) or generic term for conifers.

Source: The ‘Song of Roland’, a piece of Crusades propaganda.

Date: Most probably c.1098-1100 A.D.

Highlights: If you believe the ‘Song of Roland’, every soldier rushes to the nearest pine tree whenever they are either (i) meeting a rich person or (ii) about to die. Pretty cool, eh?

The only trouble is, pine trees are supposed to have been extinct in England and northern France when the text was written…

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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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What happens when you cut a wyrm in half?

Image of worm and wyrm
Earthworm photographed by Jacopo Werther, licensed under CC-SA-BY 2.0. Hydra concept art from Dragon’s Dogma, a 2012 computer game. Display and discussion of this cover image comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species Mentioned: Folklore originally attached to various medieval fictional serpents but now attached (falsely) to all British earthworms.

Source: Most medieval Bestiaries.

Date: Bestiary tradition most popular in Britain c.1150-1450.

Highlights: The source attests that snakes can be chopped into pieces and still try to kill you like an ineffective cartoon supervillain. Many people in Britain sometimes still believe this about worms, the modern descendants of poisonous “wyrms” to this day. Are we really any less gullible than our predecessors?

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