Ruminating on Donkey Lore [12:37-39] (Latin)

{A curious depiction of the donkey from a medieval manuscript. Image from the National Libary of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.}

Introduction
Translation
Recordings
The Medieval Bizarre
Under Early Riders
Closing

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Introduction

After a brief explanation of just how the cud is chewed, Isidore moves on to talk about donkeys. Goats might be lusty, but donkeys might just be kinda kinky.

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Translation

[37] “Indeed chewing the cud, rumination, is so called from the ruma, the part of the throat that is most eminent, by which these animals send back up their food from the fixed point of no return in their throats.

[38] “Ass and young donkey (asinus et asellus) are so called from “to be seated” (sedendo), like a seat: but this name, which is fitting for large horses, is given to the ass for the reason that this animal was used before horses to carry people, indeed these presided over the beginning. Since this animal is slow and holds no reason, it stands so that it can be put to people’s service by its own will.

[39] “Onager means wild ass. For in fact, the Greeks call asses onon: agrion for the wild ones. These Africa has in large numbers and untamed they wander through the deserts. On the other hand, the female alone is in herds. Males are born jealous and they pull down their testicles by biting, which they hide in secret locations and keep from their mothers.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:37-39)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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The Medieval Bizarre

St. Isidore might have named his encyclopedia the “Etymologies” since it’s all about the origins of things, but along for the ride are some absolutely wild bits of lore.

Up there with the idea that cranes feed their chicks with their own blood and beavers gnaw off their testicles to distract prey while they escape, is Isidore’s bizarre explanation of why male donkeys do not run in packs. What’s unclear – even in this loose translation – is why the donkeys pull their testicles down in the first place.

Are they the prototypical males that are incredibly insecure about the size of their manhood and practicing an early form of animal enhancement?

Or is this just the result of somebody observing a few donkeys over eagerly cleaning their crotches? This last question raises another question, can horses do the same? Or are quadrupeds not quite that flexible? Since dogs are able to, maybe horses are just more private about it, whereas all of the donkeys running around 7th century Africa were constantly “pulling down their testicles by biting” (“testiculos eorum morsu detruncant” 12:39).

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{Looking pretty humble, but is it a dog or a donkey? The little creature near the donkey’s back leg looks curiously like some kind of miniature. Image from the National Libary of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.}

Under Early Riders

Donkeys being the first animal ridden by people is another curious fact, though much less bizarre than that discussed above.

Of course, this kind of a fact is going to be geographically sensitive – people will ride what’s around as long as it’s occurred to them. If there were an island somewhere where the dogs were big enough and the people small enough, chances are, by the time this island were discovered, its people would be found riding its dogs.

Still, for the Mediterranean part of the world of which Isidore wrote, this is a curious fact since it suggests that there might be something more to Christ’s riding into Jerusalem on a donkey than his being humbled and whatnot.

Maybe riding into a major city on the oldest known mode of transportation referred to some long lost mystery rite, or cult, or religion?

Or maybe it was a display of some kind popularized among the people or in the place that Jesus was during those years of his life that are not chronicled.

Or, perhaps the donkey is a reference to the possibly well-known contemporary idea that the donkey was the first mode of transportation and suggests that it’s still a reliable one – thereby alluding to the connection that Christians still mention between Christ and the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Of course, this would also depend on whether or not the donkey could represent the contemporary idea of the original Jewish religion as laid down in the Pentateuch.

Isidore definitely leaves some food for thought with this one, and just the kind of stuff that you can swallow, regurgitate, and chew up again – stuff so juicy you can really ruminate on it.

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Closing

On Thursday check out this blog for the continuing description of Wiglaf and his pedigree.

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