Isidore of Seville’s High Praise for Horses [12:43] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
How Humors Figure into Horses?
Centaurs – A Passing Glance
Closing

{The constellation Centaurus, based on the super civilized Centaur, and great horse/human mix, Chiron. Image from The National Library of the Netherlands Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.}

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Abstract

Isidore spends time with the horses, much of which is taken up by praise.

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Translation

[43] “And from that steeds (“sonipeds”), whose hooves (“pedibus”) sound out (“sonat”). Horses live many lives: truly they leap through fields; they smell out war; they are roused by the sound of horn and battle; the voices of riders push them to running gaits; they are downtrodden when they are maltreated; they are riotous with joy when they win. Certain of them sense the enemy in war, so that they aim to bite the enemy; others truly recognize their proper master, they forget their tameness if exchanged; some receive none on their back except their master. If their master dies or grows ill they shed many tears. Truly horses alone cry and feel sorrowful emotions like humans. From whence horses and humans are naturally mixed in centaurs.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:43)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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How Humors Figure into Horses?

Though it is just one paragraph in the Etymologiae, paragraph 43 might just be the most neatly structured.

The beginning sets up the main character – the horse – with a straightforward etymology, then the middle celebrates all of its qualities, and the end brings those qualities to a climax. And the claim nestled within that climax – that horses are the only animal that feels human emotions – definitely puts horses far above the other animals that show human behavior (lambs, cattle, and deer).

Yet, it’s curious that in his summing up of the horse’s human-like capacity for emotion, Isidore only mentions “sorrowful emotions” (“doloris affectum” (12:43)). Earlier in the paragraph, when speaking of the horse’s joy when its side is victorious, it seems that the horse can also sense the joy in the winning side. But in the summing up there is no mention of such lighthearted emotions.

This could be the contemporary understanding of the melancholic humors coming into play.

Since the Renaissance, a melancholic person has been seen as someone disconnected from the world, but who is in tune with the muses or a higher power.

Before the Renaissance, however, melancholic people were given the same properties as the earth element that corresponded to their dominant humor: lazy, slow, and ineffectual. Therefore, emphasizing a horse’s capacity for sorrow and tears – things anyone deemed melancholic is prone to – even after earlier pointing out their joy at victory, could be a way to keep the horse firmly grounded.

Perhaps this comparison even intimately associates the animal with the earth and what it represents in the theory of the humors. Nonetheless, presenting it as an animal capable of emotion still links it to the human.

Though no animal could ever entirely match a human in contemporary thought since humans alone were believed to possess things like free will and the ability to balance their humors, thereby becoming more “whole” or “perfect” and casting aside the normal trappings of life to get closer to the divine.

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Centaurs – A Passing Glance

Thus far, though 3 animals have been likened to humans in some way, the horse is the only one to have a form that’s combined with humans. This combination could be considered monstrous, but Isidore very clearly states that the mixture of the two is entirely natural. Though he doesn’t say clearly whether this natural mix is good or bad.

Perhaps Isidore understands the centaur as simply a symbolic mixture – a physical representation of the wild and civilized desires that are constantly warring with each other in the human psyche.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for the first part of the speech Wiglaf uses to try and rouse his fellow warriors to go to Beowulf in his time of need.

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