More on Horses from Isidore (Part 1 of the Guide to a Good Horse) [12:44-46] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Deference to Authority
Guide to a Good Horse (Part 1)
Closing

{Two horses that would definitely fit the requirements that Isidore outlines for a “good horse”. Image from Wikipedia.}

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Abstract

Isidore shares where the longest and shortest lived horses can be found. And he explains what true horsemen look for in a sturdy specimen.

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Translation

[44] “Truly either because of sadness or joy horses struggle to comprehend future events. Long lived horses are Persian, Hunnish, those of Epirus, and Sicily which can live at most to 50 years, but short lived horses are those from Spain and Numidea and Gaul, as is frequently conjectured.

[45] “Among high born horses, according to veterans, these are the four things to watch for: shape, beauty, kindness, and color. Shape is a healthy and solid body, strength matching size, a long side, a maximally tight and round buttocks, a broad chest side, a body knotted with dense muscle all over, healthy hooves, and fine curved ears.

[46] “Beauty is a small and healthy head, skin closely adhering to bones, short and graceful ears, large eyes, open nostrils, an erect neck, dense hair and tail, smooth and solid piercing hooves.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:44-46)

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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Deference to Authority

Both of the major points in this week’s section (horses’ lifespan, and what to look for in a good one) are given as opinion. In the case of where the longest and shortest lived horses can be found, the entry is based on what is “frequently conjectured,” (“frequens opinio”) and when Isidore shifts to talk of the key qualities of a good horse, he defers to “veterans” (“veteres”).

Part of the reason for this deference is that the Etymologies isn’t entirely an original work. Rather than writing everything from scratch, Isidore compiled a lot of his entries from other sources, copying them out by hand, of course, but still copying nonetheless.

However, though this kind of copying rankles academics and writers and publishers worldwide today, it was simply how things were done in the middle ages. Not because people were less able to understand things, but, in part, because books were much more difficult to create.

After all, the longer the book, the more velum a person would need, and the more velum needed meant the more sheep or goats had to be killed to provide that velum. All the other parts of the animal would be used, but if it was an animal used for its milk or wool, but a book was something that an animal could only be used for once (though there’s got to be a medieval romance that features a magical, self-resurrecting sheep out there).

Deference to other authorities fits well into such a publishing system, since it keeps things light. Rather than having everyone explain something thoroughly and use up more and more of the time’s precious writing materials, writers could just say “as x explained in y.” Though such references were often not so explicit as to give names and titles.

How all of this relates to horses is beyond me, though horse meat is rather tasty, and this first half of the 7th century guide on how to choose a horse makes a little more sense if you keep in mind that mainland Europeans once did (and still do) raise horses for eating.

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Guide to a Good Horse (Part 1)

The two key qualities that Isidore outlines here are a horse’s “shape” (“forma”) and “beauty” (“pulchritudo”). To modern eyes the first one makes a little bit more sense than the other, but the descriptions of each make it clear why these are relevant criteria.

Shape boils down to health, and what might be known as Body Mass Index (BMI, a ratio of body fat to body mass and height) today. From the sounds of it, a truly shapely horse is one that is firmly outfitted with muscle and that has the minimum amount of fat possible. Otherwise, shape matching size, firm buttocks, and body knotted in muscle would simply be out of the question.

Beauty ties in quite closely to Shape, since it also deals with the health of the horse as well as its aesthetic appeal. Having a small head, erect neck, and skin that closely adheres to bones all suggest an animal that is healthy, and, again, has a minimum amount of fat on it. Assuming that these are horses for riding, and not for eating, this focus on qualities that relate to a low BMI makes sense, as any extra weight would slow down a horse that would already be carrying a grown man. Not to mention, a man who was likely wearing armor of some description.

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Closing

There’s very little horsing around in this week’s extract from Beowulf, as Wiglaf rushes to Beowulf’s aid, shares some words of encouragement, and then prepares to defend against the dragon as it rushes on.

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Wiglaf Speaks – But Will The Others Listen? [ll.2631-2646a] (Old English)

 

{An ideal warrior, indeed. Image from Geograph.co.uk.}
 

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Getting Grammatical
Geatland’s Next Top Warrior
Closing

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Abstract

Wiglaf speaks to his fellow thanes, making his intentions to fulfill their pledges to Beowulf made in the mead hall and trying – indirectly – to stir his fellows to do the same.

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Translation

“Wiglaf spoke, many true words were
said by the companion (though at heart he was sad):
“I that time remember, when we mead drank,
when we pledged ourselves to our lord
in the beer hall, he who to us these rings gave,
promised that we the war-equipment would repay
if such need to him befell, [fend for him] with
helms and hard swords. For that reason he us from
the army chose, for this expedition by his own will,
considered us worthy for glory, and to me this
treasure gave, because he us good spear-fighters
judged,valiant warriors in helmets — though the
lord this courageous deed alone intended to
perform, herder of the people, because he
among men a glorious deed would accomplish,
do that deed audaciously.”
(Beowulf ll.2631-2646a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Getting Grammatical

The most characteristic thing about this passage of Beowulf is the placement of its pronouns. Clauses like “he who to us these rings gave” (“ðe ūs ðās bēagas geaf” l.2635) sound pretty unnatural to modern ears since. It sounds off since in modern English this statement would be written “he who gave these rings to us.” Yet, throughout this passage the pronouns for the Subject and Direct Object (the thing directly acted on by the Subject) are constantly side by side (or closer than they are in Modern English).

This placement definitely emphasizes the connection between Beowulf and the thanes on the level of straightforward meaning, but it also works on a grammatical level. For there is almost no verbal distance between the Subject and the Direct Object, and this close proximity shows just how closely related the two are. Each one of Wiglaf’s statements underlines this fact, and it is this idea of their closeness that he uses to try to rouse his fellow thanes so that they all go and help Beowulf together.

However, at first glance there is something in this passage that works against Wiglaf’s rhetorical emphasis of his and the other thanes’ reliance on Beowulf.

The last five lines of this section of the poem are entirely about Beowulf’s desire to fight the dragon alone.

The line “though the lord/this courageous deed alone intended to perform” (“þēah ðe hlāford ūs/þis ellen-weorc āna āðōhte/tō gefremmanne”) sounds like it could be referring to Beowulf’s telling the thanes to stay out of the fight because he wanted to handle it himself, but it also suggests that Beowulf intended to fight alone from the start – which makes you wonder why he bothered to bring along the twelve thanes in the first place.

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Geatland’s Next Top Warrior

Whether fighting solo was something premeditated or not, bringing along the best of the best for this fight might have been Beowulf’s way of finding a successor.

The dragon is indeed the ultimate foe, and Beowulf may’ve guessed that even most of the cream of the martial crop would fear it. If that’s the case, then bringing this cream along would make it easy to find out who could possibly rule the Geats after his death – Beowulf was, after all, having dark premonitions after the dragon came and before the fight.

Though, this raises the question of why Beowulf never had any children. Whether he married Hygd after Hygelac’s death or not, fifty years is a long time to go without fathering any children. It stretches the belief, though maybe remaining unwedded and childless are characteristics of the hero that the scops were aiming for when Beowulf was being told and retold, molded into what was written down and what we have today.

Some bits of the manuscript were eaten by rats, or destroyed by a fire, but even those that remain still hold much mystery.

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Closing

Next week, come back for more early medieval thoughts on horses with St. Isidore of Seville, and to get the second half of Wiglaf’s stirring speech.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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