Moving from Horses to Mules [12:56-57] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Moving Mules from Language to Language
The Power of the Bigenerum?
Closing

{Simply grey, but what a worker. Image from the National Library of the Netherlands’ Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts collection.}

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Abstract

Isidore’s generalization about the three kinds of horses moves into a piece about mules, their uses, origins, and habits.

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Translation

[56] “There are three kinds of horses: those apt for war and work, others to drive the commons and the herd, but are not apt to ride, the third arises from a mixture of the diverse kinds, that are truly called two-kinded (bigenerum) which from diverse sorts are born, like mules.

[57] “Moreover, the word mule is had from the Greek for “drive” (tractum). Among the Greeks, millers truly use this mule to turn the mechanism of their mills. The Jews freed those flocks when Jacob made them conceive mules in the desert by himself, made of the first born, so that the mules from there were newly and against nature born among natural animals. Wild asses to this also are added as well as donkeys: and they themselves by the same method are found in intercourse, so that very quickly are donkeys born.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:56-57)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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Moving Mules from Language to Language

Although mules are well suited to menial tasks, like powering mills, Isidore did not make them easy to translate into English. Much of paragraph 57 is understandable with some tweaks and some twists, but it all runs on contemporary shared knowledge more than anything else save for its opening sentence.

The relationship between whatever Greek word is in question and the Latin tractum is not entirely clear. The sentence could mean that the Greek is derived from the Latin, or that the Latin term and the Greek are the same, and so there’s no need for the differentiation that including both terms brings.

The quick retelling of the story of Jacob and Laban’s flocks is also altered in the original Latin. The crux of this is the phrase “Ana abnepos Esau” (12:57) Esau is a familiar name, but Ana looks off, and the combination of the two with the word for “great great grandson” makes it even more bizarre. Perhaps there’s some esoteric bit of lore about a grandson that’s at work here, but that has since been forgotten about.

Other interpretations of these passages are possible, but these are the ones that seem most likely to me, given my limited knowledge of Latin’s complexities.

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The Power of the Bigenerum?

To sum up the entirey of paragraph 57, mules are work animals.

But the question that arises from these two paragraphs is: Does this designation as a work animal come from mules’ being a perfect mixture of two types of horse – as seems to be implied by a Latin adjective describing mules – “bigenerum” (12:56)?

Given the description of mules thus far, it seems that the answer must be yes, resoundingly. After all, combine horses that can be ridden into war, and those that can be used to herd animals, and the natural result would be something hardy and used for strenuous activity.

But then, if Esau is being credited with the creation of mules, then does that mean that he did it intentionally?

According to the story in the KJV (Genesis 30:25-43), Jacob creates these mules in order to steal away Laban’s flock after he has worked for him for seven years in exchange for Laban’s daughter Rachel.

Since the idea to use the rod to scare the females into giving birth while they were drinking, resulting in mules, was his own, Isidore is definitely in the right to say that these mules were “were newly and against nature born among natural animals,” (“nova contra naturam animalia nascerentur” 12:57).

Truly intriguing in the KJV though is the mention in verse 41 of chapter 30 of Genesis that Jacob only used his trick when the strong ones among Laban’s flocks and cattle were pregnant. In other words, they weren’t just bred for necessity, they were bred for strength – something that Isidore nails here.

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Closing

Check back here on Thursday for Beowulf and Wiglaf’s brief revel, and a tragic realization.

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