Be Forebecnum
De Portentis
On Portents

Isidore in Old English


The drawing reproduced above is by the sixteenth century surgeon and philosopher Ambroise Paré--one of many similar drawings he produced with the publication of his Des monstres et prodiges in 1573. It stems from a fascination going back to antiquity with monstrous progeny, defective births, deformities--and their natural and spiritual significance. Late in 1997 the Englisc list took up a proposal to translate a Latin text that learned Anglo-Saxons may have known. Untranslated passages from Bede had been suggested but never accepted with gusto, although these could provide us with future projects. Rather, Isidore of Seville's De Etymologiae struck our fancy, especially the part where he discusses and defines "monstrosity," in a section labeled De Portentis, "On Portents."

This project is still ongoing; it is particularly difficult because participants have had to be knowledgeable of Latin and question the modern English translation we were consulting as a convenience (William D. Sharpe's edition of The Medical Writings). But we had come away from the Gettysburg address a little skeptical that Old English could be fitted to the nuances of nineteenth-century English. Here is what Jeff Sypeck wrote to the list on October 9, 1997 about the Isidore project:

      The Gettysburg Gemathel was and is an ambitious project--perhaps more ambitious than most of us realized when we began to undertake it--and prose unencumbered by modern romancee vocabulary, nationalism, and the familiarity of the original may be a good project for us currently. What I mean is, Isidore won't present us with culturally-loaded phrases like "of the people, by the people, and for the people" which demand, but cannot be satisfactorily accomodated by, paraphrase.
     I have my own reasons for liking the Isidore idea, but I hope others would find it useful, too. After all, we're all amateurs at Old English translation and composition, and while Isidore doesn't have the gimmick appeal of the Gettysburg Address, it should be of general relevance to all medievalists. ...

This is indeed true: De Portentis gets us into medieval sign theory, medieval etymologies, and medieval fascination with error, nature, monster, and God's design--all issues that were undoubtedly appealing to Anglo Saxon thinkers (look at Beowulf). But while removing the problems posed by romantic diction, nationalism, and modern precedent, Isidore's Latin poses its own problems, particularly in its vocabulary. How are we going to find suitable equivalents in Old English to express the terms ostenta, monstra and prodigia as Isidore uses them, and give them something of the etymological import that he does? How are we going to unpack the extremely dense and economical syntax of the Latin when we are really only beginning to learn something about Old English syntax? See our efforts below. Our original aim was to translate the first eight paragraphs of the section labeled De Portentis, but we have only partially completed three of these, and we are still in disagreement. We therefore welcome your comments (see below). I have grouped each paragraph with its Latin, Modern English, Old English, and word for word translation. There are hypertexts for difficult phrases.

Latin: De Portentis
Modern English: On Portents
Old English: Be Forebecnum

Paragraph One:

Portenta esse Varro ait quae contra naturam nata videntur: sed non sunt contra naturam, quia divina voluntate fiunt, cum voluntas Creatoris cuiusque conditae rei natura sit. Vnde et ipsi gentiles Deum modo Naturam, mode Deum appellant.

Sharpe's translation:
Varro says that portents are things which seem to have been born contrary to nature, but in truth, they are not contrary to nature; because they exist by the divine will, since the Creator's will is the nature of everything they created. For this reason, the very pagans called God "Nature" sometimes, "god" at other times.

Proposed Old English:
Hwæt beoð forebecen? (1)    Varro cwæð þæt forebecn sind þa þe us þincað wið gecynde geborene sien. (2)    Ac ne sindon hie wið gecynde, forþy hie weorþath; (3)   of godcunde willan. Bið þæs Scyppendes willa seo gecynd ealles þe gescopen is.   Þa hæþnan selfe for þy nemdon God (4)    hwilum be naman "gecynd," hwilum be naman "God."

WW Translation:
What are portents? Says Varro that portents are those which to us seem against nature born are. But not are they against nature. They live of divine will, for is of the shaper's will the creation of all that shaped is. The heathens themselves, thereby, called God at times "creation," at times "God."

Paragraph Two:

Portentum ergo fit non contra naturam, sed contra quam est nota natura. Portenta autem et ostenta, monstra atque prodigia ideo nuncupantur, quod portendere atque ostendere, monstrare ac praedicare aliqua futura videntur.

Jeff Sypeck offers a slightly closer translation than the one given by Sharpe:
"A portent, therefore, does not happen contrary to nature, but contrary to that which nature is known to be. Portents are also called `signs,' `demonstrations,' and `prodigies' because they seem to portend and also to signify, and also to demonstrate, and to predict other things going to happen."

Old-English translation:
Forebecen, forþy, ne wierð wið gecynde, ac wið þæm þe man gecnaweð sie; gecynd. (5)    Forebecen hatað eac on Ledene 'ostenta,' 'monstra,' ond 'prodigia,' þæt is in Englisc gereorde 'beacn,' 'segena,' ond 'tæcnunga,' (6) forþon hie sind us gesewen þæt hie biecnað, secgað, and tacniað oþra þinga toweardra. (7)

WW translation:
Portents, therefore, occur not against nature, but against that which one knows is nature. Portents are called also in Latin ostenta, monstra, and prodigia, that is in English speech: "beacons," "signs," and "tokens," because these seem to signify, say, and betoken that which is in the future.

Paragraph Three is controversial, so... to be continued!


(1) It was Sarah's idea to preface the translation with a "riddlic" opening.

(2) A completely ornery sentence. The subordination so neatly expressed in the Latin just doesn't unpack very well in the Old English. Variants variously suggested: ...þæt hie sind us gesawene gelic wihtas þe wið gecynde borene sien; ...þe ongegn gecynde borene to beonne; ... þa þe us þyncað ongegn/wið gecynde borene sien... In the end, we scrapped ongegn in favor of wið and the inflected infinitive to beonne in favor of the subjunctive sien, but the sentence still doesn't seem to flow, so determined are we to make object-verb syntax, in the "old style." Sarah couldn't get anyone interested in translating videntur as sind us gesawene, "is seen to us," a respectable OE idiom used by translators of the Bede, and probably a direct gloss of the Latin. Þyncað won out.

(3) We originally had the tepid libbaþ for fiunt, "exist." Michel van der Hoek has suggested weorþað "as the nearest thing we can get to fiunt."

(4) Matt suggested that we disambiguate the first use of the word "God" with a clarifying restatement: þone Scyppend/Wyrhtan, etc. I've incorporated Michel's rendition with be naman.

(5) The last time I checked, we had: wið þæm þe us gecynde þynceð. The Latin here doesn't use a construction like videntur, and since we have been leaning heavily on the us geþynceð construction, I revised to match more closely Jeff's translation: "what nature is known to be" (rephrased in the active voice); I presume that est nota is rather "what is recognized" than what is "known," hence the level of uncertainty Jeff gives it in his OE translation. OE gecnawan seems to convey more experiential and less metaphysical certainty than OE witan. We recognize Nature to be a certain way; we don't know it to include "mistakes" of Nature that are God's will. This seems to be the import of the Latin.

(6) Jeff's comment: "I've fudged the etymology a bit, but I like to think that an Anglo-Saxon with an interest in words would have assumed a connection between "segen"/sign and "secgan/to tell. Any thoughts?" Matt's comment: "I don't like "segena" because the Lat. word from which it was borrowed was "signum," sign or standard. ... We are in need of some distinction where there in fact was not much in OE." Sarah's comment: "It's terrific, Jeff; Ceolstan thanks you for gifting him with metaphor and wit. However I would reword these: what about oþiewodnes for ostentum, since this means "appearance," "manifestation" in Latin. Sigh; but it also means "portents, sign," hence Jeff's beacn. But we already have beacn in forebecen. I love the segen/secgan pun, but segen is a better fit for prodigia, don't you think, as an AS monk might better believe Isidore's etymology from porro dico; and warnung might be good for monstra, as something that "warns" by pointing out. However, we do need to keep the sense of sign and symbol here, so I've kept tacnung.

(7) Jeff's last sentence was: ...þæt is on Englisc gereorde "beacn," "segena," ond "tacnunga," forþon þa þincað biecnan, seecgan, and tacnian þa se weorþað forth. Matt suggested emending to forðweard; I've emended as written above. Remember: nothing that goes on this webpage is to be considered final or correct. One needs to have a page, though, and put something on it.


Matt Carver
Sarah Higley
Duncan Macrae-Gibson
Jeff Sypeck
Michel van der Hoek


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