Sunday 12 December 2010

Supponere: a cautionary tale about the Word-List

In my last post I mentioned in passing that the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List was ‘a by-product published in 1965 when work began on the dictionary proper’.  It is worth stressing that the Word-List is not a dictionary: the quotation slips on which it is based have not been checked for accuracy, and its definitions are not the product of lexicography.  My aim here is to illustrate this point.

A lexicographer working on our 175-odd quotations for ‘supponere’ might suggest the following basic taxonomy: to place underneath; to subject; to subsume; to substitute; to suppose; to support.  But the first edition of the Word-List (1934) also gives ‘to suppress, abolish’, with an attestation date of 1315.  And in the revised edition (1965) – billed as involving ‘a re-examination of the material previously used’ – the definition has been trimmed (‘to suppress’) and the date has been misprinted as 1318, but essentially the entry remains intact. 

Now, there is no intrinsic reason why ‘supponere’ should not have been used to mean ‘to suppress’, but from my vantage point – with so many other pieces of the jigsaw before my eyes – there was a warning sign: this usage would be attested by only one of our quotations.  So it was with some suspicion that I came to check the slip in question:

And sure enough, the very next word (after ‘perpetuo supposuit’) turned out to be ‘interdicto’.  So what the text actually says is that the Pope placed the Templars under, or subjected them to, perpetual interdict – which means that the Word-List's definition ‘to suppress’ is simply the result of an unnoticed misreading by the slip-taker.

I would be surprised to find a page of the Word-List that did not include several errors of precisely this kind.  So, to anyone who uses it as a medieval Latin dictionary faute de mieux: caveat lector!

Saturday 6 November 2010

Supplementare: a ghost story with a twist

The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources is based on a collection of quotation slips that scholars began mustering in 1924.  Most of them are handwritten, but my first one was an exception:

It is because of this slip that the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List – a by-product published in 1965 when work began on the dictionary proper – defines ‘supplementare’ as ‘to supplement’.  Now, even though my task is to record usage rather than to criticize it, this raised an eyebrow.  For one thing, the author could have used the verb ‘supplere’ from which the noun ‘supplementum’ was derived in the first place (and indeed we have no such slip for ‘complementare’).  For another, it's not obvious why the human intellect might be said to be supplemented from without.  So I decided to have a closer look.

John Pecham's Quaestiones de anima (1270s) were published in a critical edition by Hieronymus Spettmann in 1918, and it was from this edition that the above slip was copied, the key clause being:
solus intellectus in homine supplementatur ab extrinseco
Thanks to the indefatigable Jerry Etzkorn, however, a revised edition appeared in 2002, and sure enough this proves to be one of the few places where he felt it necessary to modify Spettmann's text:
solus intellectus in homine – supple ‘intrat’ – ab extrinseco
Etzkorn's version makes much better sense: Aristotle does say in De generatione animalium II.3 that the intellect enters from without.  And so, with the only evidence for its existence gone in a puff of editorial smoke, ‘supplementare’ is revealed to be a ghost-word.

There's a twist to the story, though.  Scholastics use the imperative ‘supple’ to indicate a textual gloss, so Etzkorn has Pecham quoting from a text reading ‘solus intellectus in homine ab extrinseco’ and glossing it by supplying ‘intrat’.  But what might this elliptical text be? Etzkorn himself cites Moerbeke's translation (a1270) from the Greek of De gen. animal.:  ‘intellectum solum deforis advenire’ (736b28).  Much closer to what we find in Pecham, however, is Michael Scot's translation (a1220) from the Arabic:  ‘intellectus tantum intrat ex extrinseco’; and closer still is the version of Scot's translation quoted in a 13th-century florilegium brought to light by Pieter Beullens in 1999:  ‘solus intellectus intret ab extrinseco’.  In any case, these versions all say that only the intellect enters from without, and none of them mentions man.  So I suggest that we should improve upon Etzkorn's improvement of Spettmann's text by instead reading:
solus intellectus – ‘in homine’ supple – intrat ab extrinseco
PS.  In 1980 the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List was reissued ‘with supplement’, which acquires an ironic tinge in the light of the above…

Sunday 24 October 2010


Quisquiliae’ (odds and ends, leaf-litter, sweepings, rubbish) is a term used by 16th-century Renaissance humanists to disparage the work of 14th-century Oxford scholastics.  I've started this blog as a repository for notes relating to the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, where I began work as a harmless drudge in October 2010.