Folk-Taxonomies in Early English

Folk-Taxonomies in Early English

Folk-Taxonomies in Early English

Folk-Taxonomies in Early English


"Folk-Taxonomies in Early English is recommended for scholars and students of medieval and Renaissance English literature, for Indo-Europeanists, classicists, historical linguists, and anthropological linguists. Readers who have an interest in the philosophy of universals will be challenged by its analysis of universals as a problem in discourse analysis rather than in ontology or metaphysics." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Saga me hwilc wyrt ys betst and selust.
Ic þe secge, lilige hatte seo wyrt for þon þe heo getacnað crist.
Saga me hwilc treow ys ealra treowa betst.
Ie þe secge, þæt is wintreow.

—Prose Solomon and Saturn

“Tell me which herb is best and noblest. I tell you, the herb called the lily, because it symbolizes Christ. Tell me which tree is the best of all trees. I tell you, it is the grapevine.” We understand well enough the learned background of these curious questions and answers. They have their sources in a late Roman and early medieval dialogue tradition, and in the Bible and Apocrypha: 4 Ezra 5:23–27 for the two questions, Canticles 2:1 and Ecclesiasticus 39:19 for the symbolism of the lily, and John 15:1 for the allegory of Christ the vine (Prose Solomon and Saturn, ed. Cross and Hill 1982, 94). We note with interest, too, that the dignity of the lily and the grapevine is based on their cultural roles as conventional signs. The hierarchy of things in nature is not inherent in nature itself, but belongs to the domain of signification.

Still, we should want to know more, for we want to understand, also, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Why is the lily classified as an herb rather than a flower? Why is the grapevine a tree rather than a vine? In the world of Old English, Sir Isaac Watts could never have written thus about universals: “If two universals differ in quality, they are contraries; as, every vine is a tree, no vine is a tree. These can never be both true together, but they may be both false” (Watts "1725" 1984). Watts presupposes that “vine” and “tree” belong to separate plant life-form genres, but that is not the case in Old English. Watts's statement cannot be translated into Old English. It would make no sense in that language.

One approach to these semantic puzzles might be to argue that our two dialogue entries in the Prose Solomon and Saturn are only translations of a Latin source. Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Epicteti Philosophi has “Quit obitum lignorum? Vinea, quia vinea in typpum sanguis Christi intelligitur. Quit obtimum erbarum? Lilia in typpo spiritu sancii intelligitur”(Altercatio Hadriani 1939, K 62–63, 121). If our Old English . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.