Etymology, Names and the Search for Origins: Deriving the Past in Early Modern England

By Vine, Angus | The Seventeenth Century, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Etymology, Names and the Search for Origins: Deriving the Past in Early Modern England


Vine, Angus, The Seventeenth Century


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In the Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem, his ars historica first published in 1566, the French jurist Jean Bodin argues that the key to unearthing historical origins, perhaps even the key to all historical inquiry, lies in language. Musing on various possible ways of discovering origins, Bodin concludes that it is 'linguistic traces, in which the proof of origins chiefly lies'.1 To demonstrate this he refers to the Celts, tracing the extent of their colonisation of Europe by listing the various 'subject peoples', from the Celto-Scythians in the East to the Celtiberians in the West, whose names derive from them. He describes these names as 'clearly marked footprints for the everlasting record of posterity'.2 They are, he suggests, records which are not subject to the ravages of time, proofs of descent or derivation which all future generations will be able to trace. They are vestigia permanently marked on the land. In effect, therefore, Bodin lays out a method which will enable his readers to gloss the geography of the world, to read the past through unpicking place names or peoples' names. More specifically, he lays out an etymological method for history. Predicated on the belief, common at the time, that origins are perpetually present in linguistic traces, his method places etymology at the heart of historical inquiry.3 By tracing the origins of names, the linguistically adept and historically curious would also be tracing the origins of peoples or the foundations of places. Whilst Bodin recognises other means of establishing origins, such as sources or writers whose reliability is 'proved', and 'the situation and character of the region' where a particular people are found, none are as verifiable as linguistic traces.4 These alone continuously transmit origins to the present, and therefore these alone continuously communicate between the past and the present.

Bodin's Methodus was amongst the most popular of all artes historicae in the early modern period and it was frequently reprinted, with subsequent editions appearing in 1572, 1583, 1595, 1599, 1607, 1610 and 1650. It found a particularly receptive audience in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth- century England.5 In 1608-09, for example, Thomas Heywood's translation of its fourth chapter appeared, the first time any part of it had been translated, as the preface to his translation of Sallust's Jugurtha and Catiline.6 The chapter instructs readers of history in how to make a proper critical appraisal of historians. Its relevance as the introduction to the works of a Roman historian is clear. Degory Wheare, the first holder of the Camden chair in history at the University of Oxford, made extensive use of the Methodus in his guide to history, De ratione et methodo legendi historias dissertatio (1623). Other English writers to cite or refer to Bodin include Sir Philip Sidney, Gabriel Harvey, William Harrison and Edmund Bolton.

This article is concerned with the reception of just one aspect of the Methodus, its ideas about etymology. Although the interest in etymology as a proof of origins was widespread in the early modern period, few works offer a more eloquent articulation of its importance for the establishment of historical origins than Bodin's treatise.7 As this article shows, its influence on early modern English historiography was profound. Discussing works including William Camden's Britannia, Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion and Edmund Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, as well as considering the papers delivered to the Society of Antiquaries, it demonstrates the centrality of etymology to historical inquiry in early modern England. It shows how writers in a variety of genres, but particularly those with antiquarian interests, turned to linguistic traces, in exactly the same way as Bodin suggested, to access the past and to reveal historical origins. …

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