On the nature of things

Encyclopaedia n. a book or set of books giving information on many subjects or many aspects of one subject, typically arranged alphabetically.”

Concise OED, 11th edition, 470.

Derived from the Greek enkyklios paedia, “general education”, the term encyclopaedia in its modern sense was first used by Paul Scalich in the title of his Encyclopaedia; seu, Orbis disciplinarum, tam sacrarum quam prophanum epistemon… (“Encyclopaedia; or, Knowledge of the World of Disciplines, Not Only Sacred but Profane…”), published in 1559.


Born in Mainz circa 780, Rabanus Maurus, also called Hrabanus Magnentius, Abbot of Fulda (822) and Archbishop of Mainz (847) through his contribution to learning and the development of the German language earned the title Praeceptor Germanicus, “Teacher of Germany.” Though unoriginal in his thought the survival of his work in over 1200 manuscripts is testament to the importance and far reaching extent of the knowledge he synthesized and passed on.

His most extensive work was the De rerum naturis, “On the nature of things”, also known as De universo, “On the universe”, an encyclopaedia of knowledge in 22 books synthesizing intellectual history until the 9th century AD, and largely drawn from Isidore of Seville’s earlier Etymologiae, in itself an important preserver and transmitter of more ancient texts at a time when many of these were becoming lost.

The De Rerum is an allegorical work that aimed to explain the typological, historical and mystical meaning of things as a means to understanding of the Scriptures. The 22 books are arranged hierarchically and further divided into sub-sections which cover topics as diverse as God, the Son of God, angels, the patriarchs, the New Testament, sacraments, exorcism, prayer, the ages of man, marriage, death, beasts,  serpents, fish, birds, time, calendars, oceans, rivers, floods, the regions of the earth, Paradise, mountains, valleys, deserts, government buildings, doors, sewers, gymnasia, lighthouses, prisons, poets, language, stones, minerals, gems, lead, iron, music, medicine, agriculture, trees, herbs, war, weapons, armour, chariot racing, fabrics, national costume, wools and linen, shoes, food, drink, baskets, farm implements, and horse tack.

A digitized copy of De Rerum Naturis from the Vatican’s collection (Vaticana, Pal. lat. 291) can be viewed online

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This entry was posted on December 29, 2013 by in Germany, History, Literature, Medieval and tagged , , , .

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