Prudentius and the odd word

Sometimes we get asked what use old European manuscripts are. The simple answer is that we need them to recover the literature and the histories of antiquity, the medieval period and the Renaissance, and we need to compare lots of manuscripts if we are to establish the most faithful editions of those texts.

Sometimes, though, when you are busy with a topic, a particular manuscript suddenly expands in importance and seems like missive from the past directed at you personally.

I am writing a book about the invention during antiquity of node-link diagrams. The book mentions the probable Latin term for such a diagram, stemma. This is not a book about linguistics, but you need to make sure there is no unseen linguistic evidence lurking there.

As often happens in research, both journalistic and scholarly, you can spend a whole day combing the forest for a catch and come home empty-handed.

In this case, there is no trace of anyone living during antiquity proper who calls one of these diagrams a stemma. My book will simply skip the whole matter, because it will not be an academic thesis and will only concentrate on the fruitful and interesting things I found. What I did discover about the word, I lodged as a bunch of notes in a new page on my website. I don't need such notes, but I routinely archive such things because they might help someone else some day.

What that page says is that stemma meant:
  • a garland of leaves, straw, wool or other materials (in Greece)
  • a niche in a Roman palazzo containing paintings of noble ancestors (in the Republic)
  • a snob's genealogy (under the Empire)
  • ancient glories (in literary vocabulary in Late Antiquity)
  • a twig-like node-link diagram as drawn by lawyers (in 620 CE)
In a poem, Hymnus Epiphaniae, Prudentius, who is among the most obscure of Latin poets, uses a formula, apostolorum stemmata, to refer to 12 rocks set up next to the River Jordan.

The Hymnus Epiphaniae can be conveniently read in full at the Perseus Digital Library if you read Latin.

The Australian coast of Victoria has got a famed set of rocks, the Twelve Apostles, off the shore of the Port Campbell National Park, and South Africa has a Twelve Apostles Range, but Prudentius (348-about 405) seems to have beaten both to the name. Perhaps pilgrims did once get such a feature pointed out to them in the Jordan. [Late addition: It seems Prudentius is referring to the biblical Book of Joshua, the writer of which says 12 stones were taken from the Joshua in the river and placed nearby and are "still" there.]

Why does the poet call the 12 rocks a stemma of the apostles? Could he have possibly meant:
  • an ancient glory of apostles?
  • a node-link diagram of apostles?
[Late correction: A recent translator and commentator on the poetry, Gerard O'Daly, thinks the proper meaning is simply "pedigree".]

As it happens, a bunch of manuscript releases by Digita Vaticana this week (here's my news item) includes a manuscript of Prudentius's poetry. Cilian O'Hogan says it is actually an important one:
What makes codex Reg. lat. 321 so interesting is that its 10th-century editor has packed it with glosses and annotations. What I liked was that the editor seemed to have been baffled by the odd word "stemmata" too. He glossed it with the meaning "ordines" written above it here.

I'm still not clear about this. A similar word does show up in one description of the Great Stemma, Genealogia ab Adam usque ad Christum per ordines linearum. But I doubt if Prudentius had diagrams in mind. More likely the poet simply imagined those rocks in a orderly row or circle to represent the rock-like perpetual authority of the church. Stemma (ancestry) was a way to say in the language of Latin poets that the rocks were a precursor to the apostles [as Daly argues].

All very arcane, and from the manuscript, I knew that an unknown editor of 1,000 years ago had been baffled and had also done his best to unpuzzle Prudentius's odd word.

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