621: Isidore of Seville on the Origins of the Term “Saracens”

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Author: Daniel G. König


Isidorus Hispalensis, Etymologiarum libri, ed. Wallace Martin Lindsay, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987, lib. IX, cap. 2,57, no page numbers. Translation adapted from: Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 195.
[IX,2,57] Saraceni dicti, vel quia ex Sara genitos se praedicent, vel sicut gentiles aiunt, quod ex origine Syrorum sint, quasi Syriginae. Hi peramplam habitant solitudinem. Ipsi sunt et Ismaelitae, ut liber Geneseos docet, quod sint ex Ismaele. Ipsi Cedar a filio Ismaelis. Ipsi Agareni ab Agar; qui, ut diximus, perverso nomine Saraceni vocantur, quia ex Sara se genitos gloriantur. The Saracens are so called either because they claim to be descendants of Sara or, as some gentiles say, because they are of Syrian origin, as if the word were Syriginae. They live in a very large deserted region. They are also Ishmaelites, as the Book of Genesis teaches us, because they sprang from Ishmael. The Kedar also stem from a son of Ishmael, the Agarenes, from Hagar. As we have said, they are attributed with the perverse name “Saracens” because they pride themselves in being descendants of Sara.

The Author & his/her Work

[§1] Isidore, archbishop of Sevilla, was born around 560. Thus, before he turned thirty, he witnessed the official conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism in the reign of Reccared (r. 586–601). Isidore succeeded his brother Leander—a close associate of Reccared also acquainted with Pope Gregory I—as archbishop of Sevilla shortly before his brother’s death. During his tenure, Isidore maintained close ties to the Visigothic king Sisebut (r. 612-621). Isidore’s work De natura rerum (613) was dedicated to Sisebut, who in turn penned a treatise on lunar eclipses. Isidore replied to Sisebut’s endeavours to force Jews to convert with a treatise entitled “On the Catholic Faith Against the Jews” (De fide catholica contra Iudaeos). Aside from the Etymologiae cited here, his work includes a chronicle as well as a history of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, whose migrations were relevant to history of the Iberian Peninsula.[1]

Content & Context

[§2] The first version of the Etymologies (Etymologiae) was finished in 621.[2] They can be regarded as a kind of early medieval Latin encyclopaedia that compiles and processes the knowledge available in Latin in the late antique Roman Empire. They are made up of twenty volumes, each of which is divided into topical chapters.[3] The Etymologiae cover a wide range of subjects ranging from language and medicine to various trades and so forth. In addition, they include passages dealing with astronomy, zoology, and geography, as well as descriptions of certain human activities.

[§3] Isidore mentions numerous toponyms associated with the biblical and ancient Orient, but also the ancient and late antique Roman Middle East. These include the terms for the continents Africa and Asia as well as the names of various countries and regions, i.e. Aegyptus, Aethiopia, Africa, Arabia, Armenia, Assyria, Babylonia, Chanaan, Coelesyria, Cyrenensis Libya, Erythraea, Galatia, Galilaea, India, Israel, Iudaea, Libya, Libya Cyrenensis, Mauretania, Nabathea regio, Numidia, Palaestina, Parthia, Persia, Phoenicia, Phrygia, Saba, Samaria, Syria, the city names Aelia, Alexandria, Ascalon, Bethleem, Caesarea, Damascus, Edessa, Gaza, Hierosolyma, Hierusalem, Palmira, Thebae, Tripolis, Tyrus, the names of mountain ranges and bodies of water such as Antilibanus mons, Asiaticum mare, Caspium mare, Euphrates, Indus, Indicum mare, Iordanis fluvium, Libanus mons, Libycum mare, Mareotis, Oceanus Aethiopicus, Oceanus Indicus, mare Rubrum, mons Sion, Tigris. These toponyms show that Isidore had a general idea of the wider geographical area that would eventually give birth to Islam.

[§4] The pre-Islamic Arabic sphere is dealt with in Books IX (De linguis, gentibus, regnis, militia, civibus, affinitatibus), XII (De animalibus), XIV (De terra et partibus), XVI (De lapidibus et metallis), XVII (De rebus rusticis) and XIX (De navibus, aedificiis et vestibus) in particular. Isidore covers the flora and fauna of the Arabian Peninsula—camels, snakes and the phoenix in the animal world (XII,1,35; 4,29; 7,22), and primarily spices and aromatic plants in the plant world (XIV,3,13-26; XVII, 8,1-12; 9,4; 9,11). He also turns his attention to precious gems (XVI,7,9; 7,11; 8,3-5; 13,6). Finally, some passages deal with the habits of groups defined as Arabes: He mentions pierced ears, specific types of clothes, as well as houses built of salt blocks in addition to trade with Egypt (XV,1,35; XVI,2,3; XIX,23,7; 25,6; 26, 10). These specifications clearly do not refer to the conditions in and around the Arabian Peninsula of the late sixth and early seventh century. For the most part, they draw on references to the descendants of Ishmael in the Old Testament. The geographical and ethnographical content, however, is based on ancient Latin treatises.[4]

Contextualization, Analysis & Interpretation

[§5] The quoted excerpt is important in so far as—in a period preceding the emergence of Islam—it classifies Arab groups as part of a biblical genealogy, which accords them the status of barbaric desert dwellers in turn. The reference text is Genesis 16, which deals with Abraham’s descendants from his legitimate wife Sara and his maid Hagar: tension arises between the two women, when Hagar conceives before the much older Sara. After harsh treatment from Sara, Hagar flees, but is stopped by an angel, who instructs her to call her son Ishmael, i.e. “God has hearkened”, and to return to Sara. In regard to Ishmael, the angel makes the following prophecy (Genesis 16,12): “And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” When Isaac is born, Sara demands that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother Hagar away, the latter defined as an Egyptian in this context, asserting that “the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son” (Genesis 21,10). Abraham’s reluctant expulsion of mother and son is approved by God himself, who, however, reassures Abraham, “for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also, of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed. (Genesis 21,12-13).“

[§6] Unlike Syriac texts of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, which often employ a name derived from the Arab tribe of the Ṭayyiʾ and thus refer to the pre-Islamic Arabs and early Muslims as Ṭayyāyē or (west Syriac) Ṭayōyē,[5] late antique and medieval Greek and Latin texts written by Christians often use the terms Ισμαηλίται / Ismaelitae or Αγαρηνοί / [H]Agareni both for the pre-Islamic Arabs and for the Muslims. Deriving from the names Ishmael and Hagar respectively, these ethnonyms are obviously biblically inspired. Although it is already documented as an adjective in Dioscurides’ Materia medica in the middle of the first century, the proper ethnonym Σαρακηνοί only made its first appearance around the middle of the second century in Ptolemy’s Geographia,[6] only to be used around 200 CE in its Syriac form Sarqāyē by the Syriac author Bardaiṣān.[7] Ammianus Marcellinus (d. c. 400) as well as Jerome (d. c. 420) introduced the Latin variant Saraceni as a new term for Scenitas Arabas[8] or Arabes et Agarenos[9] respectively. Most likely, Jerome came across this new term in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339-340).[10] The Christian Jerome already identified the Arabs or Saracens with the descendants of Ishmael that are branded as savage desert tribes in the Old Testament.[11] The etymology of the term “Saracens”, which leads this ethnonym back to an act of usurpation that serves to appropriate a form of legitimate descendance from Abraham’s wife Sara, can also be found both in the writings of Jerome[12] and the Greek church historian Sozomen (d. c. 450),[13] but may well have originated in a lost work by Eusebius.[14] The biblical explanation for the origin of the Saracens was then adopted in the Latin West, not only by Isidore,[15] but also by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede the Venerable (d. 735) among others. In the latter’s case, however, the etymology was inserted into a description and evaluation of the Arabic-Islamic expansion to the West: for Bede, the prophecy, that Ishmael’s “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16,12), seemed to have fulfilled itself.[16] The Latin Middle Ages then continued to adopt this explanation.[17]

[§7] Obviously, scholarship does not have recourse to the explanation that the origins of the term “Saracens” have to be sought in the late antique Arabs’ deficiency of legitimacy and a resulting act of “onomastic usurpation.” However, the origins of the term are still discussed controversially. In principle, it is possible to conceive geographic, ethnic, and linguistic explanations. The geographical explanations attribute the Greek variant of the term “Saracens” to toponyms that are located on the Sinai or in the northern periphery of the Arabian Peninsula and have already been recorded in parts by ancient authors such as the geographer Ptolemy. The ethnic explanations assume that an Arab tribe carrying the ethnonym “Saracens” existed, and claim that the latter was then increasingly applied to other Arab groups during the repeated emergence and collapse of pre-Islamic tribal confederations. Linguistic explanations link the term “Saracens” with Arabic and Aramaic terms. In this vein, Σαρακηνοί / Saraceni is either derived from sāriq / sāriqīn (Arabic: “stealing” / “thieves”), from šarqī / šarqīyyūn (Arabic: “Eastern”/ “Orientals”), from serāq (Aramaic: “emptiness” / “wasteland”), and finally from šarika(t) (Arabic: “association,” here in the sense of “confederation”).[18]

[Translation: Barbara König]

Editions & Translations

Isidorus Hispalensis, Etymologiarum sive originum libri, ed. Wallace Martin Lindsay, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987 (reprint of Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911).

Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Cited & Additional Literature

Beckett, K.S.: Anglo-Saxon Perceptions of the Arabs, Ismaelites and Saracens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Daniel, Norman: Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Oxford: One World, 2009 (ND von 1960).

Esders, Stefan: Herakleios, Dagobert und die "beschnittenen Völker", in: Andreas Goltz, Hartmut Leppin, Heinrich Schlange-Schöningen (eds), Jenseits der Grenzen. Beiträge zur spätantiken und frühmittelalterlichen Geschichtsschreibung, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009, pp. 239-312.

Fontaine, Jacques: Isidore de Seville. Genèse et originalité de la culture hispanique au temps des Wisigoths, Turnhout: Brepols, 2000.

Graf, David: The Saracens and the Defense of the Arabian Frontier, in: David F. Graf, Rome and the Arabian Frontier: from the Nabataeans to the Saracens, Aldershot 1997, Aufsatz IX, pp. 1–26.

Hoyland, Robert G.: Arabia and the Arabs from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam, London and New York: 2003.

Philipp, Hans: Die historisch-geographischen Quellen in den Etymologiae des Isidorus von Sevilla, Berlin: Weidmann, 1913.

Retsö, Jan: The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads, London: Routledge, 2003.

Shahîd Irfan; Bosworth, Clifford E.: Saracens, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, vol. 9, Leiden: Brill, 1997, p. 27.

Shahîd, Irfan: Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984.

Shahîd, Irfan: Ṭayyiʾ, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam 2, vol. 10, Leiden: Brill, 2000, pp. 402-403.

Tolan, John: „A Wild Man, Whose Hand Will Be Against All“: Saracens and Ishmaelites in Latin Ethnographical Traditions, from Jerome to Bede, in: Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, Richard Payne (eds), Visions of Community in the post-Roman World, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, pp. 513-530.

Tolan, John: Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Tolan, John: Sons of Ishmael: Muslims through European Eyes in the Middle Ages, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2008.

Recommended Citation

Daniel G. König, "621: Isidore of Seville on the Origins of the Term “Saracens”", in: Transmediterranean History. Commented Anthology of Primary Sources, ed. Daniel G. König, Theresa Jäckh, Eric Böhme, URL: https://wiki.uni-konstanz.de/transmed-en/index.php/621:_Isidore_of_Seville_on_the_Origins_of_the_Term_“Saracens”. Last Revision: 13.09.2021, Access: 9.12.2023.


Abraham, Agarenes, Arabs, bible, etymology, geography, Hagar, Ishmael, Ishmaelites, polemics, pre-Islamic Arabs, Saracens, terminology

  1. Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, trans. Barney et al., pp. 4-9.
  2. Fontaine, Isidore, p. 173, 436.
  3. Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, trans. Barney et al., pp. 9-16.
  4. Philipps, Die historisch-geographischen Quellen.
  5. Shahîd, Ṭayyiʾ, pp. 402-403.
  6. Retsö, Arabs, pp. 505-506, on the basis of Claudius Ptolemaeus, Geographia, ed. Karl Friedrich August Nobbe, Leipzig: Carl Tauchnitz, 1845, vol. 2, lib. 6, cap. 7.21, p. 102.
  7. Bardaiṣan, The Book of the Laws of Countries, ed./trans. H.J. W. Drijvers, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1965, p. 50, l. 11.
  8. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae, lib. XXII, cap. 15,2: “Scenitas praetenditur Arabas, quos Sarracenos nunc appellamus“; lib. XXIII, cap. 6,13: "Scenitas Arabas, quos Saracenos posteritas appellavit."
  9. Hieronymus, ep. 129,4, ed. Isidorus Hilberg (CSEL 56), Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1918, pp. 169-170: “Arabes et Agarenos, quos nunc Sarracenos vocant, in vicinia urbis Jerusalem.”
  10. Tolan, A Wild Man, p. 515.
  11. Hieronymus, Liber quaestionum hebraicarum in Genesim, ed. Paul de Lagarde (CCL 72), Turnhout: Brepols, 1959, cap. 16, p. 26.
  12. Hieronymus, Commentarii in Ezechielem, ed. François Glorie (CCL 75), Turnhout: Brepols, 1964, lib. 8, cap. 25,1-7, p. 335: “Madianaeos, ismaelitas et agarenos, qui nunc saraceni appellantur, assumentes sibi falso nomen sarae quo scilicet de ingenua et domina uideantur esse generati.”
  13. Sozomenos, Kirchengeschichte / Historia ecclesiastica, ed./trans. Günther Christian Hansen (Fontes Christiani 73/3), Turnhout: Brepols, 2004, vol. 3, lib. VI, cap. 38,10-16, pp. 826-830. Also see Esders, Herakleios, p. 274.
  14. Shahîd, Rome and the Arabs, p. 105, FN 63. Citing Shahīd, Tolan, A Wild Man, p. 518, purports that Jerome may have invented the etymology himself. This would not explain, however, why it was also documented by the church historian Sozomen, who would have copied the etymology from Eusebius rather than from Jerome.
  15. On Isidore’s extensive use of Jerome, see Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, trans. Barney et al., pp. 9-16.
  16. Beda Venerabilis, In principium Genesis usque ad natiuitatem Isaac, ed. C.W. Jones (CCL 118A), Turnhout: Brepols, 1967, lib. IV,16, p. 201; Bede, On Genesis, transl. Calvin B. Kendall, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008, p. 279; Beckett, Anglo-Saxon Perceptions, p. 128-129; Tolan, A Wild Man, pp. 513-530.
  17. Tolan, Saracens, pp. 127-128; Daniel, Islam and the West, p. 100.
  18. Compare the arguments (always with further literature) in Shahîd, Bosworth, Saracens, p. 27; Shahîd, Rome and the Arabs, pp. 123-141; Graf, Saracens, pp. 14–15; Hoyland, Arabia, p. 235; Retsö, Arabs, pp. 505-520.