Human taxonomy is all about metaphors and history. Every taxon under the umbrella of Homo is imbued with a narrative, told through a series of nested relationships. From an evolutionary perspective, taxonomy is a way of describing how species are related to others, through ancestral lineages. From a historical standpoint, taxonomy serves as a method to triangulate between culture and geography.
Trying to work out the taxonomic history of Homo – beyond just an evolutionary tree – actually traces back to antiquity. Many classical writers used “species” names for Homo that served as an allegory for the human condition. The Roman writer Caecus, for example, used the term Homo faber to describe “man the maker” in reference to what he thought was humanity’s ability to control destiny. (The definition of Homo faber has been made and remade over millennia, depending on the writer and the philosophical context.)
Fast forward several centuries, and taxonomy in the Middle Ages looks very different. While some medieval philosophers continued to use classical taxa, most medieval taxonomy became a means of articulating social hierarchies rather than exploring allegory. Consequently, medieval taxonomy offers a curious history of social of Europe, where everyone’s place is clearly and hierarchically defined.
Any taxon is the result of decisions – we decide what goes in a taxa and then what to call it. We chose the story that the taxa will tell because we infuse every one with metaphor.
TOP TEN MEDIEVAL TAXA:
- HOMO AD ARMA. An army man.
- HOMO AD COLLUM. An individual who carries a weight around his neck or on his shoulders; a porter or carrier.
- HOMO ALBANUS. One who went to work in the morning and returned to his home in the evening.
- HOMO CHARTULARIUS. Title assigned to individuals in charge of legal and religious papers, as well as to those who prepared them.
- HOMO COACTUS POTESTATIS. One subject to the servitude of the glebe; someone in bondage. A peasant with no rights.
- HOMO ECCLESIASTICUS. After Jerome, a Christian. One who has an office in the church.
- HOMO FRATERNITATIS. A member of a brotherhood.
- HOMO HONORATUS. A notable person.
- HOMO JOCULARIS. A minstrel.
- HOMO SIGNORUM. Used in astrology to depict one connected with the zodiac signs.
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Rubric and miniature showing army and massacre outside tents.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e6e5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Rubric and miniature showing army.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e6e4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Romeo, Luigi. Ecce Homo! A Lexicon of Man. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1979.