by Laura Banella

The Derivationes was the most important and widely-circulated lexicographical encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Essentially, it is a Latin lexicon alphabetically ordered by principal lemmas of the simple words, from which all derivatives and compound words are formed. The title of the work, Derivationes, refers to this method. Written by Uguccione da Pisa in the middle of the twelfth century, the Derivationes served as a dictionary for those who wrote in vernacular as well as Latin. We know that Dante used the Derivationes throughout his life as he cites them in the Convivio (IV.6.5).

The author
A canonist and lexicographer, Uguccione was born in Pisa around 1130 and died in Ferrara in 1210. He studied law in Bologna before 1156 where he was professor of canon law from 1178 to 1190, at the latest, when he became the bishop of Ferrara. As a bishop, he undertook important religious and political roles.  Uguccione wrote a Summa on Gratian’s Decretum (1188-90); on account of its extent and depth, it is considered the major commentary on Gratian. In this work, Uguccione claims the parallel autonomy of papacy and empire, preceding Dante’s political thought, as it is expressed in the Monarchia in particular. Some doubt that Uguccione da Pisa, author of the Derivationes, and Uguccione, bishop and canonist, are one and the same. There is, however, no certain evidence that they are two distinct authors.

The work
The Derivationes is a Latin dictionary that applies the method of derivational lexicography (disciplina derivationis). Uguccione’s major source was the Liber Derivationum by Osbern Pinnock of Gloucester (1123-1200) although he never cites the work. The Derivationes are written by compiling previous materials that were, in turn, at least partially made by compilation. This results in a considerable stratification of knowledge. The Derivationes places itself in a tradition with Classical and Late Antique culture: its most important precedent is Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae. Uguccione directly cites some of his sources (there are circa 2500 quotations), such as the Bible, Plautus, Horace, Giovenale, Virgil, Martianus Capella, Persius, Ovid, Terence, Lucan, Macrobius, Prudence, Josephus, Augustine, Statius, Ambrose, Jerome, Servius, Priscian, Rabanus Maurus, and the Disticha Catonis.

In the Derivationes there is a strong tendency to create a hierarchy within the lexicon. Uguccione strives to isolate a certain number of root-words, deducing from them almost the entire Latin vocabulary by the process of derivation and combination.

Lemmas are not ordered in a precise sequence. There is a generic alphabetical order based on the first two or three letters of the words, but more often only the first letter is taken into account. This makes the dictionary very hard to use (some manuscripts solve this by adding marginal notes indicating the lemmas as seen in the image below). For this reason, the Derivationes were ultimately replaced by Giovanni Balbi’s Catholicon (1286), almost a modern dictionary in which lemmas are ordered in a more rigorously alphabetical, and thus easier, system.

Despite their complexity, the Derivationes was the dictionary par excellence of the Middle Ages. It is found at the center of medieval culture and had a vast diffusion until the fifteenth century. Today there are about 190 extant manuscript copies of the Derivationes.

Dante and the Derivationes
Although a Latin dictionary, the Derivationes was used also by vernacular writers. Given its encyclopedic quality, it was useful not only in order to understand the meaning of words, but also as an erudite source of knowledge. Because of its wide diffusion and popularity, the Derivationes would have been well known by authors and readers in the Middle Ages, making it a crucial intertext and one of the fundamental works for interpreting Dante’s literary works. Dante uses the Derivationes to enrich his vocabulary (for instance, to access Greek words), but he also draws inspiration from the etymologies and the interpretations given in the Derivationes. In fact, some of the images and the scenes of his works correspond to Uguccione’s definitions, and, indeed, they become clear in the light of Uguccione’s work (Toynbee and Picone). There are various instances throughout Dante’s literature, among which two of the most significant are Virgil’s actions in Inf. 6 and the representation of the hypocrites in Inf. 23.

MS 27 sin. 5, c. 20v. Parchment, 1236 (scribal colophon, c. 90rb: “anno domini MCCXXXVI indictione nona die iouis .v. exeunte iunio / hec in (!) pagina finta est scrib(i) et in mense marcii, ut credo, anno domini 1234 ince / ptum fuit opus istud”), cc. III (paper) + 90 + I (parchment) + III (paper), mm. 360×258 (270×182). Gothic Italian script, maybe by more than one hand. Major capital letters alternately red and blue introduce the beginning of the new sections; smaller capitals alternately red and blue introduce the principal lemmas. Red paragraph marks highlight the words, and some lemmas. The word item and other simple capitals in the text are touched in red. Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.

Dante represents the hypocrites as wearing mantles brilliantly gilded on the outside, but of lead within (Inf. 23.61-65). This image appears to come from Uguccione’s etymology of hypocrita, which was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages, and repeated by the early Dantean commentators; a hypocrite is a deceiver, so that the word hypocrita is composed of two parts: that is ipo which means over, and crisis which means gold in Greek. Thus,  hypocrita means someone who is golden on the outside (Toynbee 548-549). The page pictured above, leaf 20v, contains the final section of letter C and the beginning of letter D. In the top part of the right column there is the end of the lemma crisis, under which is classified hypocrita. The difficult consultation of the Derivationes is evident, as the efforts of the readers to create a system of reference for the words: for example, on the left margin we can read “crisma –tis” and “cristus,” words still under the same lemma crisis. The manuscript is Italian and, dating back at 1236 (it is the oldest dated manuscript of the Derivationes), is a good example of how Dante’s copy of the Derivationes might have looked like.

Another scene that was likely influenced by Uguccione is Virgil’s intervention with Cerberus (Inf. 6). Whereas the Sybil in the Aeneid appeases the monster with drugged honeycakes, Virgil silences Cerberus by throwing a handful of earth in its mouth (Inf. 6.25-31). Uguccione’s definition elucidates the scene: in the Derivationes Cerberus is interpreted as the symbol of the earth that consumes and eats buried corpses (“[…] Cerberus est terra que carnes mortuorum consumit sed ossa consumere non potest,” Derivationes II 283), so that the monster itself becomes earth, and it is natural that it is appeased by swallowing earth (Picone 270). This probably also relates to the condition of the souls in this canto, the gluttonous, who are almost buried in earth.

Selected Bibliography

Uguccione da Pisa, Derivationes, edizione critica princeps a cura di E. Cecchini e di G. Arbizzoni, S. Lanciotti, G. Nonni, M.G. Sassi, A. Tontini, Firenze: SISMEL – Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2004 (Edizione Nazionale dei testi Mediolatini, 11).

Ascoli, Albert. Ascoli, Albert Russell. Dante and the Making of a Modern Author. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Picone, Michelangelo. “Dante e Uguccione,” in “Le ‘Derivazioni’ di Uguccione da Pisa. Atti dell’incontro di studi all’Università di Zurigo 10 febbraio 2006.” Archivum Latinitatis Medii Aevi – Bulletin du Cange 64 (2006): 241-276 (268-275).

Schizzerotto, Giancarlo. “Uguccione (Uguiccione) da Pisa,” in Enciclopledia Dantesca, diretta da U. Bosco, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana fondata da Giovanni Treccani, 19842, V: 800-802. (

Toynbee, Paget Jackson. “Dante’s Obligations to the Magnae Derivationes of Uguccione da Pisa,” Romania 26 (1897): 537-554.

—. “Dante’s Latin Dictionary,” in Dante Studies and Researches, Methuen: London, 1902: 97-114.