Silva Rerum.

Another bit of ostentatious erudition from the narrator of Mating (see this post): she says “Clearly the living quarters were just another part of the silva rerum,” and of course I had to investigate. I knew it was Latin for ‘the forest of things,’ but there had to be an allusion there; it turns out Cicero refers to “Silva rerum et sententiarum” (though I don’t know what exactly that means), and in early modern Poland a silva rerum was “a specific type of a book, a multi-generational chronicle, kept by many Polish and Lithuanian noble families from the 16th through 18th centuries” (to quote Wikipedia, which oddly has no other sense of the phrase and no explanation for why it came to mean that). If anyone knows more about the history of this phrase, please share.


  1. Silva Rerum is the name of the Lithuanian bestseller I am planning to read when I will learn the language well enough.

    So now I know what it means.

  2. The Lithuanian historical novels are mentioned in that Wikipedia article.

    Like the footnote says, silva rerum is taken from the Greek idea of ὑποκειμένη ὕλη. So, the metaphorical forest (i.e., lumberyard) is a “stock of matter.”

    In oratory, the sense if further developed, as in Quintilian, to something like “rough draft” for writing down this raw material as practice.

    Assuming the Polish sense doesn’t come from someplace else entirely, it’s not that hard to imagine it referring to random jottings over generations.

  3. This site states that “In ancient Roman literature, the Latin word silva rerum (a forest of things) designated a mixture of literary strategies and genres.” And sites for the proposition Pisarski, M. (2010). Polish II: Silva Rerum – “A Book of Everything on Anything” as a Cybertextual Experience.(pdf). Pan Pisarski blames Publius Papinius Statius, in particular his work Silvae, for the source of the term. You can keep googling from there. No evidence that this indeed where the term comes from is provided. The expression had its predecessors in Polish as “gardens” or “patios”.

  4. George Christian Knapp in his Lectures on Christian Theology connects “silva” with “chaos” and “materia”, vd section III, The Nature of the First Material:

  5. The given link is right — in the Renaissance there would be lots of books called ‘Silva’ which offered miscellaneous storehouses of learning and other things. Then Bacon upped the ante and wrote “Sylva sylvarum”, a forest of forests, containing 100s of experiments. (The pun is there in John Evelyn’s “Silva”.)

  6. Thanks, everyone — it’s much clearer now!

  7. Another data point: Ben Jonson’s prose work Timber: | or | Discoveries | Made Upon Men | and Matter: As They | have flow’d out of his daily Read- | ings; or had their refluxe to his | peculiar Notion of the Times. It’s a commonplace book, and the metaphor seems transparent: his quotations are to their original source-texts as pieces of fire-wood are to the forest trees from which they were chopped.
    Earlier in Volume VIII of the Oxford Ben Jonson, ed. by Herford & Simpson, Jonson’s poems are collected in sections entitled Epigrammes, The Forrest, and The Under-woode, where two of the three use a similar metaphor. I suspect foresty titles are a huge subject in ancient and Renaissance literature.
    By the way, I have a spare copy of Volume VIII, so if any reader is interested in Ben Jonson’s Prose and Verse, but not the plays, and would find it useful, please email me (

  8. Timber, by the way, is the source of Jonson’s wisecrack about Shakespeare (on being told he had never blotted (corrected) a line): “I wish he had blotted a thousand.” It was Johnson with an “h”, however, who said that Shakespeare never had six lines together without a fault.

  9. From Laudator Temporis Acti, quoting Walter Map (c.1130-c.1210), De Nugis Curialium 2.32:

    I set before you here a whole forest and timberyard, I will not say of stories, but of jottings; for I do not spend time upon cultivation of style, nor, if I did, should I attain to it. Every reader must cut into shape the rough material that is here served up to him, that thanks to their pains it may go forth into the world with a fair outside. I am but your huntsman. I bring you the game, it is for you to make dainty dishes out of it.

    Siluam uobis et materiam, non dico fabularum, sed faminum appono; cultui etenim sermonum non intendo, nec si studeam consequar. Singuli lectores appositam ruditatem exculpant, ut eorum industria bona facie prodeat in publicum. Venator vester sum: feras uobis affero, fercula faciatis.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Venator vester sum: feras uobis affero, fercula faciatis.

    We report with a lot of alliteration, you decide.

  11. Yes, I was struck by that as well. I wasn’t familiar with ferculum.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Me neither.

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