High up on the wall of Somerville College, one of Oxford’s premier colleges formerly for women, is this inscription, Donec Rursus Impleat Orbem. I have been passing by it now for a few days, and I have to say, I think it’s a strange motto.
To my mind, mottoes ought to be pithy and obvious, as, for instance, Oxford’s Dominus Mea Illuminatio (“The Lord My Light”) or Harvard’s Veritas (“Truth”), though not all are. Even Sewanee’s own Ecce Quam Bonum (“Behold How Good”) requires the rest of the quotation from Psalm 133 to make sense (et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum, “and joyful it is when brothers live together as one”), but I suspect people in Sewanee are fond of the slight obscurity of the motto. One has to be “in the know” to understand it.
The people of Somerville College do not relish the obscurity of their motto. On their website, it says that the founders named the college “in honour of the Scottish mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville (1780 to 1872), and the Somerville family arms and motto (the notoriously untranslatable Donec rursus impleat orbem) were adopted.”
“Notoriously untranslatable” is an overstatement. It’s odd, I’ll grant, but not unintelligible. It easily reads as “Until it should fill the world again.” The problem is what the subject of impleat is. Until what fills again? Having looked at the
crest device now a few times this week, I can see that the crest above the helmet is a hand grasping a crescent. So, apparently the motto is a reference to the moon, and orbem should then be translated not as its usual “world” but as the more technical “orb.” Until [the moon] again fills its orb, i.e., until the crescent moon is full.
I don’t know why the Somerville family had this line as its motto, but I can understand why the founders of the college were unhappy with it. There is a long association of women and the moon, as both of a changeable nature, in contrast to the association of men and the sun, steady and unwavering. Frankly, the association is just wrong in the case of Somerville, whose alumnae include Dorothy Sayers, Iris Murdoch, Indira Gandhi, and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher!
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2
Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops—
O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
Postscript, February 2014. My friend, Waring McCrady, who knows a good deal about heraldry, offers the following thoughts on the above:
Of course, as you said in your blog, the motto was not chosen for the college; it came with the family name and coat of arms. … The family might have added this motto and crest to their shield in some generation of “bad times,” looking bravely forward to when the family’s influence (or luck or finances…) might be full again. Frequently in old families the motto has changed with inevitable vicissitudes (as it has several times in the Royal family).
I did easily establish that the Somerville family (whose arms, with that same motto, are registered with the Lord Lyon in Scotland) are anciently of Norman background (as is evident in “ville”). It’s one of those family names that derive from place names. Obviously, the Normans (“north-men”) themselves came to France from northern Europe, and the French place-name of Sémerville is presumed to derive from an ancient Germanic personal name, “Sigimar.” A Norse “Sigimar” (before family names existed) must have owned, or somehow dominated, the “ville” in Normandy (where there still exists a town named “Graveron Sémerville.” But all of that seems to have nothing to do with fickle moons, and besides, the motto is not in Old French (as so many are) but is Latin instead (mildly suggesting that it came at a later date).
A note on heraldic pedantry: You quote an official text referring to “the arms and motto” of the Somerville family.” It is familiar and acceptable usage to use the word arms to include both the shield and the crest above it, although arms is often used to refer to the shield alone, whether or not it has a crest. Shields are often shown without crests, even if they have one, but there are a surprisingly large number of shields that do not have crests. Americans are consistently misled into thinking that a crest means a coat of arms. It does not. The crest (logically enough) is only that device which is outside of (and on top of) the shield, often displayed as sitting on a little rope directly above the shield, but in fuller displays shown cresting the helmet that is on top of the shield (as in the picture you include). Again, the sentence in your text is not wrong (if my brackets are understood), but it is a little confusing: “Having looked at the crest now a few times this week, I can see that above the helmet [in the normal location for a crest] is a hand grasping a crescent.” In this case, the hand grasping a crescent is the crest. I’d bet that there are not ten people in Sewanee who understand that distinction, so widely misused is the term by the hawkers of bogus heraldry.
P.S. A little webwork, not very satisfying:
—In the 1670’s a second son in the Kidd family (Scottish) added a crescent to his family arms (on the shield, I mean) to represent that he was the second, and not the eldest, son (the crescent being a standard symbol for second sons in heraldry). In recording this altered shield with the Lyon Court in Edinburgh, he also changed from his father’s motto “QUEM NON TORRET HEINS” to a new one for himself; apparently playing on the new crescent, he recorded, “DONEC IMPLEAT ORBEM,” perhaps looking forward to the increase of the new family line he would create.
—In 1557 Claude Paradin, who published collections of clever emblems (little symbolic drawings, not shields, more like logos, very popular in the 1500’s) has one with three intertwined crescents surmounted by an imperial crown, with the motto “DONEC TOTUM IMPLEAT ORBEM” (this one shooting for the whole bit!).
— DONEC IMPLEAT ORBEM is listed as one (without number) of the top 500 most common mottos in heraldry.
—Would this passage from Statius (Thebaid 2, 134–150) have been familiar to classically educated people with coats of arms in days of yore? (But here the pater igneus is surely the sun and no mere crescent moon!):
Et iam Mygdoniis elata cubilibus alto
impulerat caelo gelidas Aurora tenebras,
rorantes excussa comas multumque sequenti
sole rubens; illi roseus per nubila seras
aduertit flammas alienumque aethera tardo
Lucifer exit equo, donec pater igneus orbem
impleat atque ipsi radios uetet esse sorori