When we speak of philosophy as the handmaid of theology, it connotes to us derivative, secondary, even expendable existence. For the medieval religious, on the other hand, the word “Ancilla” had the innescapable connotation of “ancilla Domini”, Mary the Mother of God. The phrase is was said by medieval religious at least twice a day: once at the angelus, and again during the Magnificat of the divine office. When we call philosophy the “ancilla” or handmaid of theology, we should first hear its marian connotations.


  1. beitiathustra said,

    July 29, 2006 at 1:28 pm

    I guess the connotations also come from the English congnate “ancillary” which is of secondary importance. Again, ancilla is a feminine diminuative from “anculus” or slave. Certainly there is the Theological significance that you mention, but that is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind – unless you read secondary to mean second in order of importance – absolutely speaking.

  2. shulamite8810 said,

    July 29, 2006 at 2:40 pm

    Right, which is why we should probably change the word in English: but there’s no good replacement for all the connotations that the word had to the ear of the Latin- speaking religious person. ________ of thology. What can go in the blank? “Spouse” might do the trick, but it still doesn’t have the same overtones that the word had to the Latin speaking religious. .

  3. July 30, 2006 at 10:46 am

    We should change the word in English, because ancillary has all of the meaning of secondary (which is intended in saying anicila) but none of the meaning of assistance (which would come etymologically from “slave”).
    We could use “parent” but only in the sense that the child is greater than the parent, but then we would lose the secondary connotations.
    We could use “right hand man” but that just sounds stupid.
    So perhaps your elucidation becomes a little more necessary – given there is nothing that can adequately fill in the blank.

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