Isidore of Seville: ‘Last Scholar of the Ancient World’
He exercised a far-reaching and immeasurable influence on the educational life of the Middle Ages.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Isidore of Seville (c.560 – 4 April 636) was a Visigothic scholar and cleric. He is widely regarded, in the words of 19th-century historian Montalembert, as “the last scholar of the ancient world”.
At a time of disintegration of classical culture, aristocratic violence and widespread illiteracy, Isidore was involved in the conversion of the Arian Visigothic kings to Catholicism, both assisting his brother Leander of Seville and continuing after his brother’s death. He was influential in the inner circle of Sisebut, Visigothic king of Hispania. Like Leander, he played a prominent role in the Councils of Toledo and Seville.
His fame after his death was based on his Etymologiae, an etymological encyclopedia that assembled extracts of many books from classical antiquity that would have otherwise been lost. This work also helped standardize the use of the period (full stop), comma, and colon.
Since the early Middle Ages, Isidore has sometimes been called Isidore the Younger or Isidore Junior (Latin: Isidorus iunior) because of the earlier history purportedly written by Isidore of Córdoba.
Childhood and Education
Isidore was born in Cartagena, Spain, a former Carthaginian colony, to Severianus and Theodora. Both Severianus and Theodora belonged to notable Hispano-Roman families of high social rank. His parents were members of an influential family who were instrumental in the political-religious manoeuvring that converted the Visigothic kings from Arianism to Catholicism. The Catholic Church celebrates him and all his siblings as known saints:
- An older brother, Leander of Seville, immediately preceded Isidore as Archbishop of Seville and, while in office, opposed King Liuvigild.
- A younger brother, Fulgentius of Cartagena, served as the Bishop of Astigi at the start of the new reign of the Catholic King Reccared.
- His sister, Florentina of Cartagena, was a nun who allegedly ruled over forty convents and one thousand consecrated religious. This claim seems unlikely, however, given the few functioning monastic institutions in Spania during her lifetime.
Isidore received his elementary education in the Cathedral school of Seville. In this institution, the first of its kind in Spania, a body of learned men including Archbishop Leander of Seville taught the trivium and quadrivium, the classic liberal arts. Isidore applied himself to study diligently enough that he quickly mastered classical Latin, and acquired some Greek and Hebrew.
Two centuries of Gothic control of Iberia incrementally suppressed the ancient institutions, classical learning, and manners of the Roman Empire. The associated culture entered a period of long-term decline. The ruling Visigoths nevertheless showed some respect for the outward trappings of Roman culture. Arianism meanwhile took deep root among the Visigoths as the form of Christianity that they received.
Scholars may debate whether Isidore ever personally embraced monastic life or affiliated with any religious order, but he undoubtedly esteemed the monks highly.
Bishop of Seville
Second Synod of Seville (November 619)
Isidore presided over the Second Council of Seville, begun on 13 November 619 in the reign of King Sisebut, a provincial council attended by eight other bishops, all from the ecclesiastical province of Baetica in southern Spain. The Acts of the Council fully set forth the nature of Christ, countering the conceptions of Gregory, a Syrian representing the heretical Acephali.
Third Synod of Seville (624)
Based on a few surviving canons found in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, Isidore is known to have presided over an additional provincial council around 624.
The council dealt with a conflict over the See of Écija and wrongfully stripped bishop Martianus of his see, a situation that was rectified by the Fourth Council of Toledo. It also addressed a concern over Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity,.
The records of the council, unlike the First and Second Councils of Seville, were not preserved in the Hispana, a collection of canons and decretals likely edited by Isidore himself.
Fourth National Council of Toledo
All bishops of Hispania attended the Fourth National Council of Toledo, begun on 5 December 633. The aged Archbishop Isidore presided over its deliberations and originated most enactments of the council.
Through Isidore’s influence, this Council of Toledo promulgated a decree commanding all bishops to establish seminaries in their cathedral cities along the lines of the cathedral school at Seville, which had educated Isidore decades earlier. The decree prescribed the study of Greek, Hebrew, and the liberal arts and encouraged interest in law and medicine. The authority of the council made this education policy obligatory upon all bishops of the Kingdom of the Visigoths. The council granted remarkable position and deference to the king of the Visigoths. The independent Church bound itself in allegiance to the acknowledged king; it said nothing of allegiance to the Bishop of Rome.
Isidore of Seville died on 4 April 636 after serving more than 32 years as archbishop of Seville.
Isidore’s Latin style in the Etymologiae and elsewhere, though simple and lucid, reveals increasing local Visigothic traditions.
Isidore was the first Christian writer to try to compile a summa of universal knowledge, in his most important work, the Etymologiae (taking its title from the method he uncritically used in the transcription of his era’s knowledge). It is also known by classicists as the Origines (the standard abbreviation being Orig.). This encyclopedia—the first such Christian epitome—formed a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 volumes.
In it, Isidore entered his own terse digest of Roman handbooks, miscellanies and compendia, he continued the trend towards abridgements and summaries that had characterised Roman learning in Late Antiquity. In the process, many fragments of classical learning are preserved that otherwise would have been hopelessly lost; “in fact, in the majority of his works, including the Origines, he contributes little more than the mortar which connects excerpts from other authors, as if he was aware of his deficiencies and had more confidence in the stilus maiorum than his own,” his translator Katherine Nell MacFarlane remarks.
Some of these fragments were lost in the first place because Isidore’s work was so highly regarded—Braulio called it quaecunque fere sciri debentur, “practically everything that it is necessary to know”—that it superseded the use of many individual works of the classics themselves, which were not recopied and have therefore been lost: “all secular knowledge that was of use to the Christian scholar had been winnowed out and contained in one handy volume; the scholar need search no further”.
The fame of this work imparted a new impetus to encyclopedic writing, which bore abundant fruit in the subsequent centuries of the Middle Ages. It was the most popular compendium in medieval libraries. It was printed in at least ten editions between 1470 and 1530, showing Isidore’s continued popularity in the Renaissance. Until the 12th century brought translations from Arabic sources, Isidore transmitted what western Europeans remembered of the works of Aristotle and other Greeks, although he understood only a limited amount of Greek. The Etymologiae was much copied, particularly into medieval bestiaries.
On the Catholic Faith against the Jews
Isidore’s De fide catholica contra Iudaeos furthers Augustine of Hippo’s ideas on the Jewish presence in the Christian society of the ancient world. Like Augustine, Isidore held an acceptance of the Jewish presence as necessary to society because of their expected role in the anticipated Second Coming of Christ.
But Isidore had access to Augustine’s works, out of which one finds more than forced acceptance of but rather broader reasons than just an endtime role for Jews in society:[D]iversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained [are not scrupled in the heavenly city for which we strive, while its citizens sojourn on earth], but recognizing that, however various they are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.[The heavenly city] is therefore so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced…and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God. (City of God, Book 19, Chapter 17)
According to Jeremy Cohen’s account in a Berkeley, California publication, De fide catholica contra Iudaeos, Isidore exceeds the anti-rabbinic polemics of earlier theologians by criticizing Jewish practice as deliberately disingenuous.
But once again Isidore’s same predecessor, Augustine, seems to have written of at least the possibility of Jewish rabbinical practice along that subject’s content’s purportedly deceptive lines in the same work cited above:They say that it is not credible that the seventy translators [of the Septuagint] who simultaneously and unanimously produced one rendering, could have erred, or, in a case in which no interest of theirs was involved, could have falsified their translation, but that the Jews, envying us our translation of their Law and Prophets, have made alterations in their texts to undermine the authority of ours. (City of God, Book 15, Chapter 11)
He contributed two decisions to the Fourth Council of Toledo: Canon 60 calling for the forced removal of children from parents practising Crypto-Judaism and their education by Christians on the basis that while their parents were concealing themselves under the guise of Christians, they had presumably allowed their children to be baptised with intent to deceive. This removal was an exception to the general rule of the treatment of Jewish children according to the 13th century Summa Theologica, “[I]t was never the custom of the Church to baptize the children of Jews against the will of their parents….”
He also contributed Canon 65 thought to forbid Jews and Christians of Jewish origin from holding public office. Though why this severe restriction would refer to Christians and not foreign pagan slaves who eventually learn the native language is unclear, as “those who are of the Jews” are applied to the case as “do[ing] wrong to the Christians [christianis iniurium faciunt].”
Isidore’s authored more than a dozen major works on various topics including mathematics, holy scripture, and monastic life, all in Latin:
- Historia de regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum et Suevorum, a history of the Gothic, Vandal and Suebi kings. The longer edition, issued in 624, includes the Laus Spaniae and the Laus Gothorum.
- Chronica Majora, a universal history
- De differentiis verborum, a brief theological treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, of Paradise, angels, and men
- De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), a book of astronomy and natural history dedicated to the Visigothic king Sisebut
- Questions on the Old Testament
- a mystical treatise on the allegorical meanings of numbers
- a number of brief letters
- Sententiae libri tres Codex Sang. 228; 9th century
- De viris illustribus
- De ecclesiasticis officiis
- De summo bono
- De ortu et obitu patrum
Isidore was one of the last of the ancient Christian philosophers and was contemporary with Maximus the Confessor. He has been called the most learned man of his age by some scholars, and he exercised a far-reaching and immeasurable influence on the educational life of the Middle Ages. His contemporary and friend, Braulio of Zaragoza, regarded him as a man raised up by God to save the Iberian peoples from the tidal wave of barbarism that threatened to inundate the ancient civilization of Hispania.
The Eighth Council of Toledo (653) recorded its admiration of his character in these glowing terms: “The extraordinary doctor, the latest ornament of the Catholic Church, the most learned man of the latter ages, always to be named with reverence, Isidore”. This tribute was endorsed by the Fifteenth Council of Toledo, held in 688, and later in 1598 by Pope Clement VIII. Isidore was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722 by Pope Innocent XIII.
Isidore was interred in Seville. His tomb represented an important place of veneration for the Mozarabs during the centuries after the Arab conquest of Visigothic Hispania. In the middle of the 11th century, with the division of Al Andalus into taifas and the strengthening of the Christian holdings in the Iberian peninsula, Ferdinand I of León and Castile found himself in a position to extract tribute from the fractured Arab states. In addition to money, Abbad II al-Mu’tadid, the Abbadid ruler of Seville (1042–1069), agreed to turn over St. Isidore’s remains to Ferdinand I. A Catholic poet described al-Mutatid placing a brocaded cover over Isidore’s sarcophagus, and remarked, “Now you are leaving here, revered Isidore. You know well how much your fame was mine!” Today, many of his bones are buried in the cathedral of Murcia, Spain.
In Dante’s Paradiso (X.130), Isidore is mentioned among theologians and Doctors of the Church alongside the Scot Richard of St. Victor and the Englishman Bede the Venerable.
The University of Dayton has named their implementation of the Sakai Project in honour of Saint Isidore.
His likeness, along with that of Leander of Sevile and Ferdinand III of Castile, is depicted on the crest badge of Sevilla FC.
The Order of St. Isidore of Seville is a chivalric order formed on 1 January 2000. An international organisation, the order aims to honour Saint Isidore as patron saint of the Internet, alongside promoting Christian chivalry online. (This honour is unofficial: the Holy See considered naming Isidore as patron saint of the Internet but has not done so.)
Criticisms and Contemporary Appraisal
Contemporary researchers have criticized Isidore. Specifically, the point of contention is his work in the Etymologies. Historian Sandro D’Onofrio has argued that “job consisted here and there of restating, recapitulating, and sometimes simply transliterating both data and theories that lacked research and originality.”
In this view, Isidore—considering the large popularity his works enjoyed during the Middle Ages and the founding role he had in Scholasticism—would be less a brilliant thinker than a Christian gatekeeper making etymologies fit into the Christian worldview. “[H]e prescribed what they should mean,” asserts D’Onofrio.
Researcher Victor Bruno has countered this argument. According to him, it was not the meaning of the Etymologies, or of Isidore’s work as a whole, to give a scientific or philological account of the words, as a modern researcher would do. “It is obvious that, from a material point of view,” argues Bruno, “Isidore’s practical knowledge on etymology, geography, and history are considered outdated; his methods, from the current academic and scientific standpoint, are questionable, and some of his conclusions are indeed incorrect. But Isidore is less concerned about being etymologically or philologically right than being ontologically right.”
Therefore Isidore, despite living in the early Middle Ages, is an archaic or “traditional” thinker. Being religiously inclined, Isidore would be concerned with the redeeming meaning of words and history, the ultimate quest of religions. The same researcher also found parallels between Isidore’s interpretation of the word “year” (annus) and the meaning of the same words in the Jāiminīya-Upaniṣad-Brāmaṇa.
- Russell, R. P. “Augustinianism”. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 4 April 2021 – via Encyclopedia.com.
- Montalembert, Charles F. Les Moines d’Occident depuis Saint Benoît jusqu’à Saint Bernard [The Monks of the West from Saint Benedict to Saint Bernard]. Paris: J. Lecoffre, 1860.
- Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Séville et la culture classique dans l’Espagne wisigothique (Paris) 1959
- Houston, Keith. “The mysterious origins of punctuation”. www.bbc.com. Retrieved 13 September 2022.
- Bonnie J. Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, eds., in Florentius de Faxolis, Book on Music (Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 262.
- ^ Priscilla Throop, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Complete English Translation. Vermont: MedievalMS, 2005, p. xi.
- Roger Collins, Early Medieval Spain. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995, pp. 79–86.
- “His literary style, though lucid, is pedestrian”: Katherine Nell MacFarlane’s observation, in “Isidore of Seville on the Pagan Gods (Origines VIII. 11)”, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, 70.3 (1980):1–40, p. 4, reflects mainstream secular opinion.
- Rachel Stocking, “Martianus, Aventius and Isidore: provincial councils in seventh-century Spain” Early Medieval Europe 6 (1997) 169–188.
- Isidore’s own work regarding medicine is examined by Sharpe, William D. (1964). “Isidore of Seville: The Medical Writings”. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 54 (2).
- MacFarlane 1980:4; MacFarlane translates Etymologiae viii.
- Braulio, Elogium of Isidore appended to Isidore’s De viris illustribus, heavily indebted itself to Jerome.
- MacFarlane 1980:4.
- “CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Isidore of Seville”. www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
- Verner, Lisa (2005). The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages. Routledge. pp. 94–95.
- Green, Roland, ed. (2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (4th ed.). Princeton University Press.
- Barber, Richard W. (1992). Bestiary : Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley 764: With All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Boydell & Brewer. pp. 8, 13.
- Marcus Dods, translator.
- Cohen, Jeremy (1999). Living Letters of the Law. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 97.
- Aquinas, St. Thomas (1274). Summa Theologica, p. II of p. IInd, “Treatise on Faith, Hope and Charity”, Question 10, Article 12, Answer. Quote continues: “…, although in times past there have been many very powerful catholic princes like Constantine and Theodosius, who would certainly not have failed to obtain this favour from them if it had been at all reasonable.”
- Bar-Shava Albert (1990). “Isidore of Seville: His attitude towards Judaism and his impact on early Medieval Canonical law”. The Jewish Quarterly Review. XXX 3, 4 (3/4): 207–220.
- Christopher Lowney (4 December 2012). A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment. Simon and Schuster. p. 17.
- “e-codices – Virtuelle Handschriftenbibliothek der Schweiz”. www.e-codices.unifr.ch. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
- Isidore of Seville; Translator: Thomas L. Knoebel; Raúl Gómez-Ruiz (2008). “Introduction”. In Dennis D. McManus (ed.). Isidore of Seville: De Ecclesiasticis Officiis. Paulist Press. p. 11.
- Bradford Lee Eden (2 August 2004). “Isidore of Seville”. In Christopher Kleinhenz; John W. Barker; Gail Geiger; Richard Lansing (eds.). Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 2012.
- Jorge Mario Cabrera Valverde (2004). Estampas de la Antigüedad Clásica. Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica. p. 124.
Un discípulo suyo, San Braulio de Zaragoza, escribe sobre él: “”Después de tantas ruinas y desastres, Dios le ha suscitado en estos últimos tiempos para restaurar los monumentos de los antiguos, a fin de que no cayésemos por completo en la barbarie.” English: A disciple of his, San Braulio de Zaragoza, writes about him: After so much destruction and so many disasters, God has raised him in recent times to restore the monuments of the ancients, so that we would not fall completely into barbarism.
- Father Alban Butler. “Saint Isidore, Bishop of Seville”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 2 April 2013. Web. 9 August 2014. Saints SQPN
- “Isidore – Redirecting to /portal”. isidore.udayton.edu. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
- Tom Chatfield (2 August 2016). Netymology: From Apps to Zombies: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World. Quercus. p. 171.
- Jack Lynch (23 February 2016). You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 82.
- “A patron saint of the internet—unofficially, though”. Aleteia: Catholic Spirituality, Lifestyle, World News, and Culture. 2 May 2020.
- CBSNEWS.com staff (6 February 2001). “Isidore – Patron Saint Of Internet?”. CBS News.
Pope John Paul is considering naming St. Isidore of Seville the patron saint of Internet users and computer programmers, Vatican sources said on Tuesday. Saint Isidore was nominated two years ago but the Holy See has yet to make a final decision.
- Sandro D’Onofrio, “Isidore of Seville,” in Henrik Legerlund, ed., Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy, 500-1500 (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 574.
- Victor Bruno, “St. Isidore of Seville and Traditional Philosophy,” Sacred Web 49 (2022): 99.
- Bruno, “St. Isidore of Seville and Traditional Philosophy,” 101.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.14.2002, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.