St. Isidore of Seville

The Spanish cleric and encyclopedist St. Isidore of Seville (560-636) is known for the legacy of ancient culture that he transmitted to the Middle Ages in his chief work, the Etymologies.

Isidore was born into a Hispano-Roman family about the time his father, Severianus, brought the family from Cartagena to Seville. The move from Cartagena was probably occasioned by the turmoil caused in Gothic Spain when Emperor Justinian sought to restore imperial power there. However, Visigothic rule survived and flourished. In Seville, Isidore's family became closely involved with the regime. His father died when Isidore was quite young, and he was raised and educated by his older brother, Leander.

Leander became archbishop of Seville and was King Reccared's chief adviser during the Third Council of Toledo (589). This council officially replaced the Arianism of the Visigoths with Roman Catholicism, till then the religion of the subject Hispano-Romans. The many consequent challenges of ecclesiastical administration were taken over by Isidore, who about 599 succeeded Leander as archbishop of Seville. Isidore's main instrument of change was the use of provincial and national Church councils, attended by king and nobility. But more important for posterity was Isidore's concern with religious correctness, which led him to compose Sententiae and Differentiae (theological textbooks), De ecclesiasticis officiis (a liturgical manual), De viris illustribus (a bibliography of controversial writings), and his final and most significant work, the Etymologies.


The Etymologies

Isidore labored over the Etymologies from 622 to 633. After his death in 636 it was edited by his student, Braulion. It is an encyclopedic work in 20 books. Books I and II concern the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; Book III, the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music; Book IV, medicine; Book V, history from the Creation to 627 A.D.; Book VI, sacred books and Church offices; Book VII, God, the angels, and the members of the Church; Book VIII, the Church and its heretical opponents; Book IX, languages, peoples, states, and families. Book X is a dictionary. Book XI concerns man; Book XII, zoology; Book XIII, cosmography; Book XIV, geography; Book XV, monuments and means of communication; Book XVI, petrography and mineralogy; Book XVII, agriculture and horticulture; Book XVIII, the army, war, and games; Book XIX, ships, housing, and apparel; and Book XX, alimentation, household arts, and agricultural implements.

Binding together this tour de force in the compilation of knowledge is Isidore's preoccupation with word origins. Each topic is introduced by an examination of its name. Isidore's assumption is that the understanding of a name is the first step toward the understanding of the thing named. This assumption in turn rests on another: the original givers of names knew the differentiating characteristics of things and wished to have each thing distinguished from every other thing. Isidore is aware of some limitations in his procedure; for example, some names are arbitrarily given, and others are borrowed from languages distinct from Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, he applies his technique throughout in an ingenious but sometimes ridiculous manner.

Obviously the digest of a lifetime of reading, the contents of Isidore's Etymologies represent his attempt to write down all that he deemed necessary for a Christian education. Frequently, in the manner of St. Jerome earlier, he is at great pains to establish parallels between the Judeo-Christian culture and classical antiquity. For instance, Isidore finds in the Old Testament a correspondence with the Stoic division of philosophy into physics, ethics, and logic. According to him, Genesis and Ecclesiastes treat of physics, the Proverbs of Solomon of ethics, and the Song of Songs and the Gospels of logic. Also, biblical figures are credited with originating literary genres that were then taken over by the Greeks; for example, Homer borrows the device of the hexameter from Moses. But Isidore often presents philosophical and scientific theories in an objective manner, even when doing so conflicts with his work's religious purpose. For instance, in Book VIII he disparages the atomism of Epicurus because it allowed no role to a providential deity. But in Book XIII he recounts without any similar condemnation the atomic theory of the formation of the world.

To the modern reader Isidore's Etymologies seems fragmentary and confused in many places. But this was not the estimation of medieval scholars, and for hundreds of years the work had great popularity. It survived because no other source gave medieval man such a handy treasure of information. In the words of a late medieval reader inscribed on a codex of the Etymologies: "This booke is a scoolemaster to those that are wise,/ But not to fond fooles that learning despise,/ A Juwell it is, who liste it to reede,/ Within it are Pearells precious in deede."


Further Reading on St. Isidore of Seville

A modern edition of the Etymologies was made by W. M. Lindsay (2 vols., 1911). Two studies of Isidore are Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville (1912), and Sister Patrick Jerome Mullins, The Spiritual Life according to Saint Isidore of Seville (1940). For general background see the monumental Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, edited by A. H. Armstrong (1967).