Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville
(c. 560-636)
   Spanish bishop and author of numerous works, Isidore was one of the greatest scholars of the early Middle Ages; his work was influential and popular, both in Spain and the rest of Europe. Only the work of Augustine of Hippo, among authors before 800, was copied more often than the work of Isidore. His most important work, the Etymologies, was an encyclopedia of all knowledge at the time and was an important reference work for scholars for generations to come. He also wrote works of history and biography as well as a commentary on the Bible and works on Christian doctrine. His work of history was highly nationalistic and portrayed the Visigothic kingdom of Spain in most glorious light as a great Christian kingdom and as the rival and worthy successor of the Roman Empire.
   Little is known of his life outside of his great literary output. He was probably born at Carthagena, which was in Byzantine hands at the time, before his family moved to Seville. His older brother, who was a great influence on him, St. Leander (d. 599 or 600), was an active figure in Visigothic religion and politics. Leander influenced the conversion of Hermenegild, a Visigothic prince who led an unsuccessful revolt against his father, and then Reccared I from Arian Christianity to Catholic Christianity. Leander was also bishop of Seville and an advocate of the monastic life. Considering Leander's support for monasticism, it is possible that Isidore himself was a monk. Although Isidore himself did write a rule for monastic life, it is uncertain whether he was a monk. He was most likely put on the path of the religious life while he was young, whether or not he became a monk. He probably was made a deacon and priest as soon as legally possible and eventually succeeded his brother as bishop of Seville at Leander's death in 599 or 600.
   As bishop, Isidore was elevated to the national stage and most likely influenced affairs in the Visigothic kingdom, even if this influence was not as great as that of his brother. Although he performed the normal daily duties as bishop, he also corresponded with the Visigothic kings and seems to have been quite close to King Sisebut (612-621), who was an active supporter of intellectual and cultural life in Spain. In his correspondence with kings, bishops, and other clergy, Isidore cultivated a new model of kingship, promoted the concept of the Visigothic kingdom as the ideal Christian state, denigrated the Byzantine Empire, and denounced the Visigothic kings' attempts to convert the Jews of Spain to Christianity. He also presided over two important church councils in Seville in 619 and at the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633. The council at Toledo especially was of great significance and reinforced the values of Isidore by defining the proper behavior of the clergy, the proper teachings of the Catholic faith, and the ideals concerning the Visigothic kings and kingdom.
   Although most likely an important figure in Spain, Isidore is best known for his literary works. His most important and influential work was the Etymologies (Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX), which is extant in over 1,000 manuscripts and was probably found in most monastic libraries in the Middle Ages. Unfinished at his death and completed by one of his disciples, the Etymologies was a compendium of all knowledge of the ancient world. Isidore drew from Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Cassiodorus, Pope Gregory the Great, and Virgil, among other classical and Christian authors, in the preparation of his great encyclopedia. His approach was linguistic, and he opened each entry with the derivation of the word being treated. These derivations were often quite fanciful, so much so that these explanations have often prevented recognition of the value of the material included. The Etymologies covered a wide range of topics, including the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), medicine, law, books of the Bible, angels, saints, men, animals, fabulous monsters, the universe, agriculture, war, ships, dress, food, drink, and furniture. The Etymologies thus treated all branches of knowledge, and it was intended as a tool for scholars to use; the rise of scholarship in Spain following Isidore's death suggests that it was successful in that regard.
   Isidore wrote a number of other secular works. He wrote a second learned treatise, De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), which was widely popular; it discusses the sun, moon, and planets, as well as earthly natural phenomena, including the Nile River, earthquakes, and the sea. Its purpose was to provide an explanation of nature to rival that offered by popular astrology. He also wrote several works of history, including a world history (Chronica mundi), a biographical guide of illustrious people (De viris illustribus), and the very important History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi. His works of history are for us important sources for the understanding of the history of the Visigoths; for his own time, they were also a means to glorify the Visigoths. In his History of the Goths, he praises the Goths of Spain, and portrays the Gothic kingdom as the true successor of the Roman Empire, which is now subject to the Goths. He also criticizes the Byzantine Empire and declared its greatest emperor, Justinian, a heretic. Like his other works, all Isidore's historical writings were very popular in Spain, and the Chronica and De viris were found in libraries throughout Europe.
   Along with his numerous secular works of literature, Isidore wrote a number of religious works. His work borrows from many important church fathers, most important among whom for Isidore were Augustine and Gregory the Great. He wrote a rule for monastic life that borrowed from Augustine and Gregory and, probably, from St. Benedict of Nursia. A practical guide, the Rule of Isidore, among other things, encouraged the monks to read Christian works and to take books out of the library, read them, and return them each day. He also wrote the Sententiae, a moral and pastoral guide for clergy that was very influential, exists in hundreds of manuscripts, and provided a source book for many later collections of church law. He was the author of a commentary on the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as a polemical treatise against the Jews (De fide catholica contra fide Iudaeos). This treatise, which was influenced by Augustine, reveals one of the darker aspects of medieval Christian civilization. The work is hostile to the Jews and encourages the conversion of Jews to Christianity as a means to bring about the final age of humankind. Conversion of the Jews would also contribute to the complete integration of Visigothic Spain and enable it to reach its most glorious potential. Despite his hostility to the Jews, Isidore's legacy includes an important body of written work that had a generally positive influence on the development of culture and society.
   See also
 ♦ Cohen, Jeremy. Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
 ♦ Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. Willard R. Trask. 1953. Reprint, with a new epilogue by Peter Goodman, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
 ♦ Isidore of Seville. History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi. 2d rev. ed. Trans. Guido Donini and Gordon B. Ford. Leiden: Brill, 1970.
 ♦ King, P. D. Law and Society in the Visigothic Kingdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.
 ♦ Thompson, E. A. The Goths in Spain. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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