Isidore of Seville

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ISIDORE OF SEVILLE (560636), bishop of Seville (603636), proclaimed "eminent teacher and an honor to the church" by the Council of Toledo of 653. Member of an eminent Andalusian family, Isidore was prepared to inherit the see of Seville by his older brother Leandro, also bishop of Seville. In his youth the king, Leovigild (r. 569586), was able to stabilize the Visigothic kingdom, in which a minority of Visigoths (Germanic peoples who entered the Iberian Peninsula in the fifth century) and a vast majority of ancient inhabitants (the Hispano-Romans) coexisted. Under Reccared (d. 601) the Goths abjured the Arian doctrine and embraced the Catholic faith (c. 589). In 614 the Jews were forced by Sisebut to convert to Christianity.

Through his pastoral leadership, Isidore imbued the Visigothic church with the same concerns that dominate his writings: respect for the political authority of the Goths, incitation for increasing participation of the Hispano-Romans in the life of the church, and an overriding intellectual and moral commitment. A famous orator, he presided at the Council of Seville of 619 and at the Council of Toledo of 633. Mild and conciliatory, Isidore was a man of great human and Christian optimism; he struggled with his own strict education and with the intransigent atmosphere of the church after the triumph of catholic orthodoxy against the Arians, and over tensions with Jews after 614.

Isidore's writings, cataloged by his friend Braulio (d. 651), bishop of Zaragoza, may be grouped as follows:

  1. biblical studies;
  2. handbooks for clergy and monks: Concerning the Ecclesiastical Offices, A Monastic Rule, Vademecum of the Catholic Faith for Use in Discussion with the Jews, and Catalog of Heresies;
  3. guides for personal and public spiritual development: Synonyms and Sentences ;
  4. works on civic education: About the Universe, an explanation of the system of the world and of natural phenomena for the purpose of preventing fear and superstition;
  5. works extolling the national glory: History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi; Praise of Spain; Chronicle of the World; and Catalog of Illustrious Men, an innovation in this genre insofar as it introduces persons distinguished by their pastoral activity; and
  6. works on general education, based largely upon linguistic or grammatical explanations: Differences between Words, his first writing, and Etymologies, on which he labored until his death and which was completed by Braulio.

He also wrote poems and letters, and he probably took part in preparing the Collectio canonica Hispana (Collection of church councils), covering both ecumenical and Spanish councils. Both Christian and non-Christian authors are cited in Isidore's writings with admiration and appreciation.

Isidore is best known through his Synonyms (known in manuscripts as "Soliloquies," a dialogue between humanity and its reason), which employed a new technique of parallel phrases with progressive variation of words. This work was simultaneously a source of practical vocabulary and a mechanism of catharsis that promoted in the reader a unified spirituality. It includes simple moral teaching and formulas for spiritual enlightenment. In three books, Sentences (On the Greatest Good in manuscripts) summarizes the spiritual organization of the human community by duties and obligations. It is in the form of easily memorized proverbs based upon Christian authors, and it combines moral knowledge with living experience. Etymologies (also named Origines ), in twenty books, classifies and defines, according to a personal system of etymological interpretation, all the knowledge of Isidore's time as drawn from ancient sources through commentaries, glosses, and scholastic handbooks. In the Middle Ages it was considered the basic reference work for understanding texts and for coherently interpreting the world.


An extensive critical introduction and systematic bibliography can be found in my introduction to San Isidoro de Sevilla, Etimologías, vol. 1, edited by José Oroz Reta, "Biblioteca de autores cristianos" (Madrid, 1982). See also J. N. Hillgarth's "The Position of Isidorian Studies," Studi medievali 24 (1983): 817905. In French, see Jacques Fontaine's Isidore de Séville et la culture classique dans l'Espagne wisigothique, 2 vols. and suppl. (Paris, 1983); "Isidore de Séville," in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité, vol. 7 (Paris, 1971); and Isidore de Séville. Genèse et originallé de la culture hispanique au temps des visigoths (Turnhout, Belgium, 2000).

Manuel C. DÍaz y DÍaz (1987 and 2005)

Translated from Spanish by Maria Elisa Guirola

Isidore of Seville

views updated May 18 2018

Isidore of Seville

(b. Spain [?], ca. 560; d. Seville, Spain, 4 April 636)

dissemination of knowledge.

An encyclopedist, confessor-bishop, and Doctor of the Church, Isidore was educated by his elder brother Leander (a friend of Gregory the Great) and in monastery schools. He succeeded Leander as bishop of Seville and Catholic primate of Spain in 599. Much concerned with the reformation of church discipline and with the establishment of schools, he exerted an influence on science entirely through writings intended as textbooks.

Isidore wrote extensively on Scripture, canon law, systematic theology, liturgy, general and Spanish history, and ascetics. His scientific writings are chiefly to be found as parts of the glossary Libri duo differentiarum (De differentiis verborrum, and De differentiis rerum), two short works on cosmology (De natura reeum and De ordine creaturarum) and his great encyclopedic dictionary, the Etymologiae or Origines. This last work briefly defines or discusses terms drawn from all aspects of human knowledge and is based ultimately on late Latin compendia and gloss collections. The books of greatest scientific interest deal with mathematics, astronomy, medicine, human anatomy, zoology, geography, meteorology, geology, mineralogy, botany, and agriculture. Isidore’s work is entirely derivative—he wrote nothing original performed no experiments, made no new observations or reinterpretations, and discovered nothing—but his influence in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was great, and he remains an interesting and often authoritative source for Latin lexicography, particularly in technical, scientific and nonliterary fields.

His sources seem to have included, apart from Scripture, the Servian Vergil commentaries, gloss collections, grammars, cookbooks, and technical manuals, Ambrose, Augustine, Boethius, an abridgment of Caelius Aurelianus, Cassiodorus, Cassius Felix, Cicero, some form of Dioscorides, Donatus, a Latin digest of Galen, Gargilius Martialis, Gregory the Great, Hegesippus, Hoease, Hyginus, Jerome, Lactatius, Lucan, Lucretius, Macrobius, Orosius, Ovid, Palladius, Placidus, Pliny, the Younger, Pseudo- Clement, Sallust, Seneca, Solinus, Suetonius, Tertullian, Varro, Vergil, Verrius, Flaccus, Victorinus, and doubtless other writers at first or second hand.

Isidore’s universe was composed of a primordial substance which, by itself, possessed neither quality nor form but was given shape by four elemental qualities: coldness, dryness, wetness, and hotness. Isidore followed Lucretius and many Greek cosmographers in regarding these elements as in constant flux between the earth and the solar fire at the center of the universe. Although all elemental qualities are present in all created things, the elemental name assigned in any specific case depends upon those qualities which are most prominent. Isidore shared the microcosmic theory which views each individual human being as a microcosm paralleling the macrocosm, on a smaller scale, and regards man as the central link in this chain of being. The elements shade into each other and are arranged in the solar system by weight, each stratum of the concentric spheres having its proper inhabitants: angels in the fiery heavens, birds in the air, fish in the water, and man and animals on solid earth.

Isidore summarizes this view in the Etymologiae, (13.3.1-3; see also his De natura reum, 11.1):

Hylê is the Greek word for a certain primary material of things, directly formed in no shape but capable of all bodily forms, from which these visible elements are shaped, and it is from this derivation that they get their name. This hylê the Latins call “matter”, because being altogether formless from which anything is to be made, it is always termed “matter” . . .The Greeks, however, have named the elements stoicheia, because they come together by a certain commingling and concordance of association. They are thus said to be joined among themselves by a certain natural ratio, so that something originating in the form of fire returns again to earth, and from earth to fire just as, for example, fire ends in air, air is condensed into water, water thickens into earth, and earth again is dissolved into water, water evaporates into air, air is reduced into fire. . .[Sharpe, Isidore of Seville: The Medical Writings, p. 23].

The same distribution of elements occurs in the human body: blood, like air, is hot and moist; yellow bile, like fire, hot and dry; black bile, like earth, cold and dry; and phlegm, like water, is cold and wet. Individual temperaments are determined by the dominant humoral qualities, and health depends upon their balance. Disease arises from excess or defect among them: acute diseases from the hot, and chronic diseases from the cold elemental humors. Therapy attempts to restore their normal balance. The living organism is governed by the soul but animated by the pneuma, which is assigned various names as it assumes various functions within the organism. Isidore rejects the pantheistic notion that the individual soul is either part of or indistinguishable from the world pneuma. His psychology follows late classical views of cerebral localization of function (sensation anteriorly, memory centrally, and thought posteriorly) and of the traditional faculties of the soul: intellect, will, memory, reason, judgment, sensation, and the like. The soul is distinct both from the mind and from the vital spirit; sensation and thought are distinguished, as are illusion and error.

Western Europe in Isidore’s time had little direct contact with the Greek scientific tradition and derived both science and philosophy at second hand. The bulk of early Latin scientific writing was severely practical or anecdotal and descriptive. Most of Isidore’s scientific passages merely define words or phrases. A man of his time, Isidore was more concerned with analogy than with analysis, with the unusual than with the typical. An encyclopedic dictionary is too disconnected to present a scientific world view; but Isidore carefully and quite accurately preserved much of the scientific lore current late in the Roman period, when original work had long since ceased and facility in Greek had perished. If he was no Aristotle, he was a great improvement on Pliny, and—considerations of style apart—his scientific content compares very favorable with that of Lucretius.


I. Original Works. Editions of Isidore are Faustinus Arevalo, Isidori Hispalensis opera omnia, 7 vols.(Rome, 1797-1803), in J. P. Migne Patrologia latina, LXXXI-LXXXIV; W. M. Lindsay, Isidori Hispalensis Etymologiarum sive Originum libri, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1911); and Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Seville: Traité de la nature (Bordeaux, 1960).

II. Secondary Literature. See Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages (New York, 1912), which is unreliable; R. B. Brown, Printed Works of Isidore of Seville (Lexington, Ky., 1949), useful but incomplete and confuses Isidore of Seville with other Isidores; Luis Cortés y Góngora, Etimologias: Versión castellana (Madrid, 1951);Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Seville et la culture classique dans l’ Espagne visigothique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1959), the best general study; F. S. Lear, “St. Isidore and Mediaeval Science,” in Rice Institute Pamphlets, 23 (1936), 75-105; and W. D. Sharpe, Isidore of Seville: The Medical Writings (Philadelphia, 1964), which translates Etymologiae 4 and 11 with an intro. and bibliography.

William D. Sharpe

Isidore of Seville

views updated May 14 2018


ISIDORE OF SEVILLE (Isidorus Hispalensis ; c. 560–636), archbishop of Seville, theologian, and encyclopedist; one of the last Church *Fathers. Isidore was probably born in Cartagena, but when he was still a child his family moved to Seville. He was educated by his elder brother Leander, archbishop of Seville, and after his brother's death in 600, Isidore succeeded him in the episcopate, which he held until his death. In his numerous writings Isidore encompassed all the sciences of his time; his great erudition was mainly expressed in his book Originum, sive etymologiarum. His most important historical work is Historia de Regibus Gothorum Vandalorum et Suevorum.

During his episcopate, Isidore presided over several regional and national church councils in Visigothic Spain, most important of which was the fourth national council of Toledo in 633, which determined the authority of the Visigothic kingdom and the status of the Church. Though the council agreed with Isidore's fundamental views against forced conversion of Jews, it may be assumed that he prompted the numerous laws decreed by this council against converts of Jewish origin who had remained faithful to Judaism. While Isidore was strictly opposed to forced conversion, he believed that the political status of the Jews should be exploited to bring about their voluntary conversion, an attitude he expressed in his polemical writings against Judaism. In the first of these, Isaiae testimonia de Christo Domino, he tries to prove that Isaiah's prophecies herald Jesus as Messiah. In his main apologetic book De fide catholica ex Veteri et Novo Testamento contra Iudaeos, he tries to find evidence for the truth of Christianity in all the biblical books. Despite its title, the book does not contain any dogmatic evidence against the Jews from the New Testament. In both these works Isidore does not refer to the original Hebrew text of the Bible nor does he appear to have any knowledge of talmudic literature. His information in this field is based mainly on the writings of the Church Fathers, *Jerome in particular. Despite his missionary fervor, his writings are characterized by their moderate and restrained language, contrary to the prevailing anti-Jewish polemics.

In his exegetical works Isidore generally preferred mystical and allegorical interpretations, especially in Mysticorum expositiones sacramentorum seu quaestiones in Vetus Testamentum, where he tries to reconcile divergencies between the Old and New Testaments. This work was designed to support Christian arguments in anti-Jewish disputations. His book Liber de variis quaestionibus adversus Iudaeos, attributed by some scholars to a later period, was aimed at bringing back into the fold of the Church those converts who had returned to Judaism.

Isidore's works were widely read in the Middle Ages, as attested by the great number of manuscripts remaining as well as the translation into German of De fide catholica…, made at a relatively early date. Up to the 12th century all anti-Jewish apologetic writers in Western Europe were inspired by Isidore's writings and his influence on the anti-Jewish disputations in Spain lasted even longer. Isidore's writings are collected in Migne's Patrologia Latina (vols. 81–84, 1850–62).


Baron, Social2, index; A. Lukyn Williams, Adversus Judaeos (1935), index; J. Fontaine, Isidore de Séville et la culture classique dans l'Espagne wisigothique, 2 vols. (1959); M.C. Diaz y Diaz (ed.), Isidoriana (Sp., 1961), includes bibliography.

Isidore of Seville

views updated May 29 2018

Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville, Spanish cleric; b. probably in Cartagena, c.560; d. Seville, April 4, 636. He was taken to Seville as a child, and in 599 he became archbishop there. Between 622 and 633 he compiled a treatise on the arts, Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX. He expressed the conviction that music can only be preserved through memory, for musical sounds could never be notated (scribi non possunt). The text was publ. in Oxford (1911); an Eng. tr. of the pertinent parts is included in Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History (N.Y., 1950).


K. Schmidt, Quaestiones de musicis scriptoribus romanis imprimis Cassiodoro et Isidoro (Leipzig, 1898); J. Pérez de Urbel, San Isidoro de Sevilla (Barcelona, 1945); J. Fontaine, Isidore de Séville et la culture classique dans l’Espagne wisigothique (Paris, 1959); J. Madoz, San Isidoro de Sevilla (Madrid, 1960).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire


views updated May 29 2018

Isidore male forename, name of two saints.
St Isidore of Seville (c.560–636), a Spanish archbishop and Doctor of the Church. He is noted for his Etymologies, an encyclopedic work used by many medieval authors. His feast day is 4 April.
St Isidore the farmer (c.1080–1130), the Spanish patron of Madrid, and of farmers; he worked as a labourer on a farm near Madrid, and according to one legend was once seen being assisted in his ploughing by a second team of white oxen driven by angels. His emblem is a sickle, and his feast day is 15 May.

Isidore of Seville

views updated May 29 2018

Isidore of Seville (c.560–636) Archbishop of Seville from c.600 and a distinguished administrator, teacher, and writer. His works include Etymologies, which was an encyclopedia, and books on history, natural science, linguistic studies, and theology. Pope Clement VIII canonized him in 1598.

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Saint Isidore of Seville