Saint Isidore of Seville

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Saint Isidore of Seville

560-636

Spanish Roman Encyclopedist

As the title of his Etymologies suggests, Isidore of Seville intended his monumental work as an exploration of word origins. What resulted was both something less and something more than he intended. On the one hand, the book has its ludicrous moments, particularly when the author's slavish commitment to his original purpose forced him to stretch credibility beyond the breaking point. On the other hand, the Etymologies comprises an encyclopedia of all that was known at the time concerning science and technology, and provides a panoramic view of ideas on education, theology, and other subjects in late antiquity—or more properly, the early medieval period.

Isidore's family were native Spaniards trained in Roman traditions, but the Western Roman Empire had long since fallen, and Spain had belonged to the Visigoths for more than a century when he was born. His father served the Visigoth rulers, and after his death, Isidore—still a small child—went to live with his older brother, Leander.

Leander later became archbishop of Seville, and in about 599 Isidore, by then nearing the age of 40, replaced him in that position. During this time, the Visigoths converted from the Arian heresy to Catholicism, which had long been the religion of Spanish Romans such as Isidore. This placed him in a uniquely powerful position to inspire unity, and to provide spiritual and intellectual leadership. Taking advantage of this situation, Isidore set out to educate his flock with a series of works on theology, liturgy, and religious controversies. By far the most important writing to emerge from Isidore during this time, however, was his overview of all that was known to Western Europe at that time, the Etymologies.

The Etymologies, which occupied him from 622 to 633, just three years before his death, consists of 20 books. The first three concern the seven subjects passed down from the Roman educational system: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.) The fourth book addresses medicine, and the fifth a history of the world from the Creation to a.d. 627. The next three books involve theological subjects: sacred writings and church offices (Book VI); God, the angels, and members of the Church (Book VII); and the Church and its heretical opponents (Book VIII).

With Book IX, Isidore turned to subjects of geopolitics, including language, states, and peoples. Book X consists of a dictionary, and Book XI discusses the human race. The next three books address scientific subjects: zoology (XII); cosmography, or a general discussion of the world and universe (XIII); and geography (XIV). After a book on monuments and means of communication (XV), the text returns to topics of direct interest to the scientist, including petrography and mineralogy (XVI), and agriculture and horticulture (XVII). The remainder of the book is taken up with more or less science-related subjects: the military arts and sports (XVIII); ships, housing, and apparel (XIX); and, finally, food, agriculture, and what a later age would call home economics.

The organizational scheme of this work may strike a modern reader as odd: Isidore seemingly wandered from topic to topic, and lumped together topics that do not have an immediately apparent connection. Part of this involves differences in mindset between his time and the present, but it also owes something to Isidore's assumption that the name of a subject is a key to understanding the subject itself. Thus he took a formal approach, one governed by a preoccupation with ideas rather than objects.

Such a viewpoint, of course, leads to many forced or strained connections, and this is further compounded by Isidore's attempts to reconcile the Bible with classical philosophy and science. Thus he identified the Book of Genesis, for instance, with the science of physics—an early example of attempts to treat the Bible as a scientific, rather than as a theological, poetic, and historical, work.

Yet in other parts of his Etymologies, Isidore showed himself willing to separate scientific from religious approaches. Thus in his cosmographical discussion (Book XIII), he presented the atomic theories of Epicurus (341-270 b.c.) and his predecessors. This was an idea he had attacked in his earlier book on the Church (VIII), maintaining that atomism conflicts with the notion of an all-providing Creator; but in the scientific passage, he did not repeat this attack, and instead presented atomism as a viable theory.

The Etymologies represents the culmination of a lifetime of reading on the part of a highly educated figure—perhaps the most educated man of his day. That it strikes the modern reader as disjointed and unwieldy says more about the time than it does about its author: inasmuch as it was possible to make sense of the Western world in the seventh century, Isidore did so, and his work remained influential for centuries after his death.

JUDSON KNIGHT

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