Isidore of Seville, Saint

Isidore of Seville, Saint
(ca. 560–636)
   Considered the last of the Latin church fathers, Isidore was born about 560 and died in Seville on April 4, 636. Isidore was important in his own day as an enlightened prelate and for his influence at important church councils in Visigothic Spain, but remains best known for the written legacy he left, most notably his encyclopedic texts. His 20-volume Etymologiae was the most comprehensive encyclopedia in the West until the 18th century.
   The youngest child of a Hispano-Roman family that had settled in Visigothic Seville, Isidore was raised by his elder brother, Leander. Leander, who was archbishop of Seville, saw to it that Isidore received a solid education, especially in the Latin fathers like St. AUGUSTINE, GREGORY THE GREAT, St. JEROME, and St.Ambrose, among others. It has also been suggested that Isidore was acquainted somewhat with the Mishnah or with some other rabbinic texts.
   In the year 600, Isidore succeeded his brother as archbishop. In his new position, he promoted education and scholarship, producing himself more than 20 major texts.He was a close adviser to King Sisebut (612–621) and King Sisenand (631–636). As such he presided over the Fourth Council of Toledo, convoked by Sisenand on December 5, 633. Some scholars have remarked that Isidore seems to have tried to stem the tide of increasingly harsh anti-Jewish legislation that characterized subsequent church councils in Visigothic Spain—indeed, one of the pronouncements of the Fourth Toledo Council specifically condemns forced baptism of Jews. However the same ruling also upholds the sanctity of baptism as a sacrament, and thus holds that Jews already forcibly baptized, as apparently many had been under King Sisebut, must remain Christian. The legislation also fails to distinguish between “converted” Jews and others, labeling all as “Jews.” This ambiguity may have opened the way for some of the harsher actions of later councils.
   Isidore’s literary production includes a number of exegetical works. He was also interested in historical commentary. His Chronicon is concerned with the rise and fall of empires, while his Historia regibus Gothorum tells the history of the Goths, reinterpreting their story as a part of salvation history as they convert from the Arian heresy to the true faith.De natura rerum deals with explanations of natural phenomena. His three-volume Sententiae is the first of what became a common medieval genre, a book of sentences—that is, the teachings of patristic writers, most notably Augustine and Gregory, arranged according to subject. But Isidore’s most famous work is his great encyclopedia, the Etymologiae. Here, organized topically and hierarchically, is a compendium of thousands of topics, summing up classical knowledge of science, art, and geography, and dealing with many topics other medieval writers never comment on. The text survives in more than 1,000 manuscripts, an indication of its huge popularity throughout the Middle Ages.
   Ultimately Isidore is remembered for his vast encyclopedic writings that leave us a compendium of early medieval knowledge. His writings reveal an overriding interest in the establishment of a strong, centralized monarchy in Spain, to protect the church and to maintain order; and in a centralized authority within the church itself, especially to combat threats like the Macedonian and the Acephalite heresies, and especially the Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Christ), from which the Visigoths had so recently been converted.
   ■ Donini, Guido, and Gordon B. Ford, trans. Isidore of Seville’s History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1970.
   ■ Macfarlane, Katherine Nell. Isidore of Seville on the Pagan Gods. Vol. 70, pt. 3. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1980.
   ■ McGinn, Bernard. The Doctors of the Church: Thirtythree Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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