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Isidore of Seville, St.


Archbishop, theologian, encyclopedist, and Doctor of the Church; b. Spain, c. 560; d. Seville, April 4, 636.

Reckoned as the last of the Latin Fathers, Isidore of Seville was one of the most influential Church Fathers in the West from the early Middle Ages well into the modern period. His fame derived not only from encyclopedic works such as the Etymologiae and De Natura Rerum, but also from his synthesis of patristic and classical thought, his exegetical and devotional writings, his collections of Church Councils and Canons, his theories of kingship, and his historical writings.

Apart from a brief notice in Braulio of Saragossa’s additions to De Viris Illustribus (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 81:15–17), no contemporary biography of Isidore has survived, and Isidore is known principally through his written works, through his letters, and through his reported actions at Spanish church councils. Isidore and his family were displaced HispanoRomans who migrated from Carthagena in southeastern Spain to Seville sometime around 560, either fleeing the constant warfare between Byzantines and Goths that characterized the province of Carthaginensis, or perhaps forcibly resettled there by the Goths. Isidore may have been born after the family migration. Although the fate of his father, Severianus, is unknown, Isidore’s brothers LEANDER and Fulgentius, as well as his sister Faustina, all entered the Church. His mother, whose name appears to have been Turtur, may also have entered the Church in her later years. The youngest of four children, Isidore was raised and educated by his elder brother Leander (c. 540–600), who was Archbishop of Seville (584–600). Isidore was well-versed in the Latin fathers, particularly Ambrose of Milan, Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Caesarius of Arles, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Gregory the Great, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and many other Gallic and North African writers. Isidore’s knowledge of classical authors was also extensive, although in some cases through late antique anthologies, commentaries, and scholia. He appears to have had some knowledge of the Mishna or other rabbinic writings. Isidore’s ancient fame as a master of the Greek and Hebrew languages has been called into question by modern scholars, and his knowledge of the Greek fathers stems largely from Latin translations.

Isidore succeeded his brother Leander as Archbishop of Seville, probably in the year 600, and had an episcopate of some 36 years, during which time he was one of the most prominent intellectual and spiritual leaders of the realm. His promotion of scholarship and education had long-reaching consequences for the realm, and the results of these endeavors have been termed an ‘‘Isidorian’’ or Visigothic Renaissance. He was confidant and advisor, although not always successfully, to several Visigothic kings, including Sisebut (612–620), Suinthila (621–631), and Sisenand (631–636). He was present in Toledo at the court of King Gundemar in 610, and assisted in transferring the metropolitan see of Carthaginensis from Cartagena to Toledo. In addition to his activities as archbishop of Seville, Isidore participated in several provincial and kingdom-wide Church councils between 610 and 633. He played a prominent role in the second council of Seville (619), where his summation of the Catholic faith so impressed contemporaries that it was included in the canons of the council (ibid. 84:593–608). Isidore’s greatest conciliar imprint, however, was in 633 at the fourth council of TOLEDO, over which he presided. The canons of this famous and influential council (ibid. 84:363–390) reveal his influence at almost every turn. Sensing the approach of death in 636, Isidore resigned his episcopal office and performed public penance for his sins. He was canonized in 1589, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722.

When one considers the entire corpus of Isidore’s writings, more than 20 books composed between 598 and 633, his earliest works tend to be very straightforward lexical or expository texts, whereas his later and more analytical or encyclopedic writings are characterized by an increasing complexity of thought, subtlety of meaning, and clarity of expression. Yet throughout his writings, several larger themes emerge, topics of such importance that Isidore frequently returns to them. These themes include the Church, the monarchy, heresy, the Jews, scriptural exegesis, and history.

Isidore worked to establish and maintain a strong and centralized church in the Visigothic realm, to preserve and transmit the treasury of faith, to promote Catholic orthodoxy, to refute heresy and religious error, and to facilitate cure of souls. In both his writings and his actions at regional and kingdom-wide synods and Church councils he promoted liturgical uniformity, monastic discipline, and the maintenance of diocesan schools. His De Ecclasticis Officiis (ibid. 83:736–826) takes a descriptive approach to the offices of the church, as well as the proper functions of clerics, and to various aspects of the liturgical year. This text may have been intended as a guide to uniformity of practice throughout the Visigothic realm. In his Regula Monachorum (ibid. 83:867–894) Isidore takes a regulative approach, establishing norms of discipline and practice for communities of religious, suggesting a regimen that is considerably less harsh than either the Benedictine or Columban rules. The precise nature of his many liturgical writings is difficult to ascertain because they have been incorporated anonymously into the great collection of Spanish liturgical texts known as the Liturgica Mozarabica (ibid. 85, 86), whose basic structure has been traditionally attributed to Isidore. Through the canons of the fourth council of Toledo (ibid. 84:593–608), especially canons 2 through 56, Isidore extended his legislative approach to ecclesiastical discipline and liturgical practice throughout the entire Gothic realm, stressing not only discipline but also the importance of learning and of uniform liturgical practice. Always emphasizing that the Church in Spain was a true and faithful successor to the Church of the great councils, Isidore assembled a great collection of Greek, African, Gallic and Spanish church councils, canons, and creeds, a collection known to us in its later form as the HISPANA (ibid. 84:93–626), which made available to Isidore’s contemporaries and successors the canonical heritage of the universal Church.

Isidore supported a strong and centralized monarchy in the Visigothic realm to protect the Church, to control the violence endemic to the society, and to enhance the stability of the realm. He emphasized a kingdom-wide unity of purpose, but celebrated the uniqueness and primacy of the Visigoths as a ruling and military elite. Kings, he believed, had a responsibility to provide justice in the realm, to be exemplars of piety and mercy, and to promote an environment that would facilitate cure of souls. He insisted that kings would have to render an account to God for how well they ruled their realms. Although Isidore wrote much concerning kingship and governance in his Sententiae (ibid. 83:718–723) and Etymologiae (ibid. 82:341–345), his best known writings on monarchy appear in canon 75 of the fourth council of Toledo (ibid. 84:383–386), where Isidore emphasized the obligation of the king to rule well, and asserted the obligation of the king’s subjects to be obedient to him as ‘‘the Lord’s anointed one.’’ Less is known about Isidore’s attitude towards caesaropapism in the Gothic realm. The Visigothic kingdom was the most romanized of the seventh-century barbarian kingdoms, and the Visigothic kings thought of themselves as the head of the Church in their realms, much as had Roman Emperors such as Constantine, Justinian, and Heraclius. Recent scholarship has suggested that Isidore and his fellow Spanish and Gallic bishops were often expected to submit to royal authority as functionaries of the Visigothic realm, and that they may have acted with great hesitation on such troublesome issues such as anti-Jewish legislation and other affairs of state.

Isidore was an active opponent of the Arian, Macedonian, and Acephalite heresies throughout his lifetime, and in many of his exegetical and theological writings he asserted positions that implicitly refuted these heresies. His De Haeresibus (Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina; ed. A. Hamman 4.2, 1815–1820) and the sections on heresy in the Etymologiae (Patrologia Latina 82:296–305) are descriptive rather than analytical, but at the second council of Seville in 619 Isidore actively and analytically refuted an Acephalite heretic through an extensive combination of scriptural exegesis and citations of the Church Fathers, references to Church councils and appeals to the Christian tradition. Additionally, he thought heresy and heresiarchs sufficiently important to the historical record that he listed them in his historical chronicles in much the same spirit that he mentioned other enemies and persecutors of the Church.

Several of Isidore’s writings, especially De Fide Catholica Adversus Judaeos (ibid. 83:449–538), reflected Isidore’s interest in refuting rabbinic calumnies against Christianity, but Isidore opposed the increasingly harsh anti-Jewish legislation that characterized the Visigothic realm. He denounced forced conversions under Sisebut (ibid. 83:1073), and in the canons of the fourth council of Toledo again condemned forced baptisms (ibid. 84:379–380). Although Isidore’s stern counsel seems to have restrained the rising tide of anti-Jewish actions and legislation in the Visigothic realm, following his death in 636 the Visigothic kings imposed an increasingly harsh regimen on their non-Christian subjects.

Scriptural exegesis is an important foundation of Isidore’s epistemology, and most of his writings are characterized by extensive references to the Bible. His exegetical works are numerous, and include introductions to individual books of scripture (ibid. 83:155–180), a commentary on Isaiah (Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina; 4.2,1822–1839), as well as extensive allegorical and typological exegesis in Quaestiones in Vetus Testamentum (Patrologia Latina 83:207–424), in Allegoriae Quaedam Sacrae Scripturae (ibid. 83:97–130), and in Liber Numerorum (ibid. 83:179–200). In Synonyma (ibid. 83:825–868), a devotional work, Isidore demonstrates how reason can lead the despairing sinner to hope for divine pardon, and then he guides the remorseful soul through an intense and elaborate series of penitential devotions. These devotions make extensive use of synonyms and parallelisms in ways that allow the penitent sinner thoroughly to examine his conscience, to confess his sins, and to seek reconciliation with God.

Incorporating both sacred and secular events, Isidore’s historical Chronicon (ibid. 83:1017–1058), emphasizes the rise and fall of empires and the course of God’s revelations to and interactions with mankind from the creation through the early seventh century, but it also emphasizes innovations in thought and letters, as well as other contributions to the liberal arts. In his Historia Regibus Gothorum (ibid. 83:1057–1082), Isidore examines the origin and history of the Goths from their supposed Biblical origins through the early seventh century, incorporating them into the narrative salvation history. Isidore described the Goths as a great and noble people who had been poisoned by the Arian heresy and driven from their homeland centuries earlier, yet God brought a remnant of them to Spain, where they finally converted to the true Catholic faith under the guidance of Isidore’s elder brother Leander, and where as kings of Spain the Goths had become the defenders of God’s holy and Catholic Church in the uttermost west of Christendom. This Isidorian theme of Spain and its Catholic kings being the great champions and defenders of Catholic orthodoxy exercised a profound influence on Spanish historiography from the early Middle Ages to the present day.

Isidore was best known to medieval scholars as an encyclopedist, and he composed several works that were encyclopedic in nature. His De Natura Rerum (ibid. 83:963–1018) was composed at the request of King Sisebut, and focused on a great variety of terrestrial and celestial phenomena. Topical in organization, it deals with subjects as diverse as solar eclipses, the movements of the stars, and the course of the Nile River. His Sententiae (ibid. 83:537–738), the first medieval ‘‘book of sentences,’’ presents a summary of patristic teachings on theological, moral, and social topics, and draws extensively on the writings of Gregory the Great and Augustine of Hippo. Also organized topically, the first book focuses on theological and dogmatic issues, the second book on ethical and moral problems, and the third book is concerned with the challenges and norms of maintaining the right social order in a Christian society. One of his earliest writings, De Differentiis (ibid. 83:1–98), reflects Isidore’s lifelong interest in linguistic theory. More lexical than encyclopedic, this work presents topically organized list of words, defines them in terms of their meaning and their etymology, and relates them to their homonyms, synonyms, and antonyms.

The 20-volume Etymologiae (ibid. 82:73–928) was his most substantial and influential work. It remained the most comprehensive and important encyclopedia in the west until the publication of Diderot’s Encyclopedia in the eighteenth century, and over 1,000 medieval and early modern manuscripts of the Etymologiae have survived. Organized topically, the encyclopedia presents descriptive and occasionally analytical accounts concerning thousands of sacred and secular topics, including cautious but open treatment of topics condemned by other Christian writers. Individual items are frequently explained in terms of their etymological origins, reflecting Isidore’s belief that to understand the origins of a word is to understand its broader meaning and its relationship to other words. The Etymologiae took years of effort on Isidore’s part, and his friends occasionally complained to him that he was taking far too long to complete it, demanding of him ‘‘render what you owe.’’ The work is organized into 20 volumes, and each volume itself is hierarchically organized, wherein topics that are related to one another are gathered together in individual chapters. Other early medieval writers such as Nennius may have lamented that they had ‘‘made a heap’’ of all that was before them, but Isidore took what was before him and preserved it in an organized, topical, and hierarchical fashion, noting the connections between words and ideas as well as words and physical realities. Some recent scholars have over-enthusiastically referred to the Etymologiae as a ‘‘database,’’ and it is perhaps Isidore’s organized approach to the preservation and presentation of information, with its emphasis on hierarchical structure and the inter-relatedness of knowledge, that has inspired Isidore’s popular veneration in the twenty-first century as the unofficial patron saint of computers and the Internet.

Feast: April 4.

Bibliography: Editions and Translations: Sancti Isidori Hispalensis Opera Omnia, ed. FAUSTINO ARÉVALO, 7 vols. (Rome 1797–1803), reprinted in Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. MIGNE, vols. 81–84 (Paris 1850–62). De Differentiis, Liber I, ed. and tr. into Spanish, C. CODOÑER. Isidoro de Sevilla, Diferencias Libro I, Auteurs Latins du Moyen Âge (Paris 1992). De Ecclesiasticiis Officiis, ed. C. M. LAWSON, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina. Vol. 113 (Turnholt 1989). Etymologiarum sive Originum Libri xx, ed. W. M. LINDSAY. Isidori Hispalensis episcopi etymologiarum sive originum libri xx, 2 vols., Oxford Classical Texts (Oxford 1911). De Haeresibus, ed. A. C. VEGA. S. Isidori Hispalensis Episcopi, De Haeresibus liber, Scriptores Ecclesiastici Hispano-Latini Veteris et Medii Aevi, vol. 5 (Madrid 1940). Reprinted in Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina; ed. A. HAMMAN 4.2, 1815–1820. Historia Regibus Gothorum, Sueborum, et Wandalorum, ed. and tr. into Spanish, C. RODRIGUEZ ALONSO. Las Historias de los Godos, Vandalos, Y Suevos de Isidore de Sevilla: Estudio, Edición Crítica Y Traducción, Fuentes Y Estudios de Historia Leonesa, No. 13. (León: 1975). History of the Kings of the Goths, tr. K. B. WOLF. Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, translated Texts for Historians, vol. 9, 81–110 (Liverpool 1990). The Letters of St. Isidore of Seville, ed. and tr., G. FORD JR., (Amsterdam 1970). The Medical Writings: An English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, tr. W. D. SHARPE, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, vol. 54, Pt. 2 (1964), 1–75. De Natura Rerum, ed. and tr. into French, J. FONTAINE. Isidore de Seville: Traité de la Nature, Bibliothèque de L’École des Hautes Études Hispaniques. Fascicule XXVIII (Bordeaux 1960). De Ortu et Obitu Patrum, ed. and tr. into Spanish, C. CHAPARRO GÓMEZ, Auteurs Latins du Moyen Âge (Paris 1985). ‘‘The Rule of Isidore,’’ tr., A. W. GODFREY, Monastic Studies 18 (1988), 7–29. De Viris Illustribus, ed. C. CODOÑER MERINO, El ‘‘De Viris Illustribus’’ de Isidore de Sevilla: Estudio Y Edicion Critica (Salamanca 1964). Sententiae, ed. P. CAZIER, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 111 (Turnholt 1998). Versus, ed. J. M. SÁNCHEZ MARTÍN, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 113a (Turnholt 2000). Studies: J. FONTAINE, Isidore de Séville et la culture classique dans l’Espagne wisigothique, 3 v. (Paris 1959, 1983); Isidore de Séville, Genèse et originalité de la culture hispanique au tempt des Wisigoths (Turnhout 2000). P. CAZIER, ‘‘Isidore de Séville et la naissance de l’Espagne Catholique,’’ Théologie Historique 96 (1994). P. J. MULLINS, The Spiritual Life According to St. Isidore of Seville (Washington, D.C. 1940). R. L. STOCKING, Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589–633 (Ann Arbor 2000).


New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2003. Vol. 7. P. 602-605.

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