Week 8


The life of San Isidro de Sevilla (560-636) gives us a unique insight into Spain in those centuries just before the Islamic conquest of 711. St Isidore was born in Cartagena (named for Carthage), to Severianus and Theodora, members of an influential family who were instrumental in the political-religious maneuverering that converted the Visigothic kings from Arianism to Catholicism. The Catholic Church celebrates him and all his siblings as known saints. The story of his leadership in Seville reveals the nature of Christianity in Spain during the centuries between the fall of Rome and the conquest of the Islamic armies in 711.

Isidore was the author of a great encyclopedia of all knowledge of all things in his day called the Etymologies or Origins. It was one of the most influential books of the ancient world. It was a compendium of all that was known at the time, brought together into this encyclopedia that men of the ancient world could easily understand. Isidore's influence in history therefore derives both from his actual leadership in Spain as well as his influence as an author. Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on the Etymologies.


Isidore was the first Christian writer to attempt the task of compiling for his co-religionists a summa of universal knowledge, in the form of his most important work, the Etymologiae It is also known by classicists as the Origines (the standard abbreviation being Orig.). This encyclopedia - the first such Christian epitome - formed a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 volumes. In it, as Isidore entered his own terse digest of Roman handbooks, miscellanies and compendia, he continued the trend towards abridgements and summaries that had characterised Roman learning in Late Antiquity. In the process, many fragments of classical learning are preserved which otherwise would have been hopelessly lost; "in fact, in the majority of his works, including the Origines, he contributes little more than the mortar which connects excerpts from other authors, as if he was aware of his deficiencies and had more confidence in the stilus maiorum than his own" his translator Katherine Nell MacFarlane remarks; on the other hand, some of these fragments were lost in the first place because Isidore's work was so highly regarded - Braulio called it quecunque fere sciri debentur, "practically everything that it is necessary to know" - that it superseded the use of many individual works of the classics themselves, which were not recopied and have therefore been lost: "all secular knowledge that was of use to the Christian scholar had been winnowed out and contained in one handy volume; the scholar need search no further". The fame of this work imparted a new impetus to encyclopedic writing, which bore abundant fruit in the subsequent centuries of the Middle Ages. It was the most popular compendium in medieval libraries. It was printed in at least 10 editions between 1470 and 1530, showing Isidore's continued popularity in the Renaissance. Until the 12th century brought translations from Arabic sources, Isidore transmitted what western Europeans remembered of the works of Aristotle and other Greeks, although he understood only a limited amount of Greek. The Etymologiae was much copied, particularly into medieval bestiaries.


Barney, Lewis, Beach, Berghof (translators),

The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville,

Cambridge University Press (May 24, 2010),

ISBN 0521145910


Images of Isidore and his work.