17 April 2010

'Theologian & Collector of Oddments'—St Isidore of Seville


Today, 4 April on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Isidore (c. 560-636), Archbishop of Seville. An article on the Orthodox Saints of Spain (here) notes that he was ‘venerated as a miracle-worker’ in his lifetime. In Dante’s Paradiso X, the ‘flame’ of St Isidore is pointed out by Thomas Aquinas in the fourth circle, that of the sun, among ‘the ardent souls’ renowned for wisdom [1] and Anthony Esolen calls him a ‘theologian and collector of oddments of knowledge and folklore, whose Sentences and Etymologies enjoyed wide repute in the Middle Ages’. [2] According to Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, St Isidore was ‘a gifted student and writer known for his generous almsgiving’, and as a bishop was ‘an able administrator’. [3] Here is the account of St Isidore’s life from the Oxford Dictionary of Saints:

Born at Seville of a noble family from Cartagena, Isidore was educated mainly by his brother Leander, a monk, but did not become one himself. From this monastic formation he acquired and communicated an encyclopedia knowledge in his books, which became most influential in medieval clerical and monastic education. His importance as archbishop was also considerable. He ruled for thirty-six years, succeeding his brother Leander, and energetically completing his work of converting the Visigoths from Arianism and organizing the Church in Spain through synods and councils. The most notable were the councils of Seville (619) and Toledo (633), over both of which he presided in person; one of their achievements was the decree (centuries before Charlemagne’s similar one) that a cathedral school should be established in every diocese. Besides being a successful and influential educator, Isidore completed the Mozarabic missal and breviary and was notable for his abundant charity to the poor. Soon before his death, he had himself clothed in sackcloth and ashes. . . .

His reputation is due principally to his writings. Bede, at the time of his death, was working on a translation of extracts from Isidore’s book On the Wonders of Nature (De natura rerum), [4] but the Etymologies is his most famous work. This is a kind of encyclopedia which contains elements of grammar, rhetoric, theology, history, mathematics, and medicine, presented in the form of etymologies, which are in fact often erroneous. His Chronica Majora, which covers the years from the Creation to 615, is an influential compilation from various other church historians, but with special information on Spanish history. Other works include biographies of famous men (completing Jerome’s work), a summary of Christian doctrine, rules for monks and nuns, and the History of the Goths. From the time of Bede onwards the writings of Isidore figure in medieval library lists almost as frequently as those of Gregory the Great, with whom he shares the unofficial title of ‘Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages’. [5]

A glance at the Catholic Encyclopedia (here) reveals that Farmer’s statement that St Isidore was educated by his brother, while true, is slightly misleading. J.B. O’Connor’s article notes that he ‘received his elementary education in the Cathedral school of Seville’ where ‘the trivium and quadrivium were taught by a body of learned men, among whom was the archbishop, Leander’—his brother. (O’Connor also tells us that St Isidore had ‘mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew’.)

Concerning St Isidore’s most famous book, the Etymologies, the full title of which is Originum seu Etymologiarum libri XX, Frederick Copleston tells us:

In this work Isidore deals with the seven liberal arts, as also with a great number of scientific or quasi-scientific facts and theories on subjects from Scripture and jurisprudence and medicine to achritecture, agriculture, war, navigation, and so on. He shows his conviction about the divine origin of sovereignty and the paramount authority of morality, law and justice in civil society, even in regard to the conduct and acts of the monarch. [6]

The other Frederick, Artz, gives us a very detailed outline of the work in his Mind of the Middle Ages:

Books I through III are devoted to the seven liberal arts; Book IV is on medicine, V on law and on divisions of time, VI on the Bible and church services, VII concerns God, angels, and saints, VIII the church and sects, IX languages, reces, kingdoms, armies, X is a miscellaneous etymological word list, XI concerns men and fabulous monsters, XII animals, XIII the universe, XIV the earth and its parts, XV buildings and lands, XVI stones, minerals, and metals, XVII agriculture and botany, XVIII wars and games, XIX ships, building materials, dress, and, finally, XX food, drink and furniture. [7]

C.S. Lewis considers the Etymologies an important part of the background of mediæval and Renaissance literature—indeed, St Isidore is a perfect illustration of Lewis’s observation that ‘Distinction, definition, tabulation’ were the ‘delight’ of mediæval man [8]—but rather downplays St Isidore’s achievement a little unkindly:

As the title implies his ostensible subject was language, but the frontier between explaining the meaning of words and describing the nature of things is easily violated. He makes hardly any effort to keep on the linguistic side of it, and his book thus becomes an encyclopaedia. It is a work of very mediocre intelligence, but often gives us scraps of information we cannot easily runt to ground in better authors. [9]

Similarly, Artz notes, ‘The spell of words on Isidore is strong; he strings them along and one wonders how much he understood some of his own vocabulary.’ But overall Artz is a bit more positive in his assessment, noting what an ‘enormous task’ such a book must have been considering the availability of books in 7th-c. Spain, and concluding, ‘It remained, however, until Vincent of Beauvais composed his Speculum in the thirteenth century, the most accessible book in which one could find information about many subjects—a sort of “old lumber room in which had been stored away many of the cast off clothes of antiquity”.’ [10]

To turn our attention to St Isidore’s other works, De natura rerum, ‘On the Nature of Things’, is ‘a synthesis in forty-eight chapters of the wisdom of his age about time (days, night, weeks, months and years), cosmology (earth, sky, planets, water, sun, moon and stars), climate, plague and one or two other natural phenomena’. [11] Copleston mentions two others as well—the Libri tres sententiarum, ‘a collection of theological and moral theses taken from St Augustine and St Gregory the Great’, and a ‘treatise on numbers, Liber Numerorum, which treats of the numbers occurring in the Sacred Scriptures’ and ‘is often fanciful in the extreme in the mystical meanings which it attaches to numbers.’ [12]

Clancy and Márkus note the presence of both the Etymologies and the De natura in the library of Iona monastery. They write, ‘His numerous writings were seized on with delight by Irish writers, and exercised an immediate and lasting influence. . . . The Irish were fascinated by Isidore’s works on nature . . . .’ [13]

In conclusion, I would just point out that after writing all of the above, I discovered online (here) a pdf of an entire book on St Isidore: Ernest Brehaut’s An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville. Brehaut writes:

His many writings, and especially his great encyclopedia, the Etymologies, are among the most important sources for the history of intellectual culture in the early middle ages, since in them are gathered together and summed up all such dead remnants of secular learning as had not been absolutely rejected by the superstition of his own and earlier ages; they furnish, so to speak, a cross-section of the debris of scientific thought at the point where it is most artificial and unreal. [14]

Here, finally, is part of the chapter on angels in Book VII of St Isidore’s Etymologies, as extracted in Brehaut’s book:

Chapter 5. On angels.

2. The word angel is the name of a function, not of a nature, for they are always spirits, but are called angels when they are sent.

3. And the license of painters makes wings for them in order to denote their swift passage in every direction, just as also in the fables of the poets the winds are said to have wings on account of their velocity . . . .

4. The sacred writings testify that there are nine orders of angels, namely, angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, virtues, principalities, powers, cherubim and seraphim. And we shall explain by derivation why the names of these functions were so applied.

5. Angels are so called because they are sent down from heaven to carry messages to men. . . .

6. Archangels in the Greek tongue means summi nuntii in the Latin. For they who carry small or trifling messages are called angels; and they who announce the most important things are called archangels. . . . Archangels are so called because they hold the leadership among angels. . . . For they are leaders and chiefs under whose control services are assigned to each and every angel.

17. Certain functions of angels by which signs and wonders are done in the world are called virtues, on account of which the virtues are named.

18. Those are powers to whom hostile virtues are subject, and they are called by the name of powers because evil spirits are constrained by their power not to harm the world as much as they desire.

19. Principalities are those who are in command of the hosts of the angles. And they have received the name of principality because they send the subordinate angles here and there to do the divine service. . . .

20. Dominions are they who are in charge even of the virtues and principalities, and they are called dominions because they rule the rest of the hosts of the angels.

21. Thrones are the hosts of angels who in the Latin are called sedes; and they are called thrones because the creator presides over them, and through them accomplishes his decisions.

22. Cherubim . . . are the higher hosts of angels who, being placed nearer, are fuller of the divine wisdom than the rest. . . .

24. The seraphim in like manner are a multitude of angels, and the word is translated from the Hebrew into the Latin as ardentes or incendentes, and they are called ardentes because between them and God no other angels stand, and therefore the nearer they stand in his presence the more they are lighted by the brightness of divine light.

25. And they veil the fact and feet of God sitting on his throne, and therefore the rest of the throng of angels are not able to see fully the essence of God, since the seraphim cover him.

28. To each and every one, as has been said before, his proper duties are appointed, and it is agreed that they obtained these according to merit at the beginning of the world. That angels have charge over both places and men, an angel testifies through the prophet, saying: ‘Princeps regni Persarum mihi restitit’ (Dan. x. 13).

29. Whence it is evident that there is no place that angels have not charge of. They have charge also over the beginnings of all works.

30. Such is the order or classification of the angels who after the fall of the wicked stood in celestial strength. For after the apostate angels fell, these were established in the continuance of eternal blessedness.

32. As to the two seraphim that are read of in Isaiah, they show in a figure the meaning of the Old and New Testament. But as to their covering the face and feet of God, it is because we cannot know the past before the universe, nor the future after the universe, but according to their testimony we contemplate only the intervening time. [15]


[1] Dante Alighieri, Paradise, tr. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Dore (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 107.

[2] Dante, p. 428, and n. to p. 107, l. 131.

[3] Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus, OP, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 1995), p. 220.

[4] This strikes me as a poor rendering of the Latin title, and is not followed in any of the other sources I consulted. In Studies in Words, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), C.S. Lewis points out that De Natura Rerum is a whole genre of ancient writing. He writes, ‘In the fifth century we have that [philosophical poem] of Empedocles About the Phusis tôn ontôn (the Phusis of the things that are)’ (p. 35). On the next page, he notes Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, and then speculates:

Both could mean ‘What things are like’, and both would be simply two more instances of phusis and natura in the sense of ‘character, sort’. . . . Men begin by asking what this or that thing is like, asking for its phusis. They then get the idea of asking what ‘everything’ or ‘the whole show’ is like. The answer will give the phusis of everything. (p. 36)

Certainly Lewis calls our usual sense of ‘nature’, ‘the natural world’, which the translation given in Farmer is apt to imply, ‘of all the senses of all the words treated in these pages . . . the most dangerous, the one we are readiest to intrude where it is not required’ (p. 37).

[5] David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 264.

[6] Frederick Copleston, SJ, Mediæval Philosophy, Part I: Augustine & Bonaventure, Vol. 2 of A History of Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Image, 1962), p. 120.

[7] Frederick Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey, AD 200-1500, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1980), p. 193.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 10.

[9] Ibid., pp. 90-1.

[10] Artz, p. 193.

[11] Clancy & Márkus, p. 221.

[12] Copleston, p. 120.

[13] Clancy & Márkus, pp. 220, 221.

[14] Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville (NY: Columbia U, 1912), p. 8. My page numbering follows that of the pdf of Brehaut, which seems to differ from that of the printed edition.

[15] Ibid., pp. 123-4.

3 comments:

drdavila@aol.com said...

where is possible to obtain the works of saint isidore of seville?

aaronandbrighid said...

Just look up 'Isidore of Seville' on Amazon. You'll find a couple of translations of the Etymologies and one of De Ecclesiasticis Officiis.

hip0 said...

Hi thanks for this nice blog. I just recently learned about saint Isidore the little quiote I read from this article clearly shows me he was true Orthodox and what he teached is 100% Orthodox Christianity. Very nice to see especially if you're an Orthodox Christian temporary living in the western. Thanks!
Let by holy prayers of saint Isidore God is merceful to us