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Saint Isidore of Seville
St. Isidore, depicted by Murillo
Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church
Born c. 560, Cartagena, Spain
Died April 4, 636, Seville, Spain
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Canonized 1598, Rome by Pope Clement VIII
Feast April 4
Attributes bees; Bishop holding a pen while surrounded by a swarm of bees; bishop standing near a beehive; old bishop with a prince at his feet; pen; priest or bishop with pen and book; with Saint Leander, Saint Fulgentius, and Saint Florentina; with his Etymologia
Patronage (only proposed, but quite well embraced) computers, the internet; students

Saint Isidore of Seville (Spanish: San Isidro or San Isidoro de Sevilla, Latin: Isidorus Hispalensis) (c. 560 – April 4, 636) was Archbishop of Seville for more than three decades and is considered, as the historian Montalembert put it in an oft-quoted phrase, "le dernier savant du monde ancien" ("the last scholar of the ancient world").[1] Indeed, all the later medieval history-writing of Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula, comprising modern Spain and Portugal) were based on his histories.

At a time of disintegration of classical culture, and aristocratic violence and illiteracy, he was involved in the conversion of the royal Visigothic Arians to Catholicism, both assisting his brother Leander of Seville, and continuing after his brother's death. Like Leander, he played a prominent role in the Councils of Toledo and Seville. The Visigothic legislation which resulted from these councils is regarded by modern historians as exercising an important influence on the beginnings of representative government.


Childhood and education

Isidore was born in Cartagena, Spain, to Severianus and Theodora, part of an influential family who were instrumental in the political-religious manoeuvring that converted the Visigothic kings from Arianism to Catholicism, and were all awarded sainthoods:

  • His elder brother, Leander, was his immediate predecessor in the Catholic Metropolitan See of Seville, and while in office opposed king Liuvigild
  • A younger brother, Fulgentius, was awarded the Bishopric of Astigi at the start of the new reign of the Catholic King Reccared.
  • His sister Saint Florentina was a nun, and is said to have ruled over forty convents and one thousand religious.

Isidore received his elementary education in the Cathedral school of Seville. In this institution, which was the first of its kind in Hispania, the trivium and quadrivium were taught by a body of learned men, among whom was the archbishop, Leander. With such diligence did he apply himself to study that in a remarkably short time mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

Whether Isidore ever embraced monastic life or not is still an open question, but though he himself may never have been affiliated with any of the religious orders, he esteemed them highly — on his elevation to the episcopate he immediately constituted himself protector of the monks and in 619 he pronounced anathema against any ecclesiastic who should in any way molest the monasteries.

Bishop of Seville

Statue of Isidore of Seville by José Alcoverro, outside of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, in Madrid.

After the death of Leander, Isidore succeeded to the See of Seville.

His long incumbency in this office was spent in a period of disintegration and transition. The ancient institutions and classic learning of the Roman Empire were fast disappearing. For almost two centuries the Goths had been in full control of Hispania, and their barbarous manners and contempt of learning threatened greatly to put back her progress in civilization.

Realizing that the spiritual as well as the material well-being of the nation depended on the full assimilation of the foreign elements, Isidore set himself to the task of welding into a homogeneous nation the various peoples who made up the Gothic kingdom. To this end he availed himself of all the resources of religion and education. His efforts were attended with complete success. Arianism, which had taken deep root among the Visigoths, was eradicated, and the new heresy of Acephales was completely stifled at the very outset; religious discipline was everywhere strengthened.

Second Synod of Seville (November 618 or 619)

Isidore presided over the Second Council of Seville, begun November 13, 619, in the reign of King Sisebut. The bishops of Gaul and Narbonne attended, as well as the Hispanic prelates. In the Council's Acts the nature of Christ is fully set forth, countering Arian conceptions.

Fourth National Council of Toledo

At this council, begun December 5, 633, all the bishops of Hispania were in attendance. Isidore, though far advanced in years, presided over its deliberations, and was the originator of most of its enactments.

The council probably expressed with tolerable accuracy the mind and influence of Isidore. The position and deference granted to the king is remarkable. The Church is free and independent, yet bound in solemn allegiance to the acknowledged king: nothing was said of allegiance to the Bishop of Rome.

It was at the Fourth National Council of Toledo and through his influence that a decree was promulgated commanding and requiring all bishops to establish seminaries in their Cathedral Cities, along the lines of the school associated with Isidore already existing at Seville. Within his own jurisdiction he had availed himself of the resources of education to counteract the growing influence of Gothic barbarism. His was the quickening spirit that animated the educational movement of which Seville was the centre. The study of Greek and Hebrew, as well as the liberal arts, was prescribed. Interest in law and medicine was also encouraged. Through the authority of the fourth council this policy of education was made obligatory upon all the bishops of the kingdom.


Isidore's Latin style in the Etymologiae and elsewhere, though simple and lucid, cannot be said to be classical, affected as it was by local Visigothic traditions. It discloses most of the imperfections peculiar to all ages of transition and particularly reveals a growing Visigothic influence.


Page of Etymologiae, Carolingian manuscript (VIII century), Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium

Isidore was the first Christian writer to essay the task of compiling for his co-religionists a summa of universal knowledge, in the form of his most important work, the Etymologiae (taking its title from the method he used in the transcription of his era's knowledge). It is also known by classicists as the Origines (the standard abbreviation being Orig.). This encyclopedia — the first known to be compiled in medieval civilization — epitomized all learning, ancient as well as modern, forming a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 volumes. In it many fragments of classical learning are preserved which otherwise would have been hopelessly lost but, on the other hand, some of these fragments were lost in the first place because Isidore's work was so highly regarded that it superseded the use of many individual works of the classics themselves, which were not recopied and have therefore been lost.

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 twelfth 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.

The shape of the Earth

The medieval T-O map represents the inhabited world as described by Isidore in his Etymologiae.

Isidore taught in the Etymologiae that the Earth was round. His meaning was ambiguous and some writers think he referred to a disc-shaped Earth; his other writings make it clear, however, that he considered the Earth to be globular.[2] He also admitted the possibility of people dwelling at the antipodes, considering them as legendary[3] and noting that there was no evidence for their existence.[4] Isidore's disc-shaped analogy continued to be used through the Middle Ages by authors clearly favouring a spherical Earth, e.g. the 9th century bishop Rabanus Maurus who compared the habitable part of the northern hemisphere (Aristotle's northern temperate clime) with a wheel, imagined as a slice of the whole sphere. See also: Flat Earth.

On the Catholic Faith against the Jews

Isidore's De fide catholica contra Iudaeos furthers St. Augustine's ideas on the Jewish presence in Christian society. Like Augustine, Isidore accepted the necessity of the Jewish presence because of their expected role in the anticipated Second Coming of Christ. In De fide catholica contra Iudaeos, Isidore exceeds the anti-rabbinic polemics of earlier theologians by criticizing Jewish practice as deliberately disingenuous.[5]

Other works

His other works include

  • Historia de regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum et Suevorum (a history of the Goths, Vandals and Suebi kings) (Latin)
  • his Chronica Majora (a universal history)
  • De differentiis verborum, which amounts to brief theological treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, of Paradise, angels, and men.
  • On the Nature of Things (not the poem of Lucretius, but the book of astronomy and natural history dedicated to the Visigothic king Sisebut)
  • Questions on the Old Testament.
  • a mystical treatise on the allegorical meanings of numbers
  • a number of brief letters
  • Sententiae libri tres (Codex Sang. 228, 9th century)


Isidore (right) and Braulio (left) in an Ottonian illuminated manuscript from the 2nd half of 10th century.

Isidore was the last of the ancient Christian philosophers, as he was the last of the great Latin Church Fathers. Some consider him to be the most learned man of his age, and he exercised a far-reaching and immeasurable influence on the educational life of the Middle Ages. His contemporary and friend, Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa, regarded him as a man raised up by God to save the Iberian peoples from the tidal wave of barbarism that threatened to inundate the ancient civilization of Hispania. The Eighth Council of Toledo (653) recorded its admiration of his character in these glowing terms: "The extraordinary doctor, the latest ornament of the Catholic Church, the most learned man of the latter ages, always to be named with reverence, Isidore". This tribute was endorsed by the Fifteenth Council of Toledo, held in 688.

In 712, as Seville was overrun during the Arab conquest of Spain, his remains were transferred to the Basilica of San Isidoro in Leon.

He was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1598 by Pope Clement VIII and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722 by Pope Innocent XIII.

In Dante's Paradise (Paradiso' X.130), he is mentioned among theologians and Doctors of the Church alongside the Scot Richard of St. Victor and the Englishman Bede the Venerable.

In 2003 he was proposed as the patron saint of the Internet, but was not among the top six vote totals in an Italian Internet poll.[6] The University of Dayton has named their implementation of the Sakai Project in honor of Saint Isidore.[7]


  1. Montalembert, Charles F. Les Moines d'Occident depuis Saint Benoît jusqu'à Saint Bernard [The Monks of the West from Saint Benoit to Saint Bernard]. Paris: J. Lecoffre, 1860.
  2. Isidore, Etymologiae, XIV.ii.1 [1]; Wesley M. Stevens, "The Figure of the Earth in Isidore's De natura rerum", Isis, 71(1980): 268-277.
  3. Isidore, Etymologiae, XIV.v.17 [2].
  4. Isidore, Etymologiae, IX.ii.133 [3].
  5. Cohen, Jeremy (1999). Living Letters of the Law. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 97. ISBN 9780520218703. 
  6. Santi e Beati (Italian)

External links

Primary sources

  • Barney, Stephen A., Lewis, W. J., Beach, J. A. and Berghof, Oliver (translators). The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN 0521837499, ISBN 9780521837491. (This is the first complete English translation of the Etymologiae.)

Secondary sources

Other material

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