Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Isidorus, archbp. of Seville
Isidorus (18), archbp. of Seville, 600–636. Notwithstanding his prominent place in Spanish ecclesiastical history, the known facts of his life are few, and considerable uncertainty attaches to many points. It appears certain that his father was of the province of Cartagena, and that for some reason his parents left there for Seville either before or very shortly after his birth. It is not certain, therefore, whether Isidore was born at Seville or Cartagena, but probably at the latter. Arevalo (i. 122) decides for Seville; so Dupin: Florez (Esp. Sag. ix. 193, x. 120) is in favour of Cartagena. All things tend to shew that his parents died when he was very young. He was the youngest of the family. Leander, the eldest, was archbp. of Seville c. 579–599 and Fulgentius was bp. of Astigi or Ecija in the province of Seville. Isidore was archbp. of Seville for nearly 40 years, and died in 636. Leander received the pall from Gregory the Great in 599. Gams fixes 600 as the year of Leander's death, and consequently of Isidore's succession (ii. 41). To date the birth of Isidore c. 560 will not be far wrong. His early manhood was probably passed in a monastery, where he could pursue the studies which afterwards made him famous. Most probably he never belonged to a coenobite order.
We meet his name in connexion with the so-called decree of Gunthimar, the Gothic king, and a supposed synod of Toledo in 610 assigning metropolitan rank to the see of Toledo. In the list of subscriptions appended to the Decretum in the conciliar collections (e.g. Mansi, x. 511) Isidore stands second, following the king. He next appears as presiding over the second council of Seville in Nov. 618 or 619, in the reign of king Sisebut (Mansi, x. 555). The church of Seville is spoken of as the "holy Jerusalem." The governor of the city, Sisisclus, and the treasurer Suanilanus were present. The decrees set forth fully the doctrine of the Person of Christ against the Acephali, supporting it with appeals to Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, and the Fathers. This document was signed by 8 bishops, of whom Isidore subscribed first as
metropolitan of Baetica. Some uncertainty hangs over Isidore's presence at a council held at Toledo c. 625.
The fourth council of Toledo was held in 633, in the extreme old age of Isidore and shortly before his death, soon after Sisenand came to the throne. It met in the basilica of St. Leocadia, and was composed of prelates from Gaul and Narbonne, and from all the provinces of Spain. The king, with his court magnates, was present, and threw himself on the earth before the bishops, and with tears and sighs entreated their intercession with God, and exhorted them to observe the ancient decrees of the church and to reform abuses. The council issued 75 decrees, for a summary of which see D. C. A. ii. 1968. They were signed by the six metropolitan archbishops of Spain. This council was the only one in which they were all present, and was the most numerously attended of all Spanish synods. Isidore signed first as the oldest metropolitan and oldest bishop present (Mansi, x. 641). The council probably expressed with tolerable accuracy the mind and influence of Isidore. It presents a vivid picture of the church of Spain at that period. The position and deference granted to the king is remarkable, and nothing is said of allegiance to Rome. The church is free and independent, yet bound in solemn allegiance to the acknowledged king. The relations of the church to the Jews are striking, and the canons shew that there were many Jews in the Spanish community and that the Christian church had not yet emancipated itself from the intolerance of Judaism. This council was the last great public event of Isidore's life. He died three years afterwards. As he felt his end approaching he distributed his goods lavishly among the poor, and is said to have spent the whole day for six months in almsgiving. In his last illness he performed public penance in the church of St. Vincentius the martyr, gathered around him the bishops, the religious orders, the clergy, and the poor, then, as one bishop invested him with the penitential girdle, and another strewed ashes on his head, he made a pious and eloquent prayer, translated in full by Gams, received the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, took affectionate leave of all present, retired to his cell, and in four days died.
Isidore was undoubtedly the greatest man of his time in the church of Spain. He was versed in all the learning of the age, and well acquainted with Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. His works shew him as a man of varied accomplishments and great versatility of mind; and the prominent place he long filled in his own country sufficiently indicates his general ability and character. His eloquence struck all who heard him with astonishment, and he represented in himself all the science of his time. His language is studiously scriptural. He is quoted as holding predestinarian views, but his language seems hardly to go so far. At the 8th council of Toledo in 653, the epithet Egregius was applied to him, and confirmed at the 15th council of Toledo, 688. Popes and councils vied in doing him honour, till Benedict XIV. permitted the office of St. Isidore to be recited with the antiphon "O doctor optime," and the gospel, "Vos estis sal terrae."
His works are many and multifarious. (1) His Etymologies or Origins was, according to Braulio and Ildefonsus, his last work. It is in 20 books, and treats of the whole circle of the sciences in a very concise, methodical, and convenient manner. It is for the period a really wonderful work, and the authors quoted in it shew his wide classical reading. The subjects of the books are: i. Grammar in 44 chapters, containing an immense amount of information in a convenient form. ii. Rhetoric and dialectics, in 31 chapters. iii. The four mathematical sciences: i.e. arithmetic, 9 chapters; geometry, 5 chapters; music, 9 chapters; and astronomy, 48 chapters; algebra not being yet invented. iv. Medicine, in 13 chapters. v. Laws, 27 chapters; Times, 12 chapters. vi. Ecclesiastical books and offices, 19 chapters. vii. Of God, angels, and the orders of the faithful, 14 chapters. viii. The church and divers sects, 11 chapters. ix. Languages, nations, kingdoms, warfare, citizens, and relationships, 7 chapters. x. An alphabetical index and explanation of certain words. A vast amount of erroneous ingenuity is displayed in deriving all the words of the Latin language from itself: e.g. "Nox, a nocendo dicta, eo quod oculis noceat. Niger, quasi nubiger, quia non serenus, sed fusco opertus est. Unde et nubilum diem tetrum dicimus. Prudens, quasi porro videns: perspicax enim est, et incertorum praevidet casus. Cauterium dictum quasi cauturium quod urat," etc. xi. Of men and portents, in 4 chapters. xii. Animals, in 8. xiii. The universe (mundus), in 22. xiv. The earth and its parts, in 9. xv. Buildings, land-surveying, roads, etc., in 16. xvi. Mineralogy, stones, weights, measures, and metals, in 27. xvii. Agriculture, in 11. xviii. War and various games, in 69. xix. Ships, architecture, clothes of various kinds, in 34. xx. Food, domestic and agricultural implements, carriages, harness, etc., in 16. The treatise, which in the Roman edition occupies two quarto vols., is a singular medley of information and ignorance, and presents a remarkable picture of the condition of life and knowledge at the time. In bk. v., under the head of "De discretione temporum," is a chronological summary of sacred and secular history from Adam to Heraclius, concluding in these striking words: "Eraclius xvii nunc agit imperii annum: Judaei in Hispania Christiani efficiuntur. Residuum sextae aetatis soli Deo est cognitum." The whole period (after an idea common in Augustine) is divided into six ages, ending with Noah, Abraham, Samuel, Zedekiah, Julius Caesar, Heraclius. In bk. vi. is an introductory account of the several books of the Bible. It is probably not possible to overrate the value and the usefulness of this treatise to the age in which Isidore lived, and indeed for many ages it was the best available handbook.
(2) Libri Differentiarum sive de Proprietate Sermonum.—Bk. i. treats of the differences of words, often with acuteness and accuracy. Bk. ii. treats in 40 sections and 170 paragraphs of the differences of things, e.g. between Deus and Dominus, Substance and Essence, etc.
This is, in fact, a brief theological treatise on the doctrine of the Trinity, the power and nature of Christ, Paradise, angels, and men. He elaborately defines words denoting the members of the body, sin, grace, freewill, the law and the gospel, the active and contemplative life, virtues, vices, and the like.
(3) Allegoriae quaedam Sacrae Scripturae.—A spiritual interpretation of the names of Scripture characters: 129 from O. T. and 121 from N. T.; the latter being often from our Lord's parables, miracles, etc., as the ten virgins, the woman with the lost piece of money, the man who planted a vineyard, and the like. The angered king who sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and burnt up their city is interpreted of God the Father, who sent Vespasian Caesar to destroy Jerusalem. He shews an intimate acquaintance with Scripture and with the wonderful way it had then permeated the teaching and life of the church. The treatise is of intrinsic interest.
(4) Somewhat similar to the last is de Ortu et Obitu Patrum qui in Scriptura Laudibus Efferuntur; 64 chapters on O.T. characters and 21 on New, from Adam to Maccabaeus and from Zacharias to Titus. The genuineness of this treatise has been much doubted.
(5) Proomeia in Libros Vet. et Nov. Test.—Very brief introductions to the several books of O. and N.T., including Tobias, Judith, Esdras, and Maccabees, "ex quibus quidem Tobiae, Judith, et Maccabaeorum, Hebraei non recipiunt. Ecclesia tamen eosdem intra canonicas scripturas enumerat."
(6) Liber Numerorumqui in sanctis Scripturis occurrunt.—A mystical treatment of numbers from one to sixty, omitting some after twenty.
(7) Quaestiones tam de Novo quam de Veteri Testamento.—A series of 41 questions on the substance and teaching of Scripture with appropriate answers. Some are very interesting.
(8) Secretorum Expositiones Sacramentorum, seu Quaestiones in Vetus Tastamentum.—A mystical interpretation of the principal events recorded in the books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra, Maccabees. The preface states that he has gathered the opinions of ancient ecclesiastical writers, viz. Origen, Victorinus, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Fulgentius, Cassianus, and pope Gregory the Great. Gen. is treated of in 31 chapters, Ex. in 59, Lev. in 17, Num. in 42, Deut. in 22, Josh. in 18, Judg. in 9 (including 1 on Ruth), I. Kings (i.e. Sam.) in 21, II. Kings in 6, III. Kings in 8, IV. Kings in 8, Ezra in 3, Mac. in 1. The mystical method of interpretation is pursued to an excessive degree.
(9) De Fide Catholica ex Veteri et Novo Testamento contra Judaeos.—Addressed to his sister Florentina and apparently written at her request. It treats of the person of Christ from His existence in the bosom of the Father before the world was till His ascension and return to judgment; and the consequences of the Incarnation, viz. the unbelief of the Jews, the ingathering of the Gentiles, the conversion of the Jews at the end of the world, and the cessation of the Sabbath.
(10) Sententiarum Libri iii.—A kind of manual of Christian faith and practice, treating of God and His attributes. It discourses also upon the world, the origin of evil, angels, man, the soul, and senses of the flesh, Christ and the Holy Spirit, the church and heresies, the heathen nations, the law, seven rules or principles for the understanding of Scripture, the difference between the two Testaments, symbol and prayer, baptism and communion, martyrdom, the miracles wrought by the saints, Antichrist and his works, the resurrection and judgment, hell, the punishment of the wicked, and the glory of the just. Great use is made throughout of the works of Augustine and Gregory.
(11) De Ecclesiasticis Officiis treats of the services of the church, and of clerics, their rules and orders, the tonsure, the episcopal office, vicars episcopal, presbyters, deacons, sacristans and subdeacons, readers, psalmists, exorcists, acolytes, porters, monks, penitents, virgins, widows, the married, catechumens, exorcism, salt, candidates for baptism, the creed, the rule of faith, baptism, chrism, imposition of hands, and confirmation.
(12) Synonyma de lamentatione animae peccatricis.—One of the most curious of Isidore's works; a kind of soliloquy between Homo and Ratio. Homo begins by lamenting his lost and desperate condition in consequence of sin, and Ratio undertakes to direct him aright to a higher and holier condition issuing in the bliss of eternal felicity.
(13) Regula Monachorum.—This treatise led some to suppose Isidore a Benedictine monk, the only order then established in the West; but Gams thinks the proof not sufficient.
(14) Thirteen short letters follow: to bp. Leudefred of Cordova; to Braulio, to whom he speaks of giving a ring and a pall; to Helladius of Toledo on the fall of a certain bp. of Cordova; to duke Claudius, whom he congratulates on his victories; to Massona, bp. of Merida; and to archdeacon Redemptus.
(15) De Ordine Creaturarum.—This book has been doubted by some, and, though Arevalo maintains it to be genuine, he prints it in smaller type. Gams reckons it as Isidore's. It treats of faith in the Trinity, spiritual creation, the waters above the firmament, the firmament of heaven, the sun and moon, the devil and the nature of demons, the nature of waters and course of the ocean, Paradise, the nature of man after sin, the diversity of sinners and their place of punishment, purgatorial fire and the future life.
(16) De Natura Rerum Liber.—One of the most celebrated of Isidore's treatises, dedicated to king Sisebut (acc. a.d. 612), one of the best kings of Spain, whose death was universally lamented by the Goths. Isidore discourses of the days, the night, the seasons, the solstice and equinox, the world and its five zones, heaven and its name, the planets, the waters, the heavens, the nature, size, and course of the sun, the light and course of the moon, the eclipse of sun and moon, the course of the stars, the position of the seven planets, the light of the stars, falling stars, the names of the stars and whether they have any soul, thunder, lightning, the rainbow, clouds, showers, snow, hail, the nature and names of the winds, the signs of storms, pestilence, the heat, size, and saltness of the ocean, the river Nile, the names of sea and rivers, the position
and motion of the earth, mount Etna, and the parts of the earth. He gives diagrams to illustrate his meaning. For a full analysis of the sources of this book see Gustavus Bekker's ed. (Berlin, 1857).
(17) Chronicon.—A very brief summary of the principal events from the creation of the world to the reign of the emperor Heraclius and of king Sisebut. Hertzberg gives an elaborate analysis of the sources of Isidore's two chronicles in the Forschungen zur deutschen Gesch. xv. 289.
(18) Historia de regibus Gothorum, Wandalorum et Suevorum.—The Goths, according to Isidore, were descended from Gog and Magog, and of the same race as the Getae. They first appeared in Thessaly in the time of Pompey, and in that of Valerian devastated Macedonia, Greece, Pontus, Asia, and Illyricum. The history is brought down to 621, the reign of king Swintila. Isidore praises the Goths highly; and Spaniards of his time esteemed it an honour to be reckoned Goths. This brief sketch is invaluable as our chief authority for the history of the West Goths. Of the Vandals we learn less from him, and his sketch of the Suevi is very brief, the former compressing 123 years into a single page, and the latter 177 in the same space. The Vandals entered Spain under Gunderic and were destroyed on the fall of Gelimer; the Suevi entered under Hermeric in 409 and became incorporated with the Gothic nation in 585.
(19) De Viris Illustribus liber.—Many Greeks and Latins had treated of the Christian writers before Isidore, but he determined to give a brief outline of those whom he had read himself. The list embraces 46 names, and Braulio has added that of Isidore himself in the celebrated "Praenotatio librorum S. Isidori a Braulione edita." Among the 46 are Xystus the pope, Macrobius the deacon, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Hosius of Cordova, Eusebius of Dorylaeum, Chrysostom, Hilary of Arles, Gregory the pope, Leander his own brother, and Maximus of Saragossa. This is a valuable summary of important facts in ecclesiastical history, but too often disfigured by the fierce and illiberal polemical spirit of the day—vide, e.g., his remarks on the death of Hosius.
Other minor works assigned, some doubtfully, to Isidore need not be enumerated.
His Latin is not pure. He uses many Spanish words, and Arevalo has collected no fewer than 1,640 words which would not be understood by the ordinary reader or would strike him as strange. The style is feeble and inflated, having all the marks of an age of decadence. He was a voluminous writer of great learning, well versed in Holy Scripture, of which he manifests a remarkable knowledge, had a trained and cultivated mind, but was rather a receptive and reproductive writer than one of strong masculine and original mind. He was a very conspicuous ornament of the Spanish church and shed great glory on the age he adorned. He did much to hand on the light of Christianity and make it effectual to the amelioration of a semi-barbarous nation, and his character contrasts favourably with those of a later period.
A full list of the Lives of Isidore up to his time may be seen in Chevalier's Sources historiques du Moyen-âge, p. 1127, including those of Henschen in Boll. Acta SS. 4 Apr. i. 327; Arevalo in his ed. of Isidore's Works; Floret, Esp. Sag. ix. 173 (ed. 1752); Dupin, Eccl. Writ. t. ii. p. 1 (ed. 1724); Ceillier, xi. 710; Cave, i. 547; Gams, Kirchengeschichte von Spanien (3 vols. 8vo, Regensburg, 1862–1874; the great want of this excellent work is an adequate index; the first vol. alone has a "Register"). Arevalo's ed. of Isidore's works has been reprinted by the Abbé Migne in his Patr. Lat. lxxxi.–lxxxiv., with the addition of an eighth vol., containing the Collectio Canonum ascribed to Isidore; vols. lxxxv.-lxxxvi. of Migne contain Liturgia Mozarabica secundum Regulam Beati Isidora. There is an excellent ed. of the de Natura Rerum Liber by G. Becker (Berlin 1857). Prof. J. E. B. Mayor has given a list of editions and authorities in his Bibliographical Clue to Latin Literature, p. 212.
De Reg. Gothorum, Vandalorum, et Suevorum.—The histories, of all Isidore's works, have the most practical value for the present day. The Historia Gothorum is still to us, as it was to Mariana, one of the main sources of Gothic history. Upon the histories in general was based all the later medieval history-writing of Spain. A most valuable contribution was made to our knowledge of the exact place of the histories in historical work by Dr. Hugo Hertzberg (Göttingen, 1874) in his Die Historien und die Chroniken des Isidorus von Sevilla: Eine Quellenuntersuchung, Erster Th., die Historien. Dr. Hertzberg's great merit lies in the clearness with which he shews exactly how Isidore worked, what were the kind and amount of his material, and the method employed in working it up.
Dr. Hertzberg's general conclusions are, that Isidore neither possessed large material nor used what he had well. In no case did he take all that earlier chronicles offered him, but only extracts; his choice and arrangement of statements are often bad, and the proper chronological order frequently disregarded. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the permanent historical value of certain portions of the Hist. Goth. is very great. From the reign of Euric, where Idatius breaks off, Isidore becomes for a time our only informant. He alone preserves the memory of Euric's legislation, while our knowledge of Visigothic history under Gesalic, Theudis, Theudigisel, Agila, and Athanagild rests essentially on his testimony. In the prominent reigns of Leovigild and Recared, Joh. Biclarensis becomes our great source, but Isidore's additions are important. From Recared to Suinthila he is again our best and sometimes our only source. The Hist. Vand. is, however, historically valueless, as we possess the sources from which it is a mere extract, and the same may almost be said of the Hist. Suev. Just where Isidore might have drawn most from oral testimony and thus supplied a real gap in our historical knowledge, viz. in the 100 years of Suevian history between Remismund and Theodemir, he fails us most notably. The whole missing cent. is dismissed in one vague sentence which tells us nothing.
For a complete catalogue of the nine MSS. of the longer form of the text, and the
two MSS. of the shorter, as well as of the editions of both texts, see Dr. Hertzberg's Diss. 8–18. He gives a complete analysis of both texts according to the sources. For general references see Potthast, Bibl. Hist. Med. Devi. The longer text of the histories is printed in Esp. Sagr. vi. with an introduction and long notes by Floret.