St Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), a Spanish bishop and the patron saint of the Internet, was one of the most learned men of the West in his day – and for a thousand years one of the most quoted.
Fans: Leonardo da Vinci, Petrarch, Alcuin, Bede.
He is best known for “Etymologies” (633), an early encyclopedia, a “work of very mediocre intelligence” according to C.S. Lewis. It summed up Isidore’s 16 other books, making it an outline of his knowledge of the world. It featured a good understanding of Latin, half-understood Greek science and Christianized Roman learning.
“Etymologies” became one of the standard reference books of the Western Middle Ages. It listed everything an educated person of the time would or should know. Like that the Earth is not flat.
The book starts out with what became known as the trivium and quadrivium:
- trivium: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic.
- quadrivium: mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy.
He and Cassiodorus pushed to make this the course of study at schools.
He knew that the Sun was larger than the Earth, and that the Earth was larger than the Moon.
On the other hand, he believed in unicorns.
On the whole, though, he is better than, say, Pliny the Elder, who wrote an even earlier encyclopedia some 500 years before.
Time, for Isidore, goes from Creation (-5199) to the 17th year of Heraclius (626), the Byzantine emperor. But he does not date years before and after Christ, but “of the Caesars”, the year Augustus took over Spain, 38 years before Christ.
The world goes from the Gorgades (Cape Verde islands) to Seres (China), but there is another part of the world:
“across the Ocean, unknown to us. It is in the south in the sun’s burning heat.”
As if he were talking about Brazil.
Isidore’s book often came with a T-and-O map of the world: the world as a circle with Asia as the top half, Europe and Africa as the bottom half, making what looks like a T inside an O. East was “up” and Jerusalem stood near the centre.
Isidore’s private library was large. Above the main door it said:
“Here are masses of books, both sacred and secular.”
Some of what seems to have been in it, listed here chronologically (authors in red were also in Augustine’s library):
- -300s Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates
- -200s Plautus, Naevius
- -100s Old Testament, Ennius, Terence, Lucilius
- -000s Virgil, Cicero, Varro, Lucretius, Sallust, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cato, Afranius
- +000s Persius, Lucan, Martial, Pliny, Columella, Josephus, Strabo
- +100s Juvenal, Galen, Suetonius, Soranus of Ephesus, Tertullian, Aulus Gellius
- +200s Origen, Lactantius, Solinus
- +300s New Testament, Eusebius, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, Servius, Donatus
- +400s Augustine, Paulus Orosius, Nonius Marcellus, Macrobius, Capella
- +500s Cassiodorus, Boethius, Breviary of Alaric, Gregory the Great
Isidore succeeded his brother as bishop of Seville and carried on his work of converting the ruling Visigoths from Arianism to Catholicism. Arians believed Jesus was neither God nor man but something in between. Much of what we know about Goths comes from Isidore.
St Isidore’s Day: April 4th.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Augustine’s library
- In Isidore’s library:
- Byzantine Empire
- AD (Anno Domini)
- “Europe is a continent”