Article abstract: Through his defense of education, Isidore of Seville not only preserved the classical traditions of his people but also helped to forge a national identity.
Isidore, the second son of prominent Hispano-Roman parents, was born in the city of Seville, where his parents had fled after the sacking of their native Cartagena by the Arian Visigoths. All the children in Isidore’s strongly orthodox family committed themselves to service in the Church: The only daughter, Florentina, entered a convent, and the three sons, Leander, Isidore, and Fulgentius, became priests. After the early death of their parents, Severian and Theodora, Leander, already a priest, assumed complete responsibility for the education of his sister and brothers and enrolled them in convent and monastery schools. Fulgentius, the youngest, became Bishop of Écija, while both Leander and Isidore became archbishops of the See of Seville and, later, primates of all Spain. Both also were canonized.
Although Isidore’s entire life was dedicated to the Church, the world around him was definitely not a Catholic one, nor even predominantly Christian. The Roman Empire in the West had been divided into many Germanic kingdoms. In the old Roman territory of Hispania, it was the Visigoths, perhaps the most Romanized of the Germanic peoples, who finally became the dominant power. By the time of Isidore’s birth, they had managed to subdue most of the peninsula except for a small enclave of the Suevi in Galicia, the Byzantines in the south and east, and the Basques, who remained independent in their mountain strongholds. This military success was only a beginning. The Visigoths, in order to achieve their goal of a united Hispanic state, faced formidable religious and cultural differences. They were the ruling class, but their Hispano-Roman subjects, who greatly outnumbered them, considered them to be little more than heretics and barbarians.
After much internecine warfare, including a civil war among members of the royal family itself, the religious question was at least superficially settled by the conversion of Recared to orthodox Catholicism in 587. This act, which did much to mitigate Hispano-Roman tensions, was brought about largely through the efforts of Leander, Isidore’s brother and Bishop of Seville. Although completely disparate in outlook and heritage, Leander and Recared did share one ideal: a unified Spain. It was a concept that Leander was to pass on to Isidore, who was not only his brother but also his fervent disciple. Therefore, after his brother’s death, it was only natural for Isidore to succeed to the See of Seville and take his place as the spokesman of the orthodox Christian tradition. Although little is known of Isidore’s early life, his ascension to the most influential religious post in Hispania brought Isidore to the forefront of his country’s history. His desire was not only to record that history but also to alter its direction.
Isidore’s main achievements were his defense of education and his preservation of knowledge that he gleaned from the writings of ancient pagan authors and of the church fathers. His concepts were seldom abstract or esoteric. He used his learning, influence, and great writing skill to further specific practical ends. He was perhaps the preeminent scholar of his time.
Isidore’s first major achievement after his ordination as a bishop was the reorganization of the educational system, which the Church controlled. At the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633, he ordered that schools specializing in the liberal arts be set up in the cities of all dioceses of Hispania and that the course of study for priests be formalized and strengthened. Since the Catholic clergy represented or influenced almost all literate people, this decree brought about a rise in the standard of literacy for the entire peninsula. Isidore himself wrote many treatises outlining specifically the duties and obligations of the clergy as well as several commentaries on the Old and New Testaments. Isidore’s also was the guiding hand in the much-needed revision and standardization of the old Spanish liturgy.
The bishop then turned from the education of the common man to the education of princes. After Leander’s death, Isidore became the adviser, both spiritual and political, to the Visigothic monarchs. Notwithstanding his Hispano-Roman descent, Isidore considered himself to be a Spaniard. He admired the Visigoths for their courage and driving energy in unifying his beloved country. At the beginning of his historical chronicle of the Goths, there are the famous words of his “De laude Hispaniae” (in praise of Spain): “Of all the lands that extend from the west to India, thou are the fairest, oh sacred Hispania, ever-fecund mother of princes and peoples, rightful queen of all the provinces, from whom west and east draw their light.”
A great nation needed a just and wise king, and to Isidore fell the task of shaping the Visigothic concept of kingship and of civilizing its barbaric nature. He wrote that...
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