Saint Isidore of Seville

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2105

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.

Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline

Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!

Start an Essay

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 a king must not only defend his people against outside attack but also serve as an example by his ethical Christian conduct. Isidore even went so far as to insist that a king who ruled unjustly had surrendered all rights of kingship, and therefore his people had the moral obligation to overthrow him. The bishop also advocated hereditary monarchy in order to ensure political stability. Many of his concepts were far ahead of his time. Any attempt by the Visigoths to abandon their old elective system of leadership generally ended in bloodshed. It is interesting to note, however, that it is not to the Visigothic reality but to Isidore’s idealized rendering of that reality that later generations would turn in the quest for unity against the Moors.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In legal matters, Isidore was more immediately successful. One of the stumbling blocks to the true unification of the Hispano-Roman and Gothic peoples of the peninsula had been the lack of a uniform code of law. Finally, about 654, Recceswinth promulgated the first binding body of laws for the entire state, a code influenced significantly by Isidore’s writings. The Liber Judiciorum, better known as the Fuero Juzgo, was to serve as the law of the land until modern times. So important had Isidore’s contribution been that later generations adopted the custom of taking oaths in both criminal and civil cases on the saint’s shrine in León. It was believed that any perjury would cause the death of the miscreant within the year.

Isidore also served as the Visigothic historian, producing an informative chronicle entitled Historia de regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum, et Suevorum (624; History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, 1966). He wrote many religious, scientific, and historical studies, but it was his last and most comprehensive work, Etymologiae (partial translation in An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages, 1912), which earned for him lasting fame and the title of “Egregious Doctor.” Edited and divided into twenty books after his death by his friend and former student, Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa, Etymologiae is a summarization of all the knowledge available to Isidore in the seventh century. The first of the medieval encyclopedias, it attempted to synthesize classical Greco-Roman traditions with Christian morals and doctrine. The subjects range from cosmology, language study, anthropology, the liberal arts, psychology, medicine, and shipbuilding to the planning of country gardens. Etymologiae was the standard reference work of its time; one thousand medieval manuscripts still survive, and the actual number was exceeded only by copies of the Vulgate Bible. Much of the information recorded in the encyclopedia is now only of intellectual curiosity. Nevertheless, it served as a beacon of classical learning throughout many centuries of scholarly twilight and, in its painstaking attention to detail and observation, provided a base upon which various disciplines could be built. For example, Isidore’s discussion regarding medicines is remarkably free from magical or religious influences; thus, he continued the tradition of medicine as a scientific discipline and transmitted and expanded a universal medical terminology which could be understood by all of its practitioners.

Isidore died on April 4, 636. The Visigothic kingdom which he described and defended was to vanish soon after with the coming of the Moors in 711. His fame and influence, however, continued to grow. He was canonized by the Church, and because of his ardent support of Spanish nationalism, he became a symbol of the Reconquest. During the Middle Ages, the liberation of his remains from Muslim territory became a cause célèbre. Finally, in 1063, his tomb became a shrine on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela. Word of his miracles spread all through Europe. Visions of Saint Isidore before a battle were said to ensure victory for the Christian forces. A Leonese legend tells how before the important Battle of Las Navas (1212), El Cid Campeador himself knocked on the door of the shrine to summon Saint Isidore to the fight.

Isidore’s fame as a scholar also increased with Luke, Bishop of Tuy’s biography, compiled centuries after the saint’s death. Dante numbered him among the great theologians, and, in 1722, Isidore was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Innocent XIII. His feast day is April 4, but in Spain it has traditionally been celebrated on July 25 or December 30.


There are, in reality, two Isidores: the pragmatic scholar and educator and the legendary warrior-saint. Both personae converge in his influential role as a developer of Spanish culture and identity. His countrymen were to draw on his vision of a unified Spain as a rallying point in later battles for national identity. He was ahead of his time in understanding the value of education as a tool for forging cultural union; it was this awareness that motivated him to compile and make accessible the information necessary for a literate society.

A strong believer in tradition, Isidore wished to preserve the great classical heritage of learning which he had received from his Hispano-Roman forebears. Although not original in content, his encyclopedic writings achieved this purpose and became part of the foundation for the new intellectual awakening of the Renaissance.

Isidore’s true originality lay in his concept of welding the contemporary to the classical. His history of the Visigoths offers valuable insight into his times, an era which he himself did so much to shape. He was the principal adviser to several kings and tried to use his prestige and scholarship to elevate Visigothic culture. Drawing on tales of the great leaders of Rome, he created the ideal of the perfect Christian prince. Though the Visigothic kings proved intractable, Isidore’s ideas served as the basis for numerous future philosophical writings on the essence of kingship and power.

Isidore’s influence on daily affairs was enormous. He revised the educational system of his jurisdiction, instituted clerical reform, and insisted on the standardization of religious texts. This influence was not limited to his own time and place. With the adoption of the Fuero Juzgo, the official law of all Christian Spain, Isidore’s precepts on law and justice held sway until the twentieth century.

Little is known of Isidore’s personality. By the testimony of his own words, it is evident that he could be ruthless and cynical. He exercised almost absolute control over the Spanish church and at times was unforgiving of religious nonconformity. In cultural and scientific fields, however, Isidore exhibited a rare tolerance and openness which merit praise.


Isidore of Seville. History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi. Translated with an introduction by Guido Donini and Gordon B. Ford, Jr. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1966, 2d rev. ed. 1970. A helpful English translation of Isidore’s chronicle of the Visigothic monarchy.

Isidore of Seville. The Medical Writings. Translated and edited with an introduction and commentary by William D. Sharpe. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 54, no. 2 (1964): 3-75. Sharpe, a physician, has compiled and translated portions of the Etymologiae having to do with medicine. He presents useful background information on Isidore’s sources.

Lear, F. S. “The Public Law of the Visigothic Code.” Speculum 26 (1951): 1-23. Analysis of the law code which Isidore influenced so greatly.

O’Callaghan, Joseph F. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975. Contains a chapter on the Visigothic era with special emphasis on the drive for unity.

Starkie, Walter. The Road to Santiago: Pilgrims of St. James. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. Very readable, impressionistic description of Saint Isidore’s shrine and legends associated with it.

Thompson, E. A. The Goths in Spain. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969. A good general history of the rise and collapse of the Visigoth empire.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access