Isidore of Seville


Archbishop Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) has been called ‘the last of the Western Latin Fathers’.


He came from a high-ranking Romano-Spanish family from Cartagena in southeastern Spain who migrated to Seville. Following the death of his brother Leander, Isidore succeeded him as Bishop of Seville, where he greatly contributed towards the build-up of the Church in Spain following the conversion of the Visigoths from Arianism to Catholicism. He supported clerical education as well as the founding of new libraries and scriptoria, and he was instrumental in founding several cathedral schools, all of them endowed with valuable libraries. As an author too, his intentions were clearly didactic, above all as regards the transmission of classical learning. His writings, which covered a variety of subjects, such as history, grammar, natural science and theology, were quickly transmitted far and wide. One of his works was already being read in Ireland in about 650, and another was translated into High German as early as the eighth century. He was highly popular in the Middle Ages and his writings survive in over a thousand manuscripts and in numerous incunabula.

An early encyclopaedia

Etymologiae (‘Etymologies’), one of his most important works, is a compilation of the then state of learning in 20 books, based on excerpts from a large number of classical and Christian sources. The ‘Etymologies’ is the first encyclopaedia to have been compiled by a Christian author from classical Latin literature. Isidore worked on it for many years, and it was more or less completed before his death in 636. Various parts are known to have been in circulation before the entire work was finished.

The ‘Etymologies’ was dedicated to Isidore’s pupil and friend Braulio, who divided it into 20 books and was responsible for the final editing of it. Otherwise known as Origenes (‘Origins’), ‘Etymologies’ was an attempt to deduce and account for the nature of things on the basis of their names. Etymology, the study of the descent and original meaning of words, had a history going back to ancient times and was one of the foundations of grammar and rhetoric. It was taken over by the Christian authors, and as authority they quoted the words of Christ to Peter: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ (Matt. 16:18). The name of the Apostle, accordingly, is traced back to the word pétrā – Greek for “rock”.

The introduction of classical learning

Isidore applied the etymological method to all knowledge, offering explanations for a comprehensive collection of terms in a large number of fields. He gives, for example, derivations for the names of different diseases, though without describing how they are to be treated. Much of the information comes from non-Christian sources. Isidore’s purpose was to introduce classical learning, to instruct the new Christians – Visigoths and Franks – and to show how the ancient world had led to the creation of the Church of Rome. Considering all the original works from the ancient world that have been lost, Isidore’s work was invaluable, and not only to the new Christians. 

The books are arranged partly by subject and partly in alphabetical order. The first three deal with the seven liberal arts (Lat. septem artes liberales), namely grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (Lat. trivium), followed by arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy (Lat. quadrivium). The fourth book is about medicine, and the remaining sixteen cover everything from jurisprudence, chronology, theology, philosophy, politics and natural science to drama, entertainment and dress.

Isidore also treats the entire history of the world, which, like Augustine, he divided into six ages, extending from the creation of Adam to the appearance of Christ on earth and the approaching end of the world. The whole of ancient history, civilisation and literature is depicted in a synchronised overview which allots pride of place to the achievements of the Jewish people. The ‘Etymologies’ was a very widely used and important work during medieval times. Isidore ranked as a paramount authority, and the ‘Etymologies’ formed part of the medieval school curriculum, especially in Carolingian times. Some 950 manuscripts of the work are extant, the oldest of them dating from as early as the seventh century. The ‘Etymologies’ is often looked on today as a work of plagiary and a compilation, but it should be remembered that compilations were already a popular and established literary genre in the ancient world, and Isidore was only aiming to bring together and arrange the excerpted material for teaching purposes.

Other works by Isidore

Isidore was also a leading theologian. His foremost works include Sententiarum libri III (‘Three books of Sentences ’), and he is also known for a couple of minor didactic writings: De natura rerum (‘On the Nature of Things’), dealing with both celestial and earthly phenomena, and Differentiarium libri (‘Books of Differences’), a dictionary of terms having different meanings in ecclesiastical and secular language.

His historical works include a chronicle of the world, Chronica maior, and a book which is important for our knowledge of the history of the Goths down to 625, namely De origine Gothorum et regno Sueborum et Vandalorum (‘On the origin of the Goths and the kingdom of the Suevi and Vandals’). His collections of biographies of the leading African and Spanish authors of the sixth and seventh centuries, entitled De viris illustribus (‘On illustrious men’), were also very popular. Isidore’s importance cannot be overstated. He was an early introducer of patristic theology and biblical scholarship, and an important bridge-builder between the ancient and medieval worlds, securing for the seven liberal arts their appointed place as a foundation of all schooling.