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Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville

(b. Spain [?], ca. 560; d. Seville, Spain, 4 April 636)

dissemination of knowledge.

An encyclopedist, confessor-bishop, and Doctor of the Church, Isidore was educated by his elder brother Leander (a friend of Gregory the Great) and in monastery schools. He succeeded Leander as bishop of Seville and Catholic primate of Spain in 599. Much concerned with the reformation of church discipline and with the establishment of schools, he exerted an influence on science entirely through writings intended as textbooks.

Isidore wrote extensively on Scripture, canon law, systematic theology, liturgy, general and Spanish history, and ascetics. His scientific writings are chiefly to be found as parts of the glossary Libri duo differentiarum (De differentiis verborrum, and De differentiis rerum), two short works on cosmology (De natura reeum and De ordine creaturarum) and his great encyclopedic dictionary, the Etymologiae or Origines. This last work briefly defines or discusses terms drawn from all aspects of human knowledge and is based ultimately on late Latin compendia and gloss collections. The books of greatest scientific interest deal with mathematics, astronomy, medicine, human anatomy, zoology, geography, meteorology, geology, mineralogy, botany, and agriculture. Isidore’s work is entirely derivative—he wrote nothing original performed no experiments, made no new observations or reinterpretations, and discovered nothing—but his influence in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was great, and he remains an interesting and often authoritative source for Latin lexicography, particularly in technical, scientific and nonliterary fields.

His sources seem to have included, apart from Scripture, the Servian Vergil commentaries, gloss collections, grammars, cookbooks, and technical manuals, Ambrose, Augustine, Boethius, an abridgment of Caelius Aurelianus, Cassiodorus, Cassius Felix, Cicero, some form of Dioscorides, Donatus, a Latin digest of Galen, Gargilius Martialis, Gregory the Great, Hegesippus, Hoease, Hyginus, Jerome, Lactatius, Lucan, Lucretius, Macrobius, Orosius, Ovid, Palladius, Placidus, Pliny, the Younger, Pseudo- Clement, Sallust, Seneca, Solinus, Suetonius, Tertullian, Varro, Vergil, Verrius, Flaccus, Victorinus, and doubtless other writers at first or second hand.

Isidore’s universe was composed of a primordial substance which, by itself, possessed neither quality nor form but was given shape by four elemental qualities: coldness, dryness, wetness, and hotness. Isidore followed Lucretius and many Greek cosmographers in regarding these elements as in constant flux between the earth and the solar fire at the center of the universe. Although all elemental qualities are present in all created things, the elemental name assigned in any specific case depends upon those qualities which are most prominent. Isidore shared the microcosmic theory which views each individual human being as a microcosm paralleling the macrocosm, on a smaller scale, and regards man as the central link in this chain of being. The elements shade into each other and are arranged in the solar system by weight, each stratum of the concentric spheres having its proper inhabitants: angels in the fiery heavens, birds in the air, fish in the water, and man and animals on solid earth.

Isidore summarizes this view in the Etymologiae, (13.3.1-3; see also his De natura reum, 11.1):

Hylê is the Greek word for a certain primary material of things, directly formed in no shape but capable of all bodily forms, from which these visible elements are shaped, and it is from this derivation that they get their name. This hylê the Latins call “matter”, because being altogether formless from which anything is to be made, it is always termed “matter” . . .The Greeks, however, have named the elements stoicheia, because they come together by a certain commingling and concordance of association. They are thus said to be joined among themselves by a certain natural ratio, so that something originating in the form of fire returns again to earth, and from earth to fire just as, for example, fire ends in air, air is condensed into water, water thickens into earth, and earth again is dissolved into water, water evaporates into air, air is reduced into fire. . .[Sharpe, Isidore of Seville: The Medical Writings, p. 23].

The same distribution of elements occurs in the human body: blood, like air, is hot and moist; yellow bile, like fire, hot and dry; black bile, like earth, cold and dry; and phlegm, like water, is cold and wet. Individual temperaments are determined by the dominant humoral qualities, and health depends upon their balance. Disease arises from excess or defect among them: acute diseases from the hot, and chronic diseases from the cold elemental humors. Therapy attempts to restore their normal balance. The living organism is governed by the soul but animated by the pneuma, which is assigned various names as it assumes various functions within the organism. Isidore rejects the pantheistic notion that the individual soul is either part of or indistinguishable from the world pneuma. His psychology follows late classical views of cerebral localization of function (sensation anteriorly, memory centrally, and thought posteriorly) and of the traditional faculties of the soul: intellect, will, memory, reason, judgment, sensation, and the like. The soul is distinct both from the mind and from the vital spirit; sensation and thought are distinguished, as are illusion and error.

Western Europe in Isidore’s time had little direct contact with the Greek scientific tradition and derived both science and philosophy at second hand. The bulk of early Latin scientific writing was severely practical or anecdotal and descriptive. Most of Isidore’s scientific passages merely define words or phrases. A man of his time, Isidore was more concerned with analogy than with analysis, with the unusual than with the typical. An encyclopedic dictionary is too disconnected to present a scientific world view; but Isidore carefully and quite accurately preserved much of the scientific lore current late in the Roman period, when original work had long since ceased and facility in Greek had perished. If he was no Aristotle, he was a great improvement on Pliny, and—considerations of style apart—his scientific content compares very favorable with that of Lucretius.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Editions of Isidore are Faustinus Arevalo, Isidori Hispalensis opera omnia, 7 vols.(Rome, 1797-1803), in J. P. Migne Patrologia latina, LXXXI-LXXXIV; W. M. Lindsay, Isidori Hispalensis Etymologiarum sive Originum libri, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1911); and Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Seville: Traité de la nature (Bordeaux, 1960).

II. Secondary Literature. See Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages (New York, 1912), which is unreliable; R. B. Brown, Printed Works of Isidore of Seville (Lexington, Ky., 1949), useful but incomplete and confuses Isidore of Seville with other Isidores; Luis Cortés y Góngora, Etimologias: Versión castellana (Madrid, 1951);Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Seville et la culture classique dans l’ Espagne visigothique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1959), the best general study; F. S. Lear, “St. Isidore and Mediaeval Science,” in Rice Institute Pamphlets, 23 (1936), 75-105; and W. D. Sharpe, Isidore of Seville: The Medical Writings (Philadelphia, 1964), which translates Etymologiae 4 and 11 with an intro. and bibliography.

William D. Sharpe

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Isidore of Seville, Saint

Saint Isidore of Seville (Ĭz´ədôr´), c.560–636, Spanish churchman and encyclopedist, bishop of Seville, Doctor of the Church. Born of a noble Hispano-Roman family from Cartagena, he spent his youth under the supervision of his brother St. Leander, powerful bishop of Seville, and may have helped the latter in the extirpation of Arianism among the Visigoths. During his own tenure of the bishopric (from c.600) Isidore wielded considerable ecclesiastical power; he presided at the second Council of Seville (619) and at the fourth national Council of Toledo (633). He is best known, however, for his voluminous writings. His most influential work is the Etymologies or Origins, an encyclopedic treatise that aims to set down all the knowledge of the time. It is a comprehensive work in plan, and it transmitted to scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance a great measure of classical learning. It was, however, a completely derived work, unenlightened by firsthand observation, and sometimes faulty in its scholarship. His Historia de Regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum et Suevorum [history of the reigns of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi] continues to be useful in studying the early history of Spain. He also wrote many treatises on theology, language, natural history, and other subjects. His great learning and defense of education before the rising tide of Gothic barbarism was important to the development of Spanish culture. Feast: Apr. 4.

See studies by E. Brehaut (1912); Sister P. Mullins (1940); G. Donini and G. B. Ford (1970).

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Isidore

Isidore male forename, name of two saints.
St Isidore of Seville (c.560–636), a Spanish archbishop and Doctor of the Church. He is noted for his Etymologies, an encyclopedic work used by many medieval authors. His feast day is 4 April.
St Isidore the farmer (c.1080–1130), the Spanish patron of Madrid, and of farmers; he worked as a labourer on a farm near Madrid, and according to one legend was once seen being assisted in his ploughing by a second team of white oxen driven by angels. His emblem is a sickle, and his feast day is 15 May.

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Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville (c.560–636) Archbishop of Seville from c.600 and a distinguished administrator, teacher, and writer. His works include Etymologies, which was an encyclopedia, and books on history, natural science, linguistic studies, and theology. Pope Clement VIII canonized him in 1598.

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Isidore

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