Who was Isidore of Seville?
Saint Isidore of Seville (560 – 636 A.D.) served as Archbishop of Seville for more than three decades and is considered, as the historian Montalembert put it in an oft-quoted phrase, "the last scholar of the ancient world". Indeed, all the later medieval history-writing of Hispania (modern Spain and Portugal) was based on his histories. At a time of disintegration of classical culture, and aristocratic violence and illiteracy, he was involved in the conversion of the royal Visigothic Arians to Catholicism, both assisting his brother Leander of Seville, and continuing after his brother's death.
He was influential in the inner circle of Sisebut, Visigothic king of Hispania. Like Leander, he played a prominent role in the Councils of Toledo and Seville. The Visigothic legislation that resulted from these councils is regarded by modern historians as exercising an important influence on the beginnings of representative government.
Isidore was probably born in Cartagena, Spain to Severianus and Theodora. His father belonged to a Hispano-Roman family of high social rank while his mother was of Visigothic origin and apparently, was distantly related to Visigothic royalty. His parents were members of an influential family who were instrumental in the political-religious maneuvering that converted the Visigothic kings from Arianism to Catholicism. The Catholic Church celebrates him and all his siblings as known saints.
Childhood and education of Isidore
Isidore received his elementary education in the Cathedral school of Seville. In this institution, the first of its kind in Iberia, a body of learned men including Archbishop Saint Leander of Seville taught the trivium and quadrivium, the classic liberal arts. Saint Isidore applied himself to study diligently enough that he quickly mastered at least a pedestrian level of Latin, a smattering of Greek, and some Hebrew.
Two centuries of Gothic control of Iberia incrementally suppressed the ancient institutions, classic learning, and manners of the Roman Empire. The associated culture entered a period of long-term decline. The ruling Visigoths nevertheless showed some respect for the outward trappings of Roman culture. The heresy of Arianism meanwhile took deep root among the Visigoths as the original form of Christianity that they received.
Scholars may debate whether Isidore ever personally embraced monastic life or affiliated with any religious order, but he undoubtedly esteemed the monks highly.
Bishop of Seville
After the death of Saint Leander of Seville on 13 March 600 or 601, Saint Isidore succeeded to the See of Seville. On his elevation to the episcopate, he immediately constituted himself as protector of monks. Saint Isidore recognized that the spiritual and material welfare of the people of his See depended on assimilation of remnant Roman and ruling barbarian cultures; he consequently attempted to weld the peoples and subcultures of the Visigothic kingdom into a united nation. He used all available religious resources toward this end and succeeded completely.
He practically eradicated the heresy of Arianism and completely stifled the new heresy of Acephali at its very outset. Archbishop Isidore strengthened religious discipline throughout his See. Archbishop Isidore also used resources of education to counteract increasingly influential Gothic barbarism throughout his episcopal jurisdiction. His quickening spirit animated the educational movement centered on Seville. Saint Isidore introduced Aristotle to his countrymen long before the Arabs studied Greek philosophy extensively.
In 619, Saint Isidore of Seville pronounced anathema against any ecclesiastic who in any way should molest the monasteries and children. In great part due to the enlightened statecraft of his two brothers, the Councils of Seville and Toledo emanated Visigothic legislation; modern historians regard this legislation as exercising a most important influence on the beginnings of representative government. Saint Isidore presided over the Second Council of Seville, begun on 13 November 619, in the reign of King Sisebut. The bishops of Gaul and Narbonne and the Hispanic prelates all attended. The Acts of the Council fully set forth the nature of Christ, countering Arian conceptions.
Fourth National Council of Toledo
All bishops of Hispania attended the Fourth National Council of Toledo, begun on 5 December 633. The aged Archbishop Saint Isidore presided over its deliberations and originated of most enactments of the council.
Saint Isidore used this opportunity to serve his country greatly. Through his influence, this Council of Toledo promulgated a decree, commanding all bishops to establish seminaries in their cathedral cities along the lines of the cathedral school at Seville, which educated Saint Isidore decades earlier. The decree prescribed the study of Greek, Hebrew, and the liberal arts and encouraged interest in law and medicine. The authority of the Council made this education policy obligatory upon all bishops of the Kingdom of the Visigoths.
The council probably expressed with tolerable accuracy the mind and influence of Isidore. The council granted remarkable position and deference granted to the king of the Visigoths. The free and independent Church bound itself in solemn allegiance to the acknowledged king; it said nothing of allegiance to the Bishop of Rome.
Saint Isidore attempted to compile a summa of universal knowledge. This encyclopedia epitomized all ancient and contemporary learning. It preserves many fragments of classical learning, otherwise hopelessly lost. The fame of this work imparted a new impetus to encyclopedic writing, which bore abundant fruit in the subsequent centuries of the Middle Ages. Saint Isidore of Seville died on 4 April 636 after serving more than three decades as archbishop of Seville.
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