St. Isidore of Sevilla was born in Cartagena, Spain in the late 500s when the kingdom of Spain was sharply divided. Two hundred years of control of the Iberian Peninsula by the Visigoths saw a decline in the learning, values, and culture of the Romans, who had previously ruled Spain for 600 years. The Visigoths had also brought with them Arianism, the heresy that said Jesus was not God. Most of the people of Spain still followed true Christianity, which St. James brought to Spain in the first century, and which had been established throughout the Roman Empire by Constantine in the 300s, but the Visigoth nobility followed Arianism. During St. Isidore’s childhood, Spain was deeply split between the Arian Visigoths and the Hispano-Roman Christians, and the culture was in a period of decline. Through wide-spread educational reform, a tireless devotion to study and writing, and through his own example of holiness and humility, St. Isidore not only unified Spain, but he almost single-handedly preserved the universal knowledge of his time for Christian Europe throughout the Middle Ages.
Early Life and Educational Reforms
St. Isidore was born in Cartagena around 560 A.D. and his family emigrated to Sevilla when he was young. St. Isidore had three siblings who also became saints: Leander, Fulgentius, and Florentina. St. Isidore was educated at the Cathedral School in Sevilla, which was the first school of its kind in Spain, where he was taught the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. No doubt inspired by his own classical education, when he became bishop of Sevilla St. Isidore brought about sweeping educational reforms, and these inspired changes throughout the kingdom. Soon all the bishops in Spain were required to establish seminaries in their cities modeled after the Cathedral School in Sevilla, and the courses in these seminaries included Greek, Hebrew, the liberal arts, as well as law and medicine. St. Isidore was also responsible for introducing the study of Aristotle and Greek philosophy to Spain. One can only imagine the impact Isidore’s reforms had on the subsequent generations of priests in Spain.
St. Isidore of Seville is perhaps best known for his prolific writing, which covered a wide variety of subjects, including: the Church, law, theology, scripture, and literature. His Etymologies, which was an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the western world at that time, covered geography, animals, building, road-making, agriculture, ships, houses, languages, and even furniture. It was a highly-esteemed work of reference and it was in print up until the Renaissance, for approximately 900 years. In fact, the Etymologies contains many fragments of classical writing that would have been completely lost if St. Isidore had not preserved them. Spanning 448 chapters and 20 volumes, the knowledge included in the Etymologies was considered everything a scholar could hope to learn in a lifetime–not surprisingly, it took St. Isidore 25 years to complete. This massive work preserved nearly all of the knowledge of Western Civilization up until that point in history for future generations, and it was considered the only necessary textbook during Medieval times. For this reason, even though St. Isidore lived in the 600s, he has been called “The Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages.”
After studying the life of this extraordinary saint, the most edifying thing one finds is the beautiful contrast between his great learning and his profound humility. St. Isidore’s humility is illustrated powerfully in the account given of his final days. Sensing that his death was drawing near, he asked two bishops to come with him to the church. There, he asked one of the bishops to cover him in sackcloth and the other to cover his head with ashes. He then stretched his hands towards heaven and begged out loud for God to pardon him of his sins. He asked everyone in the church to pray for him, he forgave all debts that were owed to him, and he asked that anything he still owned be given to the poor. He died peacefully four days later on April 4, 636, at the age of 76. He was declared a Doctor of the Church within sixteen years of his death.
As I was reading and reflecting about St. Isidore, I was moved by how much he valued the inheritance of faith he received, and I was reminded of how often I take that gift for granted. As Catholics we have a heritage that is more precious than all the riches in the world combined–a heritage of faith in Christ. But as Catholics who have been born into Western Civilization, like St. Isidore of Sevilla, we also have a legacy of human knowledge and achievement—of philosophy, democracy, history, art, music, literature, and languages, and yet it is one that could be easily lost if we, who have inherited it, do not study it and share it with others—unless we preserve the treasure we have been given. St. Isidore has not only given us the example of a man who truly valued that treasure of faith, but he also offers us the example of how to safeguard it: by reforming education so that future generations will have good formation, by study and writing in order to share our faith with others, and most importantly by living a life of profound humility, so that everything we do will give glory to God.