The Patron Saint of Wikipedia
By the standards of 7th century Hispania, Isidore of Seville (c.560-636) may well have been the most learned man of his day. True, he barely would have qualified as a washroom attendant in Constantinople; but in western Europe any literacy was the definition of genius. If presumption alone was the measure of education, Isidore was indeed brilliant. He thought that he knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, medicine, law, rhetoric, astronomy, zoology and music. His actual knowledge ranged from superficial (Latin and history) to unintended parody (everything else). But no one dared to dispute his claims.
You see, Isidore was more than just a pompous blowhard. He was the leader of the Catholic Church in Hispania and, for all practical purposes, was running the country. The Visigothic kings, descended from the barbarian chieftains who had seized Roman Iberia in the fifth century, were the nominal rulers; but they were content with having the crown and the army. The more mundane details of government–the entire realm of domestic policies–were ceded to the presumably literate and avowedly selfless Church. Who better to settle pasture disputes than the people who could actually read law? The Church appreciated the implicit power in such drudgery; it would be governing Hispania and the prelates considered that their birthright.
The hierarchy of the Church was the Spanish chapter of the Roman Senate. Men like Isidore were patricians whose families had settled in Hispania when Jesus was taking woodshop classes at Nazareth High. Hispania was a great place for a Roman aristocrat. Its climate and lifestyle were comparable to Italia’s, but a safe distance from Caligula, Domitian and those other zany emperors. However, Hispania could not be forever spared the turmoil in the Empire. At the end of the fourth century, in its last effective exertion of imperial power, Rome ordered the patricians to become Christian. To enforce this policy, the empire began transferring municipal government from patrician bureaucrats to bishops. In Hispania, the patricians made a complete conversion: they became Christians and then began appointing themselves as bishops. At the time, the Church had no specific requirements for a bishop; it was an administrative rather than a theological position, and the bishops often were elected by their community. So if the largest landowner in Seville nominates himself as the new bishop, do you think that his tenants and slaves–his congregation–dare object? Even if these early prelates were aristocratic opportunists, most of their grandsons (celibacy was not yet required) proved devout bishops. Isidore certainly was one, judging how much he hated heretics and Jews.
Furthermore the Church proved a effective protection against the invading Visigoths. The German tribe respected the Church’s property and dealt with the prelates as the leaders of the Catholic people of Hispania. The Church and the Visigoths reached a cordial and long-lasting accommodation. Of course, the Church lost nothing. The patrician classes ceded one third of their lands to the Germanic overlords, but would not be left starving or particularly humbled. The Visigoths had the army, so they had the ultimate power; but how often would they wield that? No, the kings increasingly relied on the Church’s prelates, meeting in synods, to determine the domestic policies of Hispania.
Someone had to repair the aqueducts, maintain the roads and revive the decaying cities. But even Archbishop Isidore never claimed to know engineering and he didn’t think of borrowing a book from Constantinople. His only solution to halt the further disintegration of civilized life was education. He ordered that each archbishopric have a school and he would provide the curriculum. Isidore himself compiled an encyclopedia of all the available knowledge. It was called “Eytmologiae.” Unfortunately, Isidore was more earnest than erudite. He presumed much more than he actually knew, and the available sources in 7th century Hispania were not exactly comprehensive and extant. Imagine if our total knowledge were based on an incomplete collection of Reader’s Digests, with half of their pages torn out; and William Bennett was the editor.
“Eytmologiae” would become one of the great reference works of the Middle Ages, and might explain why the Renaissance took another seven centuries. Within a century after Isidore, Hispania did have a revival of civilization but the Moors brought it.