Through the glass darkly
Isidore of Seville, The Medieval Search Engine
Back in 1997, when the Internet was beginning to change our lives in ways we never could have guessed, the media-savvy John Paul II decided this new invention needed a patron saint. For the honour, he chose Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636), a Doctor of the Church, and the last of those formidable scholars who salvaged what they could of the culture of the dying Roman Empire.
For centuries, Roman cities, each with its public buildings, baths, temples, schools, and centrally-heated villas, were linked through a vast network of carefully-maintained roads. Roman aqueducts dotted the landscape, and Roman law, backed by the Roman army, and exercised by Roman governors and Roman bureaucracy, operated throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the coast of Africa.
But, as that poet of another empire, Rudyard Kipling, soberly noted: “Cities and Thrones and Powers/Stand in Time’s eye,/Almost as long as flowers,/Which daily die”, and by the 5th Christian century, Rome was in retreat, her legions withdrawn from Britain, her authority challenged by the people she had dismissed for so long as barbarians.
Rutilius Numantius, City Prefect of Rome in 413 AD, lamented the vanished greatness of a city only recently plundered by one of the many migrating tribes that had been nibbling at the borders of the empire and now, sensing its terminal weakness, were giving the last push to bring it down. Rome, “Queen of the world … whose place is amongst the stars … who can live and forget you? … the sun himself, in his vast course … rises upon your domains, and on your domains, it sets again.” Kipling would have understood.
In 378 AD, at Adrianople, today the Turkish city of Edirne, a Visigoth army had defeated a Roman army and killed the emperor. After bringing destruction to Italy, the Visigoths settled in Spain and Portugal. Almost two centuries of Visigoth rule had seen Roman culture virtually collapse. The breakdown of law and order threatened a dark age of ignorance and violence.
It was into this world that Isidore was born, in the Roman city of Cartagena, around 560 AD. His family were part of the old Roman world, and Isidore was educated at the Cathedral school of Seville. As the political importance of the Roman empire disappeared, the Church emerged as the custodian of much that was best in Roman (which included Greek) culture.
Isidore became Archbishop of Seville c 600, a position he was to hold for more than three decades, until his death in 636 AD. He was a man of great vision who early realised that the spiritual and material well-being of the emerging nation of Spain depended on involving and integrating all its various peoples and cultures. Of crucial importance in all this was education, and what could be salvaged from the fast-vanishing classical world.
And so was born his 20-volume Etymologies, the world’s first encyclopaedia, a vast storehouse in which he gathered and systematised the learning of past ages and his own. It was a compilation, in which he made use of digests of Roman handbooks, miscellanies and compendia, abridgements and summaries that had characterised Roman learning in Late Antiquity. In doing so, many fragments of classical learning are preserved which otherwise would have otherwise been lost.
Original only in motivation – to save the riches of a dying world for the future - "in fact” as scholar Katherine Nell MacFarlane notes,” he contributes little more than the mortar which connects excerpts from other authors, as if he was aware of his deficiencies and had more confidence in the writings of others than his own.” But it was an act of extraordinary intellectual humility, an enormous undertaking carried out on behalf of generations unborn.
It became the most popular and widely copied book of the Middle Ages, and with the invention of printing, it ran through at least 10 editions between 1470 and 1530. From grammar and medicine, law and agriculture, cooking and geography, it covered everything you might want to know about anything.
Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies was the ‘search engine’ of Western Europe up to the Renaissance, and the pope’s choice was an inspired one.
To top it off, there is even a prayer that can be said before logging on - “Almighty and eternal God, who created us in thy image and bade us seek all that is good …grant we beseech thee that, through the intercession of Saint Isidore, during our journeys through the internet we will direct our hands and eyes only to that which is pleasing to Thee …”
Or, more to the point, perhaps? “Guard us from Porn, save us from Spam, and keep us from online games.”