While the Western Roman Empire did not officially come to an end until 476 A.D., when Romulus Augustus was forced to give up his power to the Germanic ruler Odoacer, there had been increased fighting and instability throughout the Empire for many years, including in the Iberian Peninsula, which the Romans referred to as Hispania. The Visigoths took advantage of this political unrest and invaded Hispania in 415 A.D. They eventually established their monarchy in Toledo, Spain.
For many years, however, the kingdom was divided. Up until the reign of King Leovigild, who ruled from 584-585 A.D., the Visigothic nobility of Spain were Arians, while their subjects were Catholic. (Arius, 250-336 A.D. denied the divinity of Christ, and his teachings were declared heretical at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.) This all changed, however, when Leovigild’s son Reccared became king and converted to Catholicism in 587, and the kingdom converted with him. The formal conversion of the kingdom was confirmed at the Council of Toledo in May of 589 A.D. Under this newly unified rule, the Catholic Church in Spain flourished.(1)
St. Isidore, Bishop of Seville, lived during this time. His writings would influence Europe throughout the Middle Ages and even into the Renaissance. St. Isidore was born in Cartagena around 560 A.D., and his family immigrated to Seville when he was young. St. Isidore had three siblings who also became saints: Leander, Fulgentius, and Florentina. St. Leander and St. Isidore both became bishops of Seville, St. Fulgentius, bishop of Carthagena, and St. Florentina, a nun. St. Isidore was educated at the Cathedral school in Seville, 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). When St. Isidore became bishop he declared himself protector of the monastic life, and he was influential in great educational reforms throughout Spain: all bishops were required to establish seminaries in their cities modeled after the Cathedral school in Seville, and the study of Greek, Hebrew, the liberal arts, as well as law and medicine, was encouraged. St. Isidore was also responsible for introducing the study of Aristotle and Greek philosophy to Spain.(2)
Despite his many accomplishments, St. Isidore of Seville is perhaps best known for his prolific writing, which covered a wide variety of subjects, such as: the Church, law, theology, scripture, and literature. His Etymologies, which was an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the Western world at that time, covered such topics as: geography, animals, building, road making, agriculture, ships, houses, languages, and even furniture, was a highly esteemed work of reference and it continued to be printed during the Renaissance. Without St. Isidore’s History of the Goths, Sueves, and Vandals, we would know little, if anything, about Gothic history.(3) St. Isidore died in Seville on April 4, 636 at the age of 76, and was declared a Doctor of the Church within sixteen years of his death.
There is a story that tells how as a boy St. Isidore was a poor student and one day ran away from school. When he sat down to rest on the side of the road near a spring, he noticed a rock that had been hollowed out by drips of water. After seeing this he decided to return to school and apply this same perseverance to his studies, and with the help of God he became one of the most learned men of his time.
(1) Roger Collins, Spain: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 53-54.
(2) J.B. O’Connor, “St. Isidore of Seville,” Accessed April 4, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08186a.htm.
(3) Collins, Spain: A History, 53-54.