Isidore: Murcia’s Surfing Saint
Isidore of Seville was born in around 560 CE in Cartagena, to a distinguished Romano-Hispanic noble family who exercised considerable power in Murcia and throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Isidore, his siblings and parents, (Severianus and Theodora), lived in a time when Murcia and much of the Iberian Peninsula formed part of the Visigothic Empire, which included chunks of southwestern France as well as Spain. The Kingdom of the Goths was in its prime between the 5th and 8th Centuries CE and the Goths were originally a Germanic tribe, who had pushed south into France and Iberia at the time of the dissolution of the Roman Empire.
Isidore and his Cartagena siblings achieved great power in the Church at a time when religious and political influence were closely intertwined. Leander was Isidore’s elder brother and as Archbishop of Seville, he was instrumental in converting leading Visigoths to the Catholic religion. Isidore carried on this policy of trying to bring together Gothic and Roman influences so that Spain could be a more united country. Isidore succeeded his elder brother, Leander, as Archbishop of Seville, between 600-601 CE and stayed in this post until his death in 636 CE.
Isidore’s younger brother, Fulgentius and his sister Florentia, were also influential figures in Murcia and Spain as a whole. Fulgentius became the Bishop of Ecija, a city some 85km east of Seville, while Florentia of Cartagena became a senior female religious figure, controlling perhaps as many as 40 convents and over a thousand consecrated women. Isidore and all his siblings were later elevated to the status of being saints, by the Roman Catholic Church, which gives some indication of the power and influence of this 7th century Murcian noble family.
Isidore is the best-remembered member off this ancient Murcian family, not really because of the religious councils and reforms in doctrine he brought about, but more because of his role as a teacher, educator and writer. Isidore was really the greatest teacher of the age in Spain and amongst other things, he introduced the teaching of Aristotle into Spanish seminaries long before the Ancient Greek’s philosophical writings were brought to Spain by the Moors. In particular, Isidore is remembered for his vast series of books called the Etymologiae – sometimes referred to as the Origines – which was a huge work comprising 20 volumes subdivided into 448 chapters. The Etymologiae was an ambitious attempt at writing a book (or series of books) which contained a summary of the knowledge acquired in the world at large about everything. It was really an ancient attempt at compiling what in modern terms would be referred to as an encyclopaedia – a book which contained ‘universal knowledge’ about everything – from theology, furniture, medicine, grammar and law, to languages, geography, agriculture, fashion and food. Isidore began to write his Etymologiae in about 600 CE, encouraged by his great friend Braulio, Bishop of Zaragoza, who said that the books would contain “practically everything that it is necessary to know” in life, which was high praise indeed! The Etymologiae contains quotes from 475 works and 200 different authors. Many of the classical authors and works quoted by Isidore have since been lost and would never have been known about had it not been for the Etymologiae. As a result, Isidore’s Etymologiae achieved considerable fame and was a widely used text in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the work was cited by Dante and quoted by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Isidore’s Etymologiae has even influenced the modern information-filled world of the internet. The 7th century attempt at writing down a ‘universal knowledge’ of everything has an obvious parallel with modern times, when data on everything is available at the touch of a PC button.
An Irish Independent newspaper survey of June 2000 indicated that probably a quarter of all internet users across the world sometimes accessed the web for religious purposes. When a US religious site carried out a world-wide online poll, in the same month, as to who should be the first patron saint of Cyberspace, the Murcian Saint Isidore came in second place, just behind the Archangel Gabriel, bearer of messages from God. Since then, various Catholic Church organisations across the globe have venerated Saint Isidore, from Cartagena, as the Patron Saint of the internet, which is ironic given the fact that the Saint died some 1,400 years before computers became commonplace. Even so, it was perhaps very sensible to invoke the help of a venerated saint in these very modern proceedings:
As a British newspaper pointed out, rather pithily, in June 1999, it was indeed extremely advantageous to have a Murcian-born saint “helping millions of users around the world to pray for a quicker service”.
Aside from the internet, the vastly important Murcian saint who wrote about everything, remains a great figure from Spain’s distant past. He is the Patron Saint of some widely differing causes and people, from epileptics to beekeepers and in 1722 he was made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Innocent XIII.
Isidore’s remains were initially interred in Seville, but now lie at rest in Murcia Cathedral, along with relics from his younger brother Fulgentius, and his sister Florentia.
(Many thanks for the assistance of Fr. Octavio Carpena, of El Saladillo, in writing this article).
Adrian & Dawn L. Bridge