It is hard for us to imagine today the upsetting effect that the Germanic barbarians had on the western European countries into which they moved and in which they settled during the early Middle Ages. Thus, when the Germanic Visigoths invaded Spain, the Roman Christian civilization there was almost disrupted. Catholic leaders like St. Isidore of Seville had a double educational duty. Not only did they have to correct the theology of these people (who followed the Arian heresy in denying the divinity of Christ); they also had to communicate to them a Christian culture.
Isidore belonged to a prominent Roman Christian family. His education was entrusted to his older brother, St. Leander, who was bishop of Seville. Leander was a very hard taskmaster, and at one point, it is said, young Isidore was ready to run away from “school.” But eventually he was reconciled to his educational training and went on to become a walking encyclopedia and a great educator.
St. Isidore apparently spent much of his earlier priesthood assisting St. Leander in church matters. When Leander died around 600, Isidore was chosen to succeed him. He served as bishop of Seville for 37 years. He completed Leander’s apostolate by converting the Visigoths from Arianism to Catholicism. He also continued his brother’s policy of legislating for the church by a series of church councils, operated on a collegial basis, almost like a parliament.
In this legislation Bishop Isidore promoted a thorough program of education, embracing not only religious subjects but almost every known branch of arts, science, medicine, law and philosophy. He seems to have believed that only a comprehensive program of learning could help unify a Spain that even then comprised so many divergent peoples.
It was to provide texts and references for the students of his institutes that Isidore became a voluminous writer. His most valuable work was the history of the Goths. Other subjects of his pen were on world history since creation; astronomy; synonyms (a dictionary); biographies of outstanding men; sketches of leading figures in the bible; rules for monks; theological and ecclesiastical works, etc. His most notable contribution to education was his encyclopedia, “The Etymologies, or Origins.” Much of the information given here is now known to be erroneous according to later knowledge, but it still served as a popular textbook until around 1550. He also brought to completion the editing of the liturgical books of the Mozarabic Rite, for the benefit of the Visigoths. This Latin liturgy, differing in some respects from the Roman liturgy, is still followed in some parts of Spain.
St. Isidore in modern times has been designated a doctor of the Church in the church calendar. He deserves the title not as an innovator, but as a preserver. Through his efforts, when the rest of Europe seemed to be lapsing into barbarianism, Spain remained the home of a Christian culture.
All along, this holy scholar and bishop lived a life of austerity and charity towards the poor. During the last six months of his life, his house was crowded from sun up to sun down with poor people. In his last hours he exhorted his people to charity and then distributed among the poor his remaining possessions.
Thus, because of both his words and his example, St. Isidore of Seville deserves the title “The Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages.” God had given him riches of mind as well as property, and he had spent his life sharing both of these riches with the needy.
–Father Robert F. McNamara