In a recent discussion on Facebook, a friend of a friend mentioned that St. Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of the Internet. Luckily I had already swallowed or there would have been iced tea all over the computer and the cat. Isidore the encyclopediast looking over computers and the Internet? Who knew the Vatican had a sense of humor?
I first encountered Isidore of Seville when I began to read about the impact of Muslim science on Western civilization. His contemporaries accurately described Isidore as saeculorum doctissimus (the most learned man of the ages). Nineteenth century historian Charles de Montalembert called him “the last scholar of the ancient world”–an assessment that stuck.
Isidore was the archbishop of Seville from 594 to 636. Spain was under the rule of the Visigoths, who were not significantly less barbaric than they had been when they sacked Rome two hundred years before. The little classical learning that remained in the west seemed to be disintegrating.
Isidore, the most learned man of his time, set out to preserve every piece of knowledge that he could put his ink-stained hands on. * The result was Etymologies a twenty-volume encyclopedia of knowledge, including volumes on grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine and law. According to his friend Bishop Braulio of Saragossa, it contained “well-nigh everything that ought to be known,” but much of that knowledge was half-digested and/or badly translated.** (Isidore’s mangling of a classical text was the primary source for the popular “flat earth” fallacy, even though most educated people of the time knew better.)
Etymologies was a medieval best seller and a standard book in what passed for libraries in Europe at the time. It remained popular well into the Renaissance. Despite his errors, Isidore succeeded in his goal of preserving knowledge for the future. We know many of the classical works he discussed or quoted only through his work.
In short, Isidore, Bishop of Seville, gave people access to a sprawling compendium of knowledge, some of it inaccurate and much of it incomplete. Sounds like the perfect patron saint for the Internet to me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll light a candle and ask for a little help to stop Firefox crashing.
* Isidore wasn’t the first man to make a heroic effort to save classical knowledge for future generations. A hundred years earlier, a Roman patrician named Boethius, serving in the court of the Gothic king Theodoric, created a similar encyclopedia for similar reasons.
**It’s easy to poke fun. But who among us could do better? As someone who is currently reviewing galley proofs for what is essentially a history of the world, *** I feel a new sympathy for Isidore.
***BLATANT PROMOTION WARNING: Mankind: The Story of All of Us is coming to a bookstore near you sometime in October (I hope).