THE LONELY ENCYCLOPAEDIST
ST ISIDORE OF SEVILLE AND THE SURVIVAL OF THE WEST
Luis Francisco Martinez Montes
Diplomat and writer
What is to be done when a world ends? How do you start building a new world with the debris of the old? Some men in the early Middle Ages went through the experience and tried to find the answer.
Between the fall of Rome in 476 and the Carolingian Revival in the late VIII century, the legacy of Antiquity came very close to vanishing by the weakening and waning of the classical heritage; the constant incursions of the barbarians and the irruption of Islam. In conventional history books, those long three centuries came to be known as the Dark Ages.
Fortunately, the West survived by the skin of its teeth, but not by chance. Its remarkable endurance was due to a few isolated figures devoted to the cultivation of knowledge in the midst of the surrounding misery and chaos. One of those figures, perhaps the most important in the transmission of culture from Late Antiquity to the successive mediaeval renaissances, was St. Isidore of Seville.
All knowledge in a single book: St Isidore as painted by Murillo in 1655, Cathedral of Seville
He is not a household name in our days. Perhaps for some computer geeks the name brings faint echoes of a curiosity news item about an enquiry launched by the Catholic Church to find the patron saint of the Internet. It was no joke, the Church does not take such things lightly, and, after much deliberation, the winner was St Isidore, for many good reasons, as we shall see.
St Isidore was born in about 560 of Hispano-Roman parents in a country dominated by the Visigoths, one of the barbarian tribes formerly associated with Rome, which took advantage of the plummeting fortunes of their masters to pick and chose the remains of the Empire. Like the Merovingians, the Ostrogoths or the Lombards, the wandering Visigoths had to struggle with other migratory peoples and with a few scattered imperial remnants to establish their own hegemony over parts of the former Roman lands. In their case, after several unsuccessful attempts at defeating the Franks and forming a powerful Gothic kingdom bestriding the provinces of Gaul and Hispania, they finally settled and almost unified the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, theirs was the first independent polity that prevailed over most of what is now Spain. After decades of neglect by scholars, the nature and importance of the Visigoth rule over Hispania is becoming more familiar terrain. The Goths were few, no more than 200,000 at the time of their crossing of the Pyrenees, but rapidly imposed their will on a much larger though demoralized Hispano-Roman population. They were warriors on the move who had been exposed to the decadence of Rome and to some extent had been inoculated with the debilitating desire to emulate their former masters. For instance, and uniquely among their brethren, during their rule over the more evolved Hispano-Romans the Visigoths were the only barbarians who founded cities following the Roman and Byzantine models. Victoriacum, within the limes of the Basque tribes, Ologipus and Reccopolis were the only new urban settlements erected in Western Europe in between the fifth and eighth centuries. It was an endearing as well as an enduring habit. Afterwards, wherever they went, the Spaniards always founded cities destined to last. They were planned and ruled according to the best Hispano-Roman urban traditions: with their plazas, churches or cathedrals, markets and town- halls, whether on the Mexican plateaus, in the outskirts of the Amazonian jungle, in the Bay of Manila or on the heights of the Andes. Spain at its apogee, like Rome before it, always had, in Menendez Pidal’s words, an infinita cupiditas aedificandi, an infinite desire to build and to persist.
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