Imagine a world in which one person could know everything worth knowing. And imagine a world in which everything worth knowing filled a mere few hundred pages. Archbishop Isidore of Seville was such a person, and seventh-century Europe such a world.
Lest Isidore be accused of vanity unbecoming an archbishop, he himself never claimed to be the Man Who Knew Everything. Rather, it was his friend Bishop Braulio of Saragossa who gushed that Isidore's seventh-century encyclopedia comprised "well-nigh everything that ought to be known." Unfortunately, few of Isidore's contemporaries perused that encyclopedia. There were few Europeans to begin with, only a minute fraction of them literate, and books were rare treasures.
Today's Spain enjoys a population of some 40 million. Isidore's Spain was a far lonelier place, with perhaps only a tenth as many people; imagine Utah's sparse population scattered across an expanse twice as large. The written word was an impenetrable mystery to the overwhelming majority of these 4 or 5 million Spaniards. Organized education was nonexistent, save for a few monastic or cathedral schools that labored to equip clerics with the rudimentary skills required for church rituals.
Though Spain's (and Europe's) literate population was tiny, the medieval "publishing industry" struggled to service its few readers. A modern printing press effortlessly churns out many thousands of volumes each day; a medieval scribe would be lucky to turn out two in a year. That was after he and his monastic brethren invested sweaty hours of soaking animal hide, scraping away fat, and stretching, curing, and drying the skin to produce serviceable vellum parchment. No wonder the few texts emerging from this labor-intensive process became precious items. Whereas bibliophiles today might scoop up a handful of used books for the cost of a hamburger, a ninth-century manuscript would have cost the equivalent of "fifteen pigs or four mature sheep."
Spain's illiterate majority was deprived of Isidore's intellectual cornucopia, but they also were spared the depressing realization that they lived in a Dark Age. Perspective was hard to come by in an era when most Europeans knew little of the world beyond the next village and little of the past save what their parents recalled. No Spaniard knew that he lived in a country of some 4 or 5 million people, much less that Spain had sheltered many more before devastating plagues ravaged much of Europe's population. The plummeting population had plunged Spain's (and Europe's) economy into a depression that was exacerbated when barbarian hordes breached the Roman Empire's borders, disrupted trade, and strained the empire's resources to the breaking point.
What was unknown to Spaniards made little practical difference to their daily lives. Peasants scratched out meager livelihoods; surviving the next winter was their major preoccupation. Their horizons were bound by their village and its environs, just as it had been for parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Surviving to a first birthday was no mean feat, and celebrating a fortieth a better than average achievement. The outside world seldom visited them, and they seldom visited the outside world. For all they knew, the world was proceeding as the world always had.
Through the curse of literacy, Bishop Braulio knew better. The few books in his library made reference to classical scholars who had blazed a more enlightened path forward for humanity's earlier generations. But while Braulio knew names like Aristotle, Galen, and Ptolemy, he also knew that most of their works had long since vanished from circulation, presumably lost forever. Nor had Braulio's century spawned intellectual lights to replace those of ancient Greece and Rome. Most civilizations harbor at least the illusion of progress, that humanity is somehow struggling forward under their generation's collective watch. Braulio was permitted no such illusion, and Isidore became for him a beacon from humanity's happier past: "God raised [Isidore] up in recent times after the many reverses of Spain (I suppose to revive the works of the ancients that we might not always grow duller from boorish rusticity)...we apply to him the famous words of [Cicero] 'While we were strangers in our own city, and were, so to speak, sojourners who had lost our way, your books brought us home, as it were, so that we could at last recognize who and where we were.'"
Ironically, this Isidore who outlined "everything that ought to be known" revealed relatively little about himself. He was born in 560. His parents died young. He had two brothers who both became priests and rose to the rank of bishop. It's difficult to imagine any one family duplicating this episcopal achievement today, but such feats were less astounding in the cozier confines of medieval Spain, where relatively few well-connected, well-endowed, and literate families surfaced regularly in influential church or state positions.
It is generally assumed that Isidore was raised in monastery precincts overseen by his much older brother, Bishop Leander. One might imagine a lonely childhood spent mostly in the company of monks and the precious texts they copied and preserved. The scholarly environment clearly absorbed Isidore, who eventually authored over a dozen major treatises on everything from arithmetic to Holy Scripture to monastic rules. In between sentences he somehow found time to cope with the countless administrative headaches that inevitably plague a bishop.
The encyclopedic work known as the Etymologies was one pinnacle of his scholarly career. Braulio's compliment that it includes "everything that ought to be known" seems at first glance no exaggeration. Isidore's chapter headings map out a comprehensive catalogue of human knowledge: "size of the sun, size of the moon, acute diseases, legal instruments, the seasons, Old and New Testaments, God, monsters, human monstrosities, serpents, worms, small flying creatures, shields, helmets, the circus, gambling, peculiar costumes of certain peoples, head ornaments for women, girdles, footwear, cooking utensils," and so on. Isidore telescoped this encyclopedic gallop through human learning into a relatively slender volume. Centuries before, Greek and Roman attempts at encyclopedias had yielded far bulkier tomes. Pliny the Elder's first-century encyclopedia sprawled to some 2,500 chapters. But Isidore lived in an age when, sad to say, the pool of human knowledge was slowly evaporating. Simply put, humanity knew less than it had six centuries earlier, in Pliny's day.
Scientific method was many centuries in the future, and Isidore did little more than absorb the sources at his fingertips and regurgitate what struck him as plausible. Early in the work, Isidore shares the relatively humdrum observation, "An even number is that which can be divided into two equal parts, as II, IV, VIII." Within a few pages, however, he has departed math's timeless certainties for a fantastic tour of human monstrosities:
The Cynocephali are so called because they have dogs' heads and their very barking betrays them as beasts rather than men. These are born in India...The Blemmyes, born in Libya, are believed to be headless trunks, having mouth and eyes in the breast; others are born without necks, with eyes in their shoulders...They say the Panotii in Scythia have ears of so large a size that they cover the whole body with them...The race of the Sciopodes...have one leg apiece, and are of a marvelous swiftness...in summertime they lie on the ground on their backs and are shaded by the greatness of their feet...The Antipodes in Libya have feet turned backward and eight toes on each foot.
Seville's conscientious shepherd, apparently fretting that this freakish catalogue will render his readers susceptible to believing all sorts of nonsense, closes the chapter by warning against gullibility: "Other fabulous monstrosities of the human race are said to exist, but they do not; they are imaginary."
Isidore and his contemporaries may not have known as much as the Romans and Greeks before them, but what they thought they knew was marvelous. Long before the scientific revolution's rational dissection of natural phenomena turned textbooks into soporific tomes, here was a world of wonders great and small. Isidore's encyclopedia sang of a blazing sun racing across the skies each day, and "after it comes to the west and has bathed itself in ocean, it passes by unknown ways beneath the earth, and again returns to the east." No less entrancing is the lowly bee, "skillful in the business of producing honey...they flee from smoke, and are enraged by noise...A good many have proved by experiment that these spring from the carcasses of cattle."
Still, before dismissing what passed for seventh-century knowledge, one pauses to wonder how well current wisdom will stand up over an equivalent interim. Today's cutting-edge science and technology may by 3400 C.E. seem no less buffoonish than some of Isidore's assertions appear. How will that glorious artifact of twentieth-century technology, the gas-powered automobile, strike Earth's citizens fourteen centuries hence as they tool around in whatever contraptions they've engineered to navigate a planet long since sucked dry of fossil fuels? Indeed, who even one century from now will consult an encyclopedia assembled in 2004? Who today can even find an encyclopedia composed in 1904?
Unlike 1904 encyclopedias, Isidore's Etymologies was consulted a century after its composition, and two centuries later, and eight more centuries later still. No less than ten editions of the Etymologies were published after the 1400s, a striking compliment to this beacon of light shining forth from the Dark Ages. Across a full two-century sweep of the intellectually barren early Middle Ages, Isidore stood alone as western Europe's only major compiler of secular knowledge. When contemporaries eulogized him as saeculorum doctissimus ("the most learned of the ages"), it was not sentimental puffery; there were few other candidates.
Isidore would have been greatly surprised to find scholars consulting his works in the 1500s, as he almost certainly doubted the world would last so long. In the late 500s, Pope Gregory the Great had taken stock of humankind's bleak prospects and solemnly moaned, "The world grows old and hoary and hastens to approaching death." There's every indication Isidore shared His Holiness's outlook. Like many Christian apologists before him, Isidore envisioned history unfolding according to a divinely ordained design. Starting with creation's seven days and continuing with venerably vital Adam, who sired a son at age 230, Isidore charted history's path with striking precision. As he wrote in the 630s, Isidore calculated the world's exact age to be 5,825 years. He dots humanity's time line with a curiously chosen panoply of the famous and infamous: Homer was at work during the world's 4,125th year, Plato in its 4,793rd; Cleopatra (5,150) and Nero (5,266) also merit mention. (In fact, only eight centuries separate Homer [c. eighth century B.C.E.] from Nero [d. 68 C.E.], not the thousand-plus years Isidore supposed. Thus, Isidore overestimated the glorious era of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while shrinking the thousands of years of pre-Homeric civilization into a scant four millennia.)
Vastly more important than this mere tally of years was history's underlying pattern. Though Isidore frequently parroted the few classical works at his disposal, his vision of history notably departs from those pagan sources. Aristotle had noted the planets' ever repeating orbits and ventured in oddly matter-of-fact language the extraordinarily depressing conjecture that "probably each art and science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished." Round and round. Going nowhere.
Isidore demurred, instead hearkening to the fifth-century Christian bishop Augustine, who saw history unfurling purposefully through time toward the goal of creating a City of God on Earth. God had initiated human history by breathing life into Adam's nostrils in Eden; Adam had fallen, but humankind was inexorably making its way back to the Creator. Mighty Rome and all other earthly kingdoms would yield in time to a greater empire dominated by the Christian virtues, "whose king is truth, whose law is love, whose measure is eternity." As Augustine saw it, this Divine City of those following God's will was steadily gaining ground and would win increasing sway over humankind in preparation for that moment when Jesus would return in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Like his mentor Augustine, Isidore imagined the drama of human history unfolding in seven great epochs paralleling the biblical days during which God had created all earthly things. As Isidore wrote, the world was deep into what he considered its sixth and (ominously) final age before the figurative seventh or Sabbath day, when the redeemed would rest in God. This sixth age had begun with Jesus's nativity in 5211 and had already stretched far longer than humanity's fourth or fifth eras. Indeed, only the age of long-lived Adam and the other biblical greats had endured longer than a millennium. Still, if Isidore was preparing his readers for the approaching climax of this old and hoary world, even the Man Who Knew Everything didn't dare pinpoint the precise date of the Lord's long-anticipated second coming, for, he tells us, "The remainder of the sixth age is known to God alone."
Although Isidore did not know when the world might end, he was pretty sure that his beloved Spain would be center stage, ruled over since the late fifth century by a dynasty of one-time barbarians known as the Visigoths. To his credit, Isidore admirably restrains himself from excessively fawning over his native country in his Etymologies -- encyclopedias are objective, after all -- but he more than compensates in another work, the History of the Kings of the Goths. Its very first sentence rushes right to the chauvinistic point: "Of all the lands from the west to the Indies, you, Spain, O sacred and always fortunate mother of princes and peoples, are the most beautiful...You are the pride and the ornament of the world, the most illustrious part of the earth...you are rich with olives...your mountains full of trees, and your shores full of fish."
Much of Isidore's History of the Goths seems an exercise in what modern generations would call spin doctoring. The Visigoths had become protectors and supporters of Spain's Christian Church by Isidore's day, and Isidore thought it in the Church's interest to support the Visigoths by burnishing their reputation. This was no easy task, even for the Man Who Knew Everything. For the Visigoths were not really Spaniards, nor, when first reaching Spain during the early fifth century, had they professed the Church's version of Christianity, nor, finally, had Spain prospered on their royal watch. Bishop Braulio had wistfully lamented Spain's "many reverses" over preceding centuries. It fell to Isidore to convince readers that the same Visigoth rulers who had presided over those "many reverses" were worthy of "the most illustrious part" of a world now deep into its decisive sixth age.
That the Visigoths were themselves immigrants hardly made them oddities in Spain's ethnic paella pot. African Iberians and northern European Celts had been filtering into Spain for centuries before Christ's birth. Jews from the Near East may have established small trading communities as early as the first century C.E. The Peninsula remained a polyglot amalgamation of ethnic fiefdoms until the Romans' bruising two-century struggle to incorporate Spain into their growing empire. They labeled the new region Hispania, and their soldiers, bureaucrats, and commercial immigrants further spiced Iberia's ethnic and cultural stew. Over time, most Peninsular tribes assimilated Rome's language and ways. But while the Romans may have believed that Hispania was one cohesive administrative unit, proudly independent peoples at Iberia's fringes saw things differently. Galicians still considered themselves Galicians, Cantabrians were still Cantabrians, and, most notoriously, Hispania's Basques spoke their own ancient language and ignored the dictates of whoever claimed to be governing the Iberian peninsula.
A new immigrant wave was unleashed when Rome's increasingly porous borders allowed northern and eastern Europeans to seep, then flood into the empire from the third century onward, some of whom eventually found their way to Spain. The newest immigrants were not sophisticated Romans but unruly barbarian tribes of Vandals from the Baltics, Germanic Sueves, and Alans from the Russian steppes.
The Visigoths were latecomers to this multiethnic society. Like Vandals and Sueves, they arrived as barbarian invaders, hailing from the southern Baltic region and slowly wending their destructive path toward Spain. In 376, Emperor Valens granted some 100,000 Visigoths permission to settle within the empire's borders in Thrace (i.e., the southeast Balkan region near today's Greek-Turkish border). After straining Thrace's overextended foodstocks, the Visigoth horde stooped to bartering their retinue into slavery in exchange for dog meat, in desperation driving the exchange rate as low as one human Visigoth for one Roman dog. Ever more talented warriors than farmers, the Visigoths lashed out, engaging Rome's legions in 378 and slaying the same Emperor Valens who only two years earlier had permitted their resettlement. Valens had lived to regret allowing the Visigoths into his empire, but he hadn't lived to regret it long.
The Visigoths slowly worked their way west, in 410 crowning their destructive road show by sacking Rome itself. This time it was Emperor Honorius who had cause to regret: Rome could have bought off the Visigoth sacking for "30,000 pounds of silver and 5,000 of gold, 4,000 silk robes, 300 purple-dyed furs, and 3,000 pounds of pepper." It would have been a bargain. Refusing to indulge the gaudy, spice-loving, extortionate Visigoths cost Rome dearly.
The inexorable Visigoth drift westward toward Spain was driven alternately by hunger, innate wanderlust, and, by no means least, sheer ambition. All three motives were likely at work when the Roman emperor Honorius, still presiding over his now ransacked capital, managed to bundle the Visigoths off to quell an uprising in Gaul (France) as his allies or foederati. After vanquishing the rebel forces, the Visigoth king settled in to rule sizable chunks of France and Spain himself. Though the Visigoths were nominally subject to the emperor, one chronicler was closer to the truth in supposing that the Visigoth king Athaulf "wanted to obliterate the Roman name and to make the entire Empire that of the Goths alone and to name it...Gothia." Though Gothic Empire may have an intriguing ring to modern ears, the Visigoths were never powerful enough to pull off so grand an imperial ambition. Frankish tribes eventually routed them from France and, to Iberia's dubious fortune, Visigoth ambitions were forever after limited to Spain, a land they dominated right up to the day of the Muslim invasion.
Isidore set out to rehabilitate the suspect pedigree of this Visigoth dynasty in the History of the Goths. They were a long-wandering, barely housebroken barbarian tribe of perhaps 200,000 lording it over an Iberian Peninsula of some 5 million. Their résumé, long on marauding and pillage, was short on any skill relevant to reviving an Iberian economy that had been deteriorating during the empire's centuries-long death throes. The Visigoths had seized a few shards of an empire they themselves helped shatter, and they had no clue how to reassemble the pieces.
The Visigoths' Christian credentials were also spotty. Their wanderings had exposed them to teachings peddled by Arius of North Africa, who taught that Jesus was not quite divine, but not quite human either -- neither one of us, nor coequal with God the Father. Arius's formula has intuitive appeal: the Christian Jesus, truly God yet truly human, is a mystery that even today astounds and baffles believers. Still, though it may be easier to grasp the notion of Jesus as an in-between figure, it was (and is) a notion heretical to orthodox Christians.
Though the Arian heresy may seem an arcane squabble, Arius's legacy endures in Christian worship (even though his name is rarely recognized). His heresy prodded worried church fathers into global convocation at Nicea in 325. They hammered out the Nicene Creed, which (as refined slightly later that century) is recited faithfully at countless Sunday worship services by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Eastern Orthodox, and other Christian denominations.
Though Arianism was condemned early in 325, it incubated in the Visigoth nation for centuries, and Visigoth carriers infected those they encountered in their European wanderings. Christianity itself was an emerging religion, rather suddenly thrust upon Europe's pagan populace when Rome adopted it as its state religion in the late fourth century. Those in the empire's more remote outposts were often illiterate, save for an overwhelmed cleric barely able to form the words of church rituals, much less plumb their theological depths. Once virus-like heresies took hold, it wasn't easy to flush them out. Spain's episcopal elite, however, were distressed that their monarchs spouted such heresy. And Church hierarchical discontent was something a Spanish ruler ignored at his peril. Few besides clerics were literate, and they therefore assumed inordinate importance not only as shepherds of the Christian flock but as advisors to princes and governors.
Visigoth monarchs needed all the support they could muster to assert authority over restive factional chieftans, ever rebellious Basques, and remnants of barbarian tribes. The Visigoth kings' Arian beliefs
cost them the full-throated support of Spain's influential churchmen for nearly a century. In 589, all was set right at the Third Council of Toledo, presided over, coincidentally, by Isidore's brother, Archbishop Leander. The Visigoth king Recared, motivated by genuine faith, political savvy, or more likely some combination of both, led Visigoth Arian bishops in confessing Jesus Christ true God and true man. His profession ushered in intensely cozy church-state relations. Isidore reports that divine blessings immediately rained down: "With the help of his newly received faith, Recared gloriously waged war against hostile peoples," winning so convincingly that "No victory of the Goths in Spain was greater than or even comparable." Isidore was calling history as he saw it, or at least as a Christian apologist might see it.
But orthodox Christian belief and military might were not enough to stitch together a fraying Iberia. Few merchants dared travel the splendid roads inherited from the Romans, long ago scared off by, ironically, these very same Visigoths and their barbarian ilk. The Peninsula had sunk into a subsistence economy. In fairness, one cannot blame the Visigoths for all Spain's ills. The whole Roman Empire had stalled under the cumulative weight of plague, barbarian invasion, inflation, overtaxation, overextended military commitments, and inept leadership.
Braulio was right in anguishing over Spain's "many reverses" and steep slide toward "boorish rusticity." For all his rhetorical resourcefulness, not even Isidore could conjure up a rosier Spain than the one that limped along one century before Islam's arrival. The Visigoths had kept Spain from reverting to its pre-Roman patchwork of smaller fiefdoms. They held Spain together but could not endow her with prosperity.
Isidore's History of the Kings of the Goths tapers off in 625 C.E. He died a decade later without finishing his encyclopedia. Despite Braulio's assurances to the contrary, the encyclopedia had deprived readers of at least one fact that "ought to have been known" as Spain drew near its all-changing eighth century: neither Isidore nor his contemporaries understood that a religious movement swelling up from the Arabian Peninsula would soon unleash a wave across the Near East. It would swamp the Holy Land, the Egypt once ruled by pharaohs, and the Near Eastern provinces of mighty Byzantine and Persian empires. This wave would soon enough crash down upon Isidore's own Spain as well, washing away his neatly constructed world where Christian Visigoth kings would make Spain a new Rome and reign gloriously until the end of the world's sixth age.
Visigoth rule would be swept aside, and so would much else that passed for fact in Isidore's Etymologies. Isidore sang of a sun that coursed through the skies and bathed itself in the ocean; but the new civilization would bring Spain long-lost astronomical treatises that would reawaken Europeans' desire to scan the heavens with less poetic, more rational eyes. Isidore taught his contemporaries shortcuts for doing arithmetic on their fingers; this new civilization would introduce Europeans to the wonders of algebra and trigonometry. Isidore's encyclopedia made room for outlandish chimeras, but found no room for the prophet Muhammad and the very real revolution he ignited. Had Isidore lived a few generations later, Muhammad's followers could have told him that impossible creatures like one-legged Sciopides and dog-headed Cynocephali were products of fevered, overly fertile imagination. Muhammad's followers would know: before reaching Spain they had visited the lands supposedly inhabited by these fantastic creatures, not as tourists but as conquerors.
Isidore was right about this much: a great empire would replace the Romans in Spain, but it would be a Muslim empire rather than the Visigoth dynasty whose praises he sung. Isidore had gushingly reassured his Spanish compatriots, "After many victories all over the world, [they] have eagerly seized you and loved you: they enjoy you up to the present time amidst royal emblems and great wealth, secure in the good fortune of empire." In one sense, he was right about that as well: armies did seize and love Spain amid great wealth, but it was Islam's warriors rather than the Visigoths who accomplished such glories. Muhammad's followers were to wrest Spain from the Visigoths by force, imposing their rule on a nation too fragile to resist. And though Islam's invaders, like Visigoths and Romans, numbered a tiny fraction of the population they conquered, they would dominate Iberia for centuries.
Like the Arian Visigoths, Muhammad's followers professed beliefs anathema to those of the Christians they conquered. The Arian Visigoths believed Jesus's patrimony divine and his mother a uniquely exalted woman; so, according to their own nuanced formulation, did Muhammad's Muslims. But Muhammad's followers never embraced the faith of their vanquished hosts, as the Visigoths had. Perhaps for this reason, Isidore's Christian successors never lionized the Moorish conquerors as stewards worthy of Spain. Yet, unsung or not, they accomplished what Visigoths never could: they lifted Spain from her Dark Ages gloom and depression, making her worthy of Isidore's boast: "the pride and the ornament of the world, the most illustrious part of the earth."
Isidore closed his History of the Goths by singing the martial praises of the Visigoths: "In the arts of war they are quite spectacular." What army could ever conquer such a people?
Spain would find out soon enough.
Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Lowney
Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment
A Vanished World
Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment
In 711, a ragtag army of Muslim North Africans conquered Christian Spain and launched Western Europe's first Islamic state. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella vanquished Spain's last Muslim kingdom, forced Jews to convert or emigrate, and dispatched Christopher Columbus to the New World. In the years between, Spain's Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged a golden age for each faith and distanced Spain from a Europe mired in the Dark Ages.
Medieval Spain's pioneering innovations touched every dimension of Western life: Spaniards introduced Europeans to paper manufacture and to the Hindu-Arabic numerals that supplanted the Roman numeral system. Spain's farmers adopted irrigation technology from the Near East to nurture Europe's first crops of citrus and cotton. Spain's religious scholars authored works that still profoundly influence their respective faiths, from the masterpiece of the Jewish kabbalah to the meditations of Sufism's "greatest master" to the eloquent arguments of Maimonides that humans can successfully marry religious faith and reasoned philosophical inquiry. No less astonishing than medieval Spain's wide-ranging accomplishments was the simple fact its Muslims, Christians, and Jews often managed to live and work side by side, bestowing tolerance and freedom of worship on the religious minorities in their midst.
A Vanished World chronicles this impossibly panoramic sweep of human history and achievement, encompassing both the agony of jihad, Crusades, and Inquisition, and the glory of a multicultural civilization that forever changed the West. One gnarled root of today's religious animosities stretches back to medieval Spain, but so does a more nourishing root of much modern religious wisdom.