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The Patron Saint of the Internet

Gregory DiPippo

The Catholic Church has a patron Saint for almost everything, and in many cases, several for the same thing. One useful website (https://catholicsaints.info/) classifies them by the specific field of human endeavor they watch over, from accountants to yachtsman, in over 700 different categories. However, despite the omnipresence of the internet in modern life, the Church has yet to assign it its own official patron Saint.

In the meantime, Catholics who make frequent use of the internet have granted the title informally to a Spaniard called Isidore, who was born ca. 560 A.D., and died on this day in 636, after serving for about 35 years as archbishop of Seville, a position in which he had succeeded his own brother, whose name was Leander. Another brother, Fulgentius, was bishop of Écija (then called ‘Astigi’ in Latin), about 50 miles to the east-northeast of Seville, and their sister Florentia was a nun; all four siblings are venerated as Saints.

This choice was made very sensibly in light of a work of Isidore which was hugely influential in the Middle Ages, the Etymologies. Its twenty books form a kind of general encyclopedia, ranging from the classic late antique trivium and quadrivium (grammar and rhetoric, mathematics etc.) through medicine, law, and various aspects of the Church, to men, animals, and all the different parts of the material world. The book is called “Etymologies” since most of the entries give the putative origin and meaning of the names of things, in the fanciful manner typical of the ancient world. For example, in the very first paragraph, he derives the word “disciplina” from “discitur plena – it is fully learned.”

The ancient Roman world of which St Isidore was a product (a very late one, to be sure, but a product nonetheless) generally valued originality far less than we do, and a good portion of the Etymologies is borrowed from other writers, including three whole books mostly taken from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. To some degree, this is what has given the work an historical importance that lasts to our own time, since it preserves a great deal of material from writers whose works are otherwise lost to us. For example, an encyclopedia called the Prata (meadows) by Suetonius is known to us only from the citations of it preserved by Isidore. In other words, much like a large portion of the internet, it is essentially a digest, and useful in the same way, but not as a long-term substitute for in-depth investigation of any given topic. The circumstances of Isidore’s time, the early centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, were such that it could hardly be otherwise, whereas we, of course, have far more and better tools for research at our disposal than he could have dreamed of.

The influence of the Etymologies may be gauged from the fact that nearly 1000 manuscript copies of it survive, and that it was one of the first books to be printed after the invention of movable type. However, like many of the specific etymologies, much of the scientific knowledge which it seeks to impart is speculative at best, and often merely imaginary, a problem which permeates all the science of the ancient world. As the empirical and observation-based science born in the medieval universities of Europe flourished in the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, St Isidore’s work was inevitably eclipsed. Nonetheless, for the sake of his theological writings, and his essential contribution to the transmission of knowledge within the limits of his era, he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722.

(Ss Braulio of Saragossa, to whom the Etymologies were originally sent and dedicated, and Isidore, depicted in a manuscript of the work from the second half of the 10th century; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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