St. Isidore of Seville, bishop and doctor of the Church, was named the patron saint of the internet by Pope John Paul II in 1997. Wikimedia Commons

Gerry Turcotte: The Wiki and wacky world of St. Isidore

  • March 13, 2020

As I was driving to work this week, I saw a sign outside a neighbourhood church. It read: “Prayer is the original wireless form of communication.”

It brought to mind the old joke that Moses was the first person in history to download information from the cloud onto a tablet. That, in turn, reminded me of the strange oddity of Isidore of Seville, whose feast day is in April. In 1997, Pope John Paul II declared that Isidore would officially be known as the patron saint of the Internet. For a man who died in 636, and who was canonized in 1598, some explanation is required.

St. Isidore, it turns out, was a prolific writer, but more importantly, he was committed to recording all of the known facts about the world around us. In 20 volumes, Isidore’s Etymologies became what is effectively the world’s first encyclopedia.

Isidore’s Etymologies remained a reference text for a millennium. Admittedly, one needed to read Latin in order to access it, but once that hurdle was overcome, one could investigate everything from the nature of women’s apparel, to the classification of nouns, to the rudiments of mathematics.

Born in Spain, Isidore would eventually become the Bishop of Seville. He wrote numerous books and created charitable support for the poor. All of this is noteworthy, but it is his 25-year labour to collect all the knowledge about the known world that explains his patronage of the Internet.

The text of the Etymologies is dependent on hundreds of writers, from Aristotle to Pliny the Elder, many without acknowledgement in the text. In that way, perhaps, it is an early Wikipedia, where scholars add to and embellish a text often in anonymity. And like Wikipedia, not all of the facts that Isidore presented were completely accurate. Peter Jones provides one humorous example (which I found, ironically, on Wikipedia): “Most of his derivations are total nonsense (eg., he derives baculus, ‘walking-stick,’ from Bacchus, god of drink, because you need one to walk straight after sinking a few).”

In the first English-language edition, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, the editors highlight a few examples of the wisdom found within. For example, Isidore says that “a physician needs to know the Seven Liberal Arts of Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.”

We also learn that “Wine (vinum) is so called because it replenishes the veins (vena) with blood,” and that the “battering ram takes its name ‘ram’ from its character, because it butts walls.” I had an entirely new understanding of the birthing process when I read that, “in the womb, the knees (genua) are pressed against the face, and help to form the eye-sockets (genae); hence their name.” Some of the most peculiar entries inform us that lightning reaches the eye before thunder reaches the ear because of its “brightness,” and that the “ibis purges itself by spewing water into its anus with its beak” (proving that there is such a thing as too much information!).

Of course, an important purpose of Etymologies was to offer an accessible storehouse of information on Christian values, both by providing a comprehensive list of key facts — such as the many names of God — but also disabusing the ill-informed about mistaken beliefs (the above examples notwithstanding). As such, Isidore makes clear that people should stop believing that crows can help predict the future, noting that God would never “entrust His counsels to crows.”

On a more serious note, he also reminds us that the lineage and scholarship of Christianity is profound and layered. His erudite cataloguing of the words, languages, images and complexities of life reminded his audience of the deep history of a definitive faith life.

This learned individual, often referred to as the “Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages,” even presided over the Council of Toledo in 633 which decreed that every bishop needed to build educational centres throughout Spain. In fact, he did so much for education that it’s a wonder he wasn’t also named the patron saint of teachers and education. But that’s the subject of an entirely different column.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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