17.04.01, Fear and Wood, eds., Isidore of Seville and His Reception in the Early Middle Ages

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Hilary E. Fox

The Medieval Review 17.04.01

Fear, Andrew, and Jamie Wood, eds. Isidore of Seville and His Reception in the Early Middle Ages. Late Antique and Early Medieval Iberia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016. pp. 236. ISBN: 978-9-089-64828-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Hilary E. Fox
Wayne State University

"Isidore is good to think with," Paul Fouracre observes in his preface to this collection (9). It has long been accepted as true among contemporary scholars that early medieval writers thought the same thing, on a variety of subjects. This collection draws attention to the ways in which Isidore, both his reputation and work, were perceived and received by his own contemporaries and his inheritors in Western Europe, with the result that Isidore himself did not only transmit knowledge but transform it, and so too did the scribes and authors who took up his work. Ultimately, these ten essays do not challenge the long-held truism that Isidore was instrumental in the transmission of classical knowledge to the medieval West, but clarify and add nuance to the methods, nature, and motives of Isidore's work and reception.

The collection is divided into two parts, the first focusing on Isidore's familial and social position in the Visigothic Church and the second on the multiple transformations Isidore's legacy and work underwent as they were transmitted across Europe. The editors, Andrew Fear and Jaime Wood, begin with an introduction that emphasizes what the following essays draw out: that "Isidore exercised agency in writing his works and intervening in the world around him, yet so too did those who worked with him," as did those who took him up in the decades and centuries after his death (19). It would be a mistake to say that the collection proceeds merely chronologically, though it does begin with Isidore and end in the eighth century among the Franks and Anglo-Saxons; instead, its arrangement aids in better understanding the many twisting paths along which Isidore's work and reputation traveled.

In the first half, the essays take up Isidore's life and work in Seville and then the specific interventions he made in the composition of his texts. Jamie Wood opens with a chapter on the genetic, political, and religious families of which Isidore was a part. As Wood points out, Isidore succeeded his brother to the bishopric of Seville, but they were not the only religious members of their family: their sister Florentina was a nun, and, Wood argues, epistolary and textual evidence points to the siblings seeing mutual spiritual care as a requirement of family life (or, at least, a responsibility for Leander as the eldest brother to fulfill). In turn, their spiritual father was none other than Gregory the Great, whose Moralia in Iob was dedicated to Leander, and whose work Isidore edited, transformed, and appropriated during his own career. Wood's main test case for Gregory's influence on Isidore is the Sententiae, which, Wood notes, made extensive use of the Moralia--and which, Wood emphasizes, reflects not mere rote transmission but an active and engaged awareness of source texts and how their purpose might not align with Isidore's own (47). In the conclusion of the chapter, Wood looks past Isidore's work to its afterlife, and sees it as being crucial to the development of Gregory's reputation in Visigothic Spain (53).

The following two essays, by Mary Beagan and Andrew Fear, provide more text-based investigations of Isidore as editor and reviser (a role which Wood can only treat briefly in an otherwise very dense chapter), in their explorations of his treatment of Pliny and Varro in the Etymologiae and De natura rerum. Beagan begins with the observation that seventy-five percent of book 11 of the Etymologiae "is devoted to an etymological creation-by-verbal-dissection of a generic imago hominis" (58), a creation that later serves as Isidore's entrée to a discussion of the categorical problems created by the so-called "monstrous races" and the "maternal impressions" by which pregnant women influenced the appearance of their children. Beagan highlights here Isidore's critical reworking of Pliny's Natural History alongside other classical gynecological texts in the service of a rational categorization that reflects the rational workings of an omnipotent creator. For Isidore, Beagan argues, there is no such thing as a ludus naturae: deviations from the "image of man" Isidore develops in book 11 call into question the relationship between God and a humanity whose physical being is a material reflection of a rational spirit formed in God's image. On top of that, deviations within the species, caused by maternal impressions, are distinctly inferior to God's purposeful, ordered creation of different forms--they are, according to Beagan, a sign of (feminine) irrationality and weakness (71). The project of elucidating an orderly and rational world, in which the human imago is also the imago of the divine is also at work in the De natura rerum, explored by Fear in the subsequent chapter. Where Beagan is less concerned with the social and political context, Fear investigates how Isidore composed the DNR in part as a rebuttal of heresies centered on astronomical phenomena and also millenarianism (of which he was a fierce critic)--and how Isidore's interest in orthodoxy would have felicitously coincided with the needs of the Visigothic king Sisebut, who wanted to reassure his subjects about the alarming comets, eclipses, and weather events that had beset the opening of his reign (80). The resulting text, the DNR, is another example of Isidore's deliberate reworking and Christianization of classical knowledge (here, Fear points to Lucretius, among others) in the service of describing a rational creation. However, the DNR does not serve only the needs of its royal patron; it also, in reframing classical knowledge, insists on the value of scientia--that is, the trivium and quadrivium--as consisting only in its ability to lead to the contemplation of higher things. "Ignorance for Isidore was the mother of all evil," Fear asserts, but knowledge not acquired for the proper (spiritual) ends was equally to be avoided (83). Thus, Isidore's pedagogical work in the DNR cannot be separated from its spiritual or political labor.

Michael J. Kelly's chapter serves as a transition between the volume's essays on Isidore in his own milieu and those on Isidore in the milieus of his inheritors in Seville and its closest competitor, Toledo in the years following his death. Indeed, Kelly's argument (along with those in the subsequent five chapters) serves as the first of many useful reminders: that to speak of the "legacy" of Isidore of Seville is an oversimplification, as writers in Hispania employed him in fierce contests over intellectual and political authority. Kelly's argument begins with the preservation of Isidore's reputation by his student Braulio of Saragossa and another cleric named Redemptus, both of whom were connected to Seville and were eager to preserve (and extend) Isidore's reputation. On the other hand, the De viris illustribus of the Toledan bishop Ildefonsus strove to minimize Isidore's, and Seville's, presence in Hispania's ecclesiastical history in order to promote a "Toledo-centred" narrative (103). In subsequent generations, the need to reassert a common identity among Christians on the Iberian peninsula following the defeat of the Visigothic kings led to the development of a "unified" history of Christianity in Hispania, in which Isidore of Seville and his Toledan counterparts coexisted as brilliant teachers and defenders of the faith (106-7).

This transformation of the "historical" Isidore in the generations following his death anticipates the transformation of the "textual" Isidore elsewhere in Europe, and so anticipates the essays of the collection's second half. Marina Smyth and Claudia Di Sciacca deal with the transmission of Isidorian material to Ireland and England (as well as, Di Sciacca notes, Anglo-Saxon institutions on the Continent), while Christopher Heath, Melissa Markauskas, and Laura Carlson turn to Isidore's reception in Lombard Italy and Carolingian Francia. Both Smyth's and Di Sciacca's essays investigate what is, for Smyth, a foundational series of questions necessary for anyone working with Isidorian material: "Which version [of an Isidorian text] is being used? How much of the text was available to the author using it? Did Isidore write it?" (125). Smyth's investigation of the knowledge of Isidorian texts in seventh-century Ireland concludes that the highly variable reception of, among others, the Etymologiae and Differentiae (specifically the second version of that work), points to the need to revisit conclusions on the transmission history of Isidore's works that were based on older editions--conclusions that have important ramifications on our understanding of when Isidore came to Ireland and how, that is, in what form and what textual contexts. The high degree of variability in the manuscript transmission of Isidore's work remains a problem for Anglo-Saxon England, one Di Sciacca investigates in the subsequent essay, which argues that one of two recensions of the Synonyma is at play in Felix's Vita Guthlaci, thus providing evidence for knowledge of the Λ-recension in Anglo-Saxon England and its associated continental foundations by the mid-eighth century (150).

Di Sciacca's essay also serves as a transition into a broader discussion of the many methods writers had of incorporating Isidorian material into their own texts. The Vita Guthlaci, Di Sciacca asserts, demonstrates Felix's adroit "source-layering," a rich and complex intertextuality that drew on Scriptural, patristic, classical and other authoritative materials (131). Felix employed the Synonyma not only as one source among many; rather, he employed it in a way that demonstrates how the Synonyma was regarded as a useful source for moral and hagiographic writing, and accompanied such material in several manuscripts (137). Di Sciacca continues on to wed manuscript context to the literary milieu of which the Synonyma formed a part: its earliest admirers in Anglo-Saxon circles were Aldhelm and Boniface, writers who themselves influenced Felix (150).

Felix's employment of the Synonyma in the Vita Guthlaci is without attribution, and so it is for Paul the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum, which employs the Etymologiae and (potentially) the Historia Gothorum, in Heath's subsequent essay. Isidore provides a template for Paul to follow in his construction of a providential past for the Lombards and their eventual migration to Italy, as well as an etymological model for his description of the Italian provinces in which they settle (172). Heath refers to this type of structural borrowing as an "imprint," where Isidore's authority is not directly cited yet is palpably present nonetheless. Like the historians of Spain using Isidore's texts and career to contest their own political histories and identities, Paul employs Isidore's etymological approach and rhetorical precedents as a method of constructing and then justifying an Italian, or Langobard, ethnic identity. The centrality of Isidore's authority in the Historia and its simultaneous namelessness is also present in the liturgical context of the Carolingian homiliary of Manchester, The University of Manchester, Rylands Library MS Latin 12 discussed by Markauskas. While some modern scholarship tends to see Isidore as "the" authority for easy quotations, quick references, and so on, Markauskas argues that the positioning of material from Isidore's De ortu et obitu patrum in the Rylands manuscript demonstrates that, while Isidore was considered an authority, that authority did not have parity with that of earlier church fathers or the Scriptures; he had become a source for useful facts and details, rather than exegesis (188-89).

The Etymologiae are also nameless in Theodulf of Orléans' Opus Caroli, studied by Carlson in the collection's concluding essay. Yet, as it does for Paul's Historia Langobardorum, it is a crucial source of content, methodology (specifically the etymological method) and theories of language (213). The theological and political context of the Opus Caroli, that of the Western rejection of the Byzantine theory of images instigated by the repeal of Iconoclasm at the 787 Council of Nicaea, influences how Theodulf resorts to Isidore for an authoritative discussion of human language and its superiority to the (human) creation of images (209). Carlson points out that, for Isidore, language was a human institution even as it was an eternal one: "words and their meanings were fused irrevocably" (215), a fusion made possible by divine sanction; the study of language through grammar revealed the multi-layered richness of Holy Scripture--a richness images intrinsically lacked and for which they tried (and failed) to compensate with superficial appeal (216-17). Theodulf's adoption of Isidore's theories of language, thoroughly of a piece with the enthusiasm for grammar in Carolingian Francia overall, was also an adoption of a theory of education and knowledge that tied knowledge of words with that of the Word: the study of language, in Isidore and the Carolingians who adopted and cited him, was the beginning of knowing God.

The collection grew out of a daylong workshop on Isidore at Manchester's Instituto Cervantes, combined with new studies written for the publication. These ten essays represent, according to Fouracre, the first English-language collected volume on Isidore, and according to Fear and Wood, are a result of a flowering of interest in Isidore among Anglophone scholars in the past ten years--an interest, they note, that has long been present in Spanish and French scholarship. While the collection stands as an invitation to the possibility and rewards of Isidorian studies in English, it also, I believe, stands as an argument for more collaboration and closer work across the linguistic and cultural divides that manifest both in published scholarship and in the conferences and seminars that produce such scholarship. Our understanding of the past stands to gain much by finding ways to transmit knowledge among different linguistic, scholarly, or cultural communities. As it is, Anglophone scholars whose work involves Isidore (e.g. any Anglo-Saxonist) will find this volume useful for its insights into Isidore specifically and medieval transmission of knowledge more generally; its massive bibliographies will also prove invaluable to those for whom Isidore's work forms an important, if taken for granted, component of their own specialties.

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