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From The Mediaeval Mind, A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, by Henry Osborn Taylor in Two Volumes, Volume I., MacMillan Co., New York, 1911; pp. 88-109.





FOR the Latin West the creative patristic epoch closes with the death of Augustine. There follows a period marked by the cessation of intellectual originality. Men are engaged upon translations from the Greek; they are busy commenting upon older writings, or are expounding with a change of emphasis the systematic constructions of their predecessors. Epitomes and compendia appear, simplified and mechanical abstracts of the bare elements of inherited knowledge and current education. Compilations are made, put together of excerpts taken unshriven and unshorn into the compiler’s writing. Knowledge is brought down to a more barbaric level. Yet temperament lingers for a while, and still appears in the results.

The representatives of this post-patristic period of translation, comment, and compendium, and of re-expression with temperamental change of emphasis, are the two contemporaries, Boëthius and Cassiodorus; then Gregory the Great, who became pope soon after Cassiodorus closed his eyes at the age of ninety or more; and, lastly, Isidore, Archbishop of Seville, who died in 636, twenty-two years after Gregory. All these were Latin bred, and belonged to the Roman world rather than to those new peoples whose barbarism was hastening the disruption of a decadent order, but whose recently converted zeal was soon to help on the further diffusion of Latin Christianity. They appear as transmitters of antique and patristic thought; because, originating little, they put together matter congenial to 89 their own lowering intellectual predilections, and therefore suitable mental pabulum for times of mingled decadence and barbarism, and also for the following periods of mediaeval re-emergence which continued to hark back to the obvious and the easy.

Instead of transmitters, a word indicating function, one might call these men intermediaries, and so indicate their position as well as rôle. Both words, however, should be taken relatively. For all the Fathers heretofore considered were in some sense transmitters or intermediaries, even though creative in their work of systematizing, adding to, or otherwise transforming their matter. Yet one would not dub Augustine a transmitter, because he was far more of a remaker or creator. But a dark refashioner indeed will Gregory the Great appear; while Boëthius, Cassiodorus, Isidore are rather sheer transmitters, or intermediaries, the last-named worthy destined to be the most popular of them all, through his unerring faculty of selecting for his compilations the foolish and the flat.

Among them Boëthius alone was attached to the antique by affinity of sentiment and temper. Although doubtless a professing Christian, his sentiments were those of pagan philosophy. The De consolatione philosophiae, which comes to us as his very self, is a work of eclectic pagan moralizing, fused to a personal unity by the author’s artistic and emotional nature, then deeply stirred by his imprisonment and peril. He had enjoyed the favour of the great Ostrogoth, Theodoric, ruler of Italy, but now was fallen under suspicion, and had been put in prison, where he was executed in the year 525 at the age of forty-three. His book moves all readers by its controlled and noble pathos, rendered more appealing through the romantic interest surrounding its composition. It became par excellence the mediaeval source of such ethical precept and consolation as might be drawn from rational self-control and acquiescence in the ways of Providence. But at present we are concerned with the range of Boëthius’s intellectual interests and his labours for the transmission of learning. He was an antique-minded man, whose love of knowledge did not revolve around “salvation,” the patristic focus 90 intellectual effort. Rather he was moved by an ardent wish to place before his Latin contemporaries what was best in the classic education and philosophy. He is first of all a translator from Greek to Latin, and, secondly, a helpful commentator on the works which he translates.

He was little over twenty years of age when he wrote his first work, the De arithmetica.1 It was a free translation of the Arithmetic of Nichomachus, a Neo-Pythagorean who flourished about the year 100. Boëthius’s work opens with a dedicatory Praefatio to his father-in-law Symmachus. In that and in the first chapter he evinces a broad conception of education, and shows that lovers of wisdom should not despise arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, the fourfold path or quadrivium, a word which he may have been the first to use in this sense.2 With him arithmetic treats of quantity in and by itself; music, of quantity related to measure; geometry, of moveless, and astronomy, of moving, quantity. He was a better Greek scholar than mathematician; and his free translation ignores some of the finer points of Nichomachus’s work, which would have impressed one better versed in mathematics.3

The young scholar followed up his maiden work with a treatise on Music, showing a knowledge of Greek harmonics. Then came a De geometria, in which the writer draws from Euclid as well as from the practical knowledge of Roman surveyors.4 He composed or translated other works on elementary branches of education, as appears from a royal letter written by Cassiodorus in the name of Theodoric: “In your translations Pythagoras the musician, Ptolemy the astronomer, Nichomachus the arithmetician, Euclid the geometer are read by Italians, while Plato the theologian and Aristotle the logician dispute in Roman voice; and you have given back the mechanician Archimedes in Latin to the Sicilians.5 Making 91 all allowances for politeness, this letter indicates the large accomplishment of Boëthius, who was but twenty-five years old when it was written. We turn to the commentated Aristotelian translations which he now undertook.6 “Although the duties of the consular office7 prevent the bestowal of our time upon these studies, it still seems a proper part of our care for the Republic to instruct its citizens in the learning which is gained by the labour of the lamp. Since the valour of a bygone time brought dominion over other cities to this one Republic, I shall not merit ill of my countrymen if I shall have instructed the manners of our State with the arts of Greek wisdom.”8 These sentences open the second book of Boëthius’s translation of the Categories of Aristotle. His plan of work enlarged, apparently, and grew more definite, as the years passed, each adding its quota of accomplishment. At all events, some time afterwards, when he may have been not far from thirty-five, he speaks in the flush of an intellectual anticipation which the many years of labour still to be counted on seemed to justify:

“Labour ennobles the human race and completes it with the fruits of genius; but idleness deadens the mind. Not experience, but ignorance, of labour turns us from it. For what man who has made trial of labour has ever forsaken it? And the power of the mind lies in keeping the mind tense; to unstring it is to ruin it. My fixed intention, if the potent favour of the deity will so grant, is (although others have laboured in this field, yet not with satisfactory method) to translate into Latin every work of Aristotle that comes to my hand, and furnish it with a Latin commentary. Thus I may present, well ordered and illustrated with the light of comment, whatever subtilty of logic’s art, whatever weight of moral experience, and whatever insight into natural truth, may be gathered from Aristotle. And I mean to translate all the dialogues of Plato, or reduce them in my commentary to a Latin form. Having accomplished this, I shall not have despised the opinions of Aristotle and Plato if I evoke a certain concord between them 92 and show in how many things of importance for philosophy they agree — if only life and leisure last. But now let us return to our subject.”9

One sees a veritable love of intellectual labour and a love of the resulting mental increment. It is distinctly the antique, not the patristic, attitude towards interests of the mind. In spite of his unhappy sixth century way of writing, and the mental fallings away indicated by it, Boëthius possessed the old pagan spirit, and shows indeed how tastes might differ in the sixth century. He never translated the whole of Aristotle and Plato; and his idea of reconciling the two evinces the shallow eclectic spirit of the closing pagan times. Nevertheless, he carried out his purpose to the extent of rendering into Latin, with abundant comment, the entire Organon, that is, all the logical writings of Aristotle. First of all, and with elaborate explanation, he rendered Porphyry’s famous Introduction to the Categories of the Master. Then the Categories themselves, likewise with abundant explanation. Then Aristotle’s De interpretatione, in two editions, the first with simple comment suited to beginners, the second with the best elaboration of formal logic that he could devise or compile.10 These elementary portions of the Organon, as transmitted in the Boëthian translations, made the logical discipline of the mediaeval schools until the latter part of the twelfth century. He translated also Aristotle’s Prior and Posterior Analytics, the Topics, and the Sophistical Elenchi. But such advanced treatises were beyond the requirements of the early mediaeval centuries. With the lessening of intellectual energy they passed into oblivion, to re-emerge only when called for by the livelier mental activities of a later time.

The list of Boëthius’s works is not yet exhausted, for he wrote some minor logical treatises, and a voluminous commentary on Cicero’s Topica. He was probably the author of certain Christian theological tracts, themselves less famous than the controversy which long has raged as to 93 their authorship.11 If he wrote them, he did but make polite obeisance to the ruling intellectual preoccupations of the time.

Boëthius’s commentaries reproduced the comments of other commentators,12 and he presents merely the logical processes of thought. But these, analyzed and tabulated, were just the parts of philosophy to be seized by a period whose lack of mental originality was rapidly lowering to a barbaric frame of mind. The logical works of Boëthius were formal, pedantic, even mechanical. They necessarily presented the method rather than the substance of philosophic truth. But their study would exercise the mind, and they were peculiarly adapted to serve as discipline for the coming centuries, which could not become progressive until they had mastered their antique inheritance, including this chief method of presenting the elemental forms of truth.

The “life and leisure” of Boëthius were cut off by his untimely death. Cassiodorus, although a year or two older, outlived him by a half a century. He was born at Squillace, a Calabrian town which looks out south-easterly over the little gulf bearing the same name. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been generals and high officials. He himself served for forty years under Theodoric and his successors, and at last became praetorian praefect, the chief office in the Gothic Roman kingdom.13 Through his birth, his education, his long official career, and perhaps his pliancy, he belonged to both Goths and Romans, and like the great king whom he first served, stood for a policy of reconcilement and assimilation of the two peoples, and also for tolerance as between Arian and Catholic.

Some years after Theodoric’s death, when the Gothic kingdom had passed through internecine struggles and seemed at last to have fallen before the skill of Belisarius, Cassiodorus forsook the troubles of the world. He retired to his birthplace Squillace, and there in propitious situations founded a pleasant cloister for coenobites and an austerer 94 hermitage for those who would lead lives of arduous seclusion. For himself, he chose the former. It was the year of grace 540, three years before the death of Benedict of Nursia. Cassiodorus was past sixty. In retiring from the world he followed the instinct of his time, yet temperately and with an increment of wisdom. For he was the first influential man to recognize the fitness of the cloister for the labours of the pious student and copyist. It is not too much to regard him as the inaugurator of the learned, compiling, commenting and transcribing functions of monasticism. Not only as a patron, but through his own works, he was here a leader. His writings composed after his retirement represent the intellectual interests of western monasticism in the last half of the sixth century. They indicate the round of study proper for monks; just the grammar, the orthography, and other elementary branches which they might know; just the history with which it behoved them to be acquainted; and then, outbulking all the rest, those Scriptural studies to which they might well devote their lives for the sake of their own and others’ souls.

In passing these writings in review, it is unnecessary to pause over the interesting collection of letters — Variae epistolae — which were the fruit of Cassiodorus’s official life, before he shut the convent’s outer door against the toils of office. He “edited” them near the close of his public career. Before that ended he had made a wretched Chronicon, carelessly and none too honestly compiled. He had also written his Gothic History, a far better work. It survives only in the compend of the ignorant Jordanes, a fact the like of which will be found repeatedly recurring in the sixth and following centuries, when a barbaric mentality continually prefers the compend to the larger and better original, which demands greater effort from the reader. A little later Cassiodorus composed his De anima, a treatise on the nature, qualities, and destinies of the Soul. Although made at the request of friends, it indicated the turning of the statesman’s interest to the matters occupying his latter years, during which his literary labours were guided by a paternal purpose. One may place it with the works coming from his pen in those thirty years of retirement, when study 95 and composition were rather stimulated than disturbed by care of his convent and estates, the modicum of active occupation needed by an old man whose life had been passed in the management of State affairs. Its preface sets out the topical arrangement in a manner prophetic of scholastic methods:

“Let us first learn why it is called Anima; secondly, its definition; thirdly, its substantial quality; fourthly, whether any form should be ascribed to it; fifthly, what are its moral virtues; sixthly, its natural powers (virtutes naturales) by which it holds the body together; seventhly, as to its origin; eighthly, where is its especial seat; ninthly, as to the body’s form; tenthly, as to the properties of the souls of sinners; eleventhly, as to those of the souls of the just; and twelfthly, as to the resurrection.”14

The short treatise which follows is neither original nor penetrating. It closes with an encomium on the number twelve, with praise of Christ and with a prayer.

Soon after Cassiodorus had installed himself in Vivaria, as he called his convent, from the fishponds and gardens surrounding it, he set himself to work to transcribe the Scriptures, and commenced a huge Commentary on the Psalms. But he interrupted these undertakings in 543 in order to write for his monks a syllabus of their sacred and secular education. The title of the work was Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum.15 In opening he refers to his failure to found a school of Christian teaching at Rome, on account of the wars. Partially to repair this want, he will compose an introduction to the study of Scripture and letters. It will not set out his own opinions, but those of former men. Through the expositions of the Fathers we ascend to divine Scripture, as by a ladder. The proper order is for the “tiros of Christ” first to learn the Psalms, and then proceed to study the rest of Scripture in carefully corrected codices. When the “soldiers of Christ” have completed the reading of Scripture, and fixed it in their minds by constant meditation, they will begin to recognize passages when cited and be able to find them. They should also know the Latin commentators, and even the Greek, who have expounded the various books.


The first book of these Institutiones is strictly a guide to Scripture study, and in no way a commentary. For example, beginning with the “Octateuch,” as making up the first “codex” of Scripture, Cassiodorus tells what Latin and what Greek Fathers have expounded it. He proceeds, briefly, in the same way with the rest of the Old and New Testaments. He mentions the Ecumenical Councils which had passed upon Christian doctrine, and then refers to the division of Scripture by Jerome, by Augustine, and in the Septuagint. He states rules for preserving the purity of the text, exclaims over its ineffable value, and mentions famous doctrinal works, like Augustine’s De Trinitate and the De officiis of Ambrose. He then recommends the study of Church historians and names the great ones, who while incidentally telling of secular events have shown that such hung not on chance nor on the power of feeble gods, but solely on the Creator’s will. Then he shortly characterizes the great Latin Doctors, Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine, and mentions a convenient collection of excerpts from the works of the last-named saint, made by a certain priest. Next he admonishes the student as to the careful reading of Scripture, and suggests convenient abbreviations for noting citations. He speaks of the desirability of knowing enough cosmography to understand when Scripture speaks of countries, towns, mountains, or rivers, and then reverts to the need of an acquaintance with the Seven Arts; this secular wisdom, having been originally pilfered from Scripture, should now be called back to its true service. Those monks who lack intelligence for such studies may properly work in the fields and gardens which surround Vivaria (Columella and other writers on agriculture are to be found in the convent library), and to all the care of the sick is recommended. The second book of the Institutiones is a brief and unequal compend of the Seven Arts, in which Dialectic is treated at greatest length.

The remaining works of Cassiodorus appear as special aids to the student in carrying out the programme of the first book of the Institutiones. Such an aid was the bulky Commentary on the Psalms; another such was the famous Historia tripartita, made of the Church histories of Socrates, 97 Sozomen, and Theodoret, translated by a friend of Cassiodorus, and crudely thrown together by himself into one narrative. Finally, such another work was the compilation upon Latin orthography which the good old man made for his monks in his ninety-third year.

This long and useful life does not display the zeal for knowledge for its own sake which marks the labours of Boëthius. It is the Christian utilitarian view of knowledge that Cassiodorus represents, and yet not narrowly, nor with a trace of that intolerance of whatever did not bear directly on salvation, which is to be found in Gregory. From Boëthius’s love of philosophy, and from the practical interest of Cassiodorus in education, it is indeed a change to the spiritual anxiousness and fear of hell besetting this great pope.16

In appreciating a man’s opinions and his mental clarity or murkiness, one should consider his temperament and the temper of his time. Gregory was constrained as well as driven by temperamental yearnings and aversions, aggravated by the humour of the century that produced Benedict of Nursia and was contemplating gloomily the Empire’s ruin and decay, now more acutely borne in upon the consciousness of thoughtful people than in the age of Augustine. His temper drew from prevailing moods, and in turn impressed its spiritual incisiveness upon the influences which it absorbed; and his writings, so expressive of his own temperament and all that fed it, were to work mightily upon the minds and moods of men to come.

Born of a distinguished Roman family about the year 540, he was some thirty-five years old when Cassiodorus died. His education was the best that Rome could give. In spite of disclaimer on his part, rhetorical training shows in the antithetic power of his style; for example, in that resounding sentence in the dedicatory letter prefixed to his Moralia, wherein he would seem to be casting grammar to the winds. Although quoted until threadbare, it is so illustrative as to justify citation: “Nam sicut hujus quoque 98 epistolae tenor enunciat, non metacismi colisionem fugio, non barbarismi confusionem devito, situs motusque et praepositionum casus servare contemno, quia indignum vehementer existimo, ut verba coelestis oraculi restringam sub regulis Donati.”17 By no means will he flee the concussion of the oft-repeated M, or avoid the confusing barbarism; he will despise the laws of place and case, because he deems it utterly unfit to confine the words of the heavenly oracle beneath the rules of Donatus. By all of which Gregory means that he proposes to write freely, according to the needs of his subject, and to disregard the artificial rules of the somewhat emptied rhetoric, let us say, of Cassiodorus’s epistles.

In his early manhood naturally he was called to take part in affairs, and was made Praetor urbanus. But soon the prevalent feeling of the difficulty of serving God in the world drove him to retirement. His father’s palace on the Coelian hill he changed to a convent, upon the site of which now stands the Church of San Gregorio Magno; and there he became a monk. Passionately he loved the monk’s life, for which he was to long in vain through most of the years to come. Soon he was dragged forth from the companionship of “Mary” to serve with “Martha.” The toiling papacy could not allow a man of his abilities to remain hidden. He was harnessed to its active service, and sent as the papal representative to the Imperial Court at Constantinople; whence he returned, after several years, in 585. Re-entering his monastery on the Coelian, he became its abbot; but was drawn out again, and made pope by acclamation and insistency in the year 590. There is no need to speak of the efficient and ceaseless activity of this pontiff, whose body was never free from pain, nor his soul released from longing for seclusion which only the grave was to bring.

Gregory’s mind was less antique, and more barbarous and mediaeval than Augustine’s, whose doctrine he reproduced with garbling changes of tone and emphasis. In the century and a half between the two, the Roman institutions had broken down, decadence had advanced, and the patristic 99 mind had passed from indifference to the laws of physical phenomena to something like sheer barbaric ignorance of the same. Whatever in Ambrose, Jerome, or Augustine represented conviction or opinion, has in Gregory become mental habit, spontaneity of acceptance, matter of course. The miraculous is with him a frame of mind; and the allegorical method of understanding Scripture is no longer intended, not to say wilful, as with Augustine, but has become persistent unconscious habit. Augustine desired to know God and the Soul, and the true Christian doctrine with whatever made for its substantiation. He is conscious of closing his mind to everything irrelevant to this. Gregory’s nature has settled itself within this scheme of Christian knowledge which Augustine framed. He has no intellectual inclinations reaching out beyond. He is not conscious of closing his mind to extraneous knowledge. His mental habits and temperament are so perfectly adjusted to the confines of this circle, that all beyond has ceased to exist for him.

So with Gregory the patristic limitation of intellectual interest, indifference to physical phenomena, and acceptance of the miraculous are no longer merely thoughts and opinions consciously entertained; they make part of his nature. There was nothing novel in his views regarding knowledge, sacred and profane. But there is a turbid force of temperament in his expressions. In consequence, his vehement words to Bishop Desiderius of Vienne18 have been so taken as to make the great pope a barbarizing idiot. He exclaims with horror at the report that the bishop is occupying himself teaching grammar; he is shocked that an episcopal mouth should be singing praises of Jove, which are unfit for a lay brother to utter. But Gregory is not decrying here, any more than in the sentence quoted from the letter prefixed to his Moralia, a decent command of Latin, He is merely declaring with temperamental vehemence that to teach grammar and poetry is not the proper function of a bishop — the bishop in this case of a most important see. Gregory had no more taste for secular studies than Tertullian four centuries before him. For both, however, letters had their handmaidenly function, 100 which they performed effectively in the instances of these two great rhetoricians.19

It is needless to say that the entire literary labour of Gregory was religious. His works, as in time, so in quality, are midway between those of Ambrose and Augustine and those of the Carolingian rearrangers of patristic opinion. Gregory, who laboured chiefly as a commentator upon Scripture, was not highly original in his thoughts, yet was no mere excerpter of patristic interpretations, like Rabanus Maurus or Walafrid Strabo, who belong to the ninth century.20 In studying Scripture, he thought and interpreted in allegories. But he was also a man experienced in life’s exigencies, and his religious admonishings were wise and searching. His prodigious Commentary upon Job has with reason been called Gregory’s Moralia.21 And as the moral advice and exhortation sprang from Gregory the bishop, so the allegorical interpretations largely were his own, or at least not borrowed and applied mechanically.

Gregory represents the patristic mind passing into a more barbarous stage. He delighted in miracles, and wrote his famous Dialogues on the Lives and Miracles of the Italian Saints22 to solace the cares of his pontificate. The work exhibits a naïve acceptance of every kind of miracle, and presents the supple mediaeval devil in all his deceitful metamorphoses.23


Quite in accord with Gregory’s interest in these stories is his elaboration of certain points of doctrine, for example, the worship of the saints, whose intercession and supererogatory righteousness may be turned by prayer and worship to the devotee’s benefit. Thus he comments upon the eighth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of Job.

“They are wet with the showers of the mountains, and embrace the rocks as a shelter. The showers of the mountains are the words of the doctors. Concerning which mountains it is said with the voice of the Church: ‘I will lift up my eyes unto the hills.’ The showers of the mountains water these, for the streams of the holy fathers saturate. We receive the ‘shelter’ as a covering of good works, by which one is covered so that before the eyes of omnipotent God the filthiness of his perversity is concealed. Wherefore it is written, ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered’ (Ps. xxxii. 1). And under the name of stones whom do we understand except the strong men of the Church? To whom it is said through the first shepherd: ‘Ye also as living stones are built up a spiritual house’ (I Peter ii. 5). So those who confide in no work of their own, run to the protection of the holy martyrs, and press with tears to their sacred bodies, pleading to obtain pardon through their intercession.”24

Another point of Gregorian emphasis: no delict is remitted without punishment.25 To complement which principle, Gregory develops the doctrine of penance in its three elements, contritio, conversio mentis, satisfactio. Our whole life should be one long penitence and penance, and baptism of tears; for our first baptism cannot wash out later sins, and cannot be repeated. In the fourth book of the Dialogi he develops his cognate doctrine of Purgatory,26 and amplifies upon the situation and character of hell. These things are implicit in Augustine and existed before him: with Gregory they have become explicit, elaborated, and 102 insisted on with recurrent emphasis. Thus Augustinianism is altered in form and barbarized.27

Gregory is throughout prefigurative of the Middle Ages, which he likewise prefigures in his greatness as a sovereign bishop and a man of ecclesiastical affairs. He is energetic and wise and temperate. The practical wisdom of the Catholic Church is in him and in his rightly famed book of Pastoral Rule. The temperance and wisdom of his letters of instructions to Augustine of Canterbury are admirable. The practical exigency seemed always to have the effect of tempering any extreme opinion which apart from it he might have expressed; as one sees, for example, in those letters to this apostle to the English, or in his letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles, who had been too violent as to paintings and images. Gregory’s stand is moderate and reasonable. Likewise he opposes the use of force to convert the Jews, although insisting firmly that no Jew may hold a Christian slave.28

There has been occasion to remark that decadence tends to join hands with barbarism on a common intellectual level. Had Boëthius lived in a greater epoch, he might not have been an adapter of an elementary arithmetic and geometry, and his best years would not have been devoted to the translation and illustration of logical treatises. Undoubtedly his labours were needed by the times in which he lived and by the centuries which followed them in spirit as well as chronologically. He was the principal purveyor of the strictly speaking intellectual grist of the early Middle Ages; and it was most apt that the great scholastic controversy as to universals should have drawn its initial text from his translation of Porphyry’s Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle.29 Gregory, on the other hand, was a purveyor of theology, the subject to which logic chiefly was to be applied. He purveyed matter very much to the mediaeval taste; for example, his wise practical admonishments; his 103 elaboration of such a doctrine as that of penance, so tangible that it could be handled, and felt with one’s very fingers; and, finally, his supreme intellectual endeavour, the allegorical trellising of Scripture, to which the Middle Ages were to devote their thoughts, and were to make warm and living with the love and yearning of their souls. The converging currents — decadence and barbarism — meet and join in Gregory’s powerful personality. He embodies the intellectual decadence which has lost all independent wish for knowledge and has dropped the whole round of the mind’s mortal interests; which has seized upon the near, the tangible, and the ominous in theology till it has rooted religion in the fear of hell. All this may be viewed as a decadent abandonment of the more intellectual and spiritual complement to the brute facts of sin, penance, and hell barely escaped. But, on the other hand, it was also barbarization, and held the strength of barbaric narrowing of motives and the resistlessness of barbaric fear.

Such were the rôles of Boëthius and Gregory in the transmission of antique and patristic intellectual interests into the mediaeval time. Quite different was that of Gregory’s younger contemporary, Isidore, the princely and vastly influential Bishop of Seville, the primary see in that land of Spain, which, however it might change dynasties, was destined never to be free from some kind of sacerdotal bondage. In Isidore’s time, the kingdom of the Visigoths had recently turned from Arianism to Catholicism, and wore its new priestly yoke with ardour. Boëthius had provided a formal discipline and Gregory much substance already mediaevalized. But the whole ground-plan of Isidore’s mind corresponded with the aptitudes and methods of the Carolingian period, which was to be the schoolday of the Middle Ages. By reason of his own habits of study, by reason of the quality of his mind, which led him to select the palpable, the foolish, and the mechanically correlated, by reason, in fine, of his mental faculties and interests, Isidore gathered and arranged in his treatises a conglomerate of knowledge, secular and sacred, exactly suited to the coming centuries.

In drawing from its spiritual heritage, an age takes what it cares for; and if comparatively decadent or barbarized or 104 childlike in its intellectual affinities, it will still manage to draw what is like itself. In that case, probably it will not draw directly from the great sources, but from intermediaries who have partially debased them. From these turbid compositions the still duller age will continue to select the obvious and the worse. This indicates the character of Isidore’s work. His writings speak for themselves through their titles, and are so flat, so transparent, so palpably taken from the nearest authorities, that there is no call to analyze them. But their titles with some slight indication of their contents will show the excerpt character of Isidore’s mental processes, and illustrated by anticipation the like qualities reappearing with the Carolingian doctors.

Isidore’s Quaestiones in vetus Testamentum30 is his chief work in the nature of a Scripture commentary. It is confined to those passages of the Old Testament which were deemed most pregnant with allegorical meaning. His Preface discloses his usual method of procedure: “We have taken certain of those incidents of the sacred history which were told or done figuratively, and are filled with mystic sacraments, and have woven them together in sequence in this little work; and, collecting the opinions of the old churchmen, we have made a choice of flowers as from divers meadows; and briefly presenting a few matters from so many, with some changes or additions, we offer them not only to studious but fastidious readers who detest prolixity.” Every one may feel assured that he will be reading the interpretations of the Fathers, and not those of Isidore — “my voice is but their tongue.” He states that his sources are Origen, Victorinus, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Fulgentius, Cassian, and “Gregory so distinguished for his eloquence in our own time.” The spirit of the mediaeval commentary is in this Preface. The phrase about “culling the opinions of the Fathers like flowers from divers meadows,” will be repeated hundreds of times. Such a commentary is a thing of excerpts; so it rests upon authority. The writer thus comforts both his reader and himself; neither runs the 105 peril of originality, and together they repose on the broad bosom of the Fathers.

Throughout his writings, Isidore commonly proceeds in this way, whether he says so or not. We may name first the casual works which represent separate parcels of his encyclopaedic gleanings, and then glance at his putting together of them, in his Etymologiae.31 The muster opens with two books of Distinctions (Differentiarum). The first is concerned with the distinctions of like-sounding and like-meaning words. It is alphabetically arranged. The second is concerned with the distinctions of things : it begins with God and the Creation, and passes to the physical parts and spiritual traits of man. No need to say that it contains nothing that is Isidore’s own. Now come the Allegoriae quaedam sacrae Scripturae, which give in chronological order the allegorical signification of all the important persons mentioned in the Old Testament and the New. It was one of the earliest hand-books of Scriptural allegories, and is a sheer bit of the Middle Ages in spirit and method. The substance, of course, is taken from the Fathers. Next, a little work, De ortu et obitu Patrum, states in short paragraphs the birthplace, span of life, place of sepulture, and noticeable traits of Scriptural personages.

There follows a collection of brief Isidorean prefaces to the books of Scripture. Then comes a curious book, which may have been suggested to the writer by the words of Augustine himself. This is the Liber numerorum, the book of the numbers occurring in the Scriptures. It tells the qualities and mystical significance of every number from one to sixteen, and of the chief ones between sixteen and sixty. These numbers were “most holy and most full of mysteries” to Augustine,32 and Augustine is the man whom Isidore chiefly draws on in this treatise — Augustine at his very worst. One might search far for an apter instance of an ecclesiastical writer elaborately exploiting the most foolish statements that could possibly be found in the writings of a great predecessor.


Isidore composed a polemic treatise on the Catholic Faith against the Jews — De fide Catholica contra Judaeos. The good bishop had nothing to add to the patristic discussion of this weighty controversy. His book is filled with quotations from Scripture. It put the matter together in a way suited to his epoch and the coming centuries, and at an early time was translated into the German and other vernacular tongues. Three books of Sententiae follow, upon the contents of Christian doctrine — as to God, the world, evil, the angels, man, Christ and the Church. They consist of excerpts from the writings of Gregory the Great and earlier Church Fathers.33 A more original work is the De ecclesiasticis officiis, upon the services of the Church and the orders of clergy and laity. It presents the liturgical practices and ecclesiastical regulations of Isidore’s epoch.

Isidore seems to have put most pious feeling into a work called by him Synonyma, to which name was added the supplementary designation: De lamentatione animae. First the Soul pours out its lament in excruciating iteration, repeating the same commonplace of Christian piety in synonymous phrases. When its lengthy plaint is ended, Reason replies with admonitions synonymously reiterated in the same fashion.34 This work combined a grammatical with a pious purpose, and became very popular through its doubly edifying nature, and because it strung together so many easy commonplaces of Christian piety. Isidore also drew up a Regula for monks, and a book on the Order of Creation has been ascribed to him. This completes the sum of his extant works upon religious topics, from which we pass to those of a secular character.

The first of these is the De rerum natura, written to 107 enlighten his king, Sisebut, “on the scheme (ratio) of the days and months, the bounds of the year and the change of seasons, the nature of the elements, the courses of the sun and moon and stars, and the signs of tempests and winds, the position of the earth, and the ebb and flow of the sea.” Of all of which, continues Isidore, “we have made brief note, from the writings of the ancients (veteribus viris), and especially those who were of the Catholic Faith. For it is not a vain knowledge (superstitiosa scientia) to know the nature of these things, if we consider them according to sound and sober teaching.”35 So Isidore compiles a book of secular physical knowledge, the substance of which is taken from the Hexaemeron of Ambrose and the works of other Fathers, and also from the lost Prata of pagan Suetonius.36

Of course Isidore busied himself also with history. He made a dismal universal Chronicon, and perhaps a History of the Kings of the Goths, through which stirs a breath of national pride; and after the model of Jerome, he wrote a De viris illustribus, concerned with some fifty worthies of the Church flourishing between Jerome’s time and his own.

Here we end the somewhat dry enumeration of the various works of Isidore outside of his famous “twenty books of Etymologies.” This work has been aptly styled a Konversationslexikon, to use the excellent German word. It was named Etymologiae, because the author always gives the etymology of everything which he describes or defines. Indeed the tenth book contains only the etymological definitions of words alphabetically arranged. These etymologies follow the haphazard similarities of the words, and often are nonsensical. Sometimes they show a fantastic caprice indicating a mind steeped in allegorical interpretations, as, for example, when “Amicus is said to be, by derivation, animi custos ; also from hamus, that is, chain of love, whence we say hami or hooks because they hold.”37 This is not ignorance so much as fancy.

The Etymologiae were meant to cover the current knowledge 108 of the time, doctrinal as well as secular. But the latter predominates, as it would in a Konversationslexikon. The general arrangement of the treatise is not alphabetical, but topical. To indicate the sources of its contents would be difficult as well as tedious. Isidore drew on many previous authors and compilers: to Cassiodorus and Boëthius he went for Rhetoric and Dialectic, and made frequent trips to the Prata of Suetonius for natural knowledge — or ignorance. In matters of doctrine he draws on the Church Fathers; and for his epitome of jurisprudence in the fifth book, upon the Fathers from Tertullian on, and (probably) upon some elementary book of legal Institutes.38 Glancing 109 at the handling of topics in the Etymologies one feels it to have been a huge collection of terms and definitions. The actual information conveyed is very slight. Isidore is under the spell of words. Were they fetishes to him? did they carry moral potency? At all events the working of his mind reflects the age-long dominance of grammar and rhetoric in Roman education, which treated other topics almost as illustrations of these chief branches.39



1  Migne, Pat. Lat. 63, col. 1979-1167. Also edited by Friedlein (Leipsic, 1867).

2  I know of no earlier employment of the word to designate these four branches of study. But one might infer from Boëthius’s youth at this time that he received it from a teacher.

3  See Cantor, Vorlesungen über die Ges. der Mathematik, i. 537-540.

4  See Cantor, o.c., i. 540-551.

5  Cassiodorus, Ep. variae, i. 45.

6  Upon the dates of Boëthius’s writings, see S. Brandt. “Entstehungszeit und zeitliche Folge der Werke des Boëtius,” Philologus, Band 62 (N. S. Bd. 16), 1903, pp. 141 sqq. and 234 sqq.

7  Social position, his own abilities, and the favour of Theodoric, obtained the consulship for Boëthius in 510, when he was twenty-eight or -nine years old.

8  Migne, Pat. Lat. 64, col. 201.

9  In librum de interpretatione, editione secunda, beginning of Book II., Migne, 64, col. 433

10  See De inter. ed. prima, Book I. (Migne 64, col. 193); ed. secunda, beginning of Book III. and of Book IV. (Migne 64, col. 487 and 517). The Boëthian translations are all in the 64th vol. of Migne’s Pat. Lat.

41  See A. Hildebrand, Boëthius und seine Stellung sum Christentum (Regensburg, 1885), and works therein referred to.

12  See Prantl, Ges. der Logik, i. 679 sqq.

13  See his Life in Hodgkin’s Letters of Cassiodorus ; also, Roger, Enseignement des lettres classiques d’Ausone à Alcuin, pp. 175-187 (Paris, 1905).

14  Migne 70, col. 1281.

15  Migne 70, col. 1105-1219.

16  Gregory’s works are printed in Migne, Patrologia Latina, 75-79. His epistles are also published in the Monumenta Germaniae historica. On Gregory, his life and times, writings and doctrines, see F. H. Dudden, Gregory the Great, etc., 2 vols. (Longmans, 1905).

17  Migne, Pat. Lat. 75, col. 516.

18  Ep. xi. 54 (Migne 77, col. 1171).

19  This is the view expressed in the Commentary on Kings ascribed to Gregory, but perhaps the work of a later hand. Thus, in the allegorical interpretation of I Kings (I Sam.) xiii. 20, “But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe.” Says the commentator (Migne, Pat. Lat. 79, col. 356): We go down to the Philistines when we incline the mind to secular studies: Christian simplicity is upon a height. Secular books are said to be in the plane since they have no celestial truths. God put secular knowledge in a plane before us that we should use it as a step to ascend to the heights of Scripture. So Moses first learned the wisdom of the Egyptians that he might be able to understand and expound the divine precepts; Isaiah, most eloquent of the prophets, was nobiliter instructus et urbanus ; and Paul had sat at Gamaliel’s feet before he was lifted to the height of the third heaven. One goes to the Philistines to sharpen his plow, because secular learning is needed as a training for Christian preaching.

20  See post, Chapter X.

21  Migne 75, 76.

22  Migne 77, col. 149-430. The second book is devoted to Benedict of Nursia.

23  For illustrations see Dudden, o.c.. i. 321-366, and ii. 367-68. Gregory’s interest in the miraculous shows also in his letters. The Empress Constantina had written requesting him to send her the head of St. Paul! He replies (Ep. iv. 30, ad Constantinam Augustam) in a wonderful letter on the terrors of such holy relics and their death-striking as well as healing powers, of which he gives instances. He says that sometimes he has sent a bit of St. Peter’s chain or a few filings; and when people come seeking those filings from the priest in attendance, sometimes they readily come off, and again no effort of the file can detach anything.

24  Moralia xvi. 51 (Migne 75, col. 1151). Cf. Dudden, o.c. ii. 369-373.

25  Mor. ix. 34, 54 (Migne 75, col. 889). Cf. Dudden, o.c. ii. 419-426.

26  Dialogi, iv. caps. 39. 55.

27  A better Augustinianism speaks in Gregory’s letter to Theoctista (Ep. vii. 26), in which he says that there are two kinds of “compunction, the one which fears eternal punishments, the other which sighs for the heavenly rewards, as the soul thirsting after God is stung first by fear and then by love.”

28  Ep. iv. 21; vi. 32; ix. 6.

29  See post, Chapter XXXVI., 1.

30  Migne. 83, col. 207-424. No reference need be made, of course, to the False Decretals, pseudonymously connected with Isidore’s name; they are later than his time.

31  The Etymologiae is to be found in vol. 82 of Migne, col. 73-728; the other works fill vol. 83 of Migne.

32  Aug. Quaest. in Gen. i. 152. See ante, Chapter IV.

33  Isidore’s Books of Sentences present a topical arrangement of matter more or less closely pertinent to the Christian faith, and thus may be regarded as a precursor of the Sentences of Peter Lombard (post, Chapter XXXIV.). But Isidore’s work is the merest compilation, and he does not marshal his extracts to prove or disprove a set proposition, and show the consensus of authority, like the Lombard. His chief source is Gregory’s Moralia. Prosper of Aquitaine, a younger contemporary and disciple of Augustine, compiled from Augustine’s works a book of Sentences, a still slighter affair than Isidore’s (Migne, Pat. Lat. 51, col. 427-496).

34  For example, Reason begins her reply thus: “Quaeso te, anima, obsecro te, deprecor te, imploro te, ne quid ultra leviter agas, ne quid inconsulte geras, ne temere aliquid facias,” etc. (Migne 83, col. 845).

35  De rerum natura, Praefatio (Migne 83, col. 963).

36  See Prolegomena to Becker’s edition.

37  Migne 82, col. 367.

38  See Kübler, “Isidorus-Studien,” Hermes xxv. (1890), 497, 518, and literature there cited.

An analysis of the Etymologies would be out of the question. But the captions of the twenty books into which it is divided will indicate the range of Isidore’s intellectual interests and those of his time:

I.  De grammatica.

II.  De rhetorica et dialectica.

III.  De quatuor disciplinis mathematicis. (Thus the first three books contain the Trivium and Quadrivium.)

IV.  De medicina. (A brief hand-book of medical terms.)

V.  De legibus et temporibus. (The latter part describes the days, nights, weeks, months, years, solstices and equinoxes. It is hard to guess why this was put in the same book with Law.)

VI.  De libris et officiis ecclesiasticis. (An account of the books of the Bible and the services of the Church.)

VII.  De Deo, angelis et fidelium ordinibus.

VIII.  De ecclesia et sectis diversis.

IX.  De linguis, gentibus, regnis, etc. (Concerning the various peoples of the earth and their languages, and other matters.)

X.  Vocum certarum alphabetum. (An etymological vocabulary of many Latin words.)

XI.  De homine et portentis. (The names and definitions of the various parts of the human body, ages of life, and prodigies and monsters.)

XII.  De animalibus.

XIII.  De mundo et partibus. (The universe and its parts — atoms, elements, sky, thunder, winds, waters, etc.)

XIV.  De terra et partibus. (Gographical.)

XV.  De aedificiis et agris. (Cities, their public constructions, houses, temples, and the fields.)

XVI.  De lapidibus et metallis. (Stones, metals, and their qualities curious and otherwise.)

XVII.  De rebus rusticis. (Trees, herbs, etc.)

XVIII.  De bello et ludis. (On war, weapons, armour; on public games and the theatre.)

XIX.  De navibus, aedificiis et vestibus. (Ships, their parts and equipment, buildings and their decoration; garments and their ornament.)

XX.  De penu et instrumentis domesticis et rusticis. (On wines and provisions, and their stores and receptacles.)

39  The exaggerated growth of grammatical and rhetorical studies is curiously shown by the mass of words invented to indicate the various kinds of tropes and figures. See the list in Bede, De schematis (Migne 90, col. 175 sqq.).


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