Bk 1 xxxvi 10-12 De schematibus (cont)

BDH Mss 490 fol. 8v (scan p.13)

Isidore and Exile.

About Isidore’s history little is known surely, regardless of the confidence with which details are given in hagiographies.

His date of his birth  as  c.560 AD was arrived at merely by subtracting from the year of his appointment as Bishop the earliest age at which such appointments might be made at that time.

Of his birthplace one reads – variously – that it was Seville, or Cartagena, or (more rarely)  North Africa.  That these various proposals co-exist proves that none is certain.

In one modern source, Isidore is said to be the second child of four born to his  parents [1] while another has him the youngest, and so the third brother [2]. All agree his siblings were named Leander (the eldest), Fulgentius and Florentina and his father, Severinus, but  his mother’s name appears as Theodora in some sources and as Turtur in others.  Theodora is impeccably Byzantine;  Turtur is neither Greek nor Roman, and were it Latin, it would be a masculine noun. [3]

[1] e.g. Frank Northen Magill and Alison Aves (eds.), Dictionary of World Biography: The Middle Ages Vol. 2 (1998).

[2] Knoebel (see excerpt reproduced below, right)

[3] Lewis and Short give turtur as masc. third declension (nom. and voc.).   See:  A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1879.  It has been transcribed online [HERE].  One site online  (‘cactus 2000’) has  turtur as both masculine and feminine, but for the feminine Lewis and Short have  turturis  […marinae os] ), and theirs is the standard reference.

Perhaps the most even-handed effort is the short biography written by Knoebel  “with the assistance of  Ruis-Gomez”.  The relevant section is included below (right) Click to enlarge.

There, Knoebel notes that:

“At some point the family moved from Cartagena to Seville. The reasons for the move are not known, but exile resulting from the Byzantine takeover of Cartagena is the most likely cause”

And that suggestion finds apparent confirmation in a curious and constant chain of associations which occur in Isidore’s text whenever the subject alludes to any of the themes of exile, slavery, paternity, war or punitive law.

In some instances, this invariable pattern of association is required by the citation, but in others it seems unconscious, as if a trigger to some trauma over which Isidore’s mind had once circled without release.



A comment in Book I even opens a possibility that one or both of his parents were slaves. In a newly Byzantine-ruled Cartagena (though not in Visigothic Seville) this would mean that marriages contracted by slaves, or former slaves would be automatically annulled, since Byzantine law did not recognise any until 1095, Nor did Byzantine law accept that on marrying a slave might become free. Their children were deemed slaves, still, in Byzantine law even if the father were the owner and a free man.

In Isidore’s time, therefore, though a man might have bought, freed and then married a slave, imposition of Byzantine rule would see the woman returned to the status of a slave, and all the children inheritable as property by his next of kin should he die.  Something of that sort may explain the curious name ‘Turtur’ for Isidore’s mother, and the move to Visigothic Seville, as well as the reason for that bitterness one senses in Isidore’s comments on exile, slavery, paternity and even his unusual acceptance of slaves in the monastic rule he later composed.

Had his mother been non-Roman and a former slave, it would also explain the unusual name for, as we saw in treating an earlier passage, Isidore mentions names given slaves as ignoring classical precedent:

“not all names were established by the ancients from nature; some were established by whim, just as we give names to our slaves and possessions according to what tickles our fancy.”  (Bk I. xxix. 2a-3b)

Treating that passage  we also mentioned the following, from Book V:

“Slavery (servitus) is named from saving (servare), for among the ancients, those who were saved from death in battle were called slaves (servus). This alone is the most extreme of all evils; for free people it is worse than every kind of punishment, for where freedom is lost, everything is lost with it.”(V.xxvii.32).

Again, in Book II the word ‘referre’ leads him to this same chain of associations: family- father and son – master and slave- liberty and death:

‘RELATION’ is what is ‘related’ (referre, ppl. relatus) to something, for when ‘son’ is said, ‘father’ is also indicated. These things arise together as related (relativa). Indeed, ‘slave’ and ‘master’ have a simultaneous onset of the name, nor can a master sometimes be found before a slave, nor a slave before a master, for one cannot exist before the other.” (II.xxvi.7b)

and again (Bk II. xxxix. 13b-14)

… ” elsewhere (Cicero, Philippics 2.113): “Peace is tranquil freedom.” It is also ‘by reproach’ (per vituperationem), which the Greeks call , as (ibid.): “Slavery is the last of all evils, to be repelled not only by war, but also by death.” [14]. The thirteenth species of definition is called  in Greek, and ‘by relationship’ (ad aliquid) in Latin, as is this: “A father is a man who has a son,” “A master is a man who has a slave.”

When one recalls that for Isidore, ‘family life’ apparently ended while he was still very young; that he was separated from most of his siblings who entered separate  centres of church, monastery or convent so  the passage below suggests personal bitterness: not so much for loss of property as of freedom and membership in secular society:

5. A peculium, properly speaking, relates to younger persons or slaves, for a peculium is something that a father allows his son, or a master his slave, to handle as his own. And it is called peculium from ‘livestock’ (pecus), of which all the wealth of the ancients consisted. 6. The possession of goods is [on the other hand] the legal right of possession [proper to free men], acquired following a certain procedure and with a certain title.

Only free men had ‘goods’.  Temporary use of property was all that Slaves, children and monks were permitted, nothing being their own, and anything able to be withdrawn at the master’s pleasure.  Slaves had nothing ‘by right’.

If indeed he were committed to a monastery from a young age, Isidore might never have known what it was to have something he might claim as his own: by  “right of legal possession”.

Even as an adult, his life seems to have been lived in the monastic environment rather than at home, and to obtain so much as the inks and parchment for his books, the work had to be sanctioned and was (in the case of the Etymologies) a work produced on commission from Braulio.   It was an act of generosity that Braulio let it return to him – or more exactly to the library of the monastery or See.  Monks had no ‘goods’ and whether or not be took his vows, Isidore’s life was that of the monk.

Book V.vi contains an especially revealing passage in which this constant series of ideas returns again.  Isidore begins by defining the  Law of Nations, and the order of his description runs from occupation to defenses to acts of war and thence to captivity and enslavement. A logical progression, no doubt, but one with strong personal echoes for a family which had seen Cartagena ruined and three armies take the city – each within a generation of the next – and the last affecting Isidore’s own family.

vi. What the law of nations is (Quid sit ius gentium)  1. The law of nations concerns the occupation of territory, building, fortification, wars, captivities, enslavements… “

and the order in which he lists the positive side of the ‘ius gentium‘ is:

the right of return, treaties of peace, truces…” 

Speaking of punishments and ‘exile at a distance, Isidore returns to these same things, linked in the same associations:

4. Cicero writes that eight types of punishment are contained in the laws, that is, fines, fetters, lashes, compensation in kind, disgrace, exile, slavery, and death (cf. On the Orator 1.194) …  Exile (exilium) is so called as if it were ‘outside the country’ (extra solum), for someone who is outside the country is called an exile (exul). Whence postliminium (i.e. the restoration of rank and privileges) for those who return, that is, those who are brought back from exile, who were cast out undeservedly, that is, cast out beyond the borders (limen) of their native land. Exile is divided into those who are relegatus and those who are deportatus. 29. A relegatus is one whose possessions accompany him; a deportatus is not so accompanied. Proscription (proscriptio) is a condemnation of exile at a distance, as if it were a ‘writing afar’ (porro scriptio). Also, because it is ‘publicly drawn up’.[V.xxvii. 28-30]


  • Gordon B. Ford (trans.), Saint Isidore (of Seville), Letters, (1966) Centro di Studi sull’Antico Cristianesmimo (Faustino Arévalo ed.), Universita di Catania.
  • Stephen A. Barney, (ed.and trans.) et.al., The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Appendix: Correspondence of Isidore and Braulio’ (pp.407-414)
  • Thomas L. Knoebel’s Short Biography of Isidore is in his  English translation of the Lawsons’ critical edition of De Ecclesiasticis Officis published in 1989 as Volume 113 of the series Corpus Christianorum, Knoebel’s translation has been published as Vol. 61 in the Ancient Christian Writers series (2008). 
  • See Roger Collins’ review of  The Politics of Identity in Visigothic Spain: Religion and Power in the Histories of Isidore of Seville. By Jamie Wood. [Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages, Vol. 21.] Boston: Brill. 2012. Pp. xii, 275. $151.00. ISBN 978-9-004-20990-9.)
  • Ulrike Roth, ‘ “Peculum”, Freedom, Citizenship: Golden Triangle or Viscious Circle? An Act in Two Parts’,  Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement
    No. 109: By the Sweat of Your Brow: Roman Slavery in its Socio-Economic Setting (2010) pp. 91-120. (JSTOR)



Composite: detail from an illustration in MS Loan 88  f.2r (‘The Becket Leaves’ – the king orders exile for Beckett’s family and friends; inset band (detail) from Brit.Lib. Add MS 42130 f.14v

band1. from a Greek ms.  (detail) Brit.Lib. Add MS 34654  f.264v;  2. edited from a detail in the  La Cava Bible Visigothic. Second half of the 9thC.   (La Biblioteca Statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Codex Cavensis 1 ). To see more of it, see the video program (in Italian).

Motif – detail from Brit.Lib. Additional MS 62925 (The Rutland Psalter)  f.13r

            Postscript:  The Becket Leaves  (British Library, Department of Manuscripts, Loan 88).

  • In  1988 Janet Backhouse and Christopher de Hamel provided the British Library’s reproduction of these leaves with an introduction but no transcription or translation. Backhouse believes it was written by Mathew Paris; de Hamel does not.  The Library attributes its production to Canterbury.
  • In 2000, C.J. Birkett translated the text from Old French into English, publishing that translation with an Introduction and short annotated Bibliography (Feb. 2001).  Efforts at hotlinking failed, so I give the web address: //www.angelfire.com/pa4/becketleaves/
  • While I cannot persuade the British Library ‘search’ functions to turn up the Becket Leaves they are all illustrated  in the Wikimedia Commons page [HERE].


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