In a fine article on Burckhardt’s Cultural History of the Greeks, Glen Bowersock pointed out how so many of Burckhardt’s insights into Late Antiquity, and among the comments in his magnificent Lectures on the Study of History, are also to be found in the works of Peter Brown.[1] Both of them scholars of prodigious erudition, Burckhardt taught everything from Gilgamesh to Napoleon III, and Brown knows more languages and more sources than Burckhardt could have known. But there is perhaps, as in all good spy stories, a Third Man.


If I were to write a book about the Transformation of the Roman World it would start, not with the heather on the plains of Adrianople or the merits of the Visigothic cavalry, but with a learned Spanish bishop, a man as learned as Burckhardt, and a man who had read  texts that Brown could never read. When W. M. Lindsay made his great edition of the Etymologiae, sitting in St Andrews or traveling Europe in search of manuscripts, from Queen’s College Oxford to the Vatican and St Gall,

it was because Isidore was essential readings for classicists, who know how to weigh up every quotation of Lucretius. And Isidore quotes many authors whose works are largely lost, scraps of Suetonius, echoes of Ennius, lines of Livy. Burckhardt famously listed the names we know that the Athenians gave to their dogs, Isidore will tell you the names of horses, piebald and skewbald, or the names of all the fishes of the world, or the names of your second cousin once removed. You cannot write a book like SPQR without facts found in Isidore.


And Isidore had great expectations, he hoped that people would benefit from his book. Anyone who has sold encyclopedias, as unemployed graduates had to do before Wikipedia made the job lighter, knows the lure of having an education at your fingertips. UK newspapers boosted their circulation by giving the 11th edition of the Britannica as a part of a new subscription, and for the Humanities that is still the best edition, for they got entries from the best scholars, and some of us need to know the population of Chicago in 1911. And Isidore included a history of the world as best he knew it, rather weak on China and India, but he knew where they were.

So perhaps, in the days when our students start with Wikipedia, and sometimes go beyond it, and our masters tell us that as we have Wikipedia we need not teach anyone what it contains, we might use Isidore as a yardstick to measure what knowledge the Merovingians had, what freight the transformers of the Roman world wanted to cram into their coracles, or stuff into their Irish knapsacks, as they tried to sell learning, in Notker’s tall tale. Erudition is much less valuable than originality, but the burden of the past is the learning that was kept when the books were lost, or burned as pagan, or used to wrap relics in. If the 21st century is already as brutal as the “Dark ages” perhaps the sage of Seville is the man to give us a reminder of the world we have, always, lost, and the need, as Burckhardt insisted on categories with which to organise our thoughts. For narrative history has been done better than it can be done in an age where no one can read, or even know, quite how much is being published, in the international language which has become the counterpart to Vulgar Latin.

[1] “Burckhardt on Late Antiquity from the Constantin to the Griechische Kulturgeschichte,” in Begegnungen mit Jakob Burckhardt (Beiträge zu Jakob Burckhardt, Bd. 4), ed. A. Cesana and L. Gossman (Basel, 2004), pp. 215-28