Damián Fernández

Introduction to Visigothic Symposia 1 (pdf)

For an outsider to the field of Visigothic studies, the scholarship of post-imperial Iberia may seem overwhelmingly concerned with legal history. This may not have been a problem for earlier generations of Visigothic scholars, raised within the historiographical household of institutional history. We have inherited from the founding figures of Visigothic studies a voluminous historical literature in which the normative tone features prominently – that is, a reconstruction of political and social history based on Visigothic notions of how politics and society should work. While classical institutional history was perfectly happy with deriving social practice from legal norms, scholars felt increasingly uncomfortable with this transition. This unease became even more noticeable after the 1980s with the broader impact of cultural studies and new political history in the late antique and early medieval fields.

What the outsider may not always know is that Visigothic history had no choice but to rely on legal sources. In addition to short but important legal or para-legal sources, the Breviary of Alaric, the Liber Iudiciorum, and Church councils make for a large part of the sixth- and seventh-century evidence. Their importance is not only quantitative, as they make up a significant percentage of the extant evidentiary corpus, but also relates to their coverage. For many areas of post-imperial Iberia’s social life, legal documents are the only available source. Thus, Visigothic historians constantly face a frustrating feeling of incompleteness in their conclusions, even more than their colleagues working on post-imperial Italy or Gaul (although we must feel fortunate in comparison to the documentary dearth of post-Roman Britain). We are often left with just one option of reconstructing Visigothic society out of the commanding words of laws and councils. While the growing importance of archaeological research has begun to reverse the overpowering presence of legal texts, post-imperial archaeology is still catching up with the better documented material culture of the Roman and late-Roman period.

Using normative sources to recreate non-legal areas of Visigothic history is not without challenges. We must carefully assess what the legal documents can and cannot tell us, as well as approach them from as many analytical perspectives as possible. This is what the papers of this symposium attempt to achieve. By discussing normative documents (legal, ecclesiastical, and even theological), the contributions grapple with sources on how society (or the cosmos) was supposed to work and use these texts to recreate power structures, social practices, and intellectual developments. The symposium’s arrangement of the papers under the subheadings of “Theology” and “Law” should not prevent the reader from also noticing the common theme that unites the contributions. We are dealing with distinct yet interconnected normative worlds, discourses that aimed at explaining the underpinnings and operation of regulations in both secular and religious spheres. As several papers will make patent, such a distinction is rather artificial, and does not give full account for the complexities and dynamics behind the production and application of norms in every area of Visigothic life.

Whether we agree with “continuist” or a “rupturist” views of the Visigothic kingdom vis-à-vis the Roman empire, the normative worlds of post-imperial Iberia disclose the constant elaboration of principles that could accommodate the realities of a changing world. For instance, Visigothic sources reveal the shaking and reshaping of political domination in the aftermath of empire. The end of Roman administration forced a redefinition in the relationship between rulers and the kingdom’s elite. The presence of a royal court in Toledo may have acted as a centripetal force, but it had to face the centrifugal pull of controlling a territory with a more limited bureaucracy. In order to understand the dynamics between court and social elites, Eleonora Dell’Elicine and Paulo Pachá approach normative sources in order to explain the political and social forces behind their implementation. Dell’Elicine argues that anti-idolatrous canonical legislation sought to mobilize the support of landowners in the eradication of so-called paganism. The ultimate goal of the council rulings (and the monarchy’s) was to incorporate (or control) landowners into a centralized system of administration. While Dell’Elicine’s argument seems to side with a rather pessimistic perspective on the monarchy’s effectiveness, Pachá presents a more optimistic view. According to him, collaboration, rather than opposition, characterized the structural relationship between monarchy and aristocracy. His paper tackles the discussions over royal legislation in Church councils during the reigns of Chindaswinth and Recceswinth, two kings traditionally considered respectively “harsh” and “weak” towards the aristocracy. Pachá maintains there is more continuity in the relationship between kings and elites than scholars have traditionally acknowledged, and he bases his argument on the consensus-seeking attitude of both monarchs in the area of law. All in all, Dell’Elicine and Pachá invite us to consider how discussions and enactments of legal norms were intertwined with social forces and the ways in which political domination was reproduced and negotiated in a post-imperial kingdom.

The end of empire also opened opportunities for new political actors to emerge. Prominent among them were the Christian bishops, whose rise to power is the subject of a vast scholarship. Yet how and to what extent bishops became part of the structures of political domination is still a matter of debate within and outside the confines of Visigothic studies. Isabel Velázquez’s and Flora Gusmão’s contributions offer two answers to the question from different perspectives. Both authors aim at explaining the intricate relationship between secular law and ecclesiastical authority. Velázquez argues that the role of the laws confirming the canons of a council gave these ecclesiastical rulings a value similar to royal legislation. Like Pachá, Velázquez sees councils as intersections of royal, episcopal, and aristocratic interests. Her paper invites us to reconsider the boundaries between royal and canonical legislation, and to read the laws confirming council rulings as more than a simple formality. Gusmão’s argument also blurs traditionally stark distinctions between ecclesiastical and secular legal authority. She claims that collaboration between Christian and royal authority in the Visigothic kingdom manifested itself in the multiple tasks of bishops, both in the purely ecclesiastical realm and in the administration of justice and secular affairs at the local level. Thus, bishops were not only legislators in the secular sense of the term (Velázquez), but they were also part of the institutional infrastructure that applied legislation (Gusmão).

As cultural studies of late antique and early medieval politics have made clear in the last decades, the rise of the bishop was part of a much broader phenomenon of redefinition of political discourse. The post-imperial period witnessed the emergence of innovative notions of government, which are commonly referred to as “pastoral.” Christian intellectuals provided a language to define authority based on the notion of “rulers of souls.” In the world of Gregory the Great (d. 604) and other Christian intellectuals, rulers of souls were not only kings, but also less impressive characters of a world without empire, such as warlords, bishops, abbots, and any person with others under their care. Did Visigothic legal texts, whether secular or ecclesiastical, capture these ideas?

The papers by Dolores Castro and Capucine Nemo-Pekelman indicate that this was the case by directing our attention to the question of salvation in normative literature. Castro focuses on the “Creation of Man” in Isidore’s works, such the Sententiae and De ortu et obitu Patrum. Castro offers us a close reading of the sources, arguing that these passages were specifically intended to inform the clergy of the role of the Church in the care of souls. Nemo-Pekelman, on the other hand, tackles the question of salvation and grace in relation to the question of the forced baptisms of Jews under Sisebut and the rulings of the Fourth Council of Toledo. Her paper points out the theological underpinnings of the policy towards Jews in Isidore’s time in comparison to the stricter view developed in later councils (she mentions Twelve Toledo, but the argument holds validity for subsequent ecclesiastical policy). In both papers, then, we are invited to reflect upon the salvific concerns of ecclesiastical intellectuals in the production of normative, ecclesiastical literature.

While the abovementioned papers propose explanations on how legal texts may help us understand social and political change in the Visigothic kingdom, other contributions invite us to consider how the Liber Iudiciorum was used to deliver various messages beyond its purely legal dimension. We are reminded that Visigothic law was not merely a vehicle of Roman and, to a lesser extent, Germanic legal traditions, but instruments that could serve multiple purposes. Michael J. Kelly argues that Recceswinth’s version of the Liber Iudiciorum was meant to promote dynastic ideas as well as the king’s own sense of a Christian history. Kelly believes that Recceswinth used the promulgation of the Code to negotiate concessions with the kingdom’s elite and to create a sense of history in which history prior to his father’s reign and his own blurred into an undistinguishable past. The reigns of Chindaswinth and Recceswinth brought a new era that merged Catholic kingship with royal legislation. Ruth Miguel Franco’s paper suggests that Braulio of Zaragoza’s intervention in the organization of the Code involved more than simply allocating laws into books and chapters, as traditionally believed. Rather, she argues that Braulio’s intervention involved, among other things, adapting non-normative texts to the framework of a legal Code. Finally, Ksenia Bonch Reeves’s contribution is concerned with the uses of the Liber Iudiciorumin the period that followed the collapse of the Visigothic Kingdom. In particular, her paper looks at the way in which the portrayal of Jews in Visigothic legislation was used to define Muslims in the early Asturian kingdom. These three papers remind us that the Code conveyed multiple messages or, perhaps, it could be deployed to convey multiple messages in different contexts. If treated carefully and thoroughly, legal documents, like ecclesiastical norms, can give us access to practices and ideas in the Visigothic kingdom.

All these papers offer different vistas on the use of prescriptive Visigothic documents. They invite us to bridge the stark divide between canonical and legal sources, between Christian and Roman ideas, and between literary genres, all of which dominated earlier generations of Visigothic studies. More importantly, perhaps, the contributions in this symposium offer templates to approach legal sources from different angles and reconstruct the otherwise exasperatingly silent society of post-imperial Iberia.


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