Fernando Ruchesi – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium 3, Panel 1: Communication (pdf)

(*En Portugués aquí; En Español aquí; En français ici)

This third Visigothic Symposium addresses the broad topic of information, and it is organized in two panels: communication and circulation. These subjects are explored by the contributors in a variety of ways as they pertain to events in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic period. Panel 1 explores the functioning and uses of “communication,” which is analyzed from diverse perspectives: cultural (engineering and other knowledge and its transmission), political and ideological (the integration and acceptance of converts inside Visigothic society and Christianity in general; the uses of history and its texts to foster unity and control some factions of the aristocracy), and military (the creation of a professional Visigothic army, and the way this worked).

In the Visigothic kingdom, information was produced and circulated not only through (and by means of) aristocratic male circles, but also had to reach all levels of society, such as peasants, craftsmen, women, freedmen, priests, as well as those who were part of known ethnic labels: Gothic, Hispano-Roman, Catholic, Arian, Suevi, Eastern-Roman, amongst others. Communication, therefore, adopted diverse forms, according to historical necessity, to reach all of these audiences and to fulfill particular objectives, usually ideological or political in nature. Of course, the extant information is scarce, and there are many details lacking regarding certain characteristics of society, or concerning the manner in which particular things worked within the regnum.

It is likely, however, that communication functioned within the Visigothic kingdom similar to how it worked within the rest of the post-Roman kingdoms during the sixth, seventh, and eight centuries, that is to say, by graduated levels of importance. This is shown by Javier Martínez Jiménez in his study of the building of aqueducts and the circulation of complex building techniques. Skilled knowledge on the construction and maintenance of these colossal projects was lost or probably abandoned for some reason during the course of Visigothic political hegemony. As Martínez Jiménez explains, the demand for the construction and maintenance of such structures was reduced in the post-Roman period and this specific knowledge and its transmission were lost, together with engineering training. These changes are related to the disappearance of the late Roman state apparatus and the prestige of civic construction was replaced by religious building. In this manner, this new culture modified building experiences and urban landscapes, a process through which Christianity exerted increasing influence. Nevertheless, there were some exceptions: for example, Martínez Jiménez argues that the aqueduct at the site of Reccopolis was built using the knowledge of engineers from the Eastern Roman Empire, thus, the demand reappeared briefly in the context of the organization of the Visigothic state, but since most of this knowledge was lost, the authorities had to look elsewhere to fulfill their aims.

For theological and politics reasons, it would seem, communication may have taken on a role contrary to that of the mere transmission of technical knowledge. This is specifically the case of the status of the Jewish converts in the Visigothic Kingdom, as Liuvov Chernin analyzes in her contribution to this Visigothic Symposium. From a religious point of view, the monarchy and the ecclesiastic aristocracy created and spread the anti-Jewish campaign in order to force mass conversions and hence integrate this other into the body of Visigothic society. Therefore, communication played an essential role in the transmission of these measures, and this was done through the publication of the laws of Chindaswinth (642-653), and Ervig (680-687). On the other hand, these laws sought to create a consensus to update the legal situation of Jews and Jewish converts. This legal status was inherited from the days of the Roman Empire, in which Jews were considered as cives romani. In this particular case, this information was written down within the aforementioned law codes, and we can suppose that they had been widespread throughout the realm, since the court needed to communicate this situation to the respective local or regional authorities.

From a religious point of view, the monarchy and the ecclesiastic aristocracy needed to construct and maintain an other, in this case, reflected in the aforementioned Jewish converts, with the objective of reinforcing the inner ideological and religious affiliation of most of the society. This ideological construction was conformed during the seventh century, probably some decades after the conversion of Reccared and the choice of Catholicism as the official cult in Hispania. But the other was also represented by Basques and Eastern Romans (between the second half of the sixth century and the first quarter of the seventh), communities that, of course, received a different status to that of Jews and Jewish converts in the written sources. The Eastern Romans had to be expelled from southern Hispania, as Isidore of Seville explains in his Historia Gothorum, as part of the political project of territorial unification of the regnum. On the other hand, the Basques appear repeatedly in Julian of Toledo’s Historia Wambae Regis, as an enemy established within the northern corners of the realm, which demanded the attention of the monarchy.

From an economic or materialist perspective, communication represented a double-edge sword. In the case of the Jewish converts, for example, despite the laws attempting to “integrate” them through conversion, the reality was somewhat different. As Chernin demonstrates, the situation was complex and the status of converted Jews never ceased to present difficulties, since it was quite hard for them to completely abandon the status of converts; this was a “category in between” (with its own rights and obligations which were different to those of Christians). In practice, authorities needed them to remain within this subgroup, so that Jewish converts would be forced to pay a special tax. This measure was perhaps the result of the rejection of integration (the acceptance of Christianity) by Jewish converts: authorities tried to take advantage of such rejection in order to collect more income. And income was always important for the maintenance of a professional bureaucracy, and, more importantly, for the support of a professional army which, as Osborne clearly suggests, had its origins during the reigns of Liuvigild (569-586) and Reccared (586-601).

From an ideological perspective communication and contra-information must have served to foster cohesion among different communities, sometimes at a micro-level, inside communities which opposed certain norms imposed by the legitimate secular and ecclesiastical authority (as in the case of Jews and converted Jewish groups), and sometimes, at a macro-regional level, at which information and communication served to construct a general sense of unity to face a major problem or surpass a difficulty. When the latter was the case, such processes usually took place in the context of military confrontation: for instance, in the particular case of the Frankish invasion of 585, which promoted a rhetoric that favored a sense of unity which included inhabitants of Narbonne and Lusitania, since Dux Claudius had his bastion of power in Lusitania and from there marched to Narbonne to stop the Frankish invasion, as Osborne explains in detail in his contribution.

Communication and cohesion were thus closely related during the Early Middle Ages in Western Europe. And at the same time, both were related to political and ideological matters, as I described above. In this regard, there is another example of how communication played a vital role in religious cohesion in the episodes related to the episcopate of Pope Innocent I (401-417). He wrote a series of letters to the bishops of Hispania in order to solve the problem between ex-Priscillianists (those who accepted the Nicene Creed after Toledo I, in 400), the bishops who agreed to incorporate them, and those bishops who did not agree to the inclusion of the former Priscillianists within the structure of the Church. These letters clearly demonstrate, in this regard, the role of communication and how it worked to achieve cohesion, in this example, concerning theological and political reasons. And here Ferreiro argues that the intervention of Innocent had the purpose of preventing a possible schism within the structures of the still-organizing church in the Western half of the Roman Empire. This is interesting since it reminds us of the aforementioned case of Jewish converts centuries later. The similitudes are visible: it was a political decision which involved the acceptance (or not) of a repentant dissident group inside official Christianity, which carried the risk of letting the now included group (the Priscillianists) resume their practices, this time under the wing of the official Nicene Creed (this was the perspective of those bishops who opposed the acceptance of the ex-Priscillianists). In this regard, the bishops of Hispania were exhorted to finish this dispute by Pope Innocent I, who resorted to the argument of the Petrine Primacy and taking the precedent of cannon six of the First Council of Nicaea.

As we can see through the essays presented in this third Visigothic Symposium, communication had a variety of ways of being used and implemented, and thus, played a variety of different roles, which were related to many aspects of social and political life in Visigothic society. Military matters and the ideological role that communication and information took are interesting examples of this: the way the circulation of texts and news could foster unity to find a solution to political problems, internal and external, as I tried to demonstrate in my own contribution. And here the same could be said concerning those sectors of society which were not totally integrated to Late Hispano-Roman or Visigothic society, from a political and religious point of view, as the examples of the Priscillianists and the Jewish converts display. Finally, communication could reflect the way some knowledge was preferred or how some kind of knowledge fell into disuse throughout the years, such as those techniques related to colossal building.

In the end, this third Visigothic Symposium helped us to comprehend and show some of the misconceptions about the History of the Middle Ages, and especially the Early Middle ages, which unfortunately are still widespread. The essays presented in this symposium clearly show that the society of the Iberian Peninsula during the fifth through seventh centuries was far from being obsolete, contactless, unorganized, or even defenseless. Indeed, the contributions to this Visigothic symposium clearly demonstrate how law was applied to organize territory and settle disputes, and the manner in which law also was (mis)used in some circumstances to gather income. They also show how communication between the different regions of the Peninsula was at its peak of importance, especially in relation to the military organization of the realm and how this structure could respond effectively to an external threat.