Isabel Velázquez – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium I, Panel 1: Theology – 
Theology and Laws in Visigothic Hispania: A Diversity of Perspectives on the Analysis of the Textual Sources (pdf)

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

The initiative of Dolores Castro and Michael J. Kelly of publishing this Visigothic Symposium series, which will have its parallel in others such as the Ostrogothic Symposium, now in preparation, is worthy because it involves the opportunity for several researchers to return to topics related to the Visigothic period, based around two fundamental and connected topics, law and theology. However, the initiative is also useful and welcome because of the format of putting forward a brief consideration or response by the authors themselves on the set of works comprising the volume; this is an innovative way to broaden and offer new points of view on the contributions. At least, in my case, the reading of my colleagues’ works in this Visigothic Symposium has been enriching, and it has allowed me to ponder several specific aspects, which seem to be particularly interesting. I will focus, however, on the work of my own panel, Panel 1: Theology.

Setting out to speak about law and theology in the Visigothic period may result, one may initially figure, in something expected, or, at the very least, present the usual difficult task of separating the topics, given the close relationship between civil and religious power and the omnipresence of religion in Visigoth ordinary society. However, in many cases, the research here has opted to deal with the theological issues and those related to the law or jurisdiction separately. It is for this reason that the attempt to address both aspects complementarily or jointly is certainly innovative.

Surely, a fine way to start on such a research task is by exploring something that can be considered as nuclear, namely, the Christian conception of the human being – created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1.26), but who is a mortal and a sinner – and the extent to which this conception determined, or better yet directed and inspired, the behavior of the thinkers and the writers behind the ecclesiastical hierarchies. The vision conveyed by these figures, their charisma and influence on the political life of Visigothic Hispania, affected social life itself and had a major impact on its legislative procedures.

The study of Dolores Castro revolves around the concept of the human in Isidore of Seville, as especially exemplified in his Sententiae and De ortu et obitu Patrum. In the first chapters of the Sententiae, Isidore explains the differences between the Creator and Creation. He then presents an allegorical reading of the Scriptures, discussing how the various animals, such as the lamb, the lion, etc. reflect some of the characteristics of the nature of divinity. However, it is the soul of man and not his corporal nature, that projects the image of God.

In this regard, I would like to recall the words that Isidore writes in the ninth book of the Etymologiae (Etym. 9.3.3), where he explains that man, as any being in nature, exists according to divine will. This also includes portentous beings, those who seem to have been created contra natura; if they actually exist, it is also by divine will: “Portenta esse Varro ait quae contra naturam nata videntur: sed non sunt contra naturam, quia divine voluntate fiunt, cum voluntas creatoris conditae cuiusque rei naturae sit.”

The world is the sum of all things in heaven and the earth. Isidore establishes parallels between the world and the human, as Dolores Castro notes. Because of this, Isidore, in his magnum opus, the Etymologiae, introduces us to the knowledge of the world in its most varied aspects. Book 9, dedicated to man and people, Book 12, to the animal world, and Book 16, to the stones, earth, etc., represent not only the global compendium of knowledge that had been received from the ancient world in his time, but they are also the introduction of alternative realities through the studied lexicon or the new meanings that words assume on the basis of different realities or terms coined for them.[2]

In the Etymologiae, Isidore never abandons his religious vision – the presence of the Creator and his performance upon his creatures, whether they are living beings or any other element of the world. Sometimes, more straightforwardly, as in the passage quoted above, and at other points less overtly, Isidore conveys his conceptions of divinity. In the same way, the Etymologiae, like the rest of his works, show the didactic nature of his writings, his eagerness for the preaching and the teaching of people and, therefore, the nuclear role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in transmitting the teachings of the faith.

In this context, it can be remembered how much these Isidorian approaches became extensively impactful and even crucial in the Middle Ages. It is possible to cite here, only by way of a cursory example, the deep impact that Isidore’s Book 12 exerted on a very particular set of texts, the medieval bestiaries.[3] Starting from the premise that everything that exists in the material world is by the will of the Creator, Isidore becomes the basic source of the so-called Second and Third Family bestiaries. It is not a coincidence that one of the most important sources, although there are many others, is the Hexaemeron of Ambrose of Milan, which deals precisely with the creation of the world in six days, teaching and explaining the texts of the world and is of great symbolic and religious value.

Man and the world, reflected in these works or in the Etymologiae, are imperfect. The likeness of God does not prevent mortal beings from being imperfect and, in the case of humanity, some of its imperfections are not due to its mortal nature, but to the sin in its individual souls, which are immortal. The evil that arises internally, the sin, is the big concern of Isidore. No one, not even the kings, can escape from the condition of sinners, even though they may feel superior to others. How do you get, then, the conversion of the sinful person, his return to the path of faith and virtuous life? On the one hand, through the imitation of the saints (some models of holiness and sinners referred to in the Scriptures are described in De ortu et obitu Patrum) and on the other hand, through the guidance of the Church. To this end, Isidore is concerned with the training and education of the clergy, because only educated and well-trained clerics will be able to achieve these goals.

Within the teaching role of clerics is highlighted the fundamental role of the bishops, whose doctrinal and pastoral work is unquestionable; but not only this, also their role as judges and as guides and protectors of their diocese and the community of the faithful. The article of Flora Gusmão analyzes in detail the role played by the bishops in Visigothic Hispania, through a set of laws of the Liber Iudiciorum. It is absolute evidence of the close relationship between the political power and the religious. The author makes a fast and accurate journey throughout the role of the bishops, from the time when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, acquired its leadership role, became one of the most representative urban powers, and developed its authority in dioceses. As I also discuss in my essay, this reflects the situation as it emerged in Visigothic Hispania, with authority derived from the close and hierarchical relations between the monarchy and the church, associated with a powerful aristocracy.

Gusmão focuses the study on the Liber Iudiciorum, where, through a set of laws, it is observed that the power conferred to them by the law, as in LI 2.1.22, where the bishop’s role as judge – even judge of judges – and head of the community is settled. This study interrogates the different laws in which the power of the bishops is established, including those addressing the punishment that the bishops may suffer when they break the law; ultimately, this study demonstrates well the role of the bishops in Visigothic Hispania.[4]

The intimate relationship between the bishops and the monarchy is seen in the meetings of the councils. The latter situation is especially visible in the case of the Third Council of Toledo (III Toledo), which is why, in my contribution, I wanted to analyze the so-called leges in confirmationem concilii as a clear exponent of these relationships and to show to what extent these laws are a sort of conduit for a circular schematic of legislative authorization. The king approves what the bishops propose in the councils but, at the same time, the bishops approve and support the requests of the king, more or less directly, through the tomus regio. In fact, I think that formally these laws are set only in the physical presence of the king or, at the very least, when he puts forth the tomus regio at the beginning of the meeting. For this reason, from the work I analyzed, all those leges in the councils, I suggest that such a leges is enacted even in V Toledo, under the chairmanship of Chintila (636), whose character has been discussed in the traditional literature.

Reaching back, at least for the moment, to the initial approach of this comment on the contributions to the Theology part of this Visigothic Symposium. I refer to the approach of Dolores Castro on the conception of man in Isidore of Seville as a starting point. If man is imperfect and sinful, in Visigoth society it is a particular manifestation of man’s sin that really seems to worry the ecclesiastical hierarchy, not only Isidore, as well as the political hierarchy, to a great deal, and that is: the survival of paganism.

However, in a subtle and detailed analysis of the sources, Eleonora dell’Elicine, enables us to see that, due to this concern for paganism, other forms of coercion and persecution are consolidated. These forms of persecution or punishment, such as the penalty of excommunication, constitute authentic mechanisms of the imposition of power, based on territorial control. To illustrate this, the author analyzes in detail the eleventh canon of XII Toledo (681). Based on the review of select recent works, she distinguishes between the survival of paganism and the manifestations of pastoral and canonical sources on how to correct these deviations from the faith.[5]

From the written sources of that time emerges the image that pagan practices were a legitimate problem and that there were clearly ‘still’ active types of idolatry. It is worth noting, in this regard, the correctione rusticorum from Martin of Braga in the sixth century. In that, Martin presents an overview of the survival of superstitious beliefs and then offers a benevolent solution to a problem that is attributed to the ignorance of the rustici. He advises his readers on how to explain, in a simple way, the truths of the Bible and Christianity to convince rustici of Gallaecia of the Christian message. This attitude of Martin, and to some extent Isidore, had little bearing though, as Dolores Castro reminds us, on the issue of Jews and what the conciliar canons had been imposing for decades. But, beyond the problem of the potential survival of real, historically-grounded pagan practices and idolatries, which could have been the case, what Eleonora dell’Elicine importantly reveals is the existence of a hierarchy of authority interpreting or imagining pagan practices as a way to increase, in turn, their own respective power. This extended from the king’s authority to the exercise of the dominici and possessores power upon the famuli and, on the whole, the ability to exert control over society through territorial dominion. Dell’Elicine, does not forget here the role of the monarch, especially that assumed by Erwig, who, in his tomus, presents himself as a new Moses that, in an apocalyptic tone about the future of a world where idolatry and evil persist, introduces himself as the princeps able to achieve victory in the name of and as a leader of Christianity.

The studies cited affect, in one way or another, the need for the direct study of the textual sources. In this sense, the study of Jacques Elfassi, one of the world’s foremost experts on Isidore of Seville, contributes to this section on theology with the analysis of sources of Sententiae I.10, on angelology, completing the work already addressed by Cazier.[6] The problem of the identification of the sources in Isidore and his way of working is complex and, although it has been dealt with several times, especially on the occasion of the critical edition of his works, it is still an open subject susceptible to further critical elaboration. And this is what Elfassi masterfully carries out in his essay. In it, he newly identifies the influences on Isidore of passages from Augustine, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory the Great, Quodvultdeus and Cassian, while also discarding previously believed textual influences.

Elfassi’s methodology is flawless and it reinforces the need for the thorough analysis of Visigothic texts, their possible intertextual relationships, the sources from which they derive, and how the texts themselves serve as a model for later ones. In this sense, and without moving on now to commenting on the other group of articles in Visigothic Symposium 1 – which largely focus on reading the Liber Iudiciorum and deal with some issues already here addressed – I would like to conclude here with mention of the new project that we have begun and that has emerged from the exchange of ideas to develop this volume, and it is the preparation of a new critical edition of the Liber Iudiciorum led by Michael J. Kelly and myself, with a magnificent team of specialists from different areas of research. We believe that, more than a century after Zeumer’s edition, it is necessary to develop a new edition based on the exhaustive study of all manuscripts and a combination of different areas of knowledge in order to establish a rigorous and definitive text from which new visions could arise, updated by the immense wealth of scientific studies that the Liber Iudiciorum offers.


[1] This article has been translated from the original Spanish by Patricia Di Gialleonardo, Buenos Aires University, Humanities College.

[2] Cf. Isabel Velázquez, Latine dicitur, Vulgo vocant. Aspectos de la lengua escrita y hablada a través de las obras gramaticales de Isidoro de Sevilla (La Rioja: Fundación San Millán de la Cogolla, 2003).

[3] If the reader will allow to me mention this set of texts on which I’ve been working.

[4] On the role of judges and bishops, cf. the essential book by Carlos Petit, Iustitia Gothica: Historia social y Teología del Proceso en la Lex Visigothorum (Huelva: Universidad de Huelva, 2001).

[5] Bernadette Filotas, Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005) and Céline Martin, “De sacrilegiis extirpandis. Interpretar la legislación contra el paganismo en la Hispania de los siglos VI- VII,” in La Iglesia como sistema de dominación en la Antigüedad Tardía, ed. José Fernández Ubiña, Alberto Quiroga Puertas and Purificación Ubric Rabaneda (Granada: Universidad de Granada, 2015).

[6] Pierre Cazier, Isidorus Hispalensis Sententiae, CCSL 111 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1998). Also, the study by Attilio Carpin, Angeli e demòni nella sintesi patristica di Isidoro di Siviglia (Bologna: Edizioni Studio Domenicano, 2004).

CC license logo - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.png