Jorge Carlos Arias – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium 2, Panel 1: Space (pdf)

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

In preparing this response I have been overjoyed to get to work with some very engaging and edifying readings, so I cannot thank all the contributors enough for this. At first, I found it difficult to find common threads through the readings in Panel 1. The essays are not only varied in their perspectives, fields and methodologies, but even when they address our central theme of space they often do it at different scales. Renan Frighetto investigates across the Roman Empire, my paper mostly at the level of a late Roman province, Céline Martin within a long established geographic region, and Jamie Wood and Gutiérrez et al. at the level of buildings.

However, after some moments of scholarly penury, Renan Frighetto’s essay provided the answer with his central argument about the tensions we encounter between the expressed ideals and ‘realities’ we try to describe when we write about the past. He presents us with an analysis of the evolution of the construction of acceptable leadership from the Roman Republic to the Visigothic era. At the center of this evolution lies the tension between the sovereign and the elite who vie to imprint their views both on the ideal of rulership and its practice, albeit not necessarily in the same ways. In the Visigothic kingdom, the aristocracy was happy to weigh in on what good kingship meant, for example Isidore’s injunction that a king who does not act righteously is not a king, but they could also erode this ideal, for example by encroaching on the royal patrimony. Visigothic kings could also act outside the bounds of the ideal, but for them this ideal was more important because it underpinned their very existence as kings. This was not simply a search for prestige or “exemplary” status, a great example of this being Molly Lester’s discussion in Panel 2 of Isidore’s focus on the unique practices that supposedly made the Iberian churches the most orthodox in Christendom. For many Visigothic kings this became a matter of life and death. This is why trying to understand how Visigothic kings behaved outside the textual ideals is so important, even if we face so many limitations in trying to peer behind the veil of time and text.

Céline Martin’s essay also confronts the question of the text as an ideal, but in addition seeks to understand how it can be applied to the physical world behind this ideal. She uses many methods (philology, geography, archaeology, place-name analysis) to reconstruct the little patria in which Valerius lived and wrote about. El Bierzo as a place is central to Valerius’s text, and trying to illustrate it for a modern reader could help us uncover more of the world of his texts. For example, the frozen corpse that Valerius mentioned is not just a symbol, but also a practical reminder and phenomenological illustration of the harshness that Valerius encountered in the mountainous parts of El Bierzo. The intimate connection between Valerius and El Bierzo serves to remind us that monastic retreat in the seventh century can mean very different things when compared to the cosmopolitan Eugenius that Mark Tizzoni described. To borrow the distinction that Yi-Fu Tuan made between the freedom of space and the constraint of place, for Eugenius the open social networks and plains of Castile gave him a wide-ranging career and outlook, while the mountain-bounded place of El Bierzo made Valerius’s life seem both more ascetic and secluded.[1] Martin’s essay also serves as a good warning against overly strict readings of the texts when she persuasively argues against considering Valerius’s use of “provincia” to describe a particular civil status for the region of Asturia. Even if we have many limits to our reconstructions, it is important to remember that the world that Valerius’s mind inhabited can be just as important as the world of his mind.

The essays of Jamie Wood and Gutiérrez et al. both look at very specific units of space and provide us with another look at the tension between the ideal and reality. Jamie Wood argues that physical space in a late antique monastery was necessarily tied to the habits, requirements and ideologies of its users, and that we may get glimpses of these ideals through their writings. Because the formation of an ascetic is a process of identity creation and dissemination, monastic leaders viewed the spaces of a monastery according to this central mission. They advised that certain practices be carried out in certain spaces, especially focusing on the distinction between public and private. For example, they often stressed that edifying readings, instruction and behavior policing were better suited to communal areas. One of the central ideals was that the monastery should be separated from the world and in many ways from the physical side of reality. Yet, despite this ideal, we know from other texts and analyses of the remains of many of these monasteries that they were in fact quite embedded into their local realities. They needed to reach out to the outside world to survive, both to find new members and for material support. In this case, a comparison of an ideal expressed through a text and the physical reality that it might have described allowed us to avoid an erroneous conceptualization of monasteries.

Whereas Jamie Wood focused mostly on texts, Gutiérrez et al. give us an in-depth analysis of the physical remains of a likely episcopal complex. This complex, which is located in the site now known as El Tolmo de Minateda, has been associated, so far convincingly, with the Visigothic bishopric of Eiorebuilt over an earlier settlement in the late sixth or early seventh century. Both textual and material evidence support its construction as a fortified settlement in response to the Byzantine threat in southeastern Iberia, and a desire to present Visigothic control over the strategic region. The creation of a new bishopric to control newly re-conquered territories whose traditional sees were still under Byzantine control speaks to the intimate intertwining of political and religious power in Visigothic governance. The site’s elevation, besides having practical benefits for defense and control over the surrounding region, is itself a symbol of this power.

The contemporaneous rebuilding of the fortification at the main entrance of the settlement suggests that it was done with a defensive purpose because it was highly modified from the previous Roman era design. This is important to note because many late Roman or late antique fortifications are often seen as primarily prestige elements that any self-respecting settlement would have acquired simply as a mark of status and not necessarily for sustained protection.[2] In the case of El Tolmo de Minateda, at least, the addition of an ‘L’ shaped bulwark seems to have been a conscious effort to strengthen the entrance defenses. This fortification thus further supports the authors’ argument that the renovation of El Tolmo de Minateda was a conscious show of force and designed to control this region.

Gutiérrez et al.’s main argument summarizes many of the most important points that have been made in the essays in Panel 1. They argue that the creation of the Eio bishopric as part of a program of political control over this region was not coincidental, and that the ecclesiastical elite had a central role in the governing of the city, tax collection, and even the organization of workshops and artisans. They also controlled a profitable trade that funneled eastern Mediterranean products from the coast to inland centers, evinced for example through rare finds of similar ceramics here, in Reccopolis and in the Vega Baja of Toledo. As we have seen, just as the king based his power on both Roman and Christian traditions, and monastic centers based much of their influence on their relations with the aristocracy, here is another example of the inseparable link between religious and lay power for the elite of the Visigothic kingdom.

Another of their conclusions also speaks to a blossoming idea about the interplay between trade, political control and space in late antique Iberia. This idea posits that many commercial, social, artistic, and in the case of my own contribution to this panel, settlement trends lie outside the boundaries we often think regimes place on spatial and chronological currents. Gutiérrez et al. find that the distribution of many objects of trade shows that “at least in the case of the conflict between the Visigoths and the Byzantines, politics and commerce followed different paths.” Meritxell Pérez Martínez, in panel 2, notes “a significant continuity between the pre-conquest [by the Visigoths] dynamics of urban transformation, begun during the late Roman period, and those of post-conquest Tarraco.” My essay highlights how changes in settlement at late antique castros in northwestern Iberia were part of larger changes in settlement patterns, and that these changes were not precipitated by political change; nor did they fit into neatly organized chronological categories. María de los Ángeles Utrero also hints at this when she notes the need to go beyond traditional categories and sequences such as Roman, Visigothic, Asturian or Mozarabic in architecture. This organization is only meant to help us systematize a complex reality, a short-hand, so let us avoid the trap of thinking that this is how change occurred. In fact, on the question of the churches traditionally identified as Visigothic-era structures, new studies are beginning to show that this traditional system might be simplifying too much. For example, a recent study on the church of Santa Comba de Bande near Ourense shows new absolute-dating data that suggests this traditionally Visigothic building was most likely built in the late eighth century, but stylistically it also does not fit into how we have constructed the Mozarabic label.[3]

So here we come back to the relationship between the ideal and reality. We are faced with a very complex past, and even if in a Lacanian sense a real past disappears the moment we try to put it into language, I think this symposium has shown the value of a diversity of approaches to, at least, a more nuanced understanding of it. I am particularly optimistic about the possibilities of creating new methods and praxes to compare possible points of intersection between the physical and textual worlds, and collaborations between historians and archaeologists at various stages of a project. For example, having historians involved from the very beginning placing questions outside the purview of stratigraphy or physicalities at the very site of excavation, and field archaeologists present at the creation of the synthesized narrative so that their work is not overly simplified or misunderstood by historians. Those of us who write about the past might be unable to encompass the changes of the Visigothic period through a single effable system, but reading through such a variety of ways to understand it has made me feel that at least somewhere in my mind its reconstruction has seen some progress.


[1] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (E. Arnold, 1977), Chapter 1.

[2] For example: Michael Kulikowski, Late Roman Spain and Its Cities, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 101–9.

[3] José Carlos Sánchez Pardo, Rebeca Blanco-Rotea, and Jorge Sanjurjo Sánchez, “The Church of Santa Comba de Bande and Early Medieval Iberian Architecture: New Chronological Results,” Antiquity 91.358 (2017): 1011–26.

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