Liubov Chernin – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium 3 (pdf)

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

The joint theme of this issue of the Visigothic Symposia is “communication and circulation,” that is, movement in its manifold faces – movement of people, movement of authority, movement of coin, movement of letters, movement of ideas. The world of late antiquity and the early middle ages was far less quiet and fixed than traditionally has been imagined. The sense of eternal and restless movement is shown strikingly in the ten papers which compose the program of the current symposium.

The main type of stirring analyzed by the authors of this symposium was the circulation of power and authority in a world that was losing and had lost long-established Roman governmental structures and had begun to form its own new systems built on customary models and other forms of connectivity. The processes of the transmission of power are evident from a variety of examples from throughout this world in its entirety and as it could be observed from the Visigothic perspective – from Byzantium to the shores of the Atlantic.

The destruction of an “old world” is best seen in the change in the traditional directions of communication and the decrease of its intensity. This is illustrated in Javier Martínez Jiménez’s contribution, dedicated to the examination of technical knowledge, engineering and aqueducts in the Iberian Peninsula. Archaeological findings show a significant decline in building technology, and contemporary scholars agree that there were no specialists who could erect arched and vaulted structures or even repair and preserve them in a working state. The science of engineering demands an exemplary level of communication between masters and apprentices and intensive knowledge sharing. Such a system requires the presence of a clear power structure, and not only professionally for the sake of planning and building. Town water supplies relied on an organized authority, without which water could not be supplied to households, which individually could not maintain the sources. As such, most Roman aqueducts were abandoned between the fourth and eighth centuries. By the end of the sixth century, the presence of a functioning aqueduct was a sign of a town’s prestige and prosperity.

The only example of the successful construction of a new aqueduct in the Visigothic kingdom was that for the ex novo city of Reccopolis – a major and ambitious royal project, which was large enough for engaging qualified engineers from Byzantium. But, the rupture of local chains of knowledge transmission turned out to be unrepairable, internal movement was impossible, and the revival of the art of engineering required some external change of power. This latter is associated only with the eighth-century conquest of the Visigothic kingdom and with the ultimate formation in the peninsula of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The first and the most powerful attempts to reverse the centrifugal trends in the peninsula, before the eighth-century conquest, are associated with the Catholic Church. In the perpetual struggle for unity and its own drive for power, the Church presented itself during this period – which for us contributors to the Visigothic Symposia is considered the “Visigothic period” – as a source of authority. These were centuries during which the Church extended its grasp on social-political power in the peninsula. Alberto Ferreiro’s article explores how this was particularly felt in the seventh century. To do so, he analyses the correspondence between Spanish bishops and Pope Innocent I over the matter of lingering Priscillianism. The bishops apparently could not cope with the problem themselves and so addressed to the Pope for judgment. The Roman pontiff was a real authority for them, and they were more or less willing to obey his decisions. Innocent’s aim in this exchange was to bring the Spanish church into full compliance with the dogmas and practices of the ecumenical councils. But, as Ferreiro demonstrates, over the course of several decades, the Visigothic bishops had collected enough decisions of the ecumenical councils and papal letters, and subsequently avoided active correspondence with Rome. As their authority within the Visigothic kingdom grew, they increasingly felt emboldened to ignore the authority of Rome.

The crucial role of the Church in the circulation and communication of authority is the topic of other contributions as well. Tomás Cordero Ruiz analyses its role in the emergent post-Roman system of relations between towns and the rural world. With the changes of social conditions and the formation of an alternative system of relationships between the urban and rural worlds, the Church took on a crucial role in this structure thanks to its political, social, economic and cultural influence and also to its capacity to maintain territorial administration based on previous Roman imperial institutions. Political shifts led to the fragmentation of territorial structure, the centrifugal movement of regions when every single settlement became a separate jurisdictional nucleus. Yet, the Church preserved important rudiments of the previous administrative system in the area, and archaeology demonstrates how an episcopal see in Egitania consolidated small vici scattered throughout the former Roman province of Lusitania. The Church and the town served as a centralizing motor in this world coming apart.

A similar process is seen in the analysis of the work of Valerius of Bierzo by Pablo C. Díaz. Here we also see a predominantly peasant society gravitating around some centers of authority: towns, monasteries, episcopal residencies, large tenures, etc. Valerius was the flesh of this society. Born into a wealthy Hispano-Roman family, he always maintained his agricultural possessions and enjoyed their fruits. In times of famine, he used parts of this wealth to assist people and, in so doing, created a relationship of dependence in the form of religious submission. The social role of Valerius as a church figure consists in mediation not only between the Christian community and God, but also between different socio-economic sectors. The author shows how even in the hard circumstances of dealing with early medieval sources one can use sociological and anthropological methods and tools – which often rely on significant data sets – for purposes of Visigothic research.

A striking example of social change during the Visigothic kingdom comes from the hagiotoponomy, which provides an opportunity to trace the expansion of Church authority and various other influences of Spanish Christianity. In contrast to the traditional scholarship, Luís Fontes contends that the time between the fifth and seventh centuries was a period of active construction and vivid social life led by the Church. He brings to our attention the prevalence of Oriental saints’ names in the topography of the Braga region and explains it by the Byzantine spiritual impact. The Church served also as an important instrument for the Suevic (as for Visigothic) kings to strengthen their power: the adoption of Catholicism allowed their leaders to consolidate contacts with other monarchies. They adopted the papal-imperial model in the construction of a state system in pursuit of the ideological consolidation of its society. The churches built according to real or imagined oriental models spread the idea of convergence between Galician-Roman and Suevic-Visigothic societies. Bringing foreign models to Iberian soil united people through Christianization and common religious practices.

This is the topic also of my own contribution in which I argue that Jews were the group that did not fall into place in this new united Christian society, in which Goths and Hispano-Romans professed a common religious vision. The unsuccessful attempts by some Visigothic kings in the seventh century to bring the Jews to Christianity is a clear sign of select royal attempts at social engineering, and of its abject failure. From this royal and ecclesiastic failure, another social group was born, one with an even more precarious status, apostate Jews or Jews who themselves failed at converting. This fictional / imagined group maintained characteristic features of the Jewish community, both social and material (such as specific taxation requirements). This new body of persons was formed by the strong internal movement for unity led by Visigothic kings and bishops. The idea was to incorporate former Jews into the grand triad of rex, gens et patria Gothorum, but various factors transformed them more into some spiritual and religious analogue of freedmen, who rid themselves of spiritual slavery, typical for the Jews in Catholic thought, but who retained strong bonds with their former master and strict limitations that did not permit them to fully join the society of equals.

Another instrument of such national unification and centripetal movement in Visigothic society was the army. Jason Osborne shows how the character and organization of the Visigothic army changed in the sixth century as a part of the reorganization of the kingdom after the collapse of Toulouse. One of the key elements in the efforts of kings Liuvigild and Reccared to unite the kingdom were cross-regional connections necessary for the universalization of state management. The Visigothic army (as well as the Ostrogothic one described by Procopius of Caesarea) was generally dispersed, and at any given moment the ruler could deploy only a small military force. When conflict erupted, the king needed to gather his scattered forces. Our extant sources show that kings were not always able to do so promptly enough. Sufficient control over the army meant firm authority over the kingdom, and when Isidore writes that Reccared used a military expedition as a useful exercise, he describes a situation in which war is a tool of national unification, rather than for plundering raids or defense. In this context, war provided the kingdom a common aim and served as a means to separate genuine members of the kingdom from its “others.”

The use of the army as a means in the amalgamation of elites is the topic also of Fernando Ruchesi’s contribution. Our sources of information about early medieval military organization were composed by clerics, who might not have been experts in warfare but did grasp its ideological and political agenda. One of the purposes of their work was to instruct and to persuade aristocrats to avoid revolts against lawful power and from the political and military unions with other state entities (for example, with Merovingian kings). Through the example of the battle of Vouillé described by Gregory of Tours and Isidore of Seville and of the military expedition against the rebellious Paul, pictured in Julian’s Historia Wambae regis, Ruchesi demonstrates the elaboration of an image of kingdoms led by an anointed king, and of the unity of these nations as sacred. Franks and Visigoths created unfavorable images of each other with the help of narratives, mostly military narratives, which praise unity and loyalty to the king.

Another instrument of the implementation of power for the Visigothic kings was coinage. Andrew Kurt explains how many gold mines functioned in the Visigothic period and which signs give credence to the idea of some kind of monetary economy in the Iberian Peninsula. He is confident that the economy of late antiquity was far more active and broad than generally has been accepted. He traces the presence of gold and bronze coins in various parts of the region and comes to the conclusion that bronze was used for everyday trade, whereas gold was necessary mostly for the fiscal system to function. He finds a correlation between increases and decreases in coinage with political and fiscal events. When a war ended and taxes became less burdensome, fewer gold coins were necessary. The periods of political instability (such as the second half of the seventh century) are marked by these less active productions of gold coins.

Luciano Gallinari’s focus is on the recent historiography of the relations between “Romans,” “Germans” and “indigenous people” in late antiquity. Comparing the related historical narratives of Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula, he finds some stereotypes and myths born in the ancient sources which still tend to define historiographical ideas about the people who lived there and about their relations. The sources of our period preserved the classical perceptions of these people as barbari – an indigenous, primitive, closed and uncivilized element, a dangerous enemy of “us,” the cultured and enlightened. In this stereotype, savage Sardinians lived in the mountains and would invade the territory of “civilized” people any chance they got. Moreover, they maintained a clear ethnic purity and refused to “mix” with anyone else. Isidore uses the term barbari for all enemies of the Goths, except the Byzantines who he calls “ferocious” and “nonsensical animals.” Archaeological evidence of limes between separate territories in Sardinia, as well as Gallaecia and Vasconia, are then seen as corroborating fortified ideological and conceptual borders.

All the papers of this symposium together show how the idea of motion and motion itself can be directed in a variety of interpretive ways. It can be horizontal (as in the adoption of Eastern architectural models) and vertical (as in social matters), centripetal (as in various attempts to consolidate nation and state, so typical for Visigothic rulers) and centrifugal (as in the push for the greater independence from the Roman ecclesiastical center). Such movement could be both destructive (the demolition of traditional bonds) and constructive (the building of some new unity, that famous Isidorian triad of rex, gens et patria Gothorum) and in each case is transformative.