María de los Ángeles Utrero Agudo – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium 2, Panel 2: Identity
Several Identities for a Common Materiality (pdf)

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

This second Visigothic Symposium collects within two panels (Space and Identity) a selection of studies aimed to further explore the Visigothic Hispania of the sixth and seventh centuries and to rethink thus the society of this period. These essays result from different methodological and disciplinary approaches based on written and archaeological records, which necessarily offer different visions of the same issue. The contributions to the Identity panel actually approach Visigothic Hispania following different subjects of studies and avenues of research. My response results from my archaeological expertise and is devoted to this Identity panel, although I also introduce some brief references to the papers within the Space theme. This text has to be understood rather as a personal attempt to understand the whole, than as a clear and proper overall impression to debate with the others researchers, whose reflections and disciplines are sometimes far away from mine. It would be daring and misleading to go further and try to infer definitive conclusions.

Liturgical and related political identity is explored by Molly Lester, who values the role played by the Iberian bishop Isidore of Seville in the process of creating a common liturgical map by omitting regionalism and diversity and improving on the contrary the universalist feature of the Hispanic church. Lester shows how Isidore’s writings go beyond the Iberian Peninsula and the liturgy, becoming an instrument of political, territorial and religious integration from the early seventh century onwards. Isidore’s influence is, according to Mark Lewis Tizzoni, paramount to understanding the poet and bishop Eugenius II of Toledo and his works, influenced also by North African and Gallic sources. Eugenius II, who was at the same time bishop, monastic and pastoral leader, was thus the mean to sustaining a thinking on religious identity, but also on cultural. Lester’s and Tizzoni’s writings underscore, in the end, in my view, the necessity expressed and defended by these both seventh-century authors of belonging to a wider identity, “Latin,” which reinforced their attachment to another identity, “Visigothic.” They intended, then, to construct a common Visigothic identity that was “centralizing, but not centralized,” to follow Tizzoni’s words.

Space and urban-capital identity is approached by Meritxell Pérez Martínez by offering an updated vision of the impact of the Visigothic conquest on the late-antique city of Tarraco and its leading role in the Iberian Peninsula in the latter part of the fifth century. Pérez Martínez’s essays intends to measure how far the city of Tarraco was transformed from then onwards by considering its old and new economic, political and ecclesiastical activity. In order to trace this change, Pérez Martínez brings together ecclesiastical written sources and archaeological evidence. Fortunately, the latter has largely increased in recent years and is now fundamental in defining the topography of the episcopal see and its power and in considering the ability of the metropolitan bishops to control the territory and reinforce the new Visigothic authority.

Monastic identity is finally approached by Artemio Martínez Tejera by travelling beyond Iberia in order to look for its roots in the eastern cenobitic and monastic culture and delving into the various modalities of monasticism and its different architectural types. These are, in Martínez Tejera’s opinion, unfortunately largely unknown. Similarly, Jamie Wood (in Panel 1: Space) underscores the difficulty of identifying monastic sites from the sixth and seventh centuries, in contrast to the rural states with churches, more clearly revealed by archaeology in recent times.

It is precisely within this latter field, archaeology, where my effort to address (Utrero Agudo) the artisans responsible for Visigothic buildings, with more hypotheses than facts, all of them to be considered in the near future, fits. Taking six- and seventh-century churches as the main cultural product, building technology is explained, in my contribution, with the aim of making visible the builders, their skills and identities, and of pointing out, when possible, the difference between them and those makers of Roman architectural culture regarding not only the knowledge they owned, but also the social status they had.

In my view, all these meritorious contributions demonstrate how far research has gone in the last decades thanks to new theoretical and methodological renewals which intend to find new venues to look at old evidence. These papers allow us also additionally to think on many details affecting, for instance, the chronology and evolution of some of the archaeological sites mentioned, the real impact of Visigothic literate figures studied (Isidore, Eugenius II, Valerius…) or the proper role of the elites (among them, the bishops) when constructing identity in the Visigothic period.

Since it is impossible here to delve into the minutia, and bearing in mind my archaeological expertise, I would like to use the rest of this response to reflect on three interrelated issues: on Visigothic identity itself, as the main subject of study of this panel; on the methodological questions, these being key to properly measuring our knowledge on the theme; and, on the multidisciplinary perspectives and approaches as a way of advancing research in Visigothic Studies.

Regarding Visigothic identity, the different articles of this panel show a common religious approach, in a wide sense though. Under the liturgical map (Lester), urban topography (Pérez Martínez), architecture and its artisans (Utrero Agudo), culture (Tizzoni) and monasteries (Martínez Tejera) lies the fundamental role of Christian religion and its identification with the Visigothic kingdom. Although recent archaeology reveals other types of settlements, such as small villages and farmhouses, and of constructions, such as city walls and civil palaces, our references keep on being mostly religious (churches and episcopal palaces). Only the work written by José Carlos Arias on the Late Antique castra or defensive settlements, in Panel 1, breaks this religious border and points out, in my view, the necessity of going beyond the writings and figures of Isidore, Eugenius II or Fructuosus, among others, to improve our knowledge on this theme. We are looking through literate personalities who are not necessarily accurate observers of their times and good judges or connoisseurs of the different fields with which they deal. This can be true for Isidore and his writings on building constructions (Utrero Agudo), for instance. But this assertion confronts the archaeological works and their practical limits. Without undertaking open-area archaeological excavations it is almost impossible to record what is going on around churches and characterize, thanks to the architectural remains and further archaeological artefacts (pottery, coins, etc.), the type of settlement they belong to, either monastic or not, rural or urban. This is clearly shown, on one hand, by the paper on the archaeological research carried out in the episcopal see of Tolmo de Minateda (Space Panel: Victoria Amorós Ruiz, et alii). This work is an unexpectedly clear positive answer to Martínez Tejeras’s fair regret on the difficulty of approaching monastic architecture (and the different types of monasteries and cenobitic places). On the other hand, it is also shown by the gathering and interpretative work written by Pérez Martínez on the late-antique city of Tarraco. Although of different types, both these sites (Tolmo and Tarraco) and their Visigothic occupations are known to us thanks to open area archaeological works which have uncovered the materiality of Visigothic power and its impact on rural and urban areas.

In my opinion, opposite to Martínez Tejera’s affirmation, if we do not know enough monastic settlements, we cannot discern either the typical morphology and outline of these sites, if they had it, or value how far they followed literary interpretations and rules, if they did. Furthermore, it seems to be still currently impossible to know those signs that distinguish a monastic settlement from a normal one with a church, both again in urban and rural landscapes.

And this statement leads me to the second issue: the methodological questions. Following the Italian archaeologist Riccardo Francovich, combining methodologies is primordial in order to transform detailed research into a “microhistory” and to make it possible for this to become part of the mechanism that makes of every single case of study an essential element to propose general interpretative models.[1] Agreeing with him, how should we combine them? The effort to match archaeological records and written sources is common to some contributions of this symposium and frequent both in old and modern historiography devoted to Visigothic Hispania, and late antique and early medieval periods in general. Almost always in a subordinated way, archaeology has been key to illustrate, but not to construct, Visigothic history, confirming but rarely discussing what documents record. Written accounts have been therefore the script followed to fit archaeological sequences in chronological frames offered by the former, identifying sometimes uncritically the site and the document and leaving aside the afterlife of the Visigothic settlements, among many other aspects. Updated archaeological theory (for instance, Moreland for the Middle Ages in western Europe[2]) stresses that archaeological and documentary records are both material culture, within their own limits. They generate besides different types of information with equal value, not being therefore necessarily complementary. Aprioristic explanations based on the bigger relevance of written information must be thus rejected, since subordinating archaeology to history does not renew research, but limits interpretations. This is key to opening new venues of research on every type of Visigothic settlement and to address identity from the perspective of materiality. In others words, we cannot go to excavate with Isidore or Valerius.

Once I have shown my concern about the relationship of research methodologies to the study of Visigothic Hispania, my last question deals with the connection of the contributions themselves and therefore the multidisciplinary frame that this symposium pursues. Agreeing about the necessity of taking part in such a research frame, how could we join now the discourses and conclusions offered by the above studies to figure out a Visigothic identity?  Like the pieces of a big blurred puzzle, it is difficult for me to bring these contributions together and arrive at an updated view of Visigothic identity, which I have the impression is still strongly bonded to religious character, as mentioned above. Apart from this, how can we trace the regional liturgies underscored by Lester in the architectural remains preserved from that period? Are those liturgies actually observable in the material record? Is it possible to trace the supposed eastern influence on monastic complexes defended by Martínez Tejera? Is it actually right to liken liturgical tradition and architectural reflection?

These are only selected questions that aim to demonstrate the future challenge to sharing these perspectives for the purpose of eliciting an overview on identity, not on identities. But maybe it is still early and we have to wait for the coming symposia to address further themes and issues to find the ways to interrelate them and to convert the multidisciplinary frame into an interdisciplinary one.

[1] Riccardo Francovich, “L’archeologia medievale italiana fra storia e gestione del patrimonio,” Quaderni Medievali 55 (2003): 102-16.

[2] John Moreland, Archaeology and Text (London: Duckworth, 2001).

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