Meritxell Pérez Martínez – Response Paper

Response to Visigothic Symposium 2, Panel 2: Identity
Defining an Iberian Visigothic Identity in a Christian post-Roman World (pdf)

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

This paper responds to the four essays in my section “Identity,” (panel 2) of the Visigothic Symposium 2: “Iberian Spaces, Iberian Identities” (VgS 2). Recent scholarship has placed ‘identity’ in a leading position in the theoretical frameworks which deal with the study of Late Antiquity and the most controversial debates on the period (transformation, continuity, etc.). Scholars have already emphasised the value of ‘identity’, when used in the broad sense, as a complex of ideas that can put forward new and varied perspectives with which to work. To what extent factors such as gender, status, confession or ethnicity can contribute to a better understanding of multi-defining identities rather than real or historiographical constructed identities that is something that only more particular research can help to elucidate.

In the opening words to this VgS 2, Dolores Castro and Michael J. Kelly wonder: “In what ways have historical texts and historiographies blurred, invented and reconstructed the identities of Iberian pasts?” The essays in the “Identity” section address this issue by offering a reflection on the general theme ‘identity’ and, particularly, on how an “Iberian Visigothic identity” was defined, let’s say constructed; how it evolved and became established in the course of the sixth and seventh centuries; and, how much of its perpetual encounter with Romanitas was preserved and transformed together with the purposes and agendas underlying the process. It has to be said, in advance, that it has been a very enriching experience that once again proves the advantages of working together within an interdisciplinary approach to fully understand history and the past. Many thanks and congratulations for the initiative.

In order to provide a critical reflection on this panel, let me start with only a few remarks on my contribution to this debate: “Being Roman under Visigothic Rule: Space and Identity in the Northeastern Territories of the Iberian Peninsula (Hispania Tarraconensis).” As one can find in the text with further explanation, this paper examines the process by which the former Roman provincial capitals of Hispania went through a long-lasting process of transforming their traditional identities when the Western Roman Empire came to its political end. This is seen through the example of Tarraco, administrative, political and ecclesiastical capital city of the northeastern territories of the Iberian Peninsula, that is, Hispania Tarraconensis.

Despite being a topic with an extensive historiographical tradition, the end of the Roman Empire and the consolidation of the first barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe continue to lead to different interpretations, leaving many questions unresolved. Traditional historiography interpreted the Visigothic conquest of the city by the armies of King Euric in ad 472, as representing a real break, as well as the beginning of an irreversible period of decline that resulted in an almost complete loss of its former competencies in favor of, let’s say, “more pro-Visigoths cities” in the province, such as Barcino (Barcelona) or Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza).

Studying the extant written sources, from a current perspective, reveals a rather limited impact of the conquest, together with a significant preservation of the previous social fabric for most of the sixth century. The reactivation of the capital status of Tarraco, the assimilation of the Roman officers and ruling classes by the Visigoths, and the explosion of ecclesiastical life in these very years talk about a period of institutional and organizational effort which had a visible impact in the spiritual and material rebuilding of the Episcopal see and the territorial articulation of the Episcopal domain, beyond the physical limits of the Metropolis itself (both in the diocese and the province). The results coming from archaeological studies deserve special attention in order to overcome former interpretations too, while endorsing a significant continuity of the dynamics of urban transformation which started earlier in the Late Roman city.

As already suggested, all these issues go far beyond the continuity debate in the former Roman provincial capitals, as it poses a big amount of data on the theme of how the diversity of situations derived from the encounter with Romanitas made it possible to transform and to adapt previous and new identities in the post-Roman world. In Tarraco, its status as political and ecclesiastical capital of Hispania Tarraconensis, continued to play a key role in the development of the city during the sixth and seventh centuries, making it possible for Tarraco to exert its influence over a still very large territory. Things would start to change only in the seventh century when the efforts to build up a centralized and centralizing kingdom in Toledo would condemn the more distant, peripheral capitals (Tarraco and Narbo, mainly) even if preserving their traditional status as the respective heads of their territories as provincial capitals and Metropolitan sees.

María de los Ángeles Utrero Agudo, in her essay “The Artisans behind Visigothic Buildings: the Materiality of Identity,” moves the discussion into an examination of architecture, and aims to go a step further ineliciting the builders of the sixth and seventh centuries, their technological knowledge, skills and identities. To achieve that, Utrero initiates an explanatory discussion on the current scholarly situation concerning architecture and sculpture dated to the Visigothic centuries. After that, she uncovers the knowledge and skills of the artisans by analyzing their qualifications, the materials they employed and how they did so, the instruments they used and how they combined them. Finally, she presents a reflection on the artisans and their identity.

Our knowledge of the Hispanic religious architecture of the sixth and seventh centuries has been notably enriched in recent years thanks to the uncovering of new constructions of the period; revisiting already-known buildings; further excavating others; and, re-reading the written evidence (both epigraphic and palaeographic), thus allowing us to obtain new insights on its protagonists, resources and intentions. As Utrero states, the previous picture made of former architects, stonemasons and quarried materials appears now colored with builders and reused materials as being the main protagonists in the building project. This certainly is an “indicator of change.”

Art historians have commonly argued that the buildings of the Visigothic period in the Iberian Peninsula were able to preserve previous building techniques, both by copying Roman structures and reusing materials and, at the same time, introducing and readapting contemporary Byzantine models. Even if artisans, techniques and skills can be visible in the archaeological record, things get tough when trying to approach them in terms of ‘identity’.

Utrero concludes that “monumental architecture and monumental architects gave way in late antiquity to humble constructions and humble craftsmen trained in traditional skills, dependent on aristocracy, but lacking further theoretical and complex structural knowledge and material resources.” This is why the author says that it is difficult to speak of the existence of a proper “artisanal community” in Visigothic Iberia. In fact, it is likely that we cannot talk about a “communal craft group” yet, but it absolutely makes sense in the context of the first European Germanic kingdoms where access to resources seems to have experienced the same fragmentation.

Molly Lester moves the discussion into an examination of liturgy in her essay “Mapping Liturgical Identity in Early Medieval Iberia and Beyond.” As the author herself appreciates, Christian liturgy has always deserved a very special position in historiography for its value in the Visigothic political discourse by means of obtaining unity and consensus amongst all the subjects of the crown. On this occasion, Lester elicits the interest in the Visigothic royal ideology underlying the liturgical identity of the kingdom by analyzing the writings of the prominent Visigothic ideologist, the bishop Isidore of Seville. The author argues that, in his writings (EtymologiaeDe Ecclesiasticis Officiis, and the Sententiae, mainly), Isidore devised a liturgical map of the universal Christian church as a mechanism to highlight the paramount place of the Iberian Visigothic church in it.

As Lester states, the liturgical rites and practices were extremely diverse in the Iberian Peninsula in the sixth century, as they were across the continent. She talks about diverse “Regional Iberian liturgies,” which in fact we have to see as an expression of diverse “Regional Iberian Churches.” In reference to Hispania Tarraconensis, for instance, written sources for the period let us appreciate an important effort of liturgical organization in the course of the sixth century by copying and adapting models coming from contemporary southern Gaul.[1]

However, at some point in the seventh century, political changes in the kingdom made liturgical diversity the most problematic. That was when the idea of a certain political identity and a religious identity were prone to converge. In that context, we know of some very influential clerics, Isidore of Seville and Ildefonsus of Toledo being amongst them, whose writings provide the needed, even if newly born, cohesive religious consciousness as the most effective mechanism “to integrate diverse regions, independently-minded cities, and recalcitrant nobility.”

In Isidore’s writings, the Visigothic kingdom and its Church “shine as a beacon of correct Christianity.” What seems the most interesting to me is that it was only possible in a specific context, in the context of a Universal Christian Church. To say it in Lester’s own words, “the newly envisioned Visigothic church was still a part of something much bigger; an exemplary member, to be sure, but a member none the less.” For sure, that was the price to pay in exchange for orthodoxy and legitimacy. But it seems far beyond doubt that only a solid consciousness of universality could have made that belief still possible. The post-Roman Christian Church inherited, kept and transformed the ancient idea of universality. And now, the European Germanic kingdoms were about to pass it through the generations to come: “Iberia, although a bastion of correct and pious practice, was only one tile in the brilliantly diverse mosaic of the universal Christian Church.”

Mark Tizzoni’s essay, “(De-)Constructing the Visigothic Poet: Regional, Cultural, & Religious Identity in Eugenius II of Toledo,” reemphasizes the issue of regionalism and, more specifically, the constructed religious identity of Eugenius of Toledo (aristocrat, cleric, monk, bishop, poet, teacher), with the purpose of better understanding the world where he lived and produced his writings.

The article starts by addressing the “layers of identity” which converge in Eugenius’s figure in order to provide a clear image of his “polyhedric identity:” Toledan by origin, Zaragozan by adoption, he was both bishop and monk, both pastoral leader and ascetic, and his writings appear to be inspired by Iberian sources (Isidore, mainly) as well as North African, Gallic and Italian. “Eugenius’s identity was complex, varied, and at times conflicting.” Then, “how do these different regional identities fit together?” To provide an answer to this tricky question, Tizzoni reflects on two bodies of evidence: the writings of Eugenius himself and the writings of his successors in Toledo, Ildefonsus and Julian, who were responsible for the first constructed identity of Eugenius “in a historiographical sense.”

Let’s move, more specifically, to Eugenius’s regional identity. Tizzoni remarks that Eugenius’s idea of Hispania “is essentially defined by his experience of it.” Then he says that “Eugenius came to associate and personally identify more with Zaragoza, the land of his education, of his intellectual and spiritual formation, than with his home city.” That seems very interesting to me because more than a ‘region’ is the civitas which seems to be linked to one identity or another here. This reminds me of the importance of the origo in the classical world. The origo, the civitas where you come from, is still here providing credentials/identity in the post-Roman world. On his first arrival to Arles, Caesarius was presented before the bishop of the city, Eonius, and was asked about his origo: “Qui cives esset quibusve parentibus fuerit procreatus.”[2] Even then, finding out who a person was, was equivalent to ask about their origin. In the Vitas Sanctorum Patrum Emeretensium (VSPE), the episode of the reception of the Greek merchants recently arrived into the city also reveals that origin was still important and that it provided some sort of guarantee of respectability and trust: “At ille consequenter secundum interrogationem patriam, civitatem, vicum, nomina parentum simpliciter manifestavit. Hec eo dicente, cognovit nomen sororis sue.”[3]

And yet we come to another “layer of identity.” Eugenius’s writings use “materials drawn from across the Latin-speaking world, but they contextualize these in an Iberian framework.” As Tizzoni says, “Eugenius is intentionally very much part of a larger non-regional, pan-Latin intellectual structure,” even if Eugenius writes as an Iberian “regional identity folded itself into a much greater socio-cultural entity.” And again, “in his verse, then, Eugenius shows himself to identify with the pan-Latin, or perhaps pan-post-Roman, world.” Visigothic Iberia evolved in a global Latin cultural context, and the writings of the period make sense as part of a wider Christian world. “Eugenius’s cultural identity, then, was multifaceted. On one level he was a Visigoth: whatever his parentage, he found himself at the centre of the state and celebrated the Visigothic in his verse. Yet he also perceived himself, and expressed himself, as part of the wider culture of the pan-Latin world.”

In conclusion to this panel, as politics and the crown drove the kingdom to a more centralized and centralizing version of itself, there were a series of serious attempts to provide a creative and independent Iberian Visigothic identity which could not give up a collective global identity which was Universal, Christian and Latin. While we know of a series of figures who worked to provide a proper and original Iberian Visigothic identity, the Church continued to put Visigothic Hispania in the orbit of a Universal Latin Church. The obvious profit was orthodoxy, legitimacy and order, but also a shared, global, common identity. That provided a solid frame that was easily to become the dominant ideology for the European kingdoms of the time with multiple effects in all levels of daily life.

Lastly, just a few words to express again my gratitude to the organizers of the Visigothic Symposia, Dolores Castro and Michal J. Kelly, for their promoting research in the field of Visigothic Iberia and making it easier to encounter other scholars and to reflect on this fascinating period of our common history.

[1] Meritxell Pérez Martínez, Tarraco en la Antigüedad tardía. Cristianización y organización eclesiástica (Tarragona: Arola Editors, 2012), 213-48.

[2] Vita Caesarii Arelatensis episcopi 1.10 (MGH SRM III, 461).

[3] VSPE, IV, III, 18 – 21 (A. Maya Sánchez, Vitas Sanctorum Patrum Emeretensium [Turnhout: Brepols, 1992], 32).

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