Molly Lester

Mapping Liturgical Identity in Early Medieval Iberia and Beyond

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


Looking out across the liturgical landscape of early medieval Iberia, our first impression would not have been one of communion and harmony. Similar to other areas in the early medieval Christian world, the liturgical rites and religious customs practiced across the vast regions of the peninsula were staggeringly diverse. The Christian liturgy and its diversity had the potential to divide the polities and communities of early medieval Iberia, but throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, Iberian bishops worked to conceptualize the correct practice of the liturgy as an internally integrative practice within the Suevic and Visigothic kingdoms.

Yet the Christian liturgy could be externally integrative as well. To truly understand the integrative potential of the Christian liturgy, we, like sixth- and seventh-century bishops, must look beyond the Iberian peninsula as well as within it. At first glance, the liturgical variety across Christendom might seem disconnected from religious and political debate within the Iberian kingdoms. Yet the two were intimately connected. Communities frequently articulate their boundaries by contrasting themselves against other elements of their social milieu, and religious, political, or ethnic “others” serve as useful foils to create a distinct group of insiders. But, although a society can define itself against the larger structure of which it is a part, it also defines itself by claiming a place within that structure.[1] Moreover, acts of social definition not only presuppose a place with a larger system, but can also generate a strong desire to be a member of a larger group.

In this essay, I will examine the Christian liturgy and its diversity in relation to Iberian episcopal efforts to situate their own communities within the larger Christian world. The Gallaecian bishops at the First Council of Braga (561) placed their congregations within Christendom by claiming a connection with the papal see of Rome, paying special homage to Pope Vigilius’s 530s letter to the Galician bishop Profuturus and adopting Roman rites. In the 630s, however, Isidore of Seville exploited difference. For Isidore, the liturgy was one way of articulating a vision of Christendom grounded in geography, a vision in which liturgical similarities knit disparate regional Christians together into the body of Christ. In Isidore’s vision of the Christian world, Iberian churches (or perhaps even a “Visigothic” church) took their place within the universal church through shared liturgical practices. But they also distinguished themselves through different practices. Isidore consistently used liturgical variations unique to Iberia to advance a claim to be the most orthodox Christian community in Christendom, a first among equals. According to Isidore, it was their shared practices that proclaimed Iberians orthodox Christians, but it was their different practices that proclaimed them the most orthodox Christians.

[1] See David Seidl, “The Basic Concepts of Luhmann’s Theory of Social Systems,” in Niklas Luhmann and Organization Studies, ed. David Seidl and Kai Helge Becker (Malmö: Copenhagen Business School Press, 2005, 2006), 21-53.

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