Visigothic conversion to Catholicism

By | September 3, 2019


I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain
Podcast, and this is episode 16 called Visigothic conversion to Catholicism. In this episode you will learn about the reign
of Reccared that led to the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism, as well as the
long-term consequences that the conversion had in the formation of Spain. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode! We left the previous episode with the death
of the great King Leovigild and the succession of his loyal son Reccared. At the moment of his accession to the Visigothic
throne, Reccared inherited two unsolved problems, one internal and one external. The internal problem is well known, the religious
issue, while in terms of foreign affairs the war with the Frankish Kingdom of Burgundy
was still going. Even though the war was going well for the
Visigoths, King Guntram of Burgundy didn’t renounce to his claims over Septimania. We will see later in which way King Guntram
tried to accomplish his pretensions, but let’s focus on the key issue, the conflict between
Arians and Catholics. Why that religious conflict happened in the
first place, though? Truth is that the theological conflict was
barely important. The theological difference is centered on
the question of the equality and eternity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
but do you think those things really mattered? Hell no. The Visigoths abandoned their Pagan beliefs
and adopted Christian Arianism in the 4th century only because they lived next to the
Eastern Roman Empire and it was the dominant theology back then. But why do you think the Visigoths didn’t
adopt the resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon that gave birth to Christian Catholicism? It was not because they cared about theological
differences, instead they stuck to their old beliefs because that gave them a distinct
identity. But by the mid-6th century, Visigothic unity
started to crumble. Marriage between Hispano-Romans and Visigoths
was a thing already, way before the ban was lifted, and that not only put their ethnic
unity under threat, but their religious unity as well. Some Visigoths had already converted to Catholicism,
that’s also why Leovigild proposed a national and more Catholic form of Arianism, to bring
the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together, but he failed in achieving so. According to some sources, Leovigild regretted
his religious policy and even converted to Catholicism before he died. While we cannot corroborate that, there are
some clues that could confirm a change in his religious policy, as for instance he ended
the exile of Leander of Seville. Truth is there were very few Arians in Hispania,
most of them Visigoths, but it’s precisely because of that why it was so difficult to
convert to Catholicism for the Visigothic Kingdom. Keep in mind that there was a strong association
between the Visigothic elite and the Arian clergy, the breakup of this alliance could
destabilize the Visigothic Kingdom in a very dangerous way. The political risk was very high, I mean you
could have revolts, street violence between Arians and Catholics, a civil war, foreign
states could take advantage and intervene, and the position and life of the king could
be under threat as well. And some of the things I mentioned actually
happened, so yeah it’s important to understand the complexity of that issue. To go back to the story, King Reccared personally
converted to Catholicism less than a year before succeeding his father. It was a very brave and significant action,
but he knew that he needed to do more to bring the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together
in religious terms. First he sealed an alliance with his mother-in-law,
Goiswintha, who was herself an Arian fanatic. If Reccared got her on his side, he would
have the support of a substantial number of Visigoths and Franks from Austrasia too. Moreover, he held meetings with Arian bishops
and got as many as he could on his side. What the Arian clergy feared was the loss
of patronage and status, but Reccared was probably able to guarantee them that they
would maintain the same hierarchical status in the Catholic Church. In exchange, they had to convert to Catholicism,
give all the properties of Arian churches to the Catholic Church and burn all the Arian
books and texts. Although most of the Arian clergy agreed to
that, there was obviously going to be opposition. As a matter of fact, there were three attempts
to overthrow Reccared between his conversion to Catholicism in 587 and the Third Council
of Toledo in 589. All those conspiracies had in common that
pretenders used the Arian faith to legitimize their revolt, although of course it was only
a matter of politics. The first revolt happened already in 587,
and it broke out in Mérida, the capital of the province of Lusitania. The conspiracy was led by a Gothic noble named
Segga, and it had the backing of Sunna, the Arian metropolitan bishop of Lusitania, and
several counts of the region too. The conspirators aimed to assassinate both
the Duke of Lusitania, the Hispano-Roman Claudius, and Masona, who was the Catholic bishop of
Mérida and metropolitan bishop of Lusitania. This Masona was a Visigoth that used to be
an Arian bishop, but he converted to Catholicism during the rebellion of Hermenegild, and when
Hermenegild was defeated Leovigild asked him to convert again to Arianism. However, Masona refused to do that, so we
can see with this example how the conversion to Catholicism was irrevocable for some notorious
Visigoths. The plot was uncovered though, because a young
count named Witteric informed Claudius about the conspiracy. This Witteric earned the confidence of the
King and Claudius and taking advantage of that he would later become king, but I’m
getting ahead of myself. The Duke of Lusitania Claudius acted before
the conspiracy could actually unfold, and the leader of the conspiration had his hands
cut off and was sent to Galicia while Sunna, the Arian bishop, was sent into exile outside
the kingdom, in modern Morocco. The following year there was another conspiracy,
this time the Queen Dowager Goiswintha and the Arian bishop of Toledo were involved,
although according to historian Roger Collins the plot may have been made up to remove possible
political opponents of the new order. Again, the Arian bishop was sent into exile
while it’s not clear what happened to Goiswintha, but she died soon afterwards. The third conspiracy was more serious, because
it had the backing of King Guntram of Burgundy. Some counts of Septimania led the rebellion,
with the ideological support of the Arian bishop of Narbonne, but the main threat was
external. A significantly large army from Burgundy besieged
Carcassonne, one of the key cities of Septimania, and King Reccared sent the loyal Duke of Lusitania
there to suppress the rebellion and repel the Frankish invasion. Duke Claudius prevented the union of the two
main Frankish armies and the Visigoths earned their greatest victory ever over the Franks,
killing 5,000 Franks and capturing 2,000 of them. With that, Guntram had to give up his pretensions
and the revolt was quickly suppressed. It’s very interesting to see how a Hispano-Roman
general accomplished that, and this victory may have been seen as a divine sign that Reccared
did the right thing converting the Visigoths to Catholicism and blending together even
more than his father the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans. After this victory and after having prevented
or suppressed three conspiracies, King Reccared felt confident enough to call the most important
council Visigothic Spain ever had, the Third Council of Toledo. On May 4 589 the Third Council of Toledo opened,
with three days of prayer and fasting. Leander of Seville and Masona had organized
and made all the arrangements of this council, and they assembled more than 70 episcopal
sees, including 8 Arian bishops that subscribed the acts of the Third Council of Toledo. However, even though Leander of Seville was
a key responsible of that council, King Reccared was the one who called and presided it. That is very significant in fact, because
it notes the role of protection and vigilance that the Visigothic monarchy had over the
Catholic Church of the kingdom, a role that was again copied from the model of the Eastern
Roman Empire. The position of King was strengthened, as
it then had a sacred role too. The idea is that the monarchy and the Church
would work more closely and that would benefit the royal dynasty because the nobility would
have a harder time revolting. That’s the idea, but as we will see, the
7th century would be yet again very unstable for the Visigoths. Then on May 8 Reccared made public a declaration
stating that the King and the Goths abjured the Arian heresy and embraced Catholicism,
thus accepting the resolutions of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. The public declaration condemned the teachings
of Arius, but there was no mention to a sensitive subject such as the religious policy of his
father Leovigild or to the rebellion of his brother. Reccared then instructed the council to approve
some canons to regulate the structure of the new Church, to determine the powers of the
Church within the state and to reinforce ecclesiastical discipline. On the theological side, a canon confirmed
the resolutions of the previous councils I mentioned, but also adding what is called
the Filioque clause, that states that the Holy Spirit not only proceeds from the Father,
but from the Son too. This seems like a very stupid detail, just
as the theological differences between Arianism and Catholicism, but the Filioque clause caused
a great deal of controversy for centuries and it was never accepted in the East. Another very important canon was one that
stated the tax exemption of the clergy or the slaves of the Church, that was indeed
very relevant because it granted the Church more power. The collaboration between the Visigothic state
and the Church was obvious, but as the Catholic clergy gained influence in the government,
Jews started being persecuted in the name of religious unity, just as it had been happening
all over the Catholic kingdoms. For instance, a canon forbade Jews from marrying
Christians or having Christian slaves. The persecutions and laws against Jews were
still not as bad as in other countries, but they would soon be and because of that many
Jews fled from Visigothic Spain to North Africa. Finally, King Reccared issued a decree giving
the resolutions of national and provincial Catholic councils a force equal to that of
laws, which is yet another evidence of the increasing influence of the Church. The religious policy of Reccared may have
seen as opposite to that of his father, but in the end they shared the same vision and
objective: to unify and strengthen the Kingdom and its peoples. Leovigild had presented himself as the head
of the national Arian Church, and Reccared was doing just the same but with the Catholic
Church instead. In both cases they wanted to strengthen their
legitimacy by not only ruling over secular affairs, but religious matters as well. The Visigothic conversion to Catholicism was
the culmination of the process of integration of both the Goths and Hispano-Romans that
King Leovigild started. The Visigoths were very Romanized at this
point, they had lost the Gothic language, they wore the same clothes as the Hispano-Romans,
and they had changed their burial costumes. With the conversion, a new nation was born,
as contemporary scholar Isidore of Seville said in his works. Now I want to spend some time discussing the
question regarding the concept of Hispania as a nation. Previous authors from the Roman period and
early Visigothic rule talked about Hispania only in a geographical sense, but Isidore
of Seville was the first to refer to Hispania in a more national sense. Before I get started, let me clarify this,
the concept of nation in the Middle Ages was very different from the concept of nation
that was developed in the 19th century. The Medieval concept of nation was very imprecise
actually, although even today there’s debate about what a nation is since it’s a very
abstract concept. The modern concept of nation is defined as
a community of peoples that share a common history, language, ethnicity, territory or
culture. A key concept of nationalism is the principle
of popular sovereignty, which means that the authority and legitimacy of a state is sustained
by the consent of its people, which implies a democracy to some extent. What’s clear though is that the elites of
Medieval Europe would have laughed if someone told them about this crazy idea, so this brings
us again to the question of what a nation was for the Medieval intelligentsia. Medieval relations were fundamentally personal,
because of that patron and client relations were key to maintain the unity and stability
of a state. Therefore, in an era where religion and personal
or kin relationships were very important, a nation was defined, at least partly, as
having a common biblical ancestor. So to legitimize Visigothic rule and reinforce
the idea that Visigoths and Hispano-Romans were one nation, Isidore of Seville deliberately
made the Visigoths Spanish. And how he made that possible? He wrote that the Hispano-Romans and Goths
descended from a common biblical ancestor, Japeth. “Seven sons of Japeth are named: Magog,
from whom people think the Scythians and the Goths took their origin. Tubal, from whom came the Iberians, who are
also the Spaniards, although some think that the Italians also sprang from him”. As you have heard, not only did Isidore connect
genealogically the people from Hispania and the Goths, but also the Romans to make us
see the Visigoths as legitimate successors of the Roman Empire, especially after their
conversion to Catholicism and efforts to evangelize every inhabitant of the kingdom. But the scholar Isidore of Seville didn’t
stop there, because he also invented the idea of mater Spania, or mother Spain, and this
metaphor was also used in the Middle Ages to define nations. This idea of motherland links every human
being to the land where each one was born, so the people that was born in Hispania had
a kind of mother-son relationship with the land, with the mater Spania. In his History of the Kings of the Goths,
Vandals and Suebi, Isidore of Seville wrote his famous prologue De Laude Spaniae, or In
Praise of Spain, and this prologue is very relevant because he wrote an exalted patriotic
and chauvinistic poem that is the precedent of the idea of the Spanish nation. Let me read a fragment of In Praise of Spain:
“Of all the lands from the west to the Indies, you, Spain, O sacred and always fortunate
mother of princes and peoples, are the most beautiful. Rightly are you now the queen of all provinces,
from which not only the west but also the east borrows its shining lights. You are the pride and ornament of the world. [..] Rightly did golden Rome, the head of
the nations, desire you long ago. And although this same Romulean power, initially
victorious, betrothed you to itself, now it is the most flourishing people of the Goths,
who in their turn, after many victories all over the world, have eagerly seized you and
loved you: they enjoy you up to the present time amidst royal emblems and great wealth,
secure in the good fortune of empire.” Isidore of Seville wrote a narrative history
that broke with the ancient historiography that praised the Roman past and depicted the
Visigoths as Barbarians. Instead, the Visigoths were depicted as the
legitimate heirs of the Roman Empire in Hispania. Because of that Isidore was key in the development
of the independent ideology that legitimized Visigothic role, but his work outlived the
Visigothic Kingdom too because during the Reconquista Christian Kingdoms presented themselves
as heirs of the Catholic Visigothic state. Wow, I really had a hard time researching
this part about the Medieval concept of nation and the ideas of Isidore of Seville, but I
hope I have explained it in a comprehensive way. Let’s pick up again the narrative, the Third
Council of Toledo ended, and the Visigoths converted to Catholicism, but what happened
next? Truth is that after that landmark moment of
Spanish history, we don’t know much about the reign of Reccared, but we have a few events. There was yet another attempt to overthrow
him in 589, that time led by the Duke of Carthaginensis. However, the conspiracy would be suppressed,
the associates of the Duke were executed and he himself was tortured, then had his right
hand cut off, and he was displayed throughout Toledo as an example to all that “servants
should not be presumptuous to their masters”. However, Reccared then had a pro-noble policy
of giving them back some states that had been confiscated by his father Leovigild, so during
his reign both the nobility and clergy were rewarded overall. That policy contradicted the overall policy
of Reccared though, because still the majority of the laws he promulgated had the objective
to centralize power and emulate the Eastern Roman Empire, just as his father had done. In terms of foreign policy, the Visigoths
fought again the Vascones and Byzantines. The Vascones continued their raids in the
Ebro Valley, even though the Visigoths had pressed them to migrate to the other side
of the Pyrenees. In any case the Visigoths just kept them in
check, but they didn’t conquer their homeland. On the other hand, the Byzantines recovered
a few lands, which isn’t that surprising considering that at that time the Emperor
of the Eastern Roman Empire engaged in some expansionist campaigns in Africa and Italy. Unlike his father, Reccared attempted to maintain
the status quo, and he asked for the mediation of Pope Gregory I to fix the borders of the
province of Spania. He was in good terms with him because Reccared
had founded several churches to make effective the religious unity of the kingdom and because
of his anti-Jewish policies. Moving on, Reccared died in 601 and he was
succeeded by his only son, Liuva II, who was then 18 years-old. His mother wasn’t a noblewoman, and that
affected his legitimacy to rule. Because of that there was a successful coup
in 603, thus ending the dynasty of Leovigild. The coup was led by Witteric, the man that
reported the first conspiracy against Reccared, and he had Liuva II executed. Witteric was a king with a military background,
so his energic policy against the Romans of Spania shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Witteric took advantage of the internal problems
that the Empire was facing, and he conquered several towns close to the Gibraltar Strait
and he even occupyied a town that was very close to Cartagena, the capital of Spania. Apart from that, Witteric arranged the marriage
of one of his daughters with the King of Burgundy, but the marriage was cancelled even after
his daughter had already arrived there. That infuriated Witteric and he attempted
to form a coalition against Burgundy, but it all came to naught. In terms of internal policy, King Witteric
faced some opposition from factions of the nobility and clergy. His policy was similar to that of Leovigild
or Reccared, he wanted to maintain or increase the power of the monarchy, but because of
that some of the nobles that had supported him in his conspiracy turned against him. Witteric realized that his life was under
threat and he tried to reconcile with that part of the nobility, but he was unsuccessful
and was assassinated in 610. Isidore of Seville wrote that “He killed
with a sword; he was killed with a sword”. The nobles then proclaimed King the Duke of
Narbonne, Gundemar. Under his reign the Visigoths increased the
pressure on the Byzantine possessions of southern Spain and he led expeditions against the Vascones,
Cantabri and Astures, that were yet again raiding the territories of the Ebro and Duero
Valleys. And just like it had happened previously,
these expeditions weren’t successful enough to completely dominate the peoples of the
north. Unlike his predecessors, Gundemar gave up
some powers of his position, such as appointing bishops. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the
nobility and clergy that had put him in power were against the centralizing policies of
the dynasty of Leovigild and Witteric. That allowed him to die from natural causes
just 2 years after he started reigning. Sisebut succeeded him, and this Sisebut was
supported by the same nobility of his predecessor, but let’s leave things here for the following
episode. THE VERDICT: in today’s verdict I want to
discuss a bit more why Reccared converted to Catholicism and the long-term consequences
of the alliance between the Visigothic state and the Catholic Church. The thing is that the conversion wasn’t
a top-down phenomenon, because even before the reign of Leovigild the Visigoths were
increasingly becoming Romanized, and that included individual conversions to Catholicism. When Reccared succeeded his father, it was
clear that the reformed Arianism formula wasn’t going to work and that there was no way to
stop the Romanization of the Visigoths, so it was better if the kingdom just recognized
that fact. Then, about the long-term consequences of
the alliance, we can say that the Visigothic Kingdom evolved and became much more associated
with the religious power. The Visigothic Kingdom was then transformed
into a very unique form of government that couldn’t be found anywhere, at least in
Europe. The state became a mix of caesaropapism and
theocracy, and that’s actually contradictory because in a caesaropapist regime the king
ruled over the Church while in a theocracy the Church has the secular power too. But that’s why it’s unique, because the
King had some prerogatives over the Church but the Church assumed new administrative
and legislative functions. The only problem was that the association
with the Church didn’t make the position of the king more secure, it didn’t serve
as a way to prevent the endemic noble revolts and conspiracies, and that’s definitely
one of the big failures of the Visigothic Kingdom. And with that, The Verdict ends. To end this episode, let me remind you that
the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes,
a list of books about the history of Spain and subscribe to the biweekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts,
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