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A Short History of Spain- Part 3: The Visigothic Legacy

The Visi Who?

The Visig­oths. You’ve heard of them, but you can’t real­ly remem­ber why. Often lost in his­to­ry, the Visig­oths (East­ern Goths as opposed the West­ern Ostro­goths) actu­al­ly played an over­sized role in the tran­si­tion from Roman Europe to what we com­mon­ly refer to as Medieval Europe. Not the least of their con­tri­bu­tions to this tran­si­tion was the sack of Rome itself under their leader Alar­ic, in 410 AD. While the West­ern Empire would con­tin­ue to limp for­ward for a few more decades, The Visig­oths were set­tling most of Gaul (mod­ern France) and His­pania (The Iber­ian Penin­su­la) uncontested. 

In the Span­ish con­text, the Visig­oths ruled for only 250 years and are often remem­bered for their trib­al infight­ing and the lack of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that facil­i­tat­ed the Umayyad (Mus­lim) Con­quest of the Penin­su­la in 711 AD. While these may be true, the Visig­oths left two often unap­pre­ci­at­ed lega­cies to Spain’s history.

A Christian State

First and fore­most, the Visig­oths made Spain a Catholic nation. This is no small his­tor­i­cal mile­stone. Catholi­cism became (and remains to some extent) a core fea­ture of the nation’s iden­ti­ty. What do we mean when we say Catholic nation? After all, by the arrival of the Visig­oths to the Iber­ian Penin­su­la much of the Roman pop­u­la­tion was already con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Nev­er­the­less, it was a non-polit­i­cal faith that was prac­ticed out­side the scope of state pow­er. When the Visig­oths arrived, they bought a new Chris­tian­i­ty with them. This was not the Nicene Chris­tian­i­ty still prac­ticed by the Penin­su­la’s roman­ized natives, but rather Ari­an­ism, which (with­out going into detail, did not rec­og­nize the Holy Trin­i­ty as we under­stand it today). As the Visig­oths began to con­sol­i­date pow­er on the Penin­su­la, they real­ized that con­vert­ing to Nicene (Roman) Chris­tian­i­ty could be a tool to facil­i­tate fur­ther con­sol­i­da­tion of nation­al pow­er. Their con­ver­sion indeed elim­i­nat­ed much of the fric­tion between the new rul­ing class and their native His­pan­ic sub­jects. The key to change, how­ev­er, was in estab­lish­ing this Nicene Chris­t­ian faith as an ele­ment of state pow­er. Rather than a hered­i­tary monar­chy, Visig­oth­ic kings were to be cho­sen by a coun­cil of bish­ops. This enor­mous polit­i­cal influ­ence bestowed upon the cler­gy would be a key fea­ture of the future Span­ish nation, even after the estab­lish­ment of an hered­i­tary nobil­i­ty. Fur­ther­more, it would serve as the basis for the eccle­si­as­tic fuero (the legal rights grant­ed in per­pe­tu­ity to the church as an institution). 

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Modern Toledo, long ago the capitol city of Visigothic Iberia.

A Revolutionary Legal Framework

The sec­ond lega­cy of the Visig­oths is even more fas­ci­nat­ing. Although the Visig­oths are car­i­ca­tured as illit­er­ate beard­ed Ger­man­ic bar­bar­ians, their enlight­ened sense of jus­tice result­ed in one of the most impor­tant legal frame­works since the Ham­mura­bi Code. This is not to say that there had been no law since the Baby­lo­ni­ans. The Romans had exten­sive legal frame­works and were famous for the bru­tal enforce­ment of their laws. That being said, these sys­tems were bifur­cat­ed pro­vid­ing one set of stan­dards for the rul­ing class and anoth­er for the sub­ject class. In Rome it was the cit­i­zen/non-cit­i­zen divide. 

In 654, the Visig­oth King Rec­ceswinth pub­lished the Lex Visig­otho­rum. In the same way that the Visig­oths closed the gap spir­i­tu­al­ly with their sub­jects via their con­ver­sion to Roman Chris­tian­i­ty, this new legal code took the rev­o­lu­tion­ary step of apply­ing a com­mon set of laws to all Iberi­ans, both Visig­oths and for­mer Roman sub­jects. It was a uni­ver­sal code. Fur­ther­more, it offered remark­able pro­tec­tion to women, guar­an­tee­ing them the right to inher­it prop­er­ty and inde­pen­dent­ly man­age busi­ness inter­ests. Although gross­ly dilut­ed over time, the Lex would form the basis for Castil­ian code re-estab­lished by Fer­di­nand III in the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry and thus per­me­ate an ide­al (if not often always well imple­ment­ed) Iber­ian legal frame­work over the centuries. 

These clos­ing of the gaps” in Iber­ian cul­ture and pol­i­tics failed to pre­vent the his­to­ry-chang­ing Islam­ic con­quest of the Penin­su­la begin­ning in 711 AD, but it did cre­ate a nation­al iden­ti­ty built around reli­gion and com­mon law that would serve as the spine of the even­tu­al resis­tance to Mus­lim rule and the sub­se­quent Recon­quista. Vis­i­tors in Spain today will see lit­tle evi­dence of the Visig­oths. Some archi­tec­ture remains, espe­cial­ly in Tole­do, which served as the capi­tol of Visig­oth­ic Iberia. Spain’s Goth­ic past is hid­den behind the more pal­pa­ble lega­cies of the Romans, Arabs, and Catholic monar­chies. The Visig­oths, while not the bricks of Spain’s edi­fice, cer­tain­ly deserve to be rec­og­nized as the mortar.