The Visigoths in Spain. Their Arrival and Unexpected Legacy.

The Visigoths: Arrival in Spain.
The Visigoths were one of several migratory Germanic or Gothic tribes**, whom the Greeks and Romans identified as “barbarians,” i.e. “different” and culturally unsophisticated. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the Romans from making pacts with them or incorporating them in their imperial armies.

**Disapproval has stuck to “Gothic” throughout the years. For example, “Gothic” cathedrals were scorned during the Renaissance because they did not compare well with classical elegance then in vogue.  “Gothic” novels convey images of decay and decadence. Even nowadays the Oxford and Webster dictionaries include “barbarous,” “uncouth,” “rude,” in definitions of “Gothic.”

The Gothic invasion of France, Italy and Spain was facilitated by the enfeebled state of the Roman Empire. The invasion of Hispania (as the Iberian peninsula –including Portugal– was then known) was not a single event carried out by a unified group, but a series of migrations by different tribes –Sueves, Vandals, Alani, Visigoths etc. The Sueves, Vandals and Alani crossed the Pyrenees in 409, the Sueves establishing themselves in the north west, the Vandals in the south and the Alani in Lusitania.

In 416, Visigothic soldiers arrived, having been contracted as allies by the Romans to reimpose Roman authority on the earlier Germanic invaders.  In 418, these soldiers were recalled to the south of France, where the Visigoths had by now established their capital in Toulouse.  By that time Roman authority over the Visigoths was tenuous. The Visigoths had already sacked the imperial city in 410 and their westward expansion into southern France and eventually into Hispania was a process over which Rome really had little say.

Although they controlled much of the peninsula from Toulouse at first, the Visigoths finally moved en masse through the Pyrenees early in the 6th century. Their decision was prompted by a series of defeats, and the death of their king, Alaric II (r 484-507) at the hands of the Franks from the north. (The issue between Franks and Visigoths came to a head when the king of the Franks, Clodoveo/ Clovis (r 481-511), converted to Catholicism. His quarrel with Alaric had a decided religious overtone directed against the Arian beliefs of Alaric and his followers).

From the beginning of the 6th century to the early years of the 8th, the Visigoths dominated the peninsula, although their control was frequently tested over the first hundred years or so. The Vascones (Basques) in the north were always a thorn, and the Sueves to the North West kept up opposition. In addition, the establishment of Rome’s eastern offspring, Byzantine Constantinople, in the south east of the peninsula in the mid 500s also threatened Visigothic resolve.

The Sueves were finally conquered during the reign of the redoubtable Leovigild (r 568-586), and the Byzantine threat was terminated in the 620s. So, except for the Basque region, the peninsula was united from within as a nation under one ruler for the first time. Under Rome it had been no more than a province, and ruled from outside; with the Visigoths it took the first significant step to self-identity.

Visigothic Spain at the death of Leovigild (586). The green shows what was left of the Byzantine empire until the 620s. North of Victoriacum, the Basques were also undefeated by the Visigoths. .

The Visigothic Paradox.
For many people the Visigothic contribution to Hispanic civilisation seems inexistent or at best marginal. The contributions of the “Invisigoths” (as they have succinctly been called, see suffer badly, wedged as they are between great legacies of the Romans and the Moors (the word usually used to refer to Muslim entering Spain in 711, irrespective of ethnic origin).

Votive Crown Found at Guarrazar near Toledo in 1849. In the Archeological Museum, Madrid.

Indeed, the “significance” of the Visigoths might be defined paradoxically by what they did not do. They left little art: some gold and silver work (including some striking votive crowns), figurative carvings, but no individual pieces of sculpture.

There are no towns that identify their culture in a substantial way. Not even Toledo, their capital from the middle of the 6th century, can claim any significant extant Visigothic features (the church of San Román in Toledo houses a very modest Visigothic museum: e.g. reproductions of some crowns –the originals are in the Archeological Museum in Madrid– some brooches and sundry ornaments).

What is left are some rural churches in the north (e.g. San Juan de Baños de Cerrato in Palencia, Santa Comba de Bande in Orense, San Pedro de la Nave near Zamora, Quintanilla de las Vias between Burgos and Soria) and some striking artifacts related to the church in Mérida, Toledo and Córdoba: pillars, decorated altar pieces and fonts, stones with “Maltese” crosses etc.

San Pedro de la Nave.
San Pedro de la Nave. Carving of the sacrifice of Isaac and vegetal and animal motifs.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, a Byzantine quality to the decorative elements (e.g. vegetal motifs –grapes, leaves, plants– peacocks, geometric patterns), but this is probably owing to the close contact the Visigoths had with the east on their journey westward. That is when they adopted Arianism, a deviant Christian doctrine that denied the Trinity, preached by the Greek-born theologian, Arius.

From the east too could have come a major contribution to Hispanic architecture, the horseshoe arch, although ironically this is frequently credited to the Moors. The most striking example can be found in the church of San Juan de Baños.

San Juan de Baños.

The Visigoths left little linguistic evidence of their presence. There exist no literary works or written documents –even of a legal or ecclesiastical nature– in the Visigothic tongue.  It is not that the Visigothic period was devoid of culture; on the contrary 7th-century writing in Hispania was one of the richest in Europe, even if it was produced mainly by writers of Hispano-Roman origin (e.g. St Isidore).

The point is that authors chose to express themselves in Latin, the written/ literary language that bound most of Europe at that time. What we do have left of Visigothic linguistic influence is lexical rather than syntactic and limited mostly to proper names (e.g. Alfonso, Rodrigo, Fernando, Gonzalo, Guzmán),and words associated with war: guerra (“war“), yelmo (“helmet”), espuela (“spur”), estribo (“stirrup”), heraldo (“herald”), tregua (“truce”).

Given this lack of substantial Visigothic presence in Spain, can we ignore the Visigoths?  No, for three reasons, each highlighting the myth of the Visigoths in Spain’s history:

1) For many historians, especially those supporting the centralist views of Castile, the Visigoths are viewed as nation builders because they were the first to create a united and independent kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula.  According to the Jesuit church historian, Z García Villada (1876-1936), Spain as a nation was born politically in 573 during the reign of Leovigild (r. 568-86), and spiritually when Leovigild’s son, Reccared (r. 586-601) converted from Arianism to Catholicism in 587 and declared his country officially Catholic in 589.  

García Villada could have added, too, that in 654 the political and spiritual dimensions of Spanish nationalism were underpinned by a unified legislative system.  Known as the Lex Visigothorum (Law of the Visigoths) or Liber Iudiciorum (Book of the Judges), it brought together earlier Visigothic customary laws and traditions and Roman legal principles, and remained in use in Christian territory until the 13th century (i.e. during the years of al-Andalus, when much of the Peninsula was under Muslim rule). So, with these basic structural requirements for nationhood Iberia/Hispania was politically, religiously and legislatively united as early as the 6th century. 

This combination of unity, law and order under a benevolent church appealed strongly to General Franco, Spanish dictator from 1939 to 1975, who praised the Visigoths for endowing Spaniards with these qualities when he opened the Visigothic Museum in Toledo in 1969.

Not everyone sees the Visigoths in such a positive light, however. One of Spain’s best known philosophers, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), dismissed them as a decadent, drunken and “Romanised” tribe lurching its way through Hispania, and compared them unfavourably with another Germanic group, the Franks, founders of France. 

In 1948, the influential literary critic, philologist and historian, Américo Castro (1885-1972), rejected the very idea that the Visigoths were Spanish, arguing that Spain or “Spanishness” was really a product of the eight centuries of “convivencia” (“getting along together”) of Christians, Moors and Jews.

This produced a heated riposte from another historian, Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, for whom the fundamental elements of “Spanishness” preceded the Moors. It survived the presence of the Jews and Moors and regained its eminence following the expulsion of these alien cultures.

2) The Visigothic spirit was frequently evoked following the Moorish invasion (711), when the concept of the godo as conveying untainted Hispanic virtues was recalled with pride in the struggle against the infidel. Praise of the Visigoths started with the Hispano-Roman writer, the famous St Isidore of Seville (560?-636), whose writings enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages. 

Since the Visigoths had declared Hispania officially Catholic by the time he was writing, Isidore’s eulogy reflected his gratitude for the protection and support the Church now enjoyed under Visigothic rule. Much of Isidore’s Historia Gothorum (History of the Goths) was incorporated into Rodrigo Jiménez de Andrada’s 13th-century Historia Gothica, a glowing tribute to the Visigothic period.  In the 13th century, too, the aura of Visigothic qualities led Alfonso X, the Learned, to exalt Visigothic nobility, religious devotion and greatness in legendary terms.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the status attached to the Visigoths declined somewhat, only to re-emerge at the beginning of the 16th century, following the fall of Muslim Granada.

It was revived with the publication in 1500 of the Mozarabic missal and in 1502 of the Mozarabic breviary, both of which reaffirmed the continuity of the pre-Islamic church rite practiced by the Visigoths. As the 16th century progressed and going into the 17th century, the expression Es de los godos (“he descends from the Goths”) was used to identify anyone who claimed a lineage traceable to the purity of pre-Moorish days.

During the same period, the celebrated Spanish surname Guzmán, from the German gouds man (“good man”), was the most commonly appropriated by those who wished to claim an illustrious heritage. Verification of such claims freed an individual of the worst social stigma possible, the accusation of being of Jewish or Moorish descent, i.e. of being a Converso or Morisco.  The obsession with purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) cannot be underestimated during this period; it infected all social levels and became a major theme in literary works.

The Visigothic spirit is still with us today in a form that may not be readily recognised.  If you visit the Cathedral of Toledo, you may be fortunate to hear what is called a Mozarabic Mass celebrated in one of the side chapels called the Mozarabic Chapel (also known as the Chapel of Corpus Christi or the Chapel of Cardinal Cisneros, at whose initiative the Mozarabic missal and breviary were published). This Mass is none other than the ancient Visigothic Mass practiced in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the arrival of the Moors. (Google Mozarabic rites youtube to hear snippets.)

3) It has been claimed that large numbers of Visigothic nobles fled to the Asturian mountains following defeat by the Moors in 711, and from there they were instrumental in spearheading resistance to the newcomers. Much of this is conjectural, elaborated by later historiographers, but it has passed to modern days.  Add to this the centralist argument that it was in Asturias where the Reconquista began, and it was there where Castile was born, and it was Castile “that made Spain,”** and we have good reasons not to dismiss the Visigoths.

** An assertion made by Ortega y Gasset.
He also added that Castile had “unmade Spain.”

Like the Celts and Iberians, the Visigoths have cast a longer shadow over Spain’s history than might be expected; it’s one that is not likely to go away easily.

Barton, Simon in “The Roots of the National Question in Spain,” in The National Question in Europe in Historical Context eds. Mikulas Teich and Roy Porter Cambridge: 1993 (pp. 106-127).  (Well argued article and well worth looking for.)
Carr, Raymond ed.  Spain: A History  Oxford 2000
Collins, Roger Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400-1000   London: MacMillan 1983
Collins, Roger Visigothic Spain 409-711  Oxford 2004
Phillips, William D, Jr. & Phillips Carla R A Concise History of Spain  Cambridge 2010
Bernard Reilly  The Medieval Spains Cambridge 1993
E.A. Thompson,  The Goths in Spain Oxford: Clarendon 1969  Map of Visigothic Spain