formation of spain

Visigothic conversion to Catholicism

This is episode 16 called Visigothic conversion to Catholicism and in this episode you will learn:

Show notes

  • Why there was a religious conflict in Visigothic Spain between Catholics and Arians
  • Why the reformed Arianism of Leovigild didn’t work and why it was so difficult to make Catholicism the state religion of the Visigothic Kingdom
  • What King Reccared did to reduce opposition following his conversion
  • Details about the three attempts to overthrow Reccared between his personal conversion and the Third Council of Toledo and how the Visigoths repelled the Frankish invasion of Septimania
  • Reccared’s strategy to strengthen royal power using the Church
  • Third Council of Toledo: Visigoths abdjure the Arian heresy and embrace Catholicism, alliance between the Visigothic state and the Church and firsts anti-Jewish policies
  • Why Reccared’s religious policy wasn’t that different from that of Leovigild and the implications of the religious unity of Visigoths and Hispano-Romans
  • Comparison of the Medieval and modern concept of nation and how Isidore of Seville blended the Visigoths and Hispano-Romans together in one nation
  • The idea of mater Spania and the breakup with the ancient historiography to develop a national narrative
  • Minor events of the reign of Reccared and the short reign of his son Liuva II
  • The reigns of Witteric and Gundemar
  • Reflection about the long-term consequences of the alliance between the Visigothic state and the Catholic Church and the unique mix of caesaropapism and theocracy that resulted from it

Script

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.

reccared visigothic conversion to catholicism

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.

isidore of seville

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, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!

Sources

HISTORIA DE ESPAÑA VISIGODA. Luis A. García Moreno

EARLY MEDIEVAL SPAIN: UNITY IN DIVERSITY, 400-1000. Roger Collins

VISIGOTHIC SPAIN, 409-711. Roger Collins

THE GOTHS IN SPAIN. E. A. Thompson

EL CONCILIO III DE TOLEDO. Juan Antonio Zugasti and Francisco Javier Simonet

THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY IN VISIGOTHIC SPAIN: RELIGION AND POWER IN THE HISTORIES OF ISIDORE OF SEVILLE. James P. Wood

MEDIEVAL IBERIA: READINGS FROM CHRISTIAN, MUSLIM, AND JEWISH SOURCES. Olivia Remie Constable

‘El concepto de España en la historiografía visigoda y asturiana’. Alexander Pierre Bronisch

NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license