Because if that’s Gothic this must be Roman

Posted with apologies for the delay in both posting and in dealing with comments, for once not because of my life but because of WordPress being uncharacteristically useless in dealing with the Heartbleed bug I hope you heard about, let’s attack that easiest of targets, to wit, historiographical views on ethnicity. Here is a straw man: let us once more consider the Visigothic Law. Redacted principally in the reign of King Chindasuinth of what we know as the Visigothic kingdom of Spain on the basis both of ‘ancient’ law and subsequent royal edicts, in the form we have it it had been updated by several subsequent rulers and was intended to be widely owned and consulted, as indeed the numerous copies we have of it suggest it was.1 Surely this is the ultimate expression of a Visigothic identity, matured by years of rule and a full conversion to Catholicism? So if that’s Gothic, what went before must be Roman, no?

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 4404, a Narbonne copy of the <em>Breviary of Alaric</em> made between 804 and 814, fo. 1v and 2r I think

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 4404, a Narbonne copy of the Breviary of Alaric made between 804 and 814, fo. 1v and 2r I think

Well, no, obviously not, you may immediately say: firstly the premise is rubbish, but also the artwork is hardly Classical, is it, there is interlace, geometric ornament and the oval-eyed staring faces characteristic of pre-Romanesque portraiture of the earliest kind, or indeed of the earlier copies of the illustrated Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse.2 Also, it is, you know, the Breviary of Alaric, that being King Alaric II of the Visigoths, named after their most successful leader, the guy who actually sacked Rome… This is if anything more Gothic, you may say. But what is this text? It is a codification of Roman law. On the left-hand page of the spread you may even be able to read the name of the Emperor Theodosius, under whose orders the Codex Theodosianus, of which the Breviary is as the name suggests an abbreviation, was compiled, about fifty years after its issue. That’s him in the picture, not Alaric. That’s how Gothic this is.

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne; the other kind of Gothic (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, we can complicate matters further, because this is also Carolingian. That is, this actual manuscript, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, was made and illustrated in the Frankish city of Narbonne in the early ninth century.3 Admittedly, Narbonne had only fallen to the Franks in 759, when the local ‘Goths’ (as the Chronicle of Moissac does indeed call them) decided that between the Muslims inside the city and the Frankish army outside they’d rather take their chances with Charlemagne’s dad Pippin the Short, and threw the Muslims out and made terms. One of the terms was that they got to keep their own law.4 Which one, do you suppose, this one? or the ‘Visigothic’ one? Either way, this is at least two generations after the conquest and yet it was still being copied, a Gothic compilation of Roman law copied under Frankish rule in a city they’d freed from the Muslims depicting the Roman emperor who hadn’t issued it in a style some would happily call Mozarabic. Assign an ethnicity to that.

A Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109, from Wikimedia Commons

An actual Catalan copy of the Visigothic Law, Abadia de Montserrat MS 1109 once again, from Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the idea that use of the Visigothic Law, as we call it, represents a deep investment in the Visigothic past should be queried more often than it is. The text is only given that ethnic title by us, its name in the actual texts being the Forum Iudicum, more or less Judges’ Conventions. It also substantially erases any difference between Goths and Romans that earlier codes had maintained: the old difference only leaks through in one or two clauses where it is ruled against. The first issue of this lawcode was arguably the point at which its own users stopped seeing the point in marking customs and behaviours out as Gothic. It’s not a monument of that identity; it’s its tombstone. That is, admittedly, not how it is used even in my period, where the text is often called the Law of the Goths, but that is nonetheless not what its authors had intended.6 And for somebody in Carolingian ex-Muslim ex-Gothic Narbonne it was, in any case, not the law that was most worth copying; they wanted the one it had replaced. We’ve seen before that Gothic identity seems to have been something a very few people in Narbonne still made something of in this period; now as then I think that the evidence forces me to conclude that they only cared because mostly, other people did not. It would make a lot of things simpler if we sided with the majority here…

1. The canonical cite here is Aquilino Iglesia Ferreirós, “La creación del derecho en Cataluña” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 47 (Madrid 1977), pp. 99-423, now revised in his La creación del Derecho: una historia del Derecho espa&ntidle;ol (Barcelona 1988), 3 vols, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1989-1991), 3 vols.

2. The fullest study of these manuscripts is John W. Williams, The Illustrated Beatus (New York 1994-1998 & Turnhout 2000), 5 vols, but shorter introductions to the text and what it was doing can be found in Williams, “Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liébana” in Richard K. Emmerson & Bernard McGinn (edd.), The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Ithaca 1992), pp. 217-233 or Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 81 (1995), pp. 185-210. References to it as Mozarabic are trivial to find, though almost any use of this word is misleading: see Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Aldershot 2008).

3. It is Paris, BN MS Lat. 4404, and the attribution is from Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antés del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), no. 129 (p. 382).

4. The best account of this is still Josep María Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136 & 137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols, I pp. 5-7, but I should also mention the new and useful summary in Cullen Chandler, “Carolingian Catalonia: the Spanish March and the Franks, c. 750-c. 1050″ in History Compass Vol. 11 (Oxford 2013), pp. 739-750. The Chronicle of Moissac is printed in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica… Scriptorum tomus I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) I (Hannover 1826), pp. 280-314.

5. E. g. Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), online here, III.1.2 ruling that mixed marriages are legal; slightly more respect for remaining differences in X.1.8, 9 & 16 & X.2.1 & 5 probably have to do wth the fact that here rights in land that could have been inherited are concerned. II.2.2 is adamant that everyone, even the king, is subject to the same law and II.1.8 refuses to recognise any other Roman law than what is compiled into the Forum.

6. Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

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