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University of Michigan Press
Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589-633

Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589-633

by Rachel L. Stocking


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Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589-633

The medieval Visigothic kingdom—even after the full-scale conversion of the population from Arianism to Catholicism—was barely held together by a fluctuating mixture of tradition inherited from Roman law, Germanic and provincial influences, local custom, and Catholic values. In her study of a society riddled with instability and conflicting paradigms of power, Rachel Stocking dissects the social meaning of consensus in the early medieval state. Using the compelling example of contemporary records and by drawing out the often-conflicting aspirations of kings and bishops, she addresses the dynamic and contradictory relationship between the ideals of Christian governance and early medieval social conditions.

This eloquently presented, exhaustive study concludes that legislation, however persistently enacted, was unequal to the task of remedying a lack of unity and other social and political ills. Notions of consensus are explored as a way of maintaining community cohesion and order in the absence of strong central authorities. Other issues the author confronts are Catholic tolerance and intolerance toward heterodox and non-Christian "others;" the transformation and transmission of ancient ideals and social structures from the Roman to the later medieval worlds; and the position of medieval Spain in relation to the mainstream of western European history.

This nuanced study is a must-read for anyone interested in medieval life, politics, religion, and the precarious nature of the medieval state.

Rachel Stocking is Professor of History, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472111336
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 01/09/2001
Series: History, Languages, and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589-633

By Rachel L. Stocking

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2000 Rachel L. Stocking
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472111337


At a church council in 654 the Visigothic king Recceswinth (649-72) presented his kingdom's bishops and palace officials with a dilemma. Some years earlier the king's father, Chindaswinth (642-53), had forced all the kingdom's secular and clerical leaders, including Recceswinth, to take an oath to uphold a civil law against rebels and their supporters. The law had mandated particularly harsh punishments, including exile, confiscation of property, dismemberment, and death. The oath takers had sworn never to pardon rebels or show mercy in inflicting these punishments. Upon Chindaswinth's death, however, a noble Visigoth, Froia, had raised a rebellion against the younger king, causing widespread death and destruction. Now faced with the religious obligation to carry out the sworn punishments, Recceswinth apparently wished to mend fences and reestablish unity by granting mercy to some of Froia's supporters. He asked the Eighth Council of Toledo to release himself and all those who had taken the oath--including the bishops and nobles in attendance--from its strictures against pardon. The bishops therefore had to decide between two important legal principles: the binding and holy authority of an oath taken in God's name or the peacemaking powers of Christian mercy requested by a divinely appointed king.

The question provoked a heated debate that threatened an irretrievable split. On the one hand, there were those who found a "profanation of the holy name" unacceptable; on the other, there were those who thought "the prohibition of mercy" was "loathsome." The implications of the choice were momentous. As the council records show, religious oaths were a fundamental mechanism in the kingdom's legal system. They gave divine authorization to treaties with foreign countries, to ties of patronage between individuals, to the testimony of witnesses in everyday dispute settlements, and to avowals of innocence in the absence of witnesses, for to commit perjury was to consign oneself to perdition. At the same time, oaths could be dangerously misused; conditions could be added to them that might force people to perpetrate crimes as heinous as patricide or the rape of virgins who had taken religious vows of chastity.

Unable to reach consensus on this issue through their own debate, the council members instead agreed to stop the discussion and turn their "words and hearts, with crashing sobs and torrents of tears, to God, who is the fountain of piety." Begging the Holy Spirit to "quiet the storms of our ignorance and lead us into the port of your will," they pled for the breath of divine inspiration that would save them from the "shipwrecks" of contention and "spread the sails" of their mutual decision. The records detail the careful logic and extensive scriptural and patristic references that then allowed the assembly to understand the decision of the Holy Spirit and reach agreement. It was not acceptable for the position of either party to be overridden, and, therefore, neither side was wrong; "the justice of oath-taking and the peace of sworn mercy" did not contradict one another, so "mercy and truth met each other and justice and peace kissed."

According to the council, the judicially indispensable authority of oath taking would not be undermined by the peace of mercy, for strictures against profanation did not apply to oaths that would "let forth rivers of vengeance" through the "sacrilege of evil deeds." Inflicting dismemberment and death was a "detestable" and "impious cruelty" that would condemn its executors to eternal damnation. The final compromise was simple: the oath takers were exempted from imposing the capital punishments they had sworn to uphold, but they were compelled to fulfill all other aspects of the oath, including the punishments of exile and dispossession of properties. Any future oaths against rebellion were to be kept vigilantly but were to continue to exclude capital punishment. The council went on to protect itself from any accusations that the decision constituted perjury or deviated from "the rule of holy faith." With another outpouring of citations from ancient authorities, the bishops pointed out that God himself frequently had changed his mind for the sake of mercy.

Toledo VIII thus sought to resolve a number of contradictions and conflicting interests surrounding the exercise of divine justice and central authority in seventh-century Iberia. First of all, both Chindaswinth's efforts at forcefully repressing rebellion and Recceswinth's interest in sparing the condemned arose from an ongoing difficulty in maintaining ruling unity in the face of divergent local networks of power. The latter king sought to obtain through compromise the unity that the former king had failed to establish through coercion. Second, the divided opinions among the council's participants reflect a continuing tension between the exercise of collective, centralized, ecclesiastic authority and the interests of individual bishops and their local communities. The Holy Spirit's presence at the council depended upon episcopal harmony amid the antagonisms of partisan community leaders. Finally, Chindaswinth's reliance on coercive religious oaths and Recceswinth's request for the council's endorsement of obtaining peace through mercy indicate inadequate centralized enforcement of law and loyalty. This had led to the use of divine sanctions and scriptural rationalizations in secular efforts to maintain centralized order. Chindaswinth could not depend on powerful people to remain loyal without the threat of perdition, while Recceswinth could not contain vengeance without the approval of scriptural precedent and the Holy Spirit.

The efficacy of divine sanctions, however, was compromised by the lack of a common vision of the role of divine authority in worldly affairs. In mounting their rebellion, the rebels had demonstrated their lack of fear in the face of the threat of perdition for perjurers. In addressing the consequences of this audacity, the council's participants were unable to invoke their collective holy authority unilaterally. Neither side would accept an outright loss through the council's decision, even if that loss were attributed to the Holy Spirit. The council's enumeration of holy texts and its consciousness of the danger of reversing a previous policy reveal the limitations and pitfalls involved in relying upon theoretically immutable but frequently contradictory ancient legal principles to address turbulent contemporary circumstances.

The process by which Toledo VIII reached its compromise is an illustration of what had come to be an institutionalized ideal for Christian governance in the Visigothic kingdom: settling disputes and maintaining order through decisions reached by episcopal consensus at church councils, whose divine authority was sanctioned by the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the case of Recceswinth's dilemma, the parameters of the decision were relatively narrow, involving a limited number of rebels among the kingdom's elite. By 654, however, Visigothic leaders had developed a much broader ideal of governance by conciliar consensus; church councils were envisioned as a means to impose obedience and unity upon all the inhabitants of the kingdom. The achievement of this broad ideal depended upon a practical, functioning consensus among all the communities of the kingdom: a general and uniform acceptance of a particular role for divine authority in worldly affairs. Throughout the seventh century kings and bishops struggled to make this ideal consensus real, thereby ensuring uniform obedience to secular and conciliar legislation. Their efforts were met with continuing diversity and disobedience--from local communities as well as from powerful people like Froia. Thus, the governance of the Visigothic kingdom came to be characterized by an ongoing tension between leaders' ideals for perfect Christian consensus and the notoriously imperfect practical consensus among themselves and among those they were attempting to govern. This book explores that tension, which generated a variety of contradictory attitudes and practices among kings and bishops--particularly between the years 589 and 633. The ideological and social processes played out during these years eventually led to the development of a coherent Visigothic vision of institutionalized religious, legal, and political consensus as the means to maintain Christian order. They did not, however, lead to the realization of that vision. Throughout the rest of the seventh century the kingdom continued to be plagued by rebellions, factionalism, and ineffectual demands for obedience to the legislation of both kings and councils.

Ideal and Practical Consensus

The legal and governmental paradoxes facing leaders in the Visigothic kingdom confronted powerful groups and individuals--bishops, nobles, and kings--in all of the Germanic kingdoms of early medieval Europe. During the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries the administrative systems of the western Roman Empire fragmented into diverse pockets of local authority. In the preceding centuries under the Roman emperors, the effective exercise of central authority and administration had been partly dependent upon a set of assumptions shared by the empire's elites about the meaning and exercise of various mechanisms of social power and community leadership. These included long-standing and generally accepted meanings and practices tied to Roman citizenship, legal culture, civic and personal patronage, education, and class privilege.

Elite unity in the Roman Empire, however, had always been partly fictitious. The horizontal cohesion of shared elite interests and values was in constant tension with the vertical loyalties of local relationships of power in culturally, geographically, and economically diverse communities. Long before the final failure of central authority in the West, this tension was heightened by political turmoil, military disturbances, economic changes, and cultural transformations--particularly those associated with the rise of Christianity. In turn, increasing tension between elite solidarity and local interests engendered mutations and contradictions in peoples' ideas about power and its exercise. The fictional principles of ruling unity began to soften and melt. As the ornate edifice of late Roman government finally began to disintegrate in the West during the fifth century, the shared elite assumptions that had supported it became ever more fluid and diverse while various groups struggled to wield authority in changing and uncertain conditions.

Nevertheless, during the course of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries powerful people in western European communities were still, as a group, successors to Roman traditions and practices. As they reinvented concepts and mechanisms of power in response to varying local circumstances, they still worked with a common pool of loosely shared assumptions and practices. These were based on comparable experiences and fluctuating mixtures of Roman, Germanic, and provincial influences. Most areas of the former western Empire encountered, in one form or another, the same problems that confronted Iberian leaders: the tensions between elite solidarity and local interests, the inadequate central enforcement of law, the resulting dependence on divine sanctions and scriptural authority, the lack of a shared vision of sacred authority, and the contradictions and inflexibility of ancient precedents. Since many of the problems facing rulers were quite similar, their various solutions, innovations, and failures sometimes had much in common with one another. The problems these leaders shared, however, were themselves contributors to the continuing process of divergent transformation. The Iberian vision of consensus and society, therefore, is markedly different from paths taken in Gaul, Italy, Britain, or North Africa.

The fact that these changes unfolded at uneven paces and with divergent consequences is reflected in the source materials available. An almost complete lack of sources, for instance, makes developments in Anglo-Saxon England during the fifth and sixth centuries notably obscure. Meanwhile, historians of Gaul during these centuries work with a comparative embarrassment of riches. Many of those Gallic sources, however, reflect a limited range of clerical interests and attitudes. The analysis of Christian communities in sixth-century Gaul, for example, is dependent upon the works of one prolific writer with a distinct, profoundly episcopal point of view: Gregory of Tours. North Africa has left us rich documentation of clerical culture and attitudes in the writings of Saint Augustine. With his death and the Vandal conquest in 430, however, the region fades from view. Iberian developments during these years are not much clearer. Details only begin to emerge with the conversion of the Visigoths from Arianism to Catholicism in 589; again, these sources are overwhelmingly clerical. In brief, anyone attempting to reconstruct an overall picture of almost any aspect of historical change in the West during this period is working with a shattered mosaic, unevenly scattered and missing a majority of its most vital pieces; making generalizations about the period is a difficult and at times dubious enterprise.

When viewing this fractured panorama as a whole, seeking some sort of adhesive element, one's attention is naturally drawn toward repeated colors and patterns. The most obvious of these are the various shades of Christian culture and differing configurations of sacred authority. As centralized governance in the West irrevocably splintered in the second half of the fifth century, community leaders who no longer enjoyed solidarity as privileged subjects of the Roman emperors continued to assume commonality and shared values through their self-identification as members of the universal church. They expressed that commonality in the vocabularies of traditional literate Christian and Roman culture and authority, which were increasingly monopolized and redefined by ecclesiastic leaders. Christian commonality in the diversifying West was also manifested in ways of daily community life: the rise of localized cults of the saints; the sacralization of particular places, people, and power structures in small, "face-to-face" communities; and what has been called a general "draining of the secular from society." For historians seeking to create a coherent representation of this period, tracing the transformation of Christian culture and authority from the fourth to the seventh centuries has proven much more fruitful than earlier attempts to characterize the period using traditional economic, political, national, and racial categories.

During this period of transformation one important social and governmental element in the increasingly diverse pool of available ideals and practices was the ancient ideal of consensus. On the broadest scale of Christian ideals of consensus, the universality of the Christian mission for centuries had been considered proof of Christianity's message of salvation; the second coming would occur when the entire world joined in Christian harmony. Christian teachers identified the normative force of Christian consensus in the notion that universal Christian agreement--among teachers of the past and the churches of the present--signified the unquestionable authenticity and authority of any given practice or teaching. On a narrower level of authority, Christian leaders asserted that the consensus of bishops in attendance at church councils brought forth the Holy Spirit, based on the passage in the gospel of Matthew in which Christ said to his disciples "wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, I will be among you." This presence gave divine endorsement to the ancient precedents invoked at earlier councils, as well as to the new rules that a council might issue, and to the orthodox episcopate as a collectivity. Finally, Christian tradition associated the consensus of local communities with the election of individual bishops, which was meant to be carried out according to the "consensus of the people" in the diocese.

Another traditional current of consensus during this period consisted of various Roman notions and practices that had attributed legitimating authority to consensual displays of community harmony. The empire's subject communities demonstrated their own unity and support for the emperor through various imperial ceremonies (e.g., observances for the arrival, accession, and funeral of the emperor). In the later Roman period and in the Byzantine Empire these ceremonies also expressed consensual recognition of the emperors' divine election. During the fifth century ceremonies of consensus among Roman civic leaders marked the reception of imperial law. The concept of the "consent of the people" was also central in traditional Roman definitions of law and justice.

These various configurations of meaning saw continuing life throughout the period. Yet they were subject to redefinition under the exigencies of immediate circumstances. The very notion of a universal church, for instance, was often the subject of intellectual tinkering. Organizationally speaking, there was no such entity, and there had not been for centuries. Furthermore, a full consensus of past Christian authorities was nearly impossible to establish and follow. The establishment and exercise of episcopal consensus was also open to question. Christians based the divine authority of conciliar consensus on the passage in Matthew, but the actual process by which decisions were to be reached was ill defined and open to interpretation according to local expedience. The same was true of previous conciliar decisions, the ecclesiastic rules known as "canons."

The meaning of the consent of the people involved in the election of bishops was also vague. The composition of many Christian communities was diverse and frequently the subject of hostile argumentation, making the notion of "the people" unclear.


Excerpted from Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom, 589-633 by Rachel L. Stocking Copyright © 2000 by Rachel L. Stocking. Excerpted by permission.
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