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21.11.05 Dell’Elicine/Martin (eds.), Framing Power in Visigothic Society

21.11.05 Dell’Elicine/Martin (eds.), Framing Power in Visigothic Society

Framing Power in Visigothic Society aims to offer a new understanding of early medieval Iberia by rethinking “frameworks of power” (9). It includes chapters from varied discipline, sources, and foci to highlight the variety of option for framing power that existed simultaneously and to “facilitat[e] dialogues between particular fields” that have expanded greatly in recent years to encourage future interdisciplinary endeavors. The editors set out these aims in chapter 1 as well as highlight commonalities essential for exercise of power: writing, institutionalization, and varied mechanisms of power at one’s disposal. They argue that those with power did not have it because of their central position of leadership, rather they gained such a position by exerting control over the listed necessary elements. In addition to summarizing the chapters, Dell’ Elicine and Martin reflect further on approaches to power, but the impenetrable prose makes these approaches hard to discern. What do they mean by reading “through a lens of simultaneity” or by “forces that opened social distances” (16-17)? Such phrases and awkward passive voice constructions like “[t]he idea of complexity maintains its ability to dismantle certain prejudices” (14) impede rather than facilitate understanding and dialogue.

Chapter 2 by Jacques Elfassi seems to fit awkwardly into a volume on power. It presents a list of all works by Augustine of Hippo that Isidore of Seville knew, in order to help further study of their influences. Why such knowledge is beneficial is not explained to the non-specialist reader. Elfassi particularly examines the ways Isidore used these sources beyond simple citation. He demonstrates that Isidore cites Augustine to define technical terms, not just on theological and exegetical points. He further suggests that we should reconsider the idea taken from modern literary studies that any time an author borrows from predecessors there must be an ideological explanation. Sometimes Isidore may have just liked a particular turn of phrase and felt he could not improve on it, and his borrowing is not significant. In other words, we could read Elfassi as saying power can come not just from citing authority figures or altering their words for new purpose, but also through pleasing phrases that convey meaning well.

In chapter 3, Dolores Castro examines another aspect of Isidore’s writings. She explores what Isidore said on methods of reading, interpreting, and teaching biblical texts to determine what he thought bishops’ roles should be and how he used that role to increase episcopal authority. Isidore linked behavior with correct interpretation; one could be highly educated but still fall into error if one’s interpretation was not centered in deep faith in Christ. He exhorted clergy to read extensively of Scripture, canons of church councils, and exegesis, but not at the expense of meditation and prayer on their meanings. Pagan works should be avoided by all except those best trained and who live the most morally upright lives due to the risk that poetic pagan rhetoric would trick the reader into believing that style equals truth. Bishops, being the most expert at correct practices of reading and moral living, should therefore be trusted to convey the truth of Scriptures. Castro draws fascinating links between spiritual and more worldly matters in this chapter, and more discussion of why Isidore might be concerned to bolster episcopal authority would make these links even more impactful.

Chapter 4 by Carlos Tejerizo explains why early medieval archaeology in Spain developed the way it has by situating the field in its 19th- and 20th-century political and social contexts. It then considers significant recent contributions of archaeology to understanding Visigothic peasant or rural societies and proposes future directions. Among the changes that have led to an archaeological revolution are the end of the Franco regime in 1975, which allowed for research questions beyond nationalist agendas; Spain’s joining the EU in the 1980s, which exposed its academics to new research in the Western European intellectual community; and the rise of commercial archaeology, which has led to the enormous growth of available data. Tejerizo demonstrates that these developments have allowed for new perspectives that have radically changed our understanding of early medieval rural societies. Scholars now recognize that post-Roman peasants actively reorganized their regional landscapes by adapting late Roman techniques, rather than having a new landscape imposed on them by Germanic migrants. Archaeologists have further discovered that peasant life was more stable than once thought, with articulated networks of farmsteads and villages and diverse economic strategies for resilience. They also are coming to acknowledge that ethnicity is not the only, or even the most important, element of rural social identities. Finally, a shift from studying an object (the village) to a subject (the peasantry) has opened new avenues for understanding the nature and complexity of social inequalities in rural societies. This chapter provides an excellent introduction to the contours of early medieval archaeology in Spain and a convincing argument for the essential contribution of archaeological data to any study of the period.

In chapter 5, Eleonora Dell’ Elicine aims to explain the purposes of pagan “regimes of sacralization” (109) as local alternatives to centralizing power dynamics by examining decrees against idolatry at the 16th Council of Toledo in 693. She argues that cult practices activated other ways of promoting authority that the top-down power of kings and bishops, and allowed locals to preserve memories and alternate centers of power in the landscape. Worship of idols, stones, and trees was situated in local space and not dependent on external validation. It also provided a different way to organize space than externally imposed provinces and dioceses. Dell’ Elicine concludes that existing evidence does not show a post-Roman reversion to Celtic or Roman paganism but instead drawing on old landscapes of power in response to local situations. However, while the chapter acknowledges the bias of Christian sources, it does not address the very real possibility that they were performative and such idolatry did not actually take place. Also, as in chapter 1, the reader is forced to dig for meaning through abstract, unexplained phrases like “regimes of sacralization,” passive voice that obfuscates rather than clarifies, and crucial specialist knowledge left implied or unsaid. Dell’ Elicine states that anti-idolatry laws aimed to punish lords for non-cooperation but does not explain what they were expected to do. Nor is the text of the law fully provided, only the list of what counts as idol worship.

Chapter 6 by Céline Martin examines changes to capital punishments (death or penalties substituting for it), focusing on exile in the 680s under King Ervig. She suggests his eliminating the death penalty in favor of exile is not as radical a change as it seems. Ervig probably did so both to update law to match the common practice of royal clemency and to make punishments reversible. The latter was important in a kingdom where political loyalties changed frequently and today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s ally. It also allowed for the hope that heretics left alive would repent and thus save their souls. Martin also shows some hints that exile and enslavement were beginning to converge at the end of the period, though detailed examination of this is reserved for a future study. The chapter ends with a table of relevant civil laws that makes its argument easy to follow. Martin’s interesting new approaches to the less-studied later period of Visigothic rule, as well as the Visigothic attitude toward Jews, are most welcome.

In chapter 7, Margarita Vallejo explores diplomatic exchanges between King Sisebut and the Byzantines in the 610s in the context of the longer history of Visigothic-Byzantine diplomacy. Doing so requires creative deduction from meager sources, but Vallejo does so convincingly. She first provides examples of probable earlier agreements about each party’s territory in the Iberian peninsula and the Byzantines’ breach of them to show why Sisebut would be suspicious of any Byzantine suit for peace, especially since he had the tactical advantage at this time. The chapter turns next to how the Byzantines sought to convince him of their sincerity: the governor of Byzantium’s Iberian territory appealed to Sisebut’s distress at the pain and violence of their war, released captives as a gesture of goodwill, and appealed to Christian loyalty. Additionally, the emperor Heraclius annotated the agreement in his own hand rather than leaving it all to a scribe and sent his own legate back to Spain along with Sisebut’s envoy to serve as a further witness to the truth of its contents. Vallejo argues that it seems Sisebut agreed to peace and thus acknowledged Byzantium’s legal presence in Iberia. It was his successor Suinthila who broke the new agreement, as Byzantium had once done to the Visigoths, finally removing them from the peninsula. While a bit more information at the beginning of the chapter on the content of the relevant letters and the situation that led to their writing would help non-specialist readers, all this information does appear later in the chapter and the argument is well signposted.

In the final chapter, Ruth Pliego summarizes the major developments in Visigothic numismatics in the past decade, including changing ideas prompted by a wealth of newfound or newly accessible coins. She cautions that despite the significant increase in the number of known coins, they are still very scanty compared with other places and the overall picture is thus easily skewed by a handful of hoards. Pliego provides examples of broad conclusions that are not borne out by the evidence in urging scholars to observe general trends in coinage but not leap to unsupportable conclusions about detailed monetary circulation. This chapter is a direct response to both rapid field development and the author’s personal reflection on what non-numismatists need to understand it. The historiographical background and extensive tables and statistics provided are geared toward helping researchers integrate numismatic information into their arguments responsibly. Because Pliego does not assume familiarity with numismatics and crafts her chapter accordingly, she manages to make a sometimes intimidating topic very accessible.

Overall, this volume provides useful snapshots of new approaches and developments across Visigothic studies. Particularly helpful are Tejerizo’s, Martin’s, and Pliego’s chapters that provide tables and background information to aid readers unfamiliar with their particular source sets. These chapters are accessible and beneficial to specialists in Visigothic studies and scholars of other regions and periods alike. Other chapters seem more directed toward specialists, either assuming background knowledge that those less familiar with Visigothic Iberia may not possess or presenting material in overly complicated ways. The difficult writing style of the introductory chapter in particular limits rather than broadens the potential audience. As scholars, if we wish to control access to knowledge and limit it to specialists, like Isidore with biblical interpretation, then writing this way serves our goals. But if we want to encourage fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue, we must dispense with rhetorical “ornaments of speech” (69, from Isidore, Sententiae III, 13, 8) and prioritize simplicity and clarity, as many of the contributors to this volume admirably do.