Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism: The Case of the Visigothic Kingdom

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<ul><li><p> 2008 The AuthorJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 642658, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.x</p><p>Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism: The Case of the Visigothic Kingdom</p><p>Rachel L. Stocking*Southern Illinois University Carbondale</p><p>AbstractThis article discusses the efforts by Catholic rulers to eliminate the Jewish com-munities of the Visigothic kingdom in Spain. Their sustained effort to defineChristian identity through the forced baptism of Jews and criminalization ofJudaism was unusual in early medieval Europe. In explaining Visigothic anti-Judaism,modern historians have disagreed over the roles of Iberian Jews, Visigothic kings,and Catholic church leaders such as Isidore of Seville. This article suggests thatrather than seeking causation in royal greed, religious fanaticism, or crypto-Judaism,historians can more fruitfully call upon the approaches used by scholars of latermedieval Christian identity and anti-Judaism in Western Europe.</p><p>In 694 ce, the Visigothic king Egica accused the Jewish population of hisIberian kingdom of plotting a rebellion as part of an international conspiracyagainst Christian rulers everywhere. He presented the conspiratorsconfessions to the Seventeenth Church Council of Toledo, which decreedthat as punishment the Jewish population, most of whom apparently werebaptized Christians, should be stripped of all their goods and enslaved.The king and council expressed themselves with vicious language andimagery: the conspirators were defiled by the vilest stain of sacrilege, andstained with the blood of Christ. Their cruel and stupendous conspiracyhad to be exterminated, and the injustice of Christs cross would beavenged with an irrevocable sentence that would leave them dispersedeverywhere.1 The accusation, the decree, and the violent language butnot the alleged confessions were recorded in the collection of canon lawknown as the Hispana,2 ensuring a life much longer than the Visigothickingdom, which lasted only 17 more years before it fell to Muslim raiders.The kings accusations followed a century of legal efforts to establishabsolute Christian uniformity in the kingdom by converting the Jewishpopulation and eradicating all traces of Judaism. The campaign had begunin earnest around 616 with a royal edict of forced baptism; subsequentlychurch councils and royal law-makers passed a series of increasingly complex</p></li><li><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 642658, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism 643</p><p>measures mandating the use of force to prevent apostasy among theconverts, inflicting the death penalty for observing Jewish customs, andseverely restricting the legal rights of Jews, baptized Jews, and theirdescendants.</p><p>This effort to impose a common kingdom-wide Christian identity bylegislating the destruction of Jewish communities was unusual in earlymedieval Western Europe. The centuries following the end of the WesternRoman Empire were marked by fundamental changes in religious identityand political theologies, but those processes did not normally involvesustained attacks on Jews or Judaism. Most modern observers agree withBernard Blumenkrantz (1960, 1991) in his depiction of the period fromthe fifth to the eleventh century as one of relative peace and integrationfor Jewish communities in Europe, interrupted by sporadic incidents oflocalized persecution and the general but primarily impotent hatred ofecclesiastical leaders.3 The prevailing theological framework for Christianattitudes and policies remained that of Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-centurybishop whose Christian authority was preeminent in the early medievalWest ( J. Cohen 1982, 1999). He taught that Jews should not be forced toconvert. Rather, they should be permitted to continue their beliefs andcustoms, because in doing so they served as unwitting witnesses to thetruth of Christian history and scripture. Their adherence to the literalmeaning of Mosaic law, along with the dispersion and restriction oftheir communities, gave them a continuing place in Christian society asreminders of their own blindness to Jesus and his message, and theirconsequent rejection by God. Within this larger theological and socialcontext, modern scholars often view the series of Visigothic anti-Jewishpolicies as an exception to the early medieval rule, a mark of thekingdoms generally anomalous nature.4 For the most part, Visigothicanti-Judaism, like the history of the kingdom itself, has not beenintegrated into historical understandings of the transformations of Europeanreligion, identities, and society during the early medieval period.5</p><p>One of the factors hindering the incorporation of Visigothic historyinto understandings of early medieval change is the lop-sided body ofevidence for the kingdom (Stocking 2007, p. 347). In seeking to defineand impose a unified Christian identity upon their subjects, seventh-centurychurch leaders and kings produced a large body of canonical and secularlaws that often contained elaborate theological explanations.6 Comparedto other regions during the period, the church was also unusually productiveof theological and educational treatises, written in the interests of cultivatinga literate clergy who could tend the homogeneous flocks of Christiansubjects according to orthodox precepts.7 But scholars are hard pressedwhen it comes to narrative histories, court or estate records, saints Lives,and other documents that might reveal what actual people did andthought in daily life. Moreover, there is virtually no evidence producedby Jewish individuals or communities (Sivan 2000). In other words, our</p></li><li><p>644 Rachel L. Stocking</p><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 642658, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>understanding of anti-Judaism, Jewish communities, and the enforcementof coercive Christian identity in the Visigothic kingdom must be filteredthrough the normative and ideological screens (Castellanos 2003) constructedby a very small group of highly partisan men whose perspectives were, tosay the least, narrow and overdetermined. Unfortunately, the exceptionallynarrow perspectives of the Visigothic sources have reinforced some historiansassumptions about the Iberian Peninsulas exceptional, and thereforemarginal, place in European history more generally.</p><p>Given the evidential problems, the anomaly of the policies, and thesubsequent Islamification of most of Iberia, it might indeed appear thatthis spasm of extremism in Christian identity construction is of limitedsignificance in understanding early medieval transformations. Yet, thepost-Roman Iberian peninsula was not a world apart from the rest ofWestern Europe. Like leaders in other barbarian kingdoms, Christianauthorities in Iberia drew on ancient Roman and Christian traditions andconcepts as they sought to maintain control over increasingly diverse localcommunities. Throughout Western Europe, struggles over the distributionof power were accompanied by changes in conceptions of individual andcollective identity as various contenders made claims for authority basedon differing ethnic, legal, intellectual, and religious precedents and histories(see, for example, Drinkwater &amp; Elton 1992; Hallsall 1998). For instance,rulers and elites claimed shared identities as Franks, Visigoths, Lombards,etc., tying legendary ethnic histories to Roman and Christian traditionsto explain and support noble status and military power (see, for example,Geary 1988, 2002; Wolfram 1990; Pohl 1998; Gillett 2002). At the sametime, kings called upon notions of ancestral custom and the authority ofRoman legal traditions as they claimed social and fiscal control throughroyal law-making (see, for example, Wormald 1979; Collins 1998; Sivan1998; Barnwell 2000). They were aided in this by the educated elite,including both secular and clerical courtiers versed in Roman andecclesiastical literary traditions (see, for example, Rich 1962; Wood 1990).</p><p>Over time, these various claims for authority came to focus increasinglyon asserting divine access to the Christian god, and social power itselfcame to be understood by many as a holy force (Markus 1990; Brown2003). Consequently, for Christian leaders everywhere, defining andattempting to regulate communities religious identities became a crucialpriority. Rulers, nobles, and clerics came to express and pursue thatpriority in a variety of attitudes and policies that met with differing levelsof success or failure. While that variety obviously reflects important differencesin immediate circumstances (Brown 2003, pp. 35579), it is safe to assumethat Western Christian leaders, including Iberians, shared key referencepoints both in the ancient traditions from which they drew, as well asin the changing social dynamics they were attempting to address. Althoughthe Visigothic anti-Jewish sources obstruct our vision into the daily lives oflocal communities, their elaborate explanations provide an extraordinarily</p></li><li><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 642658, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism 645</p><p>detailed view of their authors changing conceptions of religious identity.In this way, the anomalous nature of Visigothic anti-Judaism could bean evidential boon to the current scholarship of early medieval identityand christianization.</p><p>In order to take advantage of this boon, however, it may be necessaryto consider the evidence from new, and perhaps counter-intuitive, vantagepoints. For many decades, the study of this field has been constricted bythe nature of the evidence and the methodology it encourages. First ofall, despite their non-narrative, normative nature, the seventh centuryanti-Jewish laws, when viewed in sequence, seem to present a relativelygraceful narrative arc, with a number of compelling principle protagonistsand key moments of plot-advancing conflict, as well as a morally chargedclimax and ironic denouement. Second, the lack of documentation fordaily life and relationships has encouraged a literalist approach to the legalevidence. As common sense would seem to dictate, in this approach anindividual legal action taken against a human activity or relationship isunderstood as indicating the existence and even prevalence of that activityor relationship in the society that produces the law. In the case of theanti-Jewish legislation, this method is particularly attractive, because itseems to allow a window onto the otherwise inaccessible circumstances ofIberian Jews and their communities: laws against Jews marrying withinthe sixth degree of kinship, for instance, would seem to indicate that Jewsdid in fact marry within the sixth degree of kinship (Garca Moreno 1993,p. 76). The combination of the apparent logic of the narrative structure,the common-sense approach to the legal evidence, and the overall anomalyof the Visigothic anti-Jewish program has led to a fundamental set ofassumptions that are widely shared among those who study the topic. Theobject of analysis is most often understood as an historical problem witha rational solution, which can be discovered by determining the origin ofthe Visigothic anomaly, following its development through the sequenceof causes and effects, and identifying the motivations and relative levels ofinitiative and agency of the various parties involved (see, for example,Bachrach 1973; Albert 1976; Garca Iglesias 1978; Orlandis 1980; Roth 1994;Gonzlez Salinero 1999, 2000; Martin 2003, pp. 33646; Drews 2006).</p><p>These approaches have had mixed results. The Visigothic anti-Jewishlegal texts have been published in critical editions, along with Englishtranslations (Linder 1997, pp. 21733, 257332, and 482538). Summariesof the content of individual laws and overviews of Jewish legal status areavailable (see, for example, Katz 1937; Juster 1976) along with narrativeaccounts of the sequence of legislation as it was issued over the course ofthe seventh century (see, for example, Gonzlez Salinero 2000, pp. 1580).Anti-Jewish theological works also have been subject to editorial andanalytical scrutiny although English translations are lacking.8 The positionof Isidore of Seville, a leading seventh-century Catholic intellectual, in thelong-term development of medieval Christian attitudes towards Jews has</p></li><li><p>646 Rachel L. Stocking</p><p> 2008 The Author Religion Compass 2/4 (2008): 642658, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.xJournal Compilation 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd</p><p>received particular attention (Albert 1990; J. Cohen 1999, pp. 95122;Drews 2006). A number of issues regarding terminology, dating, andauthorship in both bodies of evidence have been identified and resolved.9</p><p>Yet, analyses of the Visigothic anti-Jewish program as a historical problemremain at odds about origins, cause and effect relationships, motivationsand agency within the narrow Visigothic context, making it difficult tomeaningfully integrate this period of persecution into the larger contextof religious change and identity construction in the early medieval West.</p><p>Very briefly, the story at least on its surface goes like this. In 589,the Visigothic ruler, Reccared, announced his conversion from Arian toCatholic Christianity at the Third Council of Toledo, which asserted andcelebrated religious unity between the Visigothic monarchy and nobilityand the Catholic Hispano-Roman population. Subsequent kings andchurch leaders came to see religious uniformity as vital to the kingdom,and after the rejection of Arianism, the most prominent flaw in thekingdoms unity was the presence of Jewish communities. In around 616,a religiously aggressive king, Sisebut, issued an edict calling for all Jews tobe forcibly baptized. After his death, this policy was criticized by Isidoreof Seville, and in 633 the Fourth Council of Toledo issued a canon thatcondemned forced baptism as ineffectual.10 The council also accusedthe forced converts of reverting to Judaism, and reaffirmed the validity ofthe baptisms that had already been imposed. Other canons institutedmeasures designed to force baptized Jews to maintain their Christianidentity, while at the same time restricting their legal privileges, such asthe rights to give court testimony, hold public office, or raise their ownchildren.11 These measures were reaffirmed later that decade when a newking decreed that only orthodox Catholics would be allowed to reside inhis kingdom.12 In 638, the baptized Jews of the kingdoms capital, Toledo,were again accused of apostasy and forced to swear that they would rejectall Jewish customs and stone to death any of their number who failedto do so.13</p><p>After a lull in anti-Jewish law-making, in 654 the king Recceswinthissued a series of laws that imposed the death penalty not only for practicingany element of Judaism, but also for...</p></li></ul>


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