The Morbus Gothicus – King Reccared and Theology in Visigothic Spain

31 May 601, Reccared, first Catholic king of Visigothic Spain, died an uncommonly natural death in his capital of Toledo at the age of about 40.

“After Amalaric, Theoda was ordained king in the Spains. But when he was slain they raised Theodegisil to the throne. When he was dining with his friends and was very cheerful, suddenly the lights were put out in the dining hall and he was slain by his enemies, being thrust through with a sword. After him Agila became king. For the Goths had formed the detestable habit of attacking with the sword any one of their kings who did not please them, and they would appoint as king any one that took their fancy.” (Gregory of Tours),_by_Mu%C3%B1oz_Degrain,_Senate_Palace,_Madrid.jpg
"The Conversion of King Reccared" by Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1888)    

King Clovis of the Franks was not exactly known as a family man. Neither were his four fine sons, being at each other’s throats on a regular basis. And the tale, as handed down by the venerable Gregory of Tours, of a Frankish invasion of the Visigothic kingdom in southern France purely for the reason that Amalric, Arian king in Narbonne, beat his wife Chrotilda, Clovis’ daughter, black and blue because she would not renunciate her Catholic faith very probably belongs to the realm of fable. However, in 531, Chrotilda’s brother Childebert, the Merovingian king of Northwestern France, marched into Visigothic Languedoc, defeated Amalric in battle, the latter fled to Barcelona and was murdered there by his own nobility while Chrotilda, saved from the clutches of the heretic Arian fiend, conveniently died on the Frankish return march to Paris. Or so the story goes, told by Gregory of Tours about 40 years later, when King Reccared, King of the Visigoths in Toledo, already had become a good Catholic and the conditions of an almost annual change of power, ridiculed as “morbus gothicus”, the Gothic disease, by an anonymous Frankish 7th century chronicler were over with the accession of power by Reccared’s father Liuvigild in 568. However, the “morbus gothicus” had claimed a last victim, Reccared’s older brother Hermengild. Later venerated as a saint, Hermengild fell out with his Arian father, allegedly over religious matters, converted to Catholicism, allied himself with the Byzantines, who had carved out a sizeable portion of the eastern Peninsula from Cartagena to Málaga during Justinian’s Reconquista, plunged Visigothic Spain into a civil war, was captured by Liuvigild and Reccared and died in prison 585. Allegedly martyred by his own father for refusing to return to Arianism, but that might very well be a footnote from the late Middle Ages.

"The Triumph of San Hermenegildo" by Francisco Herrera the Younger (1654)

When the Visigoths obviously had become religious exegetes in mid-6th century, they had a long way behind them, from the prelude of the Völkerwanderung and the annihilation of an entire Roman army at Adrianople in 378, sacking Rome under Alaric in 410 and being in the lead with their ally Aetius in the epic defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. The beginning of the end of the Visigoths came with Clovis and the Battle of Vouillé in 507. The victorious Franks took their possessions in southern France around Toulouse, drove them behind the Pyrenees where the Visigoths established their new kingdom with Toledo as capital between the poles of the Germanic Suebi in the Northwest, the unruly Basques in the North, the Byzantines in the Southeast, alleged tensions with their Catholic Roman subjects and their own nobility fighting each other on a regular basis. King Liuvigild handled the immediate military threats to his kingdom on the Peninsula, fought the Byzantines to a standstill, conquered the Suebi and subdued the Basques, at least for a while, and with his conversion to Catholicism, his son Reccared would defuse the most pressing domestic and foreign threats from Romans and Franks, even though his wedding plans with several Frankish princesses came to nought and his son and successor Liuva was fathered upon a local girl, allegedly of low birth. In the meanwhile, Reccared had his hands full with ordering his domains and seemed to have changed from Saul to Paul, held one of the Councils of Toledo and allegedly issued some rather unsavoury anti-Semitic orders, odd, since anti-Semitism didn’t play a significant role in the Western Mediterranean anywhere else during the 6th century and the ruling Germanic warrior elite as well as most post-Roman local nobles simply tolerated or ignored Jews everywhere else. However, the issue came up during the Middle Ages and would be a major focus of Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand and their successors after their Reconquista ended in 1492. Spanish royalty saw themselves as heirs to the Visigothic kings and princes of Spain. The orthodox ones only, of course, like Reccared and his brother Hermengild.

A mid-7th century Visigothic votive crown

Succession in title or not, the Visigothic layer in most of Spain is rather thin, barring the Kingdom of Asturias in the Northwest, founded by the Gothic noble Pelagius seven years after the Islamic conquest in 711. Archaeological finds are not exactly common in the major settlements, a few church fundaments, a few graves and coins, and only two cities, Reccopolis in Guadalajara and Victoriacum in the North, seem to have been founded by the Goths. There are, of course, the wonderful votive crowns from the Treasure of Gurrazar, found near Toledo and the legend that the nobility’s “sangre azul”, the blue blood, comes from the Visigoths’ blue-blooded veins beneath their pale skins. Of their language, not even twenty words are traceable in modern Spanish. However, several late Roman and early medieval chroniclers and church fathers obviously wrote somewhat excessively about the three centuries of Visigothic rule in Spain, especially about their heresies after the Fall of Toulouse in 509 and Reccared’s conversion to Catholicism. 16 Councils of Toledo are documented for the 7th century with decrees and decisions that, more often than not, appear rather High Medieval and are shaped along the lines of the religious conflict that began with the Islamic conquest decades after the Councils allegedly took place. If these Councils were inspired by divine providence or had been edited later, by well-known Frankish and Roman forger’s workshops, subsumed under the nom de plume “Pseudo-Isidore” and Late Medieval and early Modern necessities of the Reconquista, is open to debate. But whether the Visigoths really indulged themselves in the finer points of Catholic exegesis or not during the 7th century, their obviously proto- or early feudal army went to the dogs and the decrees the Kings Wamba and Erwig issued in this regard during the second half of the 7th century seem real enough. Instead of intriguing at court or discussing theology, the kings ordered their nobles to take up arms every now and then themselves, preferably not against each other, instead of just arming a few of their serfs. The decrees didn’t achieve very much, though. When the Arabs came, they mobbed the floor with what passed for a Visigothic army and their last king, Roderic, fell in the Battle of Guadalete in the summer of 711.    

And more about the Visigoths in Spain and King Reccared on:

And the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals: