A War of Words: Primacy of the Visigothic Bishopric of Toledo

20 Jan

I’ve read a little on the Visigoths. One of the interesting things about a kingdom with a relatively weak central government (at least compared to the Merovingians and Ostrogoths) is all of the conflict. This probably wasn’t a lot of fun for the folks living back then but one of the results is that there are a fair number of sources written for the purpose of advancing the cause of various factions. The Visigothic Church suffered from this same lack of central organization and because of this there are a lot of textual sources. You get all of these regional sources like The Martyrs of Cordoba, Lives of the Visigothic Fathers and Lives of the Fathers of Mérida. This is in addition to the various Saints’ Lives used to promote individual churches.

Jamie Wood wrote an interesting article that appeared in the latest Journal of Early Christian Studies which examines another case of a Church using textual means to advance its interests.

In the late fourth century Jerome wrote De viris illustribus or Lives of Illustrious Men, a biographical list of 135 prominent Christians(mainly). This was supplemented by Gennadius who added an additional 91 names in the late fifth century. In the seventh century Isidore of Seville and Ildefonsus of Toledo followed this tradition by writing additional short biographies of prominent Christian figures. Wood believes that Isidore and Ildefonsus had very specific purposes in mind when they wrote these, which he proceeds to discuss. 1

Between Jerome and Gennadius, just 14 of their 226 figures were from Spain (I’m using Spain to indicate the entire Iberian Peninsula). Wood believes that Isidore recognized this shortcoming and set out to correct it “by deepening and broadening the bio-literary history of the Spanish Church.”(624) Isidore was not terribly selective in who he chose to write about and included, “as many Spaniards as he could find, irrespective of whether they had written anything of note or even if he had managed to read their works.”(624) Isidore engaged in an effort to enhance the status of Spain’s Christian past which was not restricted to his De viris illustribus but included biographical details where the Apostle James wrote to Spain and Paul proclaimed the nature of Christ in Spain. 2

Into this literary setting steps Ildefonsus, Bishop of Toledo from 659-667. Before discussing what he wrote I think it’s important to set the stage a bit. Before the Visigoths decided to make it their capital in the sixth century, Toledo was a nothing town – Wood calls it a backwater.(630) It had no political or ecclesiastical history which would make anyone sit up and take notice. Cartagena, as a Mediterranean port, was historically much more important to the Roman province of Carthaginiensis however it was devastated first by the Byzantine conquest of the 6th century and again when the Visigoths reclaimed it in the early 7th century. Once recovered, Cartagena began to regain its influence. It had lost its status as a metropolitan city however it regained episcopal status under King Wamba around 675. It is logical to believe that the Toledan Church felt threatened by Cartagena’s resurgence.

Map of the Visigothic Kingdom showing Toledo and Cartegena. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Besides Cartagena, Toledo would have lacked the sort of history associated with other Spanish bishoprics such as Tarragona, Braga, Mérida and Seville.(633) Isidore failed to mention a single Toledan in his De viris illustribus. Ildefonsus evidently decided that his city needed something to enhance its status.

Ildefonsus opens his De viris illustribus with a veiled criticism of Isidore, “Finally that wisest of men, Isidore, bishop of the See of Seville, following the same path, added to the list the best men he knew. But he departed this life without having looked into this matter fully.” 3

By necessity, Ildefonsus uses a different method from his predecessors. Jerome, Gennadius and Isidore were largely concerned with religious figures who had written though, as mentioned above, Isidore’s standards for this were a bit lower. Ildefonsus didn’t have that to work with. There were no great authors from Toledo. But there were great and saintly men. His hagiographical content swamps that of the others. His first figure, Asturius, receives a miraculous vision revealing the tombs of martyrs. Asturias’ successor, Helladius, while not an author was a worthy man who “… declined to write as he demonstrated things that ought to be written through the pages of his daily life.” 4

Another method Ildefonsus used was that of succession. Church fathers often wrote that the bishops of the great churches were endowed with their posts through Apostolic appointment and succession. 5 Ildefonsus followed this model by including seven bishops of Toledo among his 13 men and establishing historical continuity by naming the successors to Asturius.

This is fun stuff. Churches used all sorts of strategies to advance their causes. Besides cases which involved actual violence you have forged charters and other writings, the discovery of a prominent saint associated with a church and my personal favorite; the successive rewriting of the vita of the church’s saint where the saint becomes progressively more impressive. Sometimes this even turned into a competition with a nearby church where each church kept providing revised vitae. Sort of a medieval version of “my Saint can beat up your Saint.” Ildefonsus’ effort to advance the Toledan Church by associating important religious figures with it fits in nicely with these promotional efforts.

1 FWIW, I have Ildefonsus in Fear (1997) and Jerome and Gennadius in Schaff (2012) but I do not, as far as I know, have Isidore.

2 In Romans 15:24,28 Paul expresses his intention to travel to Spain. However as Romans is believed to be his last letter and he wrote it while a prisoner prior to his being taken to Rome as described in Acts, I think it unlikely, despite later assertions to the contrary by John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem, that he ever got there. For reference, Wood believes that Isidore wrote his De viris illustribus between 604 and 608(622).

3 Fear (1997), p 107.

4 For Asturias and Helladius see Fear (1997), pp 109-10 and 114-5, respectively.

5 For one of the earliest examples of this see 1 Clement 44 (written about 95) where he argues against the forcible removal of presbyters of the Church at Corinth. Other writers (I think Irenaeus but I’m not going to look for it) used similar arguments against heretics; that “correct” thinking resided with bishops who possessed the authority of Apostolic succession.

Fear, A. T., ed. & trans., Lives of the Visigothic Fathers, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1997). ISBN:978-0-85323-582-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Fifth Edition, Peabody Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (2012). ISBN(for set):978-1-56563-116-8.

Wood, Jamie, “Playing the Fame Game: Bibliography, Celebrity, and Primacy in Late Antique Spain,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20 (2012): 613-40.


Tags: , , , , ,

2 responses to “A War of Words: Primacy of the Visigothic Bishopric of Toledo

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    June 19, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Ooh, I do wonder about editions here. Some time in the future will go up a post on my blog about chronicles and texts faked by the sixteenth-century Jesuit Jeronmo de Higuera to enhance the reputation of Toledo, not least by raiding Gennadius and equipping people from it with a fake Toledan back-story. Jamie knows his stuff, I’m sure he’s on safe ground, but I bet there’s more out there that would have been more dangerous to use.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    June 20, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    Wood uses El “De viris illustribus” de Ildefonso de Toledo: Estudio y edición critica, ed. Carmen Codoñer Merino. Acta Salmanticensia 65 (Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 1972). He mentions a couple of other sources but this is the one he footnotes through the article. Fear used this for his translation into English in Liverpool’s TTH series.(p xxxix)

    If Codoñer Merino features as one of those duped that would certainly interest me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: