Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.17


Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain. Translated Texts for Historians, volume 9. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1990. Pp. xviii, 203. ISBN 0-85323-047-1 (apparently softcover only).


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

At what point it begins to make sense to speak of national identities in the Roman empire is an old, but good, question. There is no one simple answer, for some sense of regional difference and identity can be identified in many areas very early, while anything resembling modern nationalism is generally much later and much slower in coming; and particularist ideas and attitudes regularly coincide with a sense of belonging to a wider community, be it imperial or ecclesiastical.

For these reasons, it makes sense for modern students to attempt to view the past from as many different perspectives as possible. The chroniclers of late antique and early medieval Spain collected, translated, and discussed here need not, indeed have not always been, grouped in this way together. Grouping them makes a statement and opens up perspectives not otherwise available. The texts included (the chronicle of John of Biclaro, the History of the Kings of the Goths by Isidore of Seville, the Chronicle of 754, and the Chronicle of Alfonso III) have as their common feature that they were written in Spain by writers reacting to the invasion and capture of their homeland by outside invaders. The first two texts have generally lived for the past 100 years mainly in the comfortable proximity of the other late antique chronicles in volumes 9 and 11 of the MGH Chronica Minora edited by Mommsen; while the two later chronicles belong to the minor literature of Moslem Spain. Bringing them together creates a common Spanish perspective. Whether the authors of these texts themselves would have seen or felt such a commonality, it makes sense to undertake the experiment. That the experiment additionally undoubtedly provides a volume convenient for those who would teach and study early medieval Spanish history is a legitimate byproduct of the enterprise.

The sub-class of late antique literature that these texts, read together this way, calls to mind is that of other barbarian-belabored neighbors. Most pertinent is Gildas, who blames the ruin of Britain on the sins of his coreligionist Christians, as do the authors (esp. the two chroniclers under the Moslems) here; but Salvian is hardly less relevant, and the sub-class grows on consideration to include Eugippius' life of Severinus, Nennius, Patrick's 'confession', and the 'eucharisticon' of Paulinus of Pella. If these texts can be read without the anti-German bias of, say, a Pierre Courcelle (whose 'literary history of the great German invasions' was first written while Nazis strutted in Paris) or J.B. Bury (whose history of the later Roman empire emerged two years after the end of World War I), a fresh and more balanced view of life in sub-Roman Europe begins to emerge.

The volume contains a 60 page introduction, discussing each text in turn and setting it in context; 120 pages of translation; and useful bibliographical and chronological guides appended. To see such translations always evokes a double response, gratitude and regret: gratitude that this particular set of texts will now be more widely accessible, regret that such shift-making is necessary. On balance gratitude prevails.

The translations are for the most part competent and serviceable, though the author's intention (clearest in his accurate and usefully abundant annotation) is to set forth what Joe Friday used to call "just the facts, ma'am". The texts are records of events, to be scrutinized for the hard data they contain. This is further evident in the signs that the author is not entirely at home with the late antique Latin of his texts, nor with the genre as a whole.

When John of Biclaro, for example, says 'in hoc ergo certamine gratia divina et fides catholica ... esse cognoscitur operata' (s.a. 589; Wolf p. 77), it is clear that the last periphrasis is a relic of the ancient habit of making clausulae. Here we probably have a form of the cursus velox, with four unaccented syllables between the last two accents, strongly preferred to the more pedestrian 'operata est', which jarred the ear with a single syllable between the two last accents; but Wolf translates, 'It is known that in this battle divine grace and Catholic faith ... were involved.' If 'cognoscitur' is to be represented in the translation, which I would avoid, it must be suppressed and made self-effacing and unobtrusive, not given pride of place and made a predication that does in fact misrepresent the text. Similarly on the first page of the translation the phrase 'ut dictum est' refers back to something in the earlier chronicle of Victor of Tunnuna, for which John of Biclaro was providing the continuation; but Wolf (p. 62) misses that connection and renders, 'in the fifteenth indiction, as it is said ....' But in general the translation is correct and readable.

The text is in a series that is to be lauded and which has already produced volumes as diverse as Iamblichus "On the Pythagorean Life" and the Roman Liber Pontificalis. Though well bound, it is clear that this volume was prepared as camera-ready copy on a microcomputer. In years of experience with Bryn Mawr Commentaries and now BMCR, we have ample proof that the powers above and below the earth are at best ambivalent about desktop publishing, and there are pitfalls. In this volume, it is annoying that on a number of pages (63-64, 69-71) material has either been lost between pages or duplicated at the foot of one and the head of the next.