Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.16


Biagio Saitta, L'Antisemitismo nella Spagna Visigotica. Studia Historica 130. Rome: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1995. Pp 158. ISBN 88-7062-896-5.


Reviewed by A.T. Fear, University of Keele.

S.'s monograph is a short work comprising 104 pages of text. This includes the numerous footnotes which are often lengthy and located where footnotes should be, at the bottom of their relevant page. A strength of the notes is that they often quote in extenso the primary material to which S. refers. Non-Latin readers ought to be warned however that translations of these sources are not often provided, but it is surely better for the scholar to be presented immediately with the original source than simply be held hostage to a translation. S. provides an extensive list of sources and secondary sources and indices for these. But alas, while there is an index of proper names, there is no general or thematic index. S.'s approach is strictly diachronic. The reigns of the Visigothic monarchs are presented in order and it is in this order that the subject is discussed. Such an approach has both strengths and weaknesses. The reader is given a strong feel of the course that progressive legislation against the Jews took, but perhaps an occasional synchronic look at some of the underlying themes this legislation raises would have been helpful. The diachronic approach provides a temptation to lapse into a general narrative of the Visigothic period, though S. for the most part avoids this snare.

The monograph is divided into two very uneven halves. 'The Jews and the Arian Visigoths', perhaps a confusing title as the Visigoths might well not have been Arians strictly speaking, as Heather and Matthews demonstrate in their The Goths in the Fourth Century (Liverpool 1991), takes up just nine pages, which is mainly devoted to discussions of the Council of Elvira and the Epistula de Iudaeis of Severus, bishop of Minorca. The rest of the work forms the much larger 'The Jews and the Catholic Visigoths.' It seems unfortunate that so little time is spent on the earlier period: extra material would have been of use if only to set the social background against which the later acts are played out. One surprising omission in this respect is a discussion of the fifth-century Spanish poet Juvencus, whom Jean-Michel Poinsotte has recently accused in his Juvencus et Israel: la representation des Juifs dans le premier poeme chretien (Paris 1979) of persistent anti-semitic sentiment. Moreover the liberality of the likes of Alaric II, who discarded much Roman anti-semitic legislation, and the very different attitude of his Catholic successors deserves a more probing analysis.

The preface begins with a ringing denunciation of anti-semitism, and while few would disagree with its sentiments, perhaps more would question its appropriateness in this context. For an historian, understanding rather than merely recording this phenomenon is the key task. While Isidore, Braulio, and Sisebut may not have been angels, we must not assume that they were not motivated by a sincere belief that what they were doing was right. As moderns we need to enter their world and discover why they thought that their actions were correct. S. discusses possible reasons for anti-semitic outbursts in terms of a desire for unity in the kingdom, as part of the power struggles within it, and in terms of a wish to imitate the Byzantines, but these political explanations still beg the question of why anti-semitism should have been such a potent tool to employ in such struggles. S. unfortunately fails to engage with this challenge at any length. While, for example, Isidore's De Fide Catholica ex Vetere et Novo Testamento contra Iudaeos is mentioned, there is less than a page's discussion of it. In this respect the book perhaps is slightly mistitled. It is a fine account of the formal legal relations and their development between the Visigothic state and the Jewish community in Spain, but rarely stops to probe below this formal level. We see the workings of official anti-semitism, but are not often invited to explore the phenomenon at a more informal and, perhaps, more revealing level. One occasion where this is done is with Julian of Toledo, whose antipathy to the Jews S. sees as motivated by the fact he was born of conversi parents. Although the ghost of Torquemada stalks this argument, it does have a great deal of plausibility.

One problem here of course is that which is found when undertaking any study of Visigothic Spain, namely the paucity of our historical sources. We are forced to construct history from the canons of church history and law codes. Unsurprisingly S. relies almost exclusively on this material. With sources such as these it is important to explore the gap which may exist between rhetoric and reality. There are a striking number of reiterated provisions in church canons dealing with Jews. An example of this is the provision that Jews should not own Christian slaves. Does the reiteration show an intensification of anti-semitic feeling or the inability of the Visigothic state to enforce this legislation? If the latter is the case, the further question of why this should have been so is raised. Alternatively the legislation might simply have been a gesture towards an ideology which was not to be taken seriously or possibly the product of theoretical theology (one is reminded of the provisions of some of the Islamic fiqh codes which rarely emerge from the umbracula scholarum into the world at large). Certainly Pope Honorius' rebuke of the Spanish church for its apathy towards anti-Jewish measures suggests this might have been the case, a view supported by Thompson who, in his Goths in Spain (Oxford 1960), states that there is little evidence of popular anti-semitic sentiment in the kingdom. S. notes that in Septimania there appears to have been more tolerance of the Jews and suggests that this was because the authority of the Visigothic State was weak here, but surely the Septimania was no different in this respect to other areas of the kingdom. Julian of Toledo's condemnation of Frankish tolerance towards the Jews is used as circumstantial evidence for a more relaxed attitude towards Jews in this region. Once again though we must be careful. We know that the Franks were not overly liberal in this regard and it seems likely that this is the sort of political invective that would have been employed against one's rivals at a time when official' anti-semitism was the norm. A useful discussion here would have been an evaluation of the depth of anti-semitic feeling in Visigothic Spain both at a legal and popular level compared to other areas of the West. S. uses a Jewish sarcophagus found at Narbonne as evidence for tolerance in the Septimania. This is a rare use of non-legal material and it is disappointing that more is not deployed in the course of the monograph.

In short this book is a fine account of formal structure of anti-Semitic legislation in Visigothic Spain and its political implications, but where it is somewhat lacking is in an exploration of what may have lain behind this official edifice.