Toward a Social History of Jews in the Visigothic Kingdom

by Fred Astren

This communication follows closely upon a consequential moment in my career, or in anyone’s career, that of retirement from one’s university position. Six months after having finished teaching my final university course, I am finishing a project that has both professional and personal meaning for me.

Whereas my graduate training in Jewish history in the Islamic Middle Ages led me first to a career studying the Karaites, and in recent years to the early medieval Jewish Mediterranean and Near East, I have spent a good deal of time on a seventh-century detour. There I have been investigating an historical problem that has weighed on my mind since my undergraduate days. Originally conceived as a limited project that would continue my thinking about the place of Jews in Spain after the Muslim conquest, it took on a life of its own and became a “deep dive” (as one colleague described it) into the post-Roman West. Although this work lies outside of my previous specialization (even though I have eight years of high school and university Latin), I wanted to better understand the shape of Jewish history in the late antique (or is it early medieval?) kingdom of the Visigoths.

As a primary proposition, it is clear that the forced baptism of Jews decreed by King Sisebut (probably in 614) was, as Rachel Stocking observed, the “fatal development” that created a “judicial quagmire,” which proved to be foundational to the kingdom’s moralizing anti-Jewish legislation. For my project, I am less interested in knowing reasons why the Visigoths promulgated several waves of anti-Jewish legislation over most of the following century than in trying to understand the social history that informed the legislation and explains its seeming unenforceability. My fundamental question is, why in regard to both baptized and unbaptized Jews did Visigothic kings and Spanish church councils repeatedly prohibit that which had already been prohibited?

The origin of my fixation on this problem is found in the writing of (and in courses I took with) Bernard S. Bachrach at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s. At that time, he pioneered a social history approach to Jews in the Visigothic kingdom, both in an article, “A Reassessment of Visigothic Jewish Policy, 589–711,” and in a book, Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe. Since Bachrach’s works came out, advances in late antique Iberian history, and especially archaeology, have opened up new ways to understand post-Roman Spain, including the development of elites, their relationships with non-elites, and their place in Visigothic society at large. Over forty years of new historiography and archaeology provided an opportunity for me to apply a framework that informs much of my scholarly work—to take what can be known about Jews and Judaism and map it onto what currently is known about the societies in which Jews and Judaism were found. In doing so, I have adopted a position that both complements and challenges the positions taken by my teacher. Per Horden and Purcell’s distinction between “history of” and “history in” the Mediterranean, I am working toward an Iberian Jewish history rather than Jewish history that happens to take place in Iberia.

My point of departure is that Jews, baptized or unbaptized, were socially embedded in seventh-century Iberian society. Jewish social embeddedness is both hinted at or explicitly indicated in royal legal compilations and the acta of Spanish church councils, both of which locate Jews in a wide range of socio-economic registers. I argue that Jews were mostly to be found in a stratum of society very much like that of Peter Brown’s fifth-century free “middling” classes, whose beliefs and activities drove the growth and shape of Christianity in the West. However, in seventh-century Spain the free sub-elite social standing of Jews was being squeezed by a society in which people were either aristocratic potentes or were moving towards unfreedom as dependents of those aristocrats. Furthermore, I posit that among seventh-century Iberian Jews were those who inhabited what Damián Fernández identifies as a “grey area of sub-elite power brokers who left almost no traces” in the historical record, but who are made visible in this case by the anti-Jewish legislative concerns of Visigothic royal and ecclesiastical lawmakers. Specifically, some of these sub-elite Jewish powerbrokers are identified in the laws as managers (vilici and actores) of Christian-owned estates or church property whose otherwise seemingly essential roles in the economy and society were banned.

Although doubly anomalous as both non-Christian and free, middling Jews could paradoxically participate in relationships of reciprocity at all levels of the social hierarchy on account of their socio-economic position. This is both explicitly indicated and suggested by the many different kinds of prohibitions against bribery (or is it gift giving?) in Visigothic legislation, many explicitly directed against Jews or those who would be influenced by them. Since seventh-century Spanish Jews left no writing of their own and are mentioned little in narrative sources, I turn to narrative descriptions of Jews in late sixth-century Merovingian Francia in order to flesh out Jewish-non-Jewish reciprocity. Two episodes in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks compellingly describe Jews participating in relationships of reciprocity with Christian elites through hospitality, gift exchange, trade, finance, and trust (and betrayal). In Spain, the murky story behind the early seventh-century excommunication of one Count Froga, possibly for aiding or protecting Jews, is best understood by locating the count in a world where reciprocal relations between Christians and Jews would have been normal, if not expected, on the part of an official in the royal city of Toledo.

In the end, Spain’s socially-embedded but proscribed Jews function as a kind of diagnostic that can be used to gauge the weakness of the Visigothic center, that is, the kingdom and the church. Specifically, punishments prescribed for lawbreaking Jews in the Visigothic legislation involve confiscation and enslavement (with proceeds going to the fisc, or royal patrimony) far more than for other kinds of malefactors. What Santiago Castellanos calls the “punitive use of the fisc” constitutes a confiscatory preoccupation that identifies Jews as contested subjects, whose freedom and resources might become an asset of the crown, or alternatively, of other elites who were able to divert such assets for their own purposes. It is precisely the contestation over Jews that uncovers the weakness of both crown and church. It reveals the fragmented and regional character of Visigothic power, through which middle-level and local elites by default called the shots wherever and whenever the center could not impose itself, which was the case in many, if not most places outside of the king’s physical presence and the Toledo-Reccopolis axis, the heart of the kingdom. In the kingdom’s fragmented and often localized power structures, elites were continually using the weakness of the center to divert resources from the crown and thereby aggrandize wealth and power, while socially embedded Jews, some of whom held lucrative sub-elite positions, enjoyed wide ranging relationships of reciprocity that provided access to different kinds of power (both ecclesiastical and secular). In this compartmentalized political geography, Jews were most likely to deal with the middle-level and local elites rather than representatives of the center. Correspondingly, Jews were apt to enjoy protection or benign disregard on the part of local elites who chose to ignore the center or even actively oppose it, as is demonstrated in the rebellion of the province of Narbonensis in 672, in which Jews played an uncertain role, but who were financially critical for rebuilding the province after the rebellion.

The fragmentation of central power that the Visigothic kingdom’s treatment of its Jews lays bare is a mirror of the kingdom’s struggle against both the increase of de-centralized personal dependence and the centrifugal militarization of society. It is the very fractured structure of Visigothic Spain—kingdom, church, army, and society—that militated against effective enforcement of anti-Jewish legislation, whose character turns out to be more prescriptive and aspirational than descriptive.

Bernard S. Bachrach argued that Jews operated as a bloc of wealthy power players in Visigothic Spain, and as a consequence suffered when they found themselves on the losing side of any one of the many intermittent power struggles that plagued the kingdom. Instead of his top-down view that understands anti-Jewish legislation as central power’s response to Jewish power, I have tried to read the sources using a bottom-up view that accounts for a complexity of relations, if not richness, between Jews and non-Jews. In homage to Bachrach, my undergraduate advisor, this study is entitled, “Towards a New Reassessment of Jewish History under the Visigoths, 589–711,” and is being submitted for publication as a journal article dedicated to him.

Scholarly works mentioned:

Bachrach, Bernard S., “A Reassessment of Visigothic Jewish Policy, 589–711,” American Historical Review 78:1 (1973), 11–34

Bachrach, Bernard S., Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977)

Brown, Peter, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2002)

Brown, Peter, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)

Castellanos, Santiago, “The Political Nature of Taxation in Visigothic Spain,” Early Medieval Europe 12:3 (2003), 201–28

Fernández, Damián, Aristocrats and Statehood in Western Iberia, 300–600 C.E. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017)

Horden, Peregrine, and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Stocking, Rachel, Bishops, Councils, and Consensus in the Visigothic Kingdom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000)

Fred Astren, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. His current work encompasses Jewish history “before the Geniza”—in both the East and West—in the years 500–950. Forthcoming is a book chapter, “ʿAbbāsid Book Culture and Ninth-Century Jewish Sectarianism” in Navigating Language in the Early Islamic World, edited by Antoine Borrut and Alison Vacca (Brepols, 2023). He is currently working on a book chapter on Iranian contexts of the eighth-century Jewish messianic figure, Abū ʿĪsā al-Isfahānī. Among recent publications is “Non-Rabbinic and Non-Karaite Religious Movements” in The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume 5, Jews and Judaism in the Islamic World, Seventh through Fifteenth Centuries (2021), and a journal article that examines minority and majority “co-production” of historical narratives, “The Gibeonite Gambit in the Middle Ages: Harrānians, Karaites, and Khaybarī Jews on the Margins of Islamic Society,” Journal of Medieval Worlds 1:2 (2019). Astren serves on the Advisory Board of the Mediterranean Seminar, and in 2021 coordinated a roundtable sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, entitled “Umayyads, Early ʿAbbāsids, and Historical Periodization.


About Andreas Lehnertz

I focus on social, cultural, and religious European history during the High and Late Middle Ages. My interests lie in daily Christian-Jewish relations, marginal Hebrew and Yiddish charter notes, Jewish as well as general sealing practices, and Jewish craftspeople. In 2018, I completed my PhD at the Trier University entitled "Jewish Seals in the Medieval German Empire: The Authentication and Self-Representation of Jewish Men and Women”, under the supervision of Prof. Alfred Haverkamp and Prof. Lukas Clemens at the Arye Maimon Institute for Jewish History. Under Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten I was a postdoctoral fellow in the European Research Council Project "Beyond the Elite – Jewish Daily Life in Medieval Europe“ at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, completing my second book on Jewish craftspeople in Medieval Central Europe.