Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

The Goths in Spain

A.D. 200—700

For over five hundred years after the Roman conquest Spain was tranquil. The only interruption to peace was an uprising by a proconsul named Sertorius, who for a time established an independent government in the North. He defied the utmost power of Rome for ten years, and alight have founded an empire, for he was brave, wise, and honest, had he not, in a moment of forgetfulness, accepted a bidding to a banquet given by some refugees from Rome, who murdered him as he sat at table.

He was adored by his people. There is a legend that one of the secrets of his power was his ownership of a white fawn, which he had tamed, and which came at his call and ate out of his hand. He persuaded the ignorant Spaniards that this creature came to him from Heaven, held converse with the gods, and advised him in moments of trouble. The Spaniards, like most dwellers in mountainous, volcanic regions, have always been a superstitious people, prone to believe things incredible. It would have been well for them if they had never cherished wilder delusions than the one about the white fawn.

During the first centuries of the Christian era unending conflict raged between the Roman Empire and wild tribes of Northern Europe, who bore various names, among others Vandals, Sueves, Franks, Alemans, Saxons, Burgundians, and especially Goths. These last came from the shore of the Baltic, and were sometimes distinguished as Visigoths and Ostrogoths. They and rough races like them ravaged the Roman country, from the turbulent Bay of Biscay to the Danube, and plundered in turn the regions which we now call France, Germany, Italy, and Austria. For a long time the lofty wall of the Pyrenees kept them out of Spain; but an hour came when the barbarous tribes, thirsting for new towns to sack, scaled the mountain wall and poured into the valley of the Ebro. They were terrible visitors; often giants in size and strength, with blue eyes, long yellow hair, and coats of sheepskin or fur on their backs. They could neither read nor write, but they could fight from the dawn of day to the setting of the sun.

The first tribes which settled in Spain were Sueves and Vandals. They roamed through the North, robbing cities and carrying off flocks and herds. The Spaniards called upon Rome for help; but Rome could not even defend herself. She was glad when a Gothic chief, Ataulph, or Adolphus, a brother of Alaric the Goth, offered to drive the Vandals and Sueves out of Southern France and Spain, on the condition that Rome should give them to him, and with them the Emperor's sister, Honoria, a lady of remarkable beauty, to be his wife. The bargain was closed on these terms. At the head of an army of Goths Ataulph scattered the other barbarians; not, however, until the Vandals had given their name to the most lovely portion of the country, which to this day is known as Andalusia.

Then Ataulph founded a Gothic empire in Spain, and chose for his capital the beautiful city of Barcelona, on the Mediterranean. His Goths mingled and intermarried with the Spaniards, and in course of time it was difficult to distinguish one people from the other. The Goths had conquered the Spaniards on the battle-field, but the Spaniards had civilized their conquerors, and forced upon them the manners and customs and language of Rome.

During several hundred years many kings succeeded each other on the Gothic throne. Ataulph did not reign long. As he was reviewing his troops a dwarf crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back. His successor, Sigeric, thought to make himself secure on his throne by causing the six little children of Ataulph to be put to death; but the people said this was going too far, and they killed the murderer. A good riddance! Then there came a king named Wallia, who waged successful war upon the remnant of the Vandals and Sneves, and penned then up in corners of Spain; and after him came Theodoric, also a valiant fighter, who helped defeat Attila, King of the Huns, the Scourge of God, on the battle-field at Chalons. Both Attila and Theodoric died of wounds received in this battle. The next Gothic king, Evaric, was the most powerful and the wisest of the Gothic monarchs. All nations sent embassies to make treaties with him. He drew the Gothic code of laws, which was in force for many centuries, and is the basis of the system of laws which is in force in Spain to-day.

We are told there were thirty-two Gothic kings in all, and that of these eight were usurpers, four were dethroned, and eight were murdered. As they did little except to quarrel and make war on their neighbors, I do not think you would care to hear much about them. There was a king named Leovigild, who, like Evaric, became a monarch of repute. He held his court at Toledo, dressed in purple, and sat on a throne. He levied heavy taxes on his people, and seized the estates of traitors, by which means he was enabled to gather a vast sum of money into his treasury. It was in his reign that the dispute became hot between two sects into which the Christians were divided—Arians and Catholics. The king was an Arian, his people Catholics. While he reigned the Arians were in the ascendant. After he died, A.D. 586, the Catholics got the upper hand and did not delay to crush out Arianism, though it was the ancient faith of the Goths.

He had a wife whose name was Goswinda, and whose temper was hot. She was an Arian. Her son married a French princess named Ingunda, who was a Catholic. Goswinda ordered her daughter-in-law to become an Arian; Ingunda, who was only seventeen, respectfully declined to do anything of the kind. Thereupon the mother-in-law seized her by the hair of her head, threw her down, trampled on her, and held her in the water while she was baptized by an Arian priest. The young lady appealed to her husband and father-in-law for redress, but got none. In those days such pleasantnesses were not unusual at courts.

It was a son of Leovigild, Ricared by name, who declared Catholicism to be the religion of Spain. He had been an Arian, but renounced his faith. He was so fortunate as to be able to effect the religious union of his people without war. He died A.D. 601, having built a cathedral at Toledo, which was consecrated to the Virgin Mary. According to the legend, the Virgin herself came down from heaven to inspect it when it was finished, and if you go to see it, you will be shown the footprint of her step on the stair.

Seventy-one years after Ricared, in the year A.D. 672, the Gothic lords elected a farmer named Wamba to be king. The story goes that their messengers found Wamba ploughing his field; that when they told him their errand he laughed, saying that he would be king when leaves grew on his staff. With which words he smote the earth with the staff, and green leaves forthwith sprouted from it.

Whatever you may think of this story, you will have to admit that the old ploughman was a valiant and gallant soldier. He carried on many wars, and was always victorious. A rebellion breaking out at Nismes, which then formed part of the Spanish dominion, Wamba marched swiftly to the city and stormed it. Numbers of the defenders were killed in the attack; their leader was brought before Wamba in chains.

"Thy life," said the king, "will I spare, though the mercy is ill deserved."

He ordered the prisoners' heads to be shaved and their beards to be cut off—it was esteemed a disgrace to wear a bare chin—and when he returned to Toledo he required them to march in front of the army with bare feet and clothed in hair. The leader wore a leather crown, which I suppose corresponded to the leather medal of our day.

I wish Wamba had been as merciful to the Jews as he was to the rebels. But he hated them with a hatred which nothing could appease, and, as was the custom of that day, he persecuted them cruelly. Toledo was said to have been an ancient Jewish city, founded before Christ. How the Jews got there, in the very heart of Spain, we are not told. But in the time of Wamba they were numerous at Toledo, and, as is their custom, they had grown rich. The king robbed them of their wealth, and gave them the choice of turning Christians or going into exile. Thus Toledo lost many of its most useful and enterprising citizens.

One day King Wamba fell ill. His disease deprived him of consciousness; he could neither see what was going on round him, nor hear what was said. Now there was a curious custom in Spain that when a person became unconscious on his death-bed his friends could shave his head, and the priests could ordain him, unconscious as he was, as a monk of the church; the object being to secure him easy entrance into heaven, whose door always stood wide open for the priesthood. King Wamba's courtiers, being sure that he was going to die, shaved his head, and the Archbishop of Toledo received him into the Church as a monk, and ordained him with the usual ceremonies.

Fancy their surprise next day when the king got better! His majesty was a good deal nonplussed when he passed his hand over his head and found his hair gone; likewise when he observed that he was dressed in the costume of a monk. A council of bishops and lawyers was summoned to consider the case, and they decided that the rule—once a priest, always a priest—must apply. So King Wamba was told that his reign was over, and that there was nothing for him to do but to retire to a monastery at Burgos, which he did.