Story of the Goths - Henry Bradley

The Goths Become Catholic

It had been Leovigild's ambition to found a hereditary dynasty; and with this end in view he had caused his son Reccared to be elected his associate in the kingdom. So when he died there was still a crowned and chosen king in possession of the throne, and it was not necessary even to go through the form of an election.

If Reccared had not already gained the goodwill of his people, very likely his father's far-seeing scheme would have failed. But the young king had distinguished himself as a general, leading the Goths to victory over the Franks, and he had shown wisdom and energy as a ruler. The nation therefore gladly accepted him as sole sovereign after his father's death.

Reccared saw clearly that he was likely to be over-matched in the struggle with the growing power of the Catholic Church. He resolved to convert that power from an enemy into a friend, by himself adopting the religion of the majority of his subjects, and inducing the Goths to follow his example. It is quite possible that he may have been sincerely convinced that the Catholic faith was true; but this change of religious profession was certainly the wisest step he could have taken in the interest of his kingdom.

In order that his conversion might seem to proceed from deliberate inquiry, he called together the bishops of both churches, and invited them to hold in his presence a public discussion of the arguments for their respective creeds. He was anxious, he said, to know the truth, and the result of the debate should determine whether he should accept the Catholic faith, or remain an Arian. The champions on both sides put forth all their eloquence and learning, and when the discussion was ended the king proclaimed his conviction that the orthodox creed was supported by overwhelming evidence of Scripture and miracles; and soon afterwards he was publicly received into the Catholic Church.

The conversion of the king was soon followed by that of the whole nation. At first sight this seems strange; but the Goths had long been losing interest in the distinctive articles of their creed. They had lived surrounded by Catholics, hearing daily of the miracles wrought at the tombs of Catholic saints. They could not help seeing that their church was only an insignificant sect, a small exception to the unity of the Christian world. They could not help being impressed by the fervent faith of their Catholic neighbours. And to these many influences they were all the more open because their divines had taught them to be tolerant in their judgment of those who rejected their creed. In Leovigild's reign a Spanish Goth had horrified the Catholic bishop Gregory of Tours by saying that it was a Christian's duty to treat with respect

whatever was reverenced by others even by idolaters. It is by a strange accident indeed, that the name Visigoth has given rise to our word bigot, for never was there a nation who so little deserved the reproach of bigotry as the Visigoths of Spain. If their name had become a synonym for religious indifference or lukewarmness, it would have been much more appropriate.

Still, however little the Gothic people knew or cared about the differences between the two churches, Arianism had been for three centuries their national faith, and patriotic pride had kept them faithful to it so far. It was a bold venture on Reccared's part to go over to the foreign church; but he had not miscalculated the power of his popularity. Not only the laity, but even the clergy, including many bishops, speedily followed the king's example.

A great thing had been accomplished. The work which Leovigild had begun—the creation of the modern Spanish nation—would have remained unfinished if his son had not succeeded in removing the barrier of religious differences which hindered the blending of Goths and Spaniards into one people.

The great change, however, was not made altogether without resistance. In Southern Gaul, where Reccared was less known than in Spain, the news of his conversion excited a dangerous rebellion. An Arian bishop, Athaloc, and two Gothic nobles, put themselves at the head of the rebels, and called in the help of the Franks. But Reccared's generals soon restored order; and the people of the province before long professed themselves Catholics. The bishop Athaloc, it was said, died of vexation at the failure of his plans. In Spain, also, there were some insignificant conspiracies prompted by Arian bishops, but they were speedily crushed, and their leaders punished. The king's stepmother, Goiswintha (the same who is said to have treated Ingunthis with such shameful cruelty) had professed herself a convert to the Catholic Church. But in her heart she hated the change, and she was detected in a conspiracy against the king's life. Reccared inflicted no punishment upon Goiswintha, though he banished her accomplices from the kingdom. But soon afterwards she died suddenly, and her death was of course regarded as a divine judgment for her treason.

In May, 589, Reccared summoned to Toledo the bishops of his kingdom, to celebrate the victory of the orthodox faith, and to devise laws for the government of the Church. Sixty-seven bishops presented themselves in obedience to the royal command. The king addressed them on the importance of the work for which they were assembled, and exhorted them to spend three days in prayer and fasting before beginning their deliberations. When the three days were passed, and the bishops again met in council, Reccared opened the proceedings with a speech, setting forth the grounds of his conversion. It is worth notice that he honestly admitted that "earthly motives" had had their share in opening his mind to the arguments which had led him to the true faith. He ended by reading a formal statement of the articles of his faith. This document, after being approved by the assembly, was signed by the king, by his queen Baddo, and by all who were present. The bishops then proceeded to draw up a code of laws settling the constitution of the Church of Spain.

The religious change effected by Reccared was a necessity. But its good results were not unmixed. With the zeal of a new convert, the king lavished wealth and honours upon the Catholic Church, and allowed its clergy to attain a degree of political power that was full of danger to the State. It was not long before the Gothic kings learned the bad lesson of persecuting Jews and heretics.

Reccared himself, however, zealous though he was for his new faith, was no persecutor. He seems to have honestly striven in all things for the welfare of his subjects, and his reign was one of great prosperity. He is praised by historians as a wise lawgiver, and from his time onwards all the new laws that were made were declared binding alike on Goths and Spaniards.

One of the great events of Reccared's reign was the attempt of the Frankish king Guntram to conquer the Gothic domains in Gaul. An army of 60,000 men entered the Narbonnese province, and besieged the city of Carcassonne. Reccared's general Claudius (a Roman, not a Gothic name, it is worthwhile to note) with a very small force, inflicted on the invaders such a crushing defeat that never again, while the Gothic kingdom lasted, did the Franks attempt any attack upon its Gaulish lands. The Basques, who had given trouble in the earlier part of the reign, were subdued; and the interloping Greeks," though not driven out of the country, were compelled to confine themselves to their fortresses, so that the last years of Reccared's life were a period of profound peace.

Reccared died in the year 601, having in his last illness given proof of his piety by making public confession of his sins. The Goths honoured his memory by electing to the throne his youthful son Leuva.