By Louis Bertrand of the Académie Française

After the battle of Algeciras, which handed Spain over to the Arabs, it was impossible, their annalists tell us, to find any trace of Rodrigo, the Visigoth king who was defeated in that battle. “The Musulmans,” writes Ibn el Athir, “indeed found his white horse, which was mired in a slough, with its saddle of gilded buckskin adorned with rubies and emeralds. They found also his mantle of cloth of gold, adorned with pearls and rubies….” A little farther away, stuck in the mire, was one of his half-boots, of cloth of silver.

But it was absolutely impossible to discover the body of the king, if he was killed in the battle or assassinated by one of his own side. If he fled, he escaped so completely from those who pursued him, and succeeded in hiding himself so well, that he was never heard of again.

That is all that remained in the imagination of the Musulmans, after his great event which delivered up to them, together with a great kingdom, the gates of Western Europe: a king who suddenly disappeared, who plunged into impenetrable darkness; with that disappearance, an empire which collapsed; and, as souvenirs of all this, a silver boot, a war-horse, a saddle spangled with rubies and emeralds, a mantle of cloth of gold embroidered with precious stones and pearls…

The care with which the Arab annalists note these sumptuous relics clearly reveals their astonishment and admiration in the presence of the luxury of the Visigoth kings and their court. Spain all along appeared to them—especially to the uncivilized Berbers of the Moghreb—a country of enchantment.

The Roman cities into which they penetrated so easily surprised them no less than the fertility of the country. All their annalists recall the appearance at that time of Seville, Cordova, Merida, and Toledo, “the four capitals of Spain, founded,” they tell us naïvely, “by Okteban the Cæsar.” Among these capitals they forgot, or they ignore, those of northern Spain: Tarragona, Barcelona, Pamplona, León.

Seville, above all, seems to have struck them by its opulence and its illustriousness in various ways. “It was,” writes Ibn Adhari, “among all the capitals of Spain the greatest, the most important, the best built and the richest in ancient monuments. Before its conquest by the Goths it had been the residence of the Roman governor. The Goth kings chose Toledo for their residence; but Seville remained the seat of the Roman adepts of sacred and profane science, and it was there that lived that nobility of the same origin.” There is a similar eulogium of Merida: “This former capital possessed admirable ancient monuments, a bridge and magnificent palaces and churches.”

When Mousa, after completing the conquest of Spain, went to Damascus to render account to the Caliph of his conquest and his administration, he proudly displayed the booty which he had taken from the Spaniards: “thirty thousand virgins, daughters of Goth kings and princes, and innumerable quantity of merchandise and precious stones.” Among these valuable objects there was one truly fabulous, which had been taken in a city near Guadalajara, and which the Arabs called the Table of Solomon. “The edges and the legs were of emeralds…These, to the number of three hundred and sixty, were enriched with pearls and coral.” Finally the invaders, after a raid as far as France, found in Saragossa “riches incalculable.”

No doubt we must make allowance in all these marvels for Oriental exaggeration. Those who tell us about them are compilers writing in accordance with traditions already remote. But it is still certain that the spectacle of Roman Spain, even much diminished and much impoverished after the devastations of the Vandals, the Swabians, and the Goths, must of amazed, if not the Syrian Arabs, at least the Berbers of Africa, who made up the greater part of the conquering armies.

It was a country governed, administered, and organized on Roman lines, with a single head, a king hereditary at least in principle, at the apex of the hierarchy. Spain, thanks to the Visigothic kings, had ceased to be a province, or a group of provinces, and had become a kingdom. There was henceforth a King of Spain, as there had been a Cæsar in Rome, and as there still was an Emperor in Byzantium—a king who ruled over all the Spains: something that was not to be seen again until Charles V. It is from the date of this unification, superficial and artificial through it may have been, that, properly speaking, the history of Spain begins—that Spain has a history.

This Visigoth period, which runs from about 410 to 711, the date of the conquest of Spain by the Arabs, is a thankless and also, for lack of documentation, a somewhat obscure field of study. It is full of devastations, massacres, political assassinations, intestinal wars among the invading barbarians. Even after the triumph of the Visigoths and the coming of their monarchy disorder continued. It was only after the conversion of King Recaredo to Catholicism that one can recognize at least some progress in absolute power and, consequently, in internal pacification.

This absolute monarchy, like most of the barbarian institutions, was modeled upon that of the Roman Cæsars. The Visigoth kings adopted their sons as their eventual successors, by way of assuring at least the principle of heredity. But this principle was contested by that of election, which the nobles strove to maintain, and this led to disturbance at every succession.

For Spain the Visigoth monarchy was, in short, an aggravation of the Roman regime. Most of the land was in the possession of the Catholic clergy, who became all-powerful after the conversion of Recaredo. He was rich, cultured, and a lover of luxury. He made Seville and Toledo regular centres of study—what are rather pompously called universities.

This clerical culture of Visigoth times had its great man and its source of learning in the person of Saint Isidore of Seville, author of encyclopedic compilations, theological and philosophical works, and a history of the Visigoths, Vandals, and Swabians, which, despite its gaps and its defects, is a considerable achievement.

Side by side with the clergy, there was a military nobility, which shared with the clergy the ownership of the soil; and finally there was a whole administrative personnel, a whole army of officials, who were the same as those of the Roman administration, with their dukes and their counts, governing the cities and the provinces respectively.

But the class of small landowners had almost completely disappeared, and the condition of the serfs attached to the soil had become still worse since the end of the Empire. A whole part of the population, the Jews, very numerous then as they were in Spain throughout the Middle Ages, was the object of more and more rigorous repression. At the beginning of the seventh century, during the reign of Sisebut, there was open persecution: religious fanaticism no doubt, but also a political measure.

The Spaniards were always afraid of the intrigues of the Jews with their co-religionist of Barbary, who might influence the Africans among whom they lived to attempt fresh landings or fresh raids on the soil of the Peninsula. Let us not forget—and I shall have frequent occasion to recall this capital fact, which must never be lost to sight when one studies the history of Spain—that Spain lived for thousands of years in terror of African invasions or piracies.

Throughout the centuries the attitude of the Jews remained the same: they were the allies of the Africans against the Spaniards, of the Musulmans against the Christians, and of the Christians against the Musulmans, when the tide turned. They neutralized their enemies one with the other: it was a system of counterpoise.

In these first years of the seventh century, whether it was that their number and their wealth alarmed the government, or that they were suspected of being in negotiation with the Berbers or the Byzantines of Africa, drastic measures were taken against them. They were given a year to become converts to Christianity or leave the country.

It seems that 90,000 of them preferred baptism to expatriation, and there were pretended conversions by the swarm. Thanks to this expedient they remained. They continued even to practice there religion and live according to their law; but it was a wretched life of ceaseless anxiety that they lived, with repression and tolerance alternating.

Towards the end of the century—that is to say, a few years before the Musulman invasion—they decided upon a general rising. Were they driven beyond endurance, as certain historians say, or did they judge the moment opportune and the circumstances particularly favourable? The two hypotheses are equally admissible, and it is very probable that the two motives operated at the same time. Carthage, the last foothold of the Byzantines in Africa, had just fallen (693). There were, so to speak, no Christians left on the other side of the Mediterranean. Islam was triumphant from one side of Africa to the other.

It was then that the Jews came to an understanding with their co-religionist of Barbary and with the Spanish Jews in exile in Africa in consequence of Sisebut’s measures. The rising was to break out simultaneously with a descent by African Jews, no doubt supported by Berber tribesmen, on the coast of Andalusia. The plot was discovered, and its discovery led to a redoubling of repressive measures against the Spanish Jews. Once more they were confronted with the alternatives of becoming converts or leaving the country.

All this agitation profoundly disturbed the kingdom. It was ceaselessly distracted by the rivalries of the Grandees, and there were also other dissidents besides the Jews—namely, entire populations which had remained Arian or pagan in the midst of Christians and Catholics.

To all these causes of weakness was added laxity of morals, at least among the Grandees. Laity and clergy maintained regular harems of concubines, despite all ecclesiastical censures. It was not yet Musulman polygamy, but it was something that strongly resembled it. Ibn Adhari tells us that, when Mousa returned from Spain to Damascus, he was closely interrogated about that country by the Caliph Soleyman. The Caliph asked Mousa what had struck him most in it. “The effeminacy of the princes,” replied that austere Musulman.

Spain, under the last Visigoth Kings, was ripe for foreign invasion.