In 420, as we have seen, the Visigoths of Gaul recaptured Spain from the Vandals, and returned it to Rome. But Rome could not defend it; eighteen years later the Suevi emerged from their hills in the northwest, and overran the peninsula. The Visigoths under Theodoric II (456) and Euric (466) came down again across the Pyrenees, reconquered most of Spain, and this time kept the country as their own. A Visigothic dynasty ruled Spain thereafter till the coming of the Moors.
At Toledo the new monarchy built a splendid capital and gathered an opulent court. Athanagild (564–7) and Leovigild (568–86) were strong rulers, who defeated Frank invaders in the north and Byzantine armies in the south; it was the wealth of Athanagild that won for his daughters the privilege of being murdered as Frank queens. In 589 King Recared changed his faith, and that of most Visigoths in Spain, from Arian to orthodox Christianity; perhaps he had read the history of Alaric II. The bishops now became the chief support of the monarchy, and the chief power in the state; by their superior education and organization they dominated the nobles who sat with them in the ruling councils of Toledo; and though the king’s authority was theoretically absolute, and he chose the bishops, these councils elected him, and exacted pledges of policy in advance. Under the guidance of the clergy a system of laws was promulgated (634) which was the most competent and least tolerant of all the barbarian codes. It improved procedure by weighing the evidence of witnesses rather than the character certificates of friends; it applied the same laws to Romans and Visigoths alike, and established the principle of equality before the law.60 But it rejected freedom of worship, demanded orthodox Christianity of all inhabitants, and sanctioned a long and bitter persecution of the Spanish Jews.
Through the influence of the Church, which retained Latin in her sermons and liturgy, the Visigoths, within a century after their conquest of Spain, forgot their Germanic speech, and corrupted the Latin of the peninsula into the masculine power and feminine beauty of the Spanish tongue. Monastic and episcopal schools provided education, mostly ecclesiastical but partly classical; and academies rose at Vaclara, Toledo, Saragossa, and Seville. Poetry was encouraged, drama was denounced as obscene—which it was. The only name surviving from the literature of Gothic Spain is that of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). An edifying legend tells how a Spanish lad, reproved for mental sluggishness, ran away from home, and, tired with wandering, sat down by a well. His eye was caught by the deep furrow in a stone at the edge; a passing maiden explained that the furrow was worn by the attrition of the rope that lowered and raised the bucket. “If,” said Isidore to himself, “by daily use the soft rope could penetrate the stone, surely perseverance could overcome the dullness of my brain.” He returned to his father’s house, and became the learned Bishop of Seville.61 Actually we know little of his life. Amid the chores of a conscientious cleric he found time to write half a dozen books. Perhaps as an aid to memory he compiled through many years a medley of passages, on all subjects, from pagan and Christian authors; his friend Braulio, Bishop of Saragossa, urged him to publish these excerpts; yielding, he transformed them into one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages—Etymologiarum sive originum libri xx (Twenty Books of Etymologies or Origins)—now a volume of 900 octavo pages. It is an encyclopedia, but not alphabetically arranged; it deals successively with grammar, rhetoric, and logic as the “trivium”; then with arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy as the “quadrivium”; then with medicine, law, chronology, theology, anatomy, physiology, zoology, cosmography, physical geography, architecture, surveying, mineralogy, agriculture, war, sports, ships, costumes, furniture, domestic utensils …; and under each topic it defines, and seeks the origin of, the basic terms. Man, we learn, is called homo because God made him from the earth (humus); the knees are genua because in the foetus they lie opposite the cheeks (genae).62 Isidore was an industrious, if indiscriminate, scholar; he knew considerable Greek, was familiar with Lucretius (rarely mentioned in the Middle Ages), and preserved in extracts many passages of pagan literature that would otherwise have been lost. His work is a farrago of weird etymologies, incredible miracles, fanciful allegorical interpretations of the Scriptures, science and history distorted to prove moral principles, and factual errors that a little observation would have set straight. His book stands as a lasting monument to the ignorance of his time.
Of the arts in Visigothic Spain almost nothing remains. Apparently Toledo, Italica, Cordova, Granada, Merida, and other cities had fine churches, palaces, and public buildings, designed in classic styles but distinguished by Christian symbols and Byzantine ornament.63 In the palaces and cathedral of Toledo, according to Arab historians, Arab conquerors found twenty-five gold and jeweled crowns; an illuminated Psalter written upon gold leaf with ink made of melted rubies; tissues inwoven, armor inlaid, swords and daggers studded, vases filled, with jewelry; and an emerald table inwrought with silver and gold—one of many costly gifts of the Visigothic rich to their protective Church.
Under the Visigothic regime the exploitation of the simple or unfortunate by the clever or the strong continued as under other governmental forms. Princes and prelates united in a majesty of secular or religious ceremonies, tabus, and terrors to subdue the passions, and quiet the thoughts, of the populace. Property was concentrated in the hands of a few; the great gulf between rich and poor, between Christian and Jew, divided the nation into three states; and when the Arabs came, the poor and the Jews connived at the overthrow of a monarchy and a Church that had ignored their poverty or oppressed their faith.
In 708, on the death of the feeble king Witiza, the aristocracy refused the throne to his children, but gave it to Roderick. The sons of Witiza fled to Africa, and asked the aid of Moorish chieftains. The Moors made some tentative raids upon the Spanish coast, found Spain divided and almost defenseless, and in 711 came over in fuller force. The armies of Tariq and Roderick joined battle on the shores of Lake Janda in the province of Cadiz; part of the Visigothic forces went over to the Moors; Roderick disappeared. The victorious Moslems advanced to Seville, Cordova, Toledo; several towns opened their gates to the invaders. The Arab general Musa established himself in the capital (713), and announced that Spain now belonged to the prophet Mohammed and the caliph of Damascus.