Does the word “Visigoth” invoke visions of some weird, futuristic Goth-Punk? A “Blade Runner” style future overrun by visor wearing Goths? Well, hate to break it to you, but it’s not. Actually, you’ll have to cast your mind back in the other direction, some centuries ago to the 3rd Century AD. In this post we explore the true origins of the word "goth" as we look at the fascinating and brutal culture of the Visigoths.
History Lesson Crash Course
Visigoths were the name of a western tribe of the Goths (don’t get too excited, we’re talking about the Germanic ‘tribe’ known as the Goths, not your black lace clad Gothics of modern). The Visigoths worked on their tans and enjoyed mojito’s on their lounge chairs as they settled around the Black Sea (please note, the former information may be historically inaccurate).
Everything was peachy until the Huns came for a routine invasion. Stuck in a tight spot, the Visigoths appealed to the Roman Emperor Valens for help. They sought sanctuary in the Roman Empire however, after continued mistreatment at the hands of the Roman governors the Visigoths revolted and in 376 AD full-blown rebellion broke out.
This eventually led to full-scale war known as the Goth Wars (376-382 AD). In a move that some historians credit as the downward spiral of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths defeated Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD).
Pumped from their recent victory the Visigoths rejected Roman rule and proclaimed Alaric I as their new king. Alaric led his forces down through the Balkans to Greece and Italy eventually finishing with their coup de grace, the sacking of Rome in 410 AD.
After Alaric’s death, his successors expanded the Visigoth Kingdom to Gaul and eventually Spain where they settled.
The Visigoth Kingdom finally came crashing down in the 711 when the Moors (medieval Muslims) invaded.
The early Visigoths were Germanic Pagan, at the crux of it. Like so many tribes, they converted to Christianity, swayed by the smooth talking missions of the Arian bishop, Saint Ulfilus (310-383).
Conversion to Christianity didn’t happen overnight; instead it trickled through the culture until the 5th century when the Visigoth elite became almost exclusively Arian Christian.
This created a bit of a problem with their Hispanic subjects who were Catholic. However, in 589 CE King Reccared jumped ship and converted his people to Catholicism.
Before you start feeling too warm and fuzzy about the Visigoths, you should know this; They were not fans of Judaism. They were generally intolerant of the Jewish people, but, when the Visigoths swooped into Rome effectively crushing the Empire, they really began to pursue anti-Semitism with a disturbing relish. Jews, who had enjoyed prosperity under the Roman Empire and elsewhere, were forcibly converted and forbidden to practice or observe their traditions. They were taxed severely, had their land confiscated and were often flogged and/or executed.
Art and Culture
There is surprisingly little evidence of Visigoth influence in the Spanish art, architecture and culture. Apart from a few stone structures, some beautiful gold and silver work (including a stunning votive crown) there are precious few artifacts left to tell their story.
Visigothic votive crown.
Despite their rich linguistic history, most authors chose to write in Latin, which made sense, as this was the language used most consistently across Europe at the time.
But before you despair over the woefully inadequate archaeological remains, we should all tip our hats to the Visigothic Code of Law as it famously contributed to family law, protecting property rights of married women. This was continued in Spanish Law and eventually the community property system in the United States. Rock on.
So now you know who the Visigoths were you can “wow” your mates at the next pub quiz when that curly question arises: ”who were the Visigoths…?”