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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 13 October 2012
There aren't that many book in English which summarize in a single volume the 300 hundred plus years of history of the Visigoth Kingdom in Spain (and in the South of France). Even if not the only one, this one seems to be the most recent one available. While perhaps not perfect, it does cover all the ground rather well and offers interesting discussions of a society and civilization about which we know little and generally learn even less about. The book is structured in two parts.

The first half (a bit less than 150 pages) is a summary in five chapters of the Kingdom's political history, from AD 409, just before Alaric and his Visigoths attack and pillage Rome, down to 711 and the Arab Conquest. It offers some very valuable insights about their arrival in Spain as "federate" allies of the declining Roman Empire and on the establishment of a powerful Visigoth Kingdom in Iberia and Southern France during the second half of the 5th century. It also shows how the Kingdom survived the death of its King in battle against the Franks and the loss of most of its territories north of the Pyrenees and reinvented itself into an elected monarchy, how it converted to Catholicism and how it had to contend with the Eastern Roman Empire which reconquered a coastal strip of Spain during the reign of Justinian and held on to it for three-quarters of a century. Finally, this first section examines what it terms "the Visigoth Twilight", the nature of the Arab Conquest, and the rather parlous state of the Kingdom, racked with civil war, when it happened.

The author makes a number of very interesting points, showing for instance that the defeat in AD 507 at the hands of the Franks occurred at a time when many of the Goths seem to have been resettling in Spain. Another interesting element is to view the Goths more as an army rather than the traditional "migration" of a whole population. A third point is to show that their origins were rather mixed rather than mostly "Germanic" with numerous elements having been added or having dropped out along the way as the army moved in and out of Italy into Aquitaine, then into Spain, then back again into Aquitaine where they were settled by the Empire, and then again into Spain and eastwards into Narbonnensis. A related point, in line with the current view about what used to be called "the Great Barbarian Invasions" is the relatively small numbers of the Visigoths. Roger Collins estimates them at around 20000 for a total population of about a million in the whole of Iberia (modern Spain plus modern Portugal). While his estimates are no more than educated guesses and the number he comes up with might apply to warriors only, the total population estimate could perhaps also be doubled. Anyway, they clearly made up significantly less than 10% of the total population and probably even less than half of that. Another very interesting point is to show how the political institutions changed with a shift from a dynastic monarchy from an elected one. The election being controlled by a very small number of families (Collins believes they were about two dozen) which shared among themselves the palatial positions, the bulk of the land and at least most of the main bishoprics. It was such an oligarchic system which was in place, in which none of its members wanted the King to become too strong, that was in place on the eve of the Arab Conquest, which Collins shows as being essentially opportunistic rather than planned in advance. Rather than dealing the death blow to a decaying Kingdom, as the Visigoth regime has traditionally been portrayed, the onslaught seems, according to the author, to have taken advantage of extraordinary favourable circumstances when a new King had violently seized the throne from his predecessor and was facing civil war.

The second section deals with society and culture and is, if possible, even more interesting. It deals, respectively, with books and readers, showing to what extent the Spanish Church, but also the Visigoth Kings imported books, mainly from Byzantine Africa. It also relies heavily on archaeology of cemeteries, churches, rural and urban settlements, showing how much progress has been made over the last couple of decades prior to the book's publications. Cemeteries and churches that were believed to be Gothic are now being re-assessed, with the origin of churches being often much more complex than initially believed. Some of them seem to have been built, or at least repaired and modified according to late-Roman and early-Byzantine patterns or even in the first decades following the Moslem Conquest. Rural archaeology also shows how the Roman villa system decayed and was replaced by hamlets and villages of self-sufficient dwellers. Urban archaeology, and the two case studies of Merida and Carthagena, in particular, tells a fascinating story of how these cities started to decline at the end of the Empire, before shrinking during the Visigoth period. Finally, the last chapter deals with the so-called Visigoth laws and demonstrates, among much else, the role they played in the development of a common Gothic identity between a very small number of warriors and conquerors and the overwhelming majority of pre-existing inhabitants of the peninsula during the 7th century.

Finally, it should be noted that this book, like all others in the series, tends to be a scholarly one. Accordingly, it may not correspond to everyone's tastes, despite being just an overview. Some may also find that some sections, whether the first part on the Kingdom's political history, or the second part, on the society and culture, are either too long or too short, or enter into discussions that may be found to be tedious. Because this is merely an overview, although a comprehensive and well-structured one, all that the reader needs to do in most cases is to just skip a couple of pages.
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on 21 May 2014
Nice summary, but focused on history, rather than the archaeology and frankly increasingly dated. A more uptodate book on the archaeology is needed to survive THAT college essay.
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on 27 April 2013
Provides a good background to pre-Moorish Spain about which there are many books as there are about the post-Moorish Spain.
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