Since I have spent the last week travelling between the far western and distant eastern ends of the mediaeval world, I thought I would use this post to saunter back towards one of the central dramas of the European Middle Ages: the fall of Rome and the rise of the mediaeval successors states. To do so, I would like to introduce you to a remarkable object, known as the Crown of Recceswinth.
Currently housed in the National Archaeological Museum, in Madrid, the crown defies our expectations on a variety of levels. For a start, with neither red velvet nor ermine, it doesn’t look much like a stereotypical crown, nor was it used as one. Recceswinth, instead of wearing the crown, probably donated it to a church as a votive object, where it would have hung in testament to his divine kingship and piety. The fine workmanship of the gold, the gems, and the dangling letters spelling his name would have all contributed both to the glory of the church and to that of the king.
Such a spectacular Christian object also doesn’t fit with the popular image of the Visigoths, the Germanic peoples that took over Spain when the Roman Empire began to fail. As the modern meaning of the word ‘goth’ attests, these peoples were long viewed by historians as barbaric and destructive forces that presided over the fall of Roman Civilisation.
The crown of Recceswinth tells another story.
Although pagan when they first encountered Rome, the Goths soon adopted a form of Christianity called Arianism. As their power in Spain grew, however, they eventually converted back to the mainstream ‘Catholic’ Christianity of their non-gothic subjects. This long Christian heritage resulted in a collaboration between the Church and the Visigothic kings, which sacralised the institution of kingship and strengthened its prestige. A popular practice of the later Middle Ages, that of anointing kings with holy oil, is first confirmed in the histories of the Visigothic kings and attests, like Recceswinth’s crown, to the bonds between church and state.
Yet the crown, and Recceswinth, show other influences. Reigning from 653-672 AD, Recceswinth was greatly influenced by the court of Byzantium, on the far eastern shores of the Mediterranean. He and his father Chindaswinth consciously modelled their kingship on the actions of Byzantine emperors, creating a law-code called the Forum Judicum and sponsoring cultural works. In this way, the crown demonstrates both the religious and imperial aspirations of the Visigothic kings, who drew on the cultural heritage of Rome and Byzantium to communicate their power.
Julia M.H. Smith, Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000, (Oxford, 2005), provides an excellent and enjoyable survey of this period in cultural terms.
Zoom and rotate a digital image of Recceswinth’s crown at http://www.spainisculture.com/en/obras_de_excelencia/corona_de_recesvinto.html