Early Medieval Iberia

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Although early medieval Spain and Portugal may seem to stretch the definition of the "barbarian world" considerably—from the point of view of contemporaries they were perhaps one of the most "civilized" parts of the Western world at the time—they provide an interesting view of the transformation of the classical tradition as it merged with other cultures and gradually developed into new traditions that we recognize in the modern world.

It is only since the last decades of the twentieth century that archaeology has begun to transform our understanding of early medieval Iberia. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the archaeology of Spain and Portugal was for political reasons somewhat isolated from outside trends and restricted in its discourse. Since the 1980s, medieval archaeology in Spain has benefited tremendously from a great expansion in archaeological research and from active and energetic debate of the theoretical issues. Portuguese archaeology has developed less rapidly, but important new work began to appear in the 1990s. Well-documented salvage excavations in urban centers, more detailed study of the detritus of everyday life (such as utilitarian pottery, animal bones, and traces of irrigation systems), and regional surveys of surface evidence for settlements are among the new forms of evidence available; in part it is the freedom to discuss issues of social theory such as feudalization, structures of state power, and processes of ethnic distinction that has driven this expansion of archaeological research.

historical overview

A brief overview of the sequence of events known from written historical sources helps to provide a framework for understanding the effects of modern archaeology on our understanding of early medieval Iberia. The Early Middle Ages have rarely been treated as a unified topic by historians; a great divide has traditionally existed between historians who study sources written in Latin and those who study sources in Arabic. The Latin sources tend to be frustratingly sparse and brief, but they are the only evidence for the period before 711 and the principal evidence for northern Spain after that date as well. The Arabic sources are more informative but also more limited in their coverage, and less accessible to most Western scholars. Only the florescence of archaeological research beginning in the late twentieth century has made it possible to transcend this linguistic divide and see the continuities in the Early Middle Ages of Spain and Portugal.

In a.d. 400, Spain and Portugal had been part of the Roman Empire for hundreds of years. A complex provincial administration based in major cities, trade connections with the entire Mediterranean basin, and a cosmopolitan culture combining classical Latin learning with the new imperial religion of Christianity were all part of the legacy of Roman rule. A few years later, however, the defenses of the western Roman frontier collapsed, and the Suevians, Vandals, and Alans, tribes from what is now Germany, entered the Roman provinces. The Suevians, together with fragments of the other tribes, took over what is now northern Portugal and northwestern Spain.

As the Western Roman Empire collapsed during the course of the fifth century, the Visigoths (a Germanic tribe from eastern Europe) formed a kingdom in southern France that eventually expanded into Spain. Over the course of the fifth century, the Visigoths extended their control over all of Roman Spain and Portugal except for the Suevian enclave in the northwest. Through a long series of wars with the Suevians, the native tribes of mountainous northern Spain, and eastern Roman armies that attempted to reestablish Roman rule in southern Spain, the Visigothic kings eventually united all of the Iberian Peninsula (together with a small portion of southern France) under their rule by the early seventh century. In doing so they created a tradition of central authority and ideological uniformity, all focused on their capital in Toledo, that gave them the most powerful government in western Europe at the time.

Between 711 and 720, an invasion by a small Arab and Berber army from North Africa overthrew the Visigothic kingdom, and all of Spain and Portugal became part of the Islamic Empire. Arab rule seems to have been established quickly and with little disruption of society, but a series of civil wars among the conquerors over the next several decades may have been more destructive. The developing divisions within the Islamic world soon resulted in the establishment of an independent Arab emirate in al-Andalus, as the Arabs called their Iberian realm, ruled by the Umayyad dynasty. By the tenth century this evolved into an independent caliphate, centered on the city of Córdoba.

Unlike the Visigoths, the Arabs were unable or unwilling to maintain central control in the mountains of northern Spain. Perhaps as early as 718, some Visigothic nobles in the Asturias of northwestern Spain had set up an independent, Christian kingdom. This kingdom gradually extended its control over Galicia, León, and Castille. During the ninth century other small Christian realms were formed by the Franks in Catalonia and the Basques in Navarre. By a.d. 1000, although the Arab Caliphate of Córdoba controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula, the Kingdom of León, the Kingdom of Pamplona, and the County of Barcelona in the north represented the origins of what would, over the course of the later Middle Ages, evolve into the modern countries of Spain and Portugal.

The written sources provide little detail, though, to flesh out this narrative with a deeper understanding of how society worked and how people lived their lives—in other words, the social and cultural processes that guided the course of historical events. Archaeological research is providing new insights into subjects where the texts raise many questions but provide few clear answers, such as the definition and evolution of ethnic and religious identities, the processes of political and social control, and the demographic and economic basis of society.

ethnic and religious identities

Ethnic and religious differences such as the distinctions between Catholic Christians and Arian Christians, between Christians and Muslims, between Romans and Goths or Suevians, between Latins and Arabs, or between Arabs and Berbers were of paramount importance from the point of view of the writers of the historical sources, and the persistence of other unassimilated minorities such as Basques and Jews throughout this period added to the diverse mixture. What is not clear is the practical importance that these categories had in reality. They evolved over time, and distinctions that were important in one period became unimportant later on. By showing how these identities affected behavior, archaeology makes it possible to understand their evolution more fully.

Rome's Spanish provinces were among the most romanized parts of the empire, meaning that the native populations had widely adopted Roman culture and ethnicity. The modern Castilian (Spanish), Portuguese, and Catalan languages are all descended from the Latin brought by the Romans, and the Catholic religion of Spain and Portugal was a creation of the Roman Empire. It is not clear to what degree local ethnic identities survived romanization—certainly the Basques in the Pyrenees retained their language and identity, and other peoples in remote parts of the peninsula may have as well. Similarly, scattered pre-Christian religious practices are likely to have carried on for a long time in rural areas, long after the people who maintained them had become nominally Christian. But for the most part, as far as one can see in the available evidence, the Iberian Peninsula in a.d. 400 was inhabited by people who were Roman in ethnicity and Catholic Christians by religion.

The Germanic invasions of the fifth century disrupted this seeming unity by introducing new ruling elites that identified themselves as ethnically Suevian or Visigothic. The Visigoths were also distinct religiously, because they adhered at first to a different theological tradition in Christianity known as Arianism, characterized by an interpretation of the Trinity emphasizing the separateness of its elements rather than their unity as manifestations of a single god. Although the distinction between Arians and Catholics was of great importance to theologians, it seems to have had little practical effect on daily life. There is no way, for example, to distinguish an Arian cathedral from a Catholic one from their archaeological traces, nor do people seem to have made an effort to use clothing, household behavior, or burial rituals to proclaim their identity with one or the other form of Christianity. If there was an effect, it was a negative one—that only after 589, when the Visigothic regime officially adopted Catholicism, was the powerful intellectual tradition of the Hispano-Roman Catholics turned to the active ideological support of the Gothic state.

This conflict, however rarified, may nonetheless have had an effect on the attitudes of the Spanish Church. Jerrilynn Dodds, in Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain (1990), has suggested that the defensive position of the Spanish church, subordinated first to the Arian Visigoths and later to Islam, manifested itself architecturally in a use of constricted, horseshoe-shaped arches and apses as well as screens or barriers separating choir from congregation to create secretive, enclosed spaces for the performance of the liturgy. It is difficult, however, to verify such interpretations of subtle, subconscious meanings.

The Visigoths and Suevians constituted only a small minority of the population. In the fifth century their ethnic identity must have been quite distinct from that of the native Hispano-Roman population, but this identity has left few obvious traces archaeologically. They seem to have adopted the culture of the Roman provinces very rapidly in almost all respects. What were traditionally identified as Visigothic cemeteries in northern Spain, for example, are now thought by many to be related to changes in Roman society, not to Visigothic traditions. A few artifact types may have served specifically to signify this ethnic distinction, such as eagle-shaped brooches, but over time the sense of ethnic differentness between Hispano-Romans and the Germanic conquerors seems to have lost its importance to people. For the most part, the archaeological evidence suggests that the Visigoths and Suevians rapidly assimilated to Hispano-Roman culture. By the seventh century, the ethnic distinction between Hispano-Romans and the Germanic Visigoths or Suevians seems to have merged with and been superseded by concepts of social class and wealth. Like the distinction between Arianism and Catholicism, this ethnic divide does not seem to have had enough practical importance to sustain itself in the long run. In the eighth century and later, Latin Christians in Spain seem to have regarded their Visigothic and Roman pasts as parts of a single cultural heritage.

The social divisions brought about by the Arab conquest proved to be a different matter. Like the Visigoths and Suevians, the Arabs and Berbers were at first a small minority relative to the native population, and initially they brought few significant cultural differences, with the important exception of their religion. Unlike Arianism, Islam manifested its differentness not only in abstract theological concepts but also in many aspects of daily life, from what one could eat or drink, to the daily routine of prayer, to the appropriate placement of the dead in their graves. This religious distinction is not only more visible archaeologically, but it also would have given the boundary between Muslims and Christians more force in processes of cultural change. Cultural assimilation worked both ways in this instance—the Latin Christian population of al-Andalus gradually assimilated to the culture of their rulers, becoming Muslim Arabs, but the Islamic civilization that they adopted was itself heavily influenced by Hispano-Roman culture. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, for example, built in stages from the eighth to tenth centuries, combines elements of Hispano-Roman and Byzantine architectural styles into a building whose function was specifically Islamic (fig. 1).

The immediate effect of the Arab conquest on the archaeological record was probably small, due to the limited numbers of the invaders. It is debated, for example, whether Berber styles of pottery were introduced to Spain in the eighth century. The process of Islamization of the native population, however, had a more prominent impact over time; it is likely that by a.d. 1000 a majority of the population had converted to Islam, and Arabic was probably becoming the most common language.

Food remains provide one way to observe this process. In Roman times, pork was an important source of meat in many parts of Spain, and this continued to some extent through the Visigothic period. After the Arab conquest, the frequency of pig bones in archaeological sites gradually declined, probably indicating conversion of the population to Islam, which prohibits the eating of pork. Pig bones usually continue to be present in small quantities, though, suggesting the presence of a Christian minority even in mainly Muslim communities. An exception that proves the rule is a site in southeastern Spain called the Rábita de Guardamar, a retreat where Muslim warriors could combine asceticism, religious contemplation, and defense of their faith. Not surprisingly, such a specifically Islamic site lacks pig bones.

political complexity and the organization of society

As the rulers changed from Romans to Visigoths to Arabs, the structures of political control and social dominance, unsurprisingly, changed as well. The scanty written documentation gives little insight into the processes of control, however, except to some degree in the caliphate toward the end of the Early Middle Ages.

The Roman government was not the massive bureaucratic system that modern governments are, but by ancient standards it was a powerful and ambitious state. A complex taxation system was administered by professional civil servants, and the proceeds were used to support a standing army, public works such as roads and bridges, and of course the administrative system itself. The government produced massive quantities of coinage as a medium for its taxes and expenditures, and it produced many facilities such as forts and government buildings.

As the Roman Empire disintegrated, its successors such as the Visigoths and the Suevians attempted to retain as much of the Roman administrative system as served their purposes. Invasion and warfare must have disrupted many governmental functions, though, and they had probably already been in decline in later Roman times. In the middle of the fifth century, for example, while the city of Tarragona was still under Roman administration (which lasted there until around 470), what had earlier been public buildings and spaces, such as the provincial forum, had clearly lost their political function and were used as quarries for old building stone and dumping grounds for garbage. In Valencia, the Roman forum was replaced in the fifth century by a church (probably the city's cathedral) and a cemetery, not only indicating the decline of the former civic administration but also symbolizing how the church hierarchy was replacing the old institutions of local authority.

The Suevians and Visigoths, who had no tradition of administrative government, relied on surviving Roman institutions to control and exploit their new territories, but probably at a more limited level of activity. They produced coinage derived from Roman types, but in limited quantities and mostly in gold, suitable for large payments within the ruling class but not for everyday use in small transactions. Some public works and state construction projects continued under the Visigoths, but the evidence is much more scarce than for the Roman period; no facilities for a professional standing army are apparent, for example. The state seems also to have been less able to enforce even the policies it was interested in; for example, despite draconian legislation in the seventh century intended to suppress Judaism, Jewish tombstones inscribed in Hebrew were still made.

This decline of state control seems to have affected the entire population in another way. The Roman government had been able to maintain peace and enforce laws well enough for people to live dispersed throughout the country with reasonable security. As Roman rule broke down, however, people tended to live in more clustered settlements, often in defensible locations, in some cases reusing prehistoric hillforts. This change suggests that the people in the countryside were at increased risk from marauders, bandits, feuds, or other forms of small-scale violence.

In sociopolitical organization as in many other things, the Christian north and the Islamic center and south followed different trajectories after the Islamic conquest. This has been made most clear since the late 1970s through studies of the social role of castles.

In much of western Europe, particularly France, medieval castles first appeared as part of a social transformation in which a class of feudal lords emerged during the tenth and eleventh centuries and seized for themselves on a local basis the political powers formerly exercised by the kings as well as by communities of free peasants, who were then reduced to serfdom. Castles served as the focal points of feudal settlement, and thousands were built during the decades around the year 1000. As feudal lords obtained economic power over the peasants, previously dispersed rural settlement was restructured in the form of larger villages located near the castles, so that compulsory labor service was easily accessible to the lords.

This transition to feudalism is generally agreed to have occurred also in Catalonia, which had close ties to France at the time. It is more disputed to what degree these changes happened in other parts of Spain or in Portugal. In the Kingdom of León, castles were built and villages were established as in France, but they seem to have happened separately, not as part of a single, drastic transformation of society. The written sources likewise suggest that neither royal power nor the freedom of the peasantry was so completely usurped there.

In Islamic al-Andalus, as well, castles became abundant, in contrast to their absence in most other Islamic lands at the time. And in some ways these castles may have had functions similar to those of northern Spain, especially in areas where the Muslim elite was formed from converted Hispano-Gothic nobles. Because society was organized differently in al-Andalus, though, the seizure of power by local nobles that was the essence of feudalism did not happen there. Castles in al-Andalus served as defensive refuges and as local outposts of the central administration, so rather than causing a restructuring of rural settlement for the benefit of local lords, they were instead placed where people already were.

population, trade, and the economy

Traditionally, the end of the Roman Empire was imagined in apocalyptic terms of collapse and destruction. Modern research has modified this attitude in many important ways, emphasizing the continuities from Roman times to the Early Middle Ages as well as the creativity and vitality of late ancient and early medieval civilization. Nevertheless, many changes occurred in the material aspects of life. Although there are difficulties with the evidence, the overall pattern appears to be one of economic decline from the later part of the Roman period through the Visigothic period, with gradual recovery beginning in the ninth or tenth century. These trends appear in the evidence relating to rural population, urbanism, and trade.

Under Roman rule, the Iberian Peninsula was densely settled with an assortment of towns and villages, small farms, and large aristocratic villas, most often situated in the best agricultural land. Although many of these sites remained occupied into the fifth and sixth centuries, the number of sites declined, and those that remained were smaller; also, as noted above, new sites were often in defensive locations. By the seventh century, a very different pattern had taken shape: people lived mostly in small sites, which were much less abundant and which were commonly located in mountainous areas or inaccessible hilltops. This pattern, which suggests both a substantial decline in population and a concern with defense instead of maximization of production, continued through the Arab conquest into the ninth century. Only from the late ninth or tenth century does there seem in many regions to have been an expansion of settlement back into lower, more productive, but also more vulnerable areas.

Towns and cities followed a broadly parallel trend. By late Roman times, not only the public buildings but also many residential areas of the towns had fallen out of use, suggesting a diminished number of residents. Although written sources seem to indicate that towns and cities remained important centers of civil and religious administration throughout the Early Middle Ages, the archaeological evidence is sparse. In many urban excavations in Spain, a late Roman level is immediately followed by deposits of the tenth or eleventh century or later, suggesting relatively little occupation during the intervening centuries. Some structures, especially churches, mosques, and fortifications, are known, but the paucity of associated habitation material seems to indicate that the towns remained centers of religious and political activity but were no longer centers of population or economic activity. The few locations where early medieval occupation levels have been found are often restricted in area and associated with defensive locations or religious facilities. In Mérida, one of the few towns where urban excavation has revealed early medieval habitations, they take the form of reuse of semi-ruined Roman buildings, subdivided into small apartments, eventually abandoned, and not replaced with new structures until the ninth century.

The decline in urban occupation is probably related to general changes in the economy during the Early Middle Ages. Under the Roman Empire, the countries around the Mediterranean were linked by active networks of long-distance trade, which can be observed archaeologically in the remains of nonperishable goods such as pottery. Even in the fifth and sixth centuries, pottery types made in what are now Tunisia, Turkey, and other places all around the Mediterranean were regularly available in the coastal cities of Spain and Portugal. After 550, however, these imports rapidly declined, and they ceased entirely by the latter half of the seventh century. Although exchange of goods and ideas did not cease entirely, long-distance trade on a scale large enough to be archaeologically significant did not resume until the tenth century and later.

The economic changes were not limited to overseas trade; the evidence for specialized production and local exchange within the Iberian Peninsula shows a similar pattern. In fact, for a long time this pattern obscured the archaeology of the Early Middle Ages. In previous generations, when medieval archaeology was closely connected with art history, the shortage of finely produced items in early medieval Spain and Portugal, compared to the Roman and late medieval periods, made it difficult to study the period. The Visigothic period was best known from metalwork such as brooches and belt buckles found in cemeteries and from stonecarving associated with churches. So skilled craftspersons continued to exist, but they seem to have been much less abundant than in the Roman period, since few such objects are found in ordinary sites. Referring once again to the artifacts that are most abundant on archaeological sites, the finely made, decorated table pottery of the late Roman period disappeared after the fifth or sixth century, and then only plain, coarse pottery was made—often without the use of the potter's wheel, which is essential for producing in large quantities—until new styles of decorated tablewares based on eastern Islamic traditions appeared in the late ninth century.

These patterns of economic production are far from the religious and political concerns of the written historical sources, but by elucidating the context in which the recorded events took place, they may provide an essential part of improved explanations of how culture and society changed in Spain and Portugal during the early Middle Ages. Historical events are necessarily shaped by the economic and social context in which they occur, and this context is lacking in the very limited written history of early medieval Spain and Portugal. For example, the inability of the Visigoths to form an effective resistance after their king was defeated at the beginning of the Islamic conquest has been attributed by historians to moral decay or overcentralized rulership. But it may be just as significant that the population of the region was at the bottom of a long process of decline in the eighth century and that economic disintegration would have made coordination difficult. These same factors also raise some interesting questions about the effects of the demographic and economic growth that appeared in the ninth and tenth centuries, such as whether some regions grew earlier or faster and therefore had advantages in political competition. Future archaeological research has the potential to address such questions, which could not even have been asked until the late twentieth century.

See alsoVisigoths (vol. 2, part 7).


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David Yoon

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Early Medieval Iberia

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Early Medieval Iberia