A Spanish coincidence?

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Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 is an excellent narrative history which focuses on the period of time when Spanish history was a substantial subset of world history. The author, Henry Kamen, is a British historian who happens to be a resident of Barcelona, and he’s gotten into trouble with Spanish nationalists for not framing the facts in a manner befitting Castilian triumphalism. All for the good I would think. In any case, Kamen does a good job balancing the standard kings & battles narration with thick social history. I checked out the book for two reasons. First, I was interested in the treatment given to the impact of disease in its relation to the New World, and secondarily, a better understanding of the role of the Hapsburg dynasty in early modern European history (I’m working through another book focusing on the Austrian Hapsburgs). Though the author was more interested in the social and economic parameters which drove the Spanish conquest of the New World, he really couldn’t dodge the critical necessary precondition of disease, so I found out what I needed to know. Imagine that the sepoys who fought for the East India Company and the maharajas who aligned with the British were extinct a generation or two after the aid that they rendered the new sahibs. That’s a pretty good analogy. On the second issue, there was a lot of detail which was illuminating; who knew that Phillip the II was a connoisseur of Dutch culture? I didn’t (though I did know that Charles V was a Netherlander, I suspect that my Anglo-Saxon cultural background has inculcated me thoroughly with the Black Legend). But there some other more surprising points which I hadn’t thought of.

First, I did know of one dynamic which plays a large role in explaining various events in Spanish history: during this whole period the Spanish Empire, and even the core kingdom of Spain, was actually a dynastic union which was relatively unintegrated politically. In fact, the Carlist Wars of the 19th centuries were fought over in part by the regions to preserve their customary laws and traditions against the centralizing tendency of the crown (or one lineage of it), which was attempting to create a modern nation-state. In an ironic but unsurprising twist, the same regions, such as the Basque provinces and Catalonia, which had served as centers of traditionalist-reactionary factions switched to supporting Leftish movements when those political configurations supported their autonomy from the centralizing pressures of Madrid. So in the 19th century the regions of Spain supported reaction and tradition because that reaction and tradition overlapped with their independence. In the 20th century conservatives had become reconciled with the nation-state and so it was to the Left that these regions looked to to support their aspirations for freedom from Castilian imperialism. But I had not been aware of the extent to which regions such as Aragon, which was a separate kingdom from Castile under the same monarchy, were definitively independent. Not only would the assemblies of Aragon refuse to be taxed to support wars on behalf of the Spanish Empire (e.g., the attempt to suppress rebellion in the Netherlands), but they also might refuse to send troops! This was not an isolated incident, it seems that the New World was Castile’s responsibility, while Aragon looked towards its own possessions in Italy. Speaking of which, Kamen points to the fact that these Italian possessions, in particular Genoa, provided much of the capital and financial talent which kept the Empire afloat. Christopher Columbus was not the only Genoese in the service of the Spanish crown, the trade with the New World based out of Seville was backed in large part by non-Castilian capital, whether it be Italian, Portuguese or German.

I only emphasize the international aspect to the Spanish Empire (which was Kamen’s sin in the eyes of Spanish historians who wanted to highlight Castile’s overwhelming agency in all events) because the text is also littered with references to a particular parochialism of Castilian culture and society which is all too familiar. Kamen notes that, for example, in the 16th century Castilian literature was relatively popular in translation in other parts of Europe. But the Castilians rarely translated works in other languages into the their own! Additionally, even Castilian works were usually printed abroad because of the relative shoddiness of local artisans and technology; often in the possessions which later became Belgium or in Italy. Finally, Kamen observes that the Spanish foreign service had difficulties because of the lack of polyglots in Castile; generally diplomats would make recourse to translators, or, they would recruit from Italy, Flanders or Wallonia, because many in those regions would know Castilian as well as their own native tongue and possibly other languages. There are numerous other examples given the text. Assuming this is correct, it reminds me a great deal of aspects of the Ottoman or Chinese interaction with the West when these societies were in relative decline, down to the lack of interest in foreign arts & literature as well as the need for middlemen to translate because of linguistic ignorance. Of course, a one-dimensional picture of these societies is going to be incorrect, there were attempts to modernize from within and influences from without. But a strong overall sense pervades that these cultures were inwards looking by conscious preference and their elites were very satisfied with their station in the world and saw no need to measure themselves against outsiders.

One could chalk this up to Muslim influence in Spain. But resemblances to the last century of the Chinese Empire suggest to me that this is a repeated pattern in many societies which have reached an equilibrium which can be broken only by powerful exogenous shocks. One could imagine for example something very similar to what happened to the Ottomans and Ching (Manchus) if a Slavophile faction had succeeded in keeping the Russian aristocracy insulated from Western European influences (as one was, one could make the case that something like this did happen because of the inability to shift from the outmoded absolutism which the Tsars perpetuated). I don’t have a real answer to what was going on in Spain, but I had to comment on the correspondences with the trajectory of the Ottoman Empire at the other end of the Mediterranean. After a vigorous expansion under a warrior caste both these polities seemed to have just decided to take a few centuries long nap, spelled by occasional attempts to modernize and catch-up, but only in terms of specific ends as opposed to general techniques.

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20 Comments

  1. Famously sound on languages, Charles V.

  2. right, but he wasn’t spanish. raised in netherlands, native language french, learned castilian to fluency, conversant in german (assuming flemish?)….

  3. About the lack of unity in the Spanish Empire, I cannot refrain from quoting the famous oath of allegiance of the Aragonese nobility to the king: 
     
    “We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than we, to accept you as our king, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not”. 
     
    If I remember correctly, this formula dates from the 12th century.

  4. That’s the common pattern: the more influental a state is on paper (that is, the more soldiers and toys it has), the less likely its population is to study foreign languages (since in bigger countries they’re not as useful), which acts as a check to actual influence, as the less you know about the world, the more your attempts to influence it will be drowned in unintended consequences. 
     
    Needless to say, having your language as a global lingua franca would be a terrible strategic disadvantage, as everyone would be able to analyze you and you’d be unable to analyze anyone else with similar precision. For example, such a state would be forever vulnerable to the great old “Our hearts are filled with admiration for your virtues, but sadly our people are ruled by an evil man with a grudge against your great nation. If only I were in charge…” scam and it would be forever stuck defending itself against charges from people who can list all the past misdeed of this country and no other (except maybe their own, but hey, who’s that dumb?). 
     
    I guess everyone could actually expect the Spanish inquisition.

  5. LOL

  6. …raised in netherlands… : actually, born and raised in Ghent, Belgium.

  7. …raised in netherlands… : actually, born and raised in Ghent, Belgium. 
     
    belgium didn’t exist, right? was simply the southern half of the netherlands. at least flanders. right?

  8. Charles was a creature created by his grandfather, Maximilian, the Hapsburg HRE. Max was the Hapsburg, and he got Burgundy, including Flanders and the Netherlands, (I don’t remember if it was the County or the Duchy, I can never keep the two straight, not that it comes up very much), by marrying the heiress, and he married his daughter off to Juan, who I cannot remember exactly who how he was related to Ferdinand and Isabella, but who died while still heir to the Spanish throne. So, just within Europe, Charles was a collossus, and a really archtypal Hapsburg, gaining power, wealth and kingdoms through tremendous match making talent of his family rather than military talent. 
     
    The usual, and I think sound, reason given for Spanish backwardness is the mountains of cash gotten in the New World. Govt modernization is about mobilizing the national resources, or getting a more efficient tax system, and Spain never really had to do that so no act of Union like in the UK. In addition, Spain was never really a nation while the Hapsburgs were kings, it was looked at as a family possession. The Hapsburgs were more medevial than modern.

  9. Just to add, the ‘Spanish Empire’ was the Hapsburg Empire in reality.

  10. Sounds interesting, I’ll try to get a hold of the book. 
     
    Couple of remarks: 
     
    I wonder about the head start that both Spain & Portugal had in the age of discovery – Spain getting the best parts of the Americas, Portugal the trade routes to the East, both countries completely dominating the field for most of the 16th century. I’m guessing oceanic navigation started as a Portuguese project in the early 15th century, and the first country that tried to catch up was Castile, but I don’t know very much about this part of history. 
     
    It’s interesting to note that other parts of the Spanish Habsburg Empire also declined. Italy, which had been the most urbanized & cultured part of Western Europe since Greek colonization in antiquity back lost that status during the years of Spanish domination. Belgium too to a lesser extent, Amsterdam taking over from Antwerp as the most important commercial center in the region, and cities like Ghent & Bruges going into decline. 
     
    Regarding the multinational aspect of the Spanish empire – many areas were dominated by monastic orders like the Jesuits, which was of course an international order. 
     
    I just saw in Wikipedia that the Kingdom of Aragon was abolished in 1707, which as chance may have it, the same year of the Acts of Union and the abolishment of the Scottish crown. Thus two United Kingdoms came about at the same time, in both places in circumstances of dynastic struggle and European-wide war.

  11. Carrying on Danny’s thought, it occurs to me that to this day Spain remains disunited: its western littoral, known as “Portugal”, maintains a stubborn political independence. Linguistically Portuguese is closer to Spanish than Spanish is to Catalan, and the Portuguese will tell you that their economy depends on Spain’s. Why didn’t Spain send the Portguese the way of the Galicians, or of the Provençals? 
     
    I’m thinking that Brazil grew to such an extent that Portugal became effectively “Portu-Brasil”. King Joao II even moved his capital over there IIRC. Imagine if George II had decided to rule Britain from Philadelphia, or Victoria from Bombay!

  12. I wonder about the head start that both Spain & Portugal had in the age of discovery – Spain getting the best parts of the Americas, Portugal the trade routes to the East, both countries completely dominating the field for most of the 16th century. I’m guessing oceanic navigation started as a Portuguese project in the early 15th century, and the first country that tried to catch up was Castile, but I don’t know very much about this part of history. 
     
    minor note: spanish navel prowess was heavily dependent on non-spanish talent. specifically, italian and portuguese (columbus and magellan were not anomalies).  
     
    It’s interesting to note that other parts of the Spanish Habsburg Empire also declined. Italy, which had been the most urbanized & cultured part of Western Europe since Greek colonization in antiquity back lost that status during the years of Spanish domination. Belgium too to a lesser extent, Amsterdam taking over from Antwerp as the most important commercial center in the region, and cities like Ghent & Bruges going into decline. 
     
    two points.  
     
    1) venice would be a check on the spanish-wrecked-italy thesis (broadly construed), since they managed to remain independent of he hapsburgs throughout this period. contrary to legend the spice trade via the levant and egypt remained significant until the 17th century, so it isn’t like the italian city-states lost all their economic vitality due to the cape of good hope route. 
     
    2) a lot of the best human capital relocated from antwerp to amsterdam. i recall that protestantism was initially more advanced in the more well developed regions of flanders as opposed to the rural north (even around 1600 it seems likely that 90% of the people of the rebellious northern provinces were still catholic from what i have read, it was simply that the sea beggars and their fellow travelers were organized & motivated).

  13. “Assuming this is correct, it reminds me a great deal of aspects of the Ottoman or Chinese interaction with the West when these societies were in relative decline, down to the lack of interest in foreign arts & literature as well as the need for middlemen to translate because of linguistic ignorance.” 
     
    Why does a presumed lack of interest in foreign arts and literature imply a decline in local culture? Those were the centuries of the Spanish Golden Age, after all. 
     
    In fact, that claim about lack of interest in foreign art seems a bit suspect to me. It’s certanly false in the case of painting, see for example El Greco.

  14. Why didn’t Spain send the Portguese the way of the Galicians, or of the Provençals? 
     
    They tried, and failed.  
     
    As for Provence, it is one territory that the French (well, the Angevins) got “the Habsbourg way” – by inter-marriage. It was consolidated into France proper by Louis XI (who else?), without violence. You may be thinking of Southwest France, which was essentially conquered by French noblemen under the guise of the Albigeois crusade.

  15. Why didn’t Spain send the Portguese the way of the Galicians, or of the Provençals? 
     
    The King of Spain inherited Portugal in 1580, but the country successfully revolted in 1640, taking advantage of the (failed) Catalan revolt of the same year. Late in the eighteenth century, Spanish King Carlos III tried to abrogate the Salic Law to allow the two kingdoms to be reunited in the offspring of King João VI of Portugal and Princess Carlota Joaquina of Spain, but he failed. (This would would have been Prince Pedro, who later led the rebellion for Brazilian independence against his father and was ruled Brazil as Emperor Pedro I, 1822-1831). In Spain, the Salic Law was later abolished with disastrous consequences (see “Carlist Wars”). 
     
    I’m thinking that Brazil grew to such an extent that Portugal became effectively “Portu-Brasil”. King Joao II even moved his capital over there IIRC. Imagine if George II had decided to rule Britain from Philadelphia, or Victoria from Bombay! 
     
    Plans for relocating the Portuguese capital to Brazil existed since the mid-17th century, exactly because European Portugal was so exposed to invasion. King João VI (not II) did move to Rio de Janeiro to continue the war against Napoleon despite losing the homeland. King Carlos IV of Spain also planned to flee to Buenos Aires for the same reason and with the same objective, but he was thwarted by indecisiveness, a traitorous son (the future Fernando VII, one of the worst kings ever), and rapid advance by the French army.

  16. spanish naval prowess was heavily dependent on non-spanish talent 
     
    Yeah, and the first major English explorers were the Italian Cabots. And 20th century American scientific prowess owes a great deal to talents like Einstein, Fermi, Von Braun and many others to this day (comparison between the Spanish Empire & the current American Empire is tempting, btw). I don’t think talents matter a that much; more important is having an infrastructure in place for the conducting exploration, and have the ability to leverage those discoveries, and this is something that both Portugal & Spain possessed at an earlier stage than other countries. 
     
    venice would be a check on the spanish-wrecked-italy thesis (broadly construed) 
     
    I didn’t want to say or imply it – I don’t know enough. Nevertheless, it is true that early modern Italy declined compared to other parts of Western Europe. 
     
    In Spain, the Salic Law was later abolished with disastrous consequences 
     
    The Salic law never applied to Spain, if it had there would have been no queen regnants like “Reyna Catolica” Isabella and her daughter “Mad” Juana. Fernando VII was a son of Carlos IV. Wouldn’t he have succeeded him without recourse to the Salic law?

  17. “the Acts of Union and the abolishment of the Scottish crown.” And the English crown too, of course.

  18. “And the English crown too, of course.” 
     
    Maybe in theory. In practice the seat of government was English, and the language of Government English. That was true until recently.

  19. “Maybe in theory. In practice …the language of Government [was] English.” The language of Government of the Union was English to begin with while a Scottish dynasty was on the throne. It was then briefly French because the first of the German descendants of the Stuarts to succeed to the throne spoke no Englsh so had to speak to his ministers in French.

  20. The Salic law never applied to Spain, if it had there would have been no queen regnants like “Reyna Catolica” Isabella and her daughter “Mad” Juana. Fernando VII was a son of Carlos IV. Wouldn’t he have succeeded him without recourse to the Salic law? 
     
    The Salic law was introduced by the Bourbon dynasty on assuming power after the War of Spanish Succession; Isabella reigned two centuries before that. If Carlos III had succeeded in repealing the law, the next King of Spain would not have been Carlos IV, but Princess Carlota Joaquina (his firstborn) and her line (i.e., Pedro of Portugal/Brazil – see my post above). Fernando VII’s right to the throne was never in doubt, but then I didn’t say it was.

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