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.