Growing a nation in a diverse peninsula

September 14, 2001

National histories remain a popular staple in the world of publishing. Publishers frequently favour them because they appeal to a readily identifiable market. Concomitantly, the historian's expertise and reputation is often still to an important degree shaped by present-day national boundaries. However, writing or editing a "national history" of a given territory, that stretches from the Stone Age to the present day, is a tricky exercise. Inevitably, the object of one's interest exists only during the latter part of the period one is surveying. Within the Iberian peninsula in the latter Middle Ages there were three major Christian states: the kingdoms of Castile and Portugal and the crown of Aragon. The Catholic monarchs united the crown of Aragon and kingdom of Castile in 1479. However, each component retained a great deal of autonomy. The term Spain began to be used as an ascription for this political unit during the 16th century. Yet there was some ambiguity. Portugal was integrated into the Habsburg Empire between 1580 and 1640, and "Spain" was on occasion used to designate all the Iberian components of the dynasty.

Moreover, the Catholic monarchs and their Habsburg successors did not officially reign over Spain but over each of the individual kingdoms under their rule. This would change only under the new Bourbon dynasty at the beginning of the 18th century. Hence, until the second half of the 17th century the most logical unit of analysis is the Iberian peninsula. Only from that date can one study the development of the Spanish and Portuguese states in isolation.

In the early chapters of this book, this fact leads to two sets of problems. First, it can produce a messy compromise. References are predominantly made to those territories that will subsequently make up Spain without any sound academic reason. Second, it entails the danger of anachronism. Henry Kamen, in his chapter on the rise and fall of Spanish imperial power, is careful to refer to the "combination of territories that came to make up the vast Spanish 'empire'". A. T. Fear, in his study of prehistoric and Roman Spain, is not so rigorous, discussing the "Spanish provinces" and "the Lusitani of Portugal" at a time when the Romans had simply divided the peninsula into Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior.

The authors who focus on Spain from the Renaissance onwards have a somewhat easier task. In his introduction, Raymond Carr emphasises that Spanish history should be placed within the broad current of European history. Nineteenth and early 20th-century disquisitions on "oriental" and "Moorish" influences on Spanish society cannot be taken seriously. This fact comes through in all the chapters in the second half of the book. Spain played a leading role in the European colonisation of America, she was at the centre of the great dynastic wars that rocked the European continent during the 16th and 17th centuries, participated in the Enlightenment, was racked by the European-wide conflict between fascism/ authoritarian conservatism, liberalism and the revolutionary left in the early 20th century, and was finally integrated in the European Community towards the century's close.

Yet, what also comes to the fore in the book is the specificities of the Spanish case. This can be seen in a number of fields. First, until at least the 1980s the Spanish economy was, in comparison with those of northern Europe, relatively weak. Indeed, Carr briefly but deftly analyses economic weakness and also the process of modernisation Spain underwent in the early 20th century.

Second, the process of nation-state building in Spain was particularly difficult and protracted. The chapters on the Middle Ages help us understand the roots of this problem. Roger Collins argues that under the Visigoths, between the 5th and 7th centuries, some kind of Iberian Gothic identity may have come into being among social elites. However, as Richard Fletcher points out, in the face of the Moorish advance, from the 8th century state power fragmented, provoking the consolidation of divergent institutional practices in the various Christian kingdoms, which it would thereafter be difficult to unify. This coincided with the break-up of proto-Romance into Galaico-Portuguese, Castilian and Catalan. Carr alludes to the significance of the past imperial glories of the crown of Aragon in feeding the rise of Catalan nationalism in the late 19th century, which was rooted in the perceived dichotomy between the prosperous Catalan economy and "parasitic" rule from Madrid. He also emphasises that localism remained strong, and that the poverty-stricken state was quick to devolve power to local bigwigs ( caciques ). Nevertheless, despite these illuminating insights one feels that the whole issue of the failings of nation-state construction could have been dealt with more systematically.

Finally, the chapters by Carr and Sebastian Balfour serve to remind us of the great influence exercised over much of the 19th and 20th centuries by the anti-liberal Catholic church. And both provide us with excellent overviews of its key importance in opposing democratisation. Spain had, of course, been at the heart of the Counter-Reformation in the second half of the 16th century, and the Nationalist uprising of July 1936 was justified as a Catholic "crusade" against the Bolshevik peril. Hence any history of Spain from the Middle Ages onwards must focus on the church's role. In this respect, the contribution of earlier chapters is rather contradictory. Felipe Fern ndez-Armesto has very interesting comments to make on local patterns of religiosity and the impact of a broad European movement of reform on the Catholic Church during the 16th century. Richard Herr emphasises that sections of the church - known as Jansenists - were happy to subscribe to a moderate reading of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. However, the feeling is that we are overall left with an inadequate understanding of the early-modern foundations of the church's subsequent offensive against liberalism and democracy.

That said, the book without doubt fulfils its purpose as an introduction for students and the lay person. Several of the chapters are of a very high standard indeed, and it includes a host of well-chosen plates.

Angel Smith is lecturer in Spanish, University of Leeds.

Spain: A History

Editor - Raymond Carr
ISBN - 0 19 820619 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 318

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