Imperial Spain: 1469-1716

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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“Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?”

I once saw this aphorism posted in a bookstore. It was (if I remember correctly) attributed to Henry Ward Beecher, but that had to be a bad joke. The famously adulterous preacher had to know lots and lots of places where human nature is far weaker than it is in the bookstore …

Still, I understand what the author of the quip meant, whoever he was. I always come out of any bookstore with at least two or three more books than I meant to buy, with the result that my entire bedroom bookshelf is filled with books purchased but as yet unread.

The other day I was at Amazon shopping for JH Elliott’s new comparative history of the British and Spanish empires in America – which I did buy and will write about here soon – and the little computer robots that monitor your shopping offered me a cut-rate deal on a paperback reissue of Elliott’s classic history of imperial Spain … so I bought that too.

This purchase violated one of my core rules of book-buying: Any book worth buying is worth buying in hardcover. I adopt this rule not for bibliophiliac reasons, but in vain hope of curbing the ever rising influx of books into the house.

In this case, however, the rule has backfired on me: Elliott’s history is more than worth buying in hardcover – and now I have to go buy it twice.

Imperial Spain was originally published in 1963. The paperback comes with a new foreward, but otherwise seems to be the same book I read in college many years ago. It’s a masterpiece of academic historical writing, deeply researched and judicious. Listen for example to his brisk pen portrait of Philip II:

He was for ever measuring himself against his father [the Emperor Charles V], desperately attempting to live up the idealized model of the great Emperor; and this in turn made him acutely conscious of his own shortcomings. His feelings of inadequacy only increased this indecisiveness which appears to have been a hereditary characteristic of the Habsburgs. Always in need of advice, and yet intensely suspicious of the motives of those who proferred it, he would endlessly procrastinate as he struggled to reach his decision. Himself a weak man, he tended to shun strong personalities, whose resolution he envied and whose strength he feared: instead he would turn for counsel to … supple characters who would insinuate where [the counselors he inherited from his father] would command. Distrustful and yet too trusting, Philip felt completely safe only among his State papers, which he would tirelessly read, mark, annotate, and emend, as if hoping to find in them the perfect solution to an intractable conundrum – a solution which would somehow dispense him from the agonizing duty of making up his mind. (p. 250.)

Or read the marvelously terse presentation offered by the opening words of Elliott’s book:

A dry, impoverished, barren land: 10 per cent of its soil bare rock; 35 per cent poor and unproductive; 45 per cent moderately fertile; 10 per cent rich. A peninsula separated from the continent of Europe by the mountain barrier of the Pyrenees – isolated and remote. A country divided within itself, broken by a high central tableland that stretches from the Pyrenees to the southern coast. No natural centre, no easy routes. Fragmented, disparate, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations – this was, and is, Spain.

The lack of natural advantages appears crippling. Yet, in the last years of the fifteenth century and the opening years of the sixteenth, it seemed suddenly, and even miraculously, to have been overcome. …

How all this can have happened, and in so short a space of time, has been a problem that has exercised generations of historians, for it presents in a vivid form one of the most complex and difficult of all historical questions: What makes a society suddenly dynamic, releases its energies, and galvanizes it into life? This in turn suggests a corollary, no less relevant to Spain: How does this same society lose its impetus and its creative energies, perhaps in as short a period of time as it took to acquire them?

Elliott’s is a work of surprising contemporary relevance, and in more than one dimension:

It is very arresting how many of the habits of mind and thought the Spaniards so destructively imported into their American conquests were formed in the 800-year reconquest of their peninsula from the Muslim Moors. The warriors who led the campaign were rewarded not so much with land – Spain’s dry land is not worth much – but with labor: the award of feudal rights over the now subordinated Muslim population. And when a century or two later the younger grandsons of those Andalusian and Estramaduran warriors invaded Peru and Mexico, they colonized it exactly the way that Andalusia and Estramadura had been colonized. They taught a whole continent to think of wealth as something to be seized, labor as something to be done by others. And so two of the most pressing concerns of the modern-day United States – Latin immigration and the clash between Islam and the West – join together.

Another resonance. Nobody who follows debates over Israel can fail to be struck by how many of the most vehement detractors of the Jewish state are Jews themselves. When it comes times to speak of the outright annihilation of Israel, it is names like Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, or Jacqueline Rose that urge the death warrant. And yet this too is not unprecedented.

Here is Elliott on the role of militantly assimilated Spanish Jews in the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. After a wave of forced conversions in the 1380s and 1390s,

A growing number of conversos, however, were now reverting to the faith of their fathers, and their defections were a source of deep concern to the genuine converts, who were afraid that their own position would be endangered by the back-sliding of their brethren. It may therefore have been influential conversos at Court and in the ecclesiastical hierarchy who first pressed for the establishment of a tribunal of the Inquisition in Castile …. (107)


The more things change ….

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