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Review: Imperial Spain: 1469-1716

30 September 2012

Welcome back to The Molinist. Apologies again for the recent pause in regular posting. I was experiencing technical issues with WordPress’ posting interface that made it all but impossible. I hope you enjoy this first post-interruption post, a review of the recent new edition of J.H. Elliot’s classic work, Imperial Spain: 1469-1716.

J.H. Elliot’s popular level work on the history of ‘Spain’ in the early modern period, first published in 1963 and reprinted in 2002 with a new foreword and expanded and updated bibliography, is one of the few works readily available in English on this period of Iberian history. Fortunately, it is a thorough, accessible, well-written work which provides an excellent account of the sweep of Iberian history in the period. The works focuses on social, political, and economic history, with relatively little attention paid to the intellectual outside of a specifically religious context. The account is brief, spanning some 250 years in 386 pages, and broad-ranging, covering topics from the administrative methods of the Catholic Kings to imperialist ideologies that dominated the post-hegemonic period under the governance of royal favourite Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Conde-Duque Olivares. Elliot supplements the thus inescapable brevity of his account with an extensive bibliography on every chapter to direct the reader to more specific and extensive treatments of the many topics over which he must so briefly skim.

The work’s central narrative conceit is that it is a history of a place which did not in fact exist as such. ‘Spain’ as we understand it today came into existence only in 1715, a scant year before the end of the book’s purview, when Philip V, victor of the War of the Spanish Succession and first Bourbon King of Spain (which house rules the country to this day), united the Crowns of Castille and Aragon under Castillian law with a French-style administration. Elliot’s work is in fact a history of the Iberian peninsula and its undulating spheres of influence, covering the unions and disunions of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal; the conquests of Granada and Navarre; and the shifting borders of the Aragonese, Castilian, and eventually Spanish empires. The complex interrelations of the various states of the Iberian peninsula  and their relations with the outside world, such as the already (by 1469) flagging Aragonese empire; the European dominions appended to ‘Spain’ by the Burgundian succession of Charles I, eventual Holy Roman Emperor; and the Castilian and Portuguese colonial empires in the East and West Indies make some fascinating reading and Elliot does an admirable job of describing them in all their complexity.

Because they are the one thread which strings together the various histories of the peninsula, the Spanish monarchs, from the Catholic Kings Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, through the descent of the Spanish Habsburgs, concluding with Philip V of Spain, stand at the center of Elliot’s narrative. Their administrative methods and relations with their dominions are front and center, sometimes to the point that the history outside of the court is treated as secondary, though I think less by intent than by implication. Even the presentations of social and economic history focuses to a large extent on the persons of the monarchs and their Privados, or royal favourites, with issues such as royal monetary policy and royal relations with local governments taking up far more ink than on-the-ground social and economic conditions. While the extra-royal realities are of course acknowledged but Elliot’s narrative seems to suggest that the history of ‘Imperial Spain’ is the history of the Spanish crown.

The body of the work has not been updated since its original publication in 1963 and it does, in places, show its age. This ranges from terminological choices, most unhappily the reference to ‘Negroes’ (capitalisation original), to more inchoate questions of recent changes in dominant historiographical interpretations, such as the framing of the ‘Counter-Reformation,’ now usually viewed within the more positive context of a ‘Catholic Reformation.’ References to more recent work on some the topics covered is also lacking and anyone familiar with certain aspects of Spanish history may find the presentations of certain topics on which important work has been done more recently than 1963 somewhat lacking. This struck me in particular during the presentation of Illuminism and related Reformation-era spiritual movements, recent work of which has shone much light which alters our understanding of the ‘facts’ and just how orthodox or heterodox they actually were. Likely there are other such instances which escaped my notice but betray the vintage of the work.

Though a touch difficult  to find in most brick-and-mortar bookstores do to being a somewhat rarefied interest, Imperial Spain is well worth tracking down if one is after a solid, readable introduction to early modern Spanish history. Don’t be tempted to track down the older edition, as the problem of the vintage of the scholarship will only be exacerbated by the absence of the updated bibliography. A penguin softcover, the book is quite inexpensive and available for order through any number of online retailers or via a good local bookstore.

J.H. Elliot, Imperial Spain: 1469-1716 (London: Penguin Book, 2002).

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