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The rectification of names

5 April 2013

Amongst those who know me I have a reputation for having a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the application of the name ‘Spain’ to any polity of the Iberian peninsula prior to 1715, at the earliest. Well, I doubt those who know me pay enough attention to understand more than that I’m ranting about ‘why it’s not just one place’ as I tend to go on. Not infrequently I am told that is just a matter of pedentry of my part. While I’ll admit to a penchant for pedantry (you read this blog, you’ve noticed), I deny that I am, in this instance, being a pedant. But let me tell you why.

Names are important. They’re not just sounds associated with things. They hold immense power. We identify with them, band together around them, are oppressed by them. Most of us carry the name of our country of origin around with us our entire lives, as immovable markers of our identities, forever tying us to our place and people of origin. We are grounded, fundamentally, in those random assortments of sounds and their arbitrary relations to lines on a map.

Now, when you do history, names can be hard. Places change names. Names change places. What is one century was one place, with all the necessary associations, is in another century a completely different place. Much of my research is focussed on the Iberian peninsula in the 16th and 17th centuries. As any specialist in the period or the place can tell you, early modern nomenclature of the Iberian peninsula can be tricky business. Today there are five countries on the peninsula, the stretch of land we call Iberia: Portugal, Spain, Andorra, Gibraltar (a British overseas territory), and a bit of France. In the period I study, there were three nominally independent polities on the peninsula, united by personal union under the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, as it is conventionally called: the Kingdom of Portugal, the Crown of Castile and Leon, and the Crown of Aragon. Their internal relations were complex, to say the least. Castile dominated Aragon, politically and culturally, the great power of the Aragonese Mediterranean empire having waned considerably since the personal union of Ferdinand and Isabella and a Castilian Atlantic empire, from which the Aragonese were largely excluded, having made the port cities of Castile the economic center, such as it was, of the peninsula. Portugal largely wanted little to do with the union, having been independent of the other two (read: of Castile) until very recently, and would not long remain in union before becoming once again an independent polity. The ‘capital’ of the Habsburgs was in Castile, intentionally located at the geographic center of the peninsula: Madrid (some have suggested that had the dynastic capital been established at the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, Portugal would today be a part of Spain). Each polity had its own laws and traditions, and the conflicts amongst them and between the Habsburgs would define much of Iberian politics during the period (the on-going squabbles between the Cortes of Aragon and the Spanish Habsburgs would do much to define Iberian politics for the duration of the dynasty). Not until the Nueva Planta laws in 1715, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and the establishment of the Spanish Bourbon (another concession to conventional names) dynasty (which endures, non-contiguously, to this day, with republican and fascist interregna), when Castilian and Aragonese law were unified under the Castilian model and Castellano, the ancestor of what English-speakers think of as modern Spanish, made the language of the state (the state administration was modelled on that of France, however), would anything recognisable as ‘Spain’ come into existence. The usual contemporary term for all of these places, throughout this entire period, was the Latin ‘Hispania,’ or one of its vernacular derivatives, including the English ‘Spain.’

Historians of Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands can relate similar problems with anachronistic nomenclature. In the period that I study ‘Italy’ and ‘Germany’ were terms of geographic convenience for a politically unstable peninsular region and a vast, polyglot cultural region associated, to varying degrees, with a contemporary polity known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, respectively. The Netherlands of the early modern period could refer either to the Spanish Netherlands, a territory of the Spanish Habsburgs, or to their independent successor the United Provinces, both of which included modern day Belgium and the European region of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (never the overseas territorial possession that make up part of the modern day Dutch state). At various points and under various conditions, ‘the Netherlands’ and parts of Italy can be classed under the cultural or political term ‘Germany.’ The modern day multi-national nature of German language and culture within Europe itself means that we are more sensitive to historical multivalence of the term(s) ‘German(y)’ and the phrase ‘the Germanies’ has a good amount of currency. The contemporary political near-unity of Italy and (in North America) lack of awareness of Flemish culture and history seems to have resulted in less understanding treatment of Italian and Dutch history.

Now, the use of terms like ‘Spain,’ ‘Italy,’ and ‘Germany’ for historical disciplines is not inherently problematic. It is hardly unreasonable to say that you study ‘German history.’ The problems comes up when we conflate our modern polities and regions with our historical ones, and understand those historical realities as exclusively the histories of our modern referents. Does ‘German history’ mean only the history of post-unification Germany, or does it include Austria? Does ‘Austrian history’ begin with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire? I am certainly not suggesting that ‘Spanish history’ begins in 1715. I am suggesting that we need to recognise that ‘Spain,’ as we understand it, begins in 1715, and that the preceding 250 years of Aragonese and Castilian history is not coterminous with ‘Spanish’ history, especially since in the period itself ‘Spain’ meant something else.

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