The schoolchild described a net as a lot of holes tied together with string, and Spanish history might be called a lot of gaps tied together with guesses. On the 16th century, Spain’s great age, numerous books have been written of late by Spanish scholars, for whom modern history is more or less forbidden ground. A good deal of their labour (though by no means all) has been devoted to questions about how many theologians could stand on the point of a 16th century pin; and even on that epoch out ignorance is still extensive. Dr. Elliott’s task was therefore an exceedingly difficult one, and the degree of success he has achieved is remarkable. His own period is the early 17th century, and for the two and a half centuries as a whole he has naturally to rely on the special studies of other writers. He is careful to point out not only these, but also the problems that still await study, or remain controversial. His book thus forms a critical review of the existing state of knowledge, with many valuable ideas and suggestions of his own added, and the whole mass of material combined into an intelligible pattern.
His grand theme is one of the most intriguing in world history. How was it that backward Spain burst on Europe, about 1500, so ‘suddenly, and even miraculously’? ‘What makes a society suddenly dynamic, releases its energies, and galvanizes it into life?’ And little mot than a hundred years later, what was it that plunged Spain back into a condition of national imbecillity such as few nations have ever sunk to? Elliott’s approach to history qualifies him to treat it as a broad interplay of many connected forces. He notes, for instance, that the political turmoil of 15th century Catalonia must be seen as at bottom a social crisis, part of the general crisis of late-mediaeval Europe. Art and culture are not among his main topics, but he brings them in from time to time with a sure touch; as when he writes of Don Quixote as a product of the disenchantment that held Spain in its grip by 1605, or discusses the literature of the ‘golden age’ in terms of its wormeaten economic foundations. Whatever disagreements or criticisms on points of detail may suggest themselves, the book deserves to be called a model of its class. General readers coming more or less fresh to the subject will be grateful for this masterly introduction to it; readers who have struggled with it already will receive much fresh light.
Aiming as he tells us at ‘interpretative synthesis’ instead of conventional narrative, Elliott nevertheless manages to supply an adequate synopsis of political history; and its more dramatic episodes, like the story of Philip II and Antonio Pérez in Ch. VII, are not wasted. Space is distributed unevenly, it might be said; out often chapters, the first eight get us only up to 1610, and the last, covering 1665–1716, is in the nature of an epilogue. Attention is
As adequate a survey as the scanty data permit is given of economic development. We are least well informed about agriculture; but the majority of Spaniards were peasants, and Elliott’s account makes it clear at least, as others have done before, that the peasant’s life was anything but happy. For the mass of Spaniards the golden age itself was, like all succeeding ages down to our own, an iron age. Its glow and brilliance, as in the France of Louis XIV, were confined to a few bright spots. In another economic department it is discouraging that one of the few solid-looking achievements of modern research, E. J. Hamilton’s investigation of the price-rise, no longer looks so firmly established. At any rate the stages of the price-rise cannot be correlated so closely as Hamilton believed with those of the influx of silver from America.
In England the 16th century inflation has been thought by Keynes and many others to have helped to push the country along the road to modern capitalism. In Spain it had no such result. Elliott speaks of the enterprising townsmen of northern Castile, and holds that the Castilian temperament was not so uncongenial to business activity as has often been assumed. A ‘dynamic “capitalist” element’ might well have taken shape as it did in Holland and England, he thinks, and its non-emergence was due to the shortcomings of the government rather than of the entrepreneur. An economic historian of Dobb’s school might complain of a failure here to observe the distinction between big merchant capital, such as the wool trade nourished, and the industrial capital, normally at first much smaller and humbler, that was for Marx the true begetter of modern capitalism. A related political enigma concerns the revolt of the Comuneros in northern Castile in 1520–21, the only serious opposition movement there from then to the 19th century. Here again Elliott marshals the available evidence clearly and instructively, but not very much fresh knowledge has accumulated since H. L. Seaver’s book was written in 1928. Was the rising, in one of its aspects, an authentic bourgeois revolution, failing because set off prematurely by a still weak bourgeoisie being caught up into an outbreak of mere faction? The same question may be asked about the Huguenot risings in 16th century France, and those of the Fronde in the mid-17th.
Elliott is an authority on Catalonia, one of the group of principalities attached to the crown of Aragon; his account of he structure of politics in these provinces before the union with Castile may appear in some ways, like his estimate of Ferdinand of Aragon, too indulgent. He looks on their jealously guarded franchises and privileges as proof of a sound balance of rights between government and subject. The Catalan diputació was ‘a bulwark of national liberty’ on behalf of ‘a strong, free people’. The justicia of Aragon Proper, that aristocratic custodian of the rights of all who had rights, is given something of the aspect of a 20th century Ombudsman. But very few in Aragon except noblemen had any rights, and Elliott admits that those who had most in Catalonia were a ‘closed oligarchy’. To put mediaeval ‘liberties’ in the same category as modern ‘liberty’ involves a degree of anachronism. Elliott is less on his guard against this than might have been expected, because he thinks of progressive Catalonia as the leading partner, and the ‘powerful urban patriciates’ enriched by its commercial empire in the Mediterranean as ‘the real masters of the land’. Here once more merchant capital raises awkward problems. Marxists have denied its ability to hold political sway, and Pokrovsky retracted his ‘rule of merchant capital’ in early Russia as ‘an illiterate idea’. This view in turn seems to overlook Venice and Genoa. The truth may be that merchant capital can only hold political power by joining forces with landownership, whether more or less feudal as in Italy, or capitalist as in 18th century England; and having done so it tends itself to undergo a metamorphosis into landownership, as the merchant fortunes of Barcelona were doing after 1350, or those of Venice subsequently. There was plenty of feudalism in Catalonia, never a homogeneous region, and more still in Aragon. Aragonese nobles may have been mostly small men but so were the junkers of East Prussia; and there were enough big men among them to have a separate House in the Cortes. The ‘new phase of imperial expansion’ into Italy in the early 15th century, which Elliott regards as dynastic, militaristic, inferior to the earlier commercial enterprise, surely marked a shift of influence from Catalonia to Aragon, from Barcelona to Saragossa. And the Spanish imperialism inuagurated after the union by the conquest of Granada in 1482–92 surely resembled the later but more primitive, more purely predatory type.
By contrast with 15th century Aragon, reduced to stagnation by Catalonias’ crippled fortunes, Elliott finds in Castile ‘an upsurge of national energy’, an increasing ‘dynamism’. This again will puzzle some readers, accustomed to think of the two kingdoms as evolving before the union very much on parallel lines: each suffering from baronial feuds mixed up with dynastic division and social conflict. Elliott stresses the growing significance of the wool trade and the contacts it brought with markets in northern Europe; but this hardly seems sufficient to make such a difference. It might have been as well, moreover, to explain and define the use of the word ‘nationalism’, whose validity in Castile at this early date, or anywhere else, has been denied by Kohn in his great history of The Idea of Nationalism. ‘Dynamism’, which recurs frequently, is another word that may arouse some misgivings.