During the Napoleonic war of 1808–14, the concept of a sovereign nation was conjured up, like the proverbial rabbit from a hat, by Spain’s liberals in the Constitution of 1812, which replaced the absolutism of the Old Order with popular national government. In future, representatives were to be elected to a unicameral assembly; the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers was enacted—with the King reduced to the executive—and the Cortes, in charge of the legislative, had ‘the exclusive right’ to establish the nation’s fundamental laws. The nation itself was defined as ‘the union of all Spaniards in both hemispheres’: laws would be the same for all regions of Spain and its transatlantic empire. Within two years, the Constitution’s 384 articles had been trampled under foot by the sovereign, Ferdinand VII, on his return from wartime seclusion in France at Napoleon’s pleasure; in his baggage he brought the return of absolutism, displacing the national ideal. The liberals, who were rapidly imprisoned or exiled, had made a cardinal mistake: believing it sufficient to commit to paper a constitution which all must observe, they neglected to furnish themselves with the necessary political base to support both it and them. Not surprisingly, its abolition generated not popular protest but jubilation—much helped along, of course, by the liberals’ sworn enemies.

Nonetheless, the ‘national’ resistance’s long and bloody struggle against Napoleon’s armies is celebrated as the modern nation’s birth. The 2008 bicentenary of the start of the war and the popular anti-Napoleonic risings saw a flood of histories and historical novels, most of which added little to existing knowledge; many handsome exhibitions, accompanied by lavishly illustrated catalogues, were staged, along with endless conferences and talks, academic and otherwise—most notably in Madrid, but not in all of the country’s regions. Indeed, it seemed that the celebratory nation was confined to Spain’s traditional Castilian heartlands. Was the ‘nation’ after all little more than a myth?

It is to this, and six other myths about Spain, that Henry Kamen, a noted historian of the country’s early modern period, devotes this striking revisionist work, which traces the myths’ origins to later, mostly nineteenth-century, visions of Spain’s sixteenth-century Golden Age, providing a fascinating picture of the country’s intellectual landscape in the process. Born in Rangoon in 1936, Kamen has been a prolific writer, producing a score of books since the mid-1960s, including re-interpretations of key figures and institutions—the Inquisition (1965, 1985, 1997) and Philip II (1997)—as well as a 2002 account of Spain’s Road to Empire, stressing the role of consensus in Iberian expansion over that of conquest.

Before setting out, Kamen is careful to explain the meaning he ascribes to myths: ‘intentional fallacies . . . systematically invented to undermine observed historical fact’, ‘ideological strategies with identifiable political motives’ to explain the present and to define the future, which enter into the main currents of thought as a foundation of national culture. He thus examines the myth of the ‘historic nation’ of Spain as having existed since time immemorial; the myth of the failed monarchy, in which foreign Habsburg and Bourbon dynasties are held to have run the country into the ground; the myth of Christian Spain, which holds that the country’s unique religiosity formed its very essence. Then there is the myth that the Spanish empire conferred an enduring world-historical role; the myth surrounding the Inquisition, held to have mired the country in ignorance and intolerance; the widespread notions of Spanish as a uniquely universal language; and the myth of Spain’s perpetual decline from a previous Golden Age. In a postscript, he addresses the notion of the erosion of Spanish identity.

Kamen argues that the experience of political democracy over the past thirty years has brought into being new ways of looking at the past that have pushed the sixteenth century into the background: the reign of Juan Carlos has ended the notion of the monarchy’s constant failure, while obsession with Spain’s glorious religious role has faded in the face of secularism. In one of the world’s ten most industrialized powers, ‘perpetual decline’ can no longer have any effective purchase. The formation of these myths nonetheless remains of significance to all those interested in Spain’s past—and none more so than that of the nation, the myth with which Kamen begins.

Already in the early modern period there were those who claimed that Spain had been a nation since time immemorial, or at the very least since the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic Monarchs, under whom Castile and Aragon were united in the fifteenth century. The word nación was used, though in fact its early meaning was the country of one’s birth; and as late as the early nineteenth century and the start of the Peninsular War, a legally unified Spanish kingdom did not exist. The monarchs were sovereigns of Castile—which, after the 1492 conquest of Granada, stretched from Andalusia and Murcia in the south to Galicia and Asturias in the northwest—Leon, Aragon and a large etc., as the preamble to their decrees made plain. A native Valencian would be considered a forastero, an outsider, in neighbouring Aragon. If there was, as the historian José Alvarez Junco has maintained in his 2001 book Mater dolorosa, a Spanish collective—though not national—identity, it stemmed from sharing a Catholic monarchy and the experience of constant warfare during the country’s century and a half of hegemony over Europe; Reformation and Counter-Reformation on the one hand, and the existence of common enemies on the other, laid the bases of this shared identity. To this one might add the Church’s teaching that Spaniards were God’s chosen people to defend the one and only true faith, and the seven-hundred-year reconquest of Muslim Spain for Catholicism.

Kamen is cautious about defining the word nation which, quoting Hugh Seton-Watson, he describes as scientifically indefinable, for all criteria used are disputable impositions. Still, as he writes, there is no question that nations exist, and later he cites Ernest Renan’s Que est-ce qu’une nation? to the effect that a nation is ‘a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future’. In this sense, I would argue, there can be little doubt that the sacrifices made by many—though not all—Spaniards in the Napoleonic struggle created certain bonds that transcended local patriotisms. But whether these remained unbroken for long or whether there existed the same willingness to make such sacrifices in the future is open to doubt. As a prime minister exclaimed in the mid-1830s, the nation exists no further than one can see from a tower in Madrid.