Cervantes and his world
At a critical point in his short story La española inglesa, Cervantes has to repatriate the heroine Isabela from London to Seville. Writers of romance conventionally handled journeys
of this kind by supernatural means or by an authorial stroke of the pen. But Isabela would be taking with her a dowry of 10,000
escudos, and England and Spain were at war: how was she going to get home with the fortune intact? Interested readers can consult
the text to see exactly how it was done, but the solution is a masterpiece of early modern capitalism involving a network
of French merchant-bankers acting on commission: one in London to take care of the cash and arrange the transfer; another
to issue the documents in Paris to throw the authorities off the scent; and another to cash the cheque once Isabel arrives
back in Seville.
This mixture of high romance and precise documentary detail is a trademark of Cervantes, and one of the reasons why it is
important to try and understand, four centuries later, the relationship between his work and the world in which he lived.
Although it is impossible to overstate the dangers of extrapolating biography from fiction, it is safe to say that few writers
of the early modern period travelled as extensively as Cervantes did, or turned their hands to so many occupations, or knew
as much as he did about their contemporary world; and he put more of that knowledge into his work than most.
Born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares to a poor professional family, Cervantes was largely self-taught; he studied for a while
in Seville and Madrid, but most of his learning came from wide and -by his own admission- indiscriminate reading. In 1569,
he left Madrid for Italy, and entered the service of Giulio Acquaviva before enlisting in the Spanish army. He fought under
Don John of Austria in the great Christian victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, and lost his left hand, an injury of
which he was inordinately proud, 'since it was collected in the greatest and most memorable event that past centuries have
ever seen'. Other military operations followed, in Corfu, Navarino and Tunis, and during his return journey to Spain in 1575,
he was captured at sea by Turkish corsairs and taken to Algiers. There he spent five years in captivity before being redeemed
by the payment of a ransom in 1580. Cervantes's experiences of military life in Italy, and more especially of prison life
in north Africa, colour a great deal of his writing, and, in particular, several of the Novelas ejemplares.
Back in Spain, Cervantes found the life of an ex-serviceman frustrating and disappointing, and his attempts to build a literary
career met with little success in the early years. An unhappy marriage to a much younger girl and continued financial difficulties
forced him to take a series of poorly-paid public posts, including tax-collecting and provisioning for the Armada (1588).
In 1590 he made the first of two unsuccessful applications for a post in America. During these years Cervantes travelled widely
and gained a considerable knowledge of rural Spain, knowledge displayed most obviously in Don Quijote, but he was accused of fraudulent accounting and spent at least two periods of time in prison in Seville. There he learned
a great deal about organised crime and the Seville underworld, including germanía, the language of criminals featured in Rinconete y Cortadillo.
In 1605 Cervantes, now settled in Valladolid, published Part I of Don Quijote. Although the work brought few financial rewards, it was well received in some circles and earned him a place on the fringes
of the literary establishment there, and later in Madrid. The last four years of his life saw the culmination of his literary
career: the Novelas ejemplares (1613) were followed by a long allegorical poem, the Viaje del Parnaso (1614); the following year brought Part II of Don Quijote and the Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses. His great epic novel Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda was published posthumously in 1617.
Cervantes's career -from soldier to tax-gatherer, from unpromising writer to literary celebrity-makes a historicist approach
to his work particularly appropriate. Reputation has transformed the historical Cervantes into a universal genius, independent
of time or place; yet the very work which made his name, Don Quijote, is not only profoundly steeped in the social and economic reality of Habsburg Spain, but has anachronism as its central
theme. So we have two leaps of the historical imagination to make if we want to place Cervantes in context: back to the sixteenth
and early seventeenth centuries, to the reigns of Philip II and Philip III; and then beyond that to the late medieval world
of knight errantry which Don Quixote was so keen to revive. Don Quijote telescopes together nearly 150 years of Spanish history, and unless we adjust our sights accordingly, we are likely to misread
the complex relationships between past and present which are a central theme of Cervantes's fiction.
When Don Quixote first rode out onto the plains of La Mancha, the rural landscape he encountered would have seemed reassuringly
familiar. The windmills, the flocks of sheep and the fulling mills testified to the long-standing importance of agriculture
in general and the wool industry in particular in the Spanish economy and way of life. The country roads and wayside inns
which populate the novel, and the drovers and the goatherds that frequent them, would hardly have struck the contemporary
reader as worthy of comment. Yet this was a world which was experiencing profound social, political and economic change; change
to which Don Quixote was largely oblivious, but from which he could not remain unscathed.
La Mancha lay at the heart of one of greatest empires the world has ever seen. In a little over 100 years Spain had undergone
an astonishing transformation from a collection of intermittently warring kingdoms to become an emerging nation state, and
had then rapidly gone on to acquire a world-wide empire. It is vital to understand the outlines of this process because the
long-term consequences for Spaniards at all levels of society were both profound and far-reaching, and because it is important
to dispel some myths about Spain and Empire, particularly those which detect in, or read back into, the events of the long
sixteenth century a conscious strategy for world domination by a unified political machine. Throughout the early modern period,
what we think of as (and for convenience will continue to call) 'Spain' had very little constitutional basis: both as 'nation'
and 'empire', Spain was never more than a composite monarchy, an association of autonomous realms united only by what they
had in common: a single monarch. At its most extensive, this global monarquía had as many as seventeen constituent parts, and like all federal or quasi-federal structures (such as the United States of
America, the European Union, or Spain since Franco) it was as diverse as it was homogeneous. Time and again in the development
of Spain and empire we see the laws of serendipity and unintended outcomes prevailing over those of historical inevitability.
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The emergence of Spain as a world power in the sixteenth century can be understood in terms of two major cycles of growth
and development characterised by a small number of recurring issues: how to balance political unity with cultural diversity;
assert crown authority while working constructively with powerful elites; maintain and defend the growing number of territories
within the monarchy; discharge responsibilities for defending the Catholic faith; and meet the growing costs of operating
on an international stage.
The first of these two cycles begins with the so-called 'union of the crowns', initiated by the marriage of Isabel, step-sister
of Henry IV of Castile, to Ferdinand, son of John II of Aragon, in 1469. Although this marriage created the potential to unite
two of the major powers in the Iberian peninsula, the potential was not realised without several years of struggle, in which
Isabel's determination and Ferdinand's strategic and diplomatic skills were forged into an outstanding partnership. On the
Castilian side, Isabel's claim to succeed her half-brother Henry would not normally have taken precedence over that of his
daughter, Joanna. But it was widely rumoured that Henry was impotent and Joanna was illegitimate. Henry's sudden death in
1474 precipitated a succession crisis and civil war which was resolved in Isabel's favour in 1479. It was during the struggles
of the 1470s that Isabel laid the unassailable foundations of the power base on which she and her successors would build.
On the Aragonese side, the political landscape was dominated by a long-term dispute with France and civil war in Catalonia.
Ferdinand's marriage to a Castilian had therefore been seen as an effective alliance against the French.
The first ten years of their marriage were a testing time for both Ferdinand and Isabel, but when Ferdinand succeeded his
father in 1479, two of the four major power blocks of the Iberian peninsula had begun to forge a stable alliance bordering
on union. But this 'union' was both provisional and conditional. The two crowns were united only by virtue of the marriage
and only for its duration: the terms of the marriage contract preserved the independence of both parties and their respective
territories.1 Furthermore, Castile and Aragon were unequal partners: Castile was much the larger territory in geographical terms, and enjoyed
numerically superior human and economic resources. The constituent kingdoms had been moulded into a much more unitary state
than Aragon, and a more absolutist style of monarchy had been developed. Aragon was physically and economically less powerful,
but had possessions in the Mediterranean (Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Sardinia, Sicily and, from 1504, Naples), and was still
a federation of distinct kingdoms or principalities (Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia) under a single monarch who governed by
consent rather than by absolute right. The kingdoms in the Aragonese federation were all fiercely loyal to different systems
of local government and different sets of rights and privileges, all of which the monarch was required to respect as a condition
Once the foundations of the union had been laid, the second phase of the reign, to the early 1490s, was concerned with consolidation
and development. One of the most frequently debated questions about the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel concerns unification:
did they set out to unify the peninsula, and in either case, did they succeed? There is no evidence that they pursued a conscious
policy of unification, but it might be argued that, if they had, their principal policies would have been the same. The territories
over which they had only recently consolidated control were diverse in every conceivable way, and Ferdinand and Isabel had
none of the structures and resources -army, exchequer, administration- which would normally be considered necessary for unitary
rule; the Council of the Inquisition was the only body with a unified responsibility for an aspect of the affairs of both
It is hardly surprising that the monarchs made no effort to harmonise the many systems of local government, taxation, currency,
or internal trade conventions, which made such a varied patchwork across the peninsula.2 They appear instead to have concentrated on a few major, interrelated themes: enforcing law and order; restructuring relations
between the crown and the local elites; reinforcing the power of the church; securing the territorial integrity of the peninsula;
and developing the structures and systems needed to deliver these. It was an ambitious agenda designed to assert the authority
of the crown, secure popularity with the people, promote a common ideology and harness the military power of the nobility
by giving them something useful to do.
The re-establishment of law and order was long overdue. The peninsula had been dominated by military conflict for several
centuries, the frontier culture was a violent one, and internal security had rarely been strong. Powerful local elites were
able to capitalise on the general feeling of insecurity both in the towns and the countryside. The civil wars of the 1470s
had not helped this situation. It was therefore essential that Ferdinand and Isabel act quickly to restore the confidence
of the common people in a system of security and justice which clearly had support at the very top. By reorganising the local
militias or hermandades into larger units responsible to the crown, by increasing the number of crown officials (corregidores) charged with maintaining a watching brief over local government, and by reforming the administration of justice, Isabel
was able to gain popular support and curb the power of the municipalities and the nobles.3
The nobles were a particular problem. The feudal model of allegiance had never been strong in Spain, and the military and
political power of the aristocracy was considerable. The image of the medieval baron living in a fortified castle on a huge
estate, running a private army and living off tributes and taxes extorted from terrified peasants may be a caricature, but
it is one which came close to reality in parts of late fifteenth-century Spain. Although Isabel had found the nobles useful
while they were supporting her claim to the throne, once she had secured it, their habit of fighting amongst themselves, and
their potential to act as focal points for sedition and rebellion, had to be addressed. The solution to this and to many other
problems was one favoured by governments throughout the ages: war. Governments find wars useful because they distract the
populace from more immediate problems, encourage people to sink their differences in the face of a common enemy, and if they
end in victory, wars invariably make governments popular.
The war against Granada, which was successfully concluded in January 1492, fulfilled all of these objectives, and more. The
capture of the last remaining Muslim territory in the peninsula brought to an end a long period of invasion and reconquest
which began in 711. Muslim domination once extended almost as far north as the Pyrenees, but from the early thirteenth century
the Christian territories had begun to fight back. A relatively peaceful coexistence (convivencia) had been achieved between the Christian kingdoms and the Emirate, and had lasted for over two centuries. Political coexistence,
however, had not always been matched by religious and racial tolerance. Whereas the advancing Muslims had been generally tolerant
of Christianity, and had encouraged Jews to settle and practice their religion in the peninsula, the reconquering Christians
pressed for conversion of the Jews and the Muslims living under Christian rule, or their expulsion. Only in Valencia and Aragon
were the civil and religious customs of Muslims respected to any great extent. The capture of Granada gave Isabel the excuse
she needed to impose a single religion in Castile. In 1492 all Jews were required to be baptised or be expelled, and within
ten years the same requirement was made of the Muslims.
Had this happened today, NATO planes would undoubtedly have been in action over southern Spain; but ethnic cleansing of the
kind which has taken place in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s was not to become policy in Spain until 1609, when Philip
III decreed the expulsion of all descendants of former Muslims (moriscos).4 What Isabel was trying to achieve in Granada was the logical consequence of a series of measures which she and Ferdinand
had already taken to strengthen the power of the Church. Isabel had been concerned that, not only were there obvious signs
of laxity in several areas of public life, such as public security, the administration of justice and the collection of taxes,
but the Church itself was clearly corrupt and in need of reform. Many years before these issues surfaced in northern Europe
at the time of the Reformation, Isabel perceived widespread ignorance, venality, absenteeism and peculation among all levels
of clergy; and superstitious, unorthodox and near heretical beliefs among the lay people. She and Ferdinand set about reforming
the secular clergy and the religious orders, gained control of ecclesiastical appointments, and introduced the Holy Office
of the Inquisition in Castile (1478) and Aragon (1487).
But the war had to be paid for, and Ferdinand and Isabel could not meet the costs themselves. They relied on a tax granted
by the Pope (the cruzada or 'crusade') and on troops and supplies from the nobles. Isabel and Ferdinand thereby created a powerful alliance of religious
and aristocratic interests around a crusading ideal which helped them to achieve several military, religious and political
objectives. First, they significantly extended their territories by annexing the third great power block of the peninsula
(the fourth, Portugal, would have to wait until 1580). Secondly, by giving the nobles a bigger stake in the crown's own success,
Ferdinand and Isabel began to build a stronger alliance with them. They rewarded service, not by payment in cash, but by various
kinds of patronage, including grants of land in the conquered territories, and exemption from direct taxation, one of the
most important traditional privileges granted in exchange for personal service.5 The disadvantage to the crown was the opportunity cost involved: no money changed hands, but the crown 'bought' the services
it could not afford to pay for by foregoing future income from the land, and from direct taxation. The arrangement also transferred
large stretches of land into private ownership, and the prosperity which resulted for a number of noble families began to
change the long-term relationship between the nobles and the crown.
Thirdly, and most significantly, the completion of the reconquest enabled Isabel to implement a policy of forced conversion
or expulsion. The ending of religious pluralism strengthened the position of the Church and imposed a militant, white, Christian
ideology to which every local political and cultural interest in the peninsula was subordinate.6 This ideology was increasingly underwritten by the growing supremacy of Castilian as the preferred language for government
and education, recognised by the publication of the first grammar of Spanish, and of any European vernacular language, by
the humanist Antonio de Nebrija in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabel gave a high priority to education at all levels, and this enabled
them to develop an administrative cadre of letrados, selected and trained on a meritocratic basis, to support the crown in managing the complexities of early modern statecraft.
Many of the achievements outlined above were to have very significant, and unforeseen, long-term disadvantages: the imposition
of a single religion entailed the loss of a significant body of creative and entrepreneurial talent among the religious minorities
who chose exile, and created two disaffected and marginalised ethnic minorities from among the moriscos and conversos who remained; and the concentration of land ownership in a small number of powerful families brought about long-term structural
inequalities in the distribution of wealth. But there were also many benefits, including the priority given to education:
some twenty universities were created in the peninsula by the end of the sixteenth century, and Spain became one of the most
cultured and literate societies in early modern Europe. Without that readership, the work of Cervantes and his contemporaries
would have been inconceivable.
Within months of the conclusion of the reconquest of Granada, Isabel and Ferdinand's reign entered its third phase prompted
by an event which could not have been planned, but which was also the logical consequence of the policies outlined above:
the 'discovery' by Christopher Columbus of islands in the Atlantic at approximately the longitude at which China and Japan
were thought to be located. Isabel had agreed to permit, and partly to fund, a speculative voyage to investigate the feasibility
of a westerly, transatlantic route to the Far East. As Columbus made clear in the prologue to the account he presented to
the monarchs in 1493, there were four principal objectives to the voyage: scientific, economic, diplomatic and religious.
As far as Columbus was concerned, the 1492 voyage was designed to strengthen Christian alliances against Islam, facilitate
the recapture of Jerusalem and generate sufficient income for the enterprise to pay its own way.
From the moment that Columbus claimed the first small island in the Bahamas, Castile began to acquire extensive transatlantic
possessions and Spain graduated almost overnight from embryonic nation state to emergent world empire.The crown and its advisors
quickly assessed the true significance of Columbus's discoveries and staked an early territorial claim against the rival Portuguese.
The resulting treaty of Tordesillas (1494) paved the way for future Spanish domination of the Caribbean, Mexico and the greater
part of the South American continent, and by 1503 the Casa de Contratación had been established in Seville to regulate trade
with the New World, which was soon being run as a fully-fledged offshore company. Seville would grow rapidly throughout the
sixteenth century, fuelled by the trading opportunities offered by the New World. There were rich pickings to be had, and
one fifth of all income went to the crown.
The discovery of large native populations who appeared to have no religion of their own gave plenty of scope for the salvation
of souls. Spain had been granted sovereignty over the new territories by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, but this 'donation' was
not without conditions. Ferdinand and Isabel were expected to use their sovereignty to advance the cause of Christianity,
and in 1496, Alexander gave them the title 'Reyes Católicos' (Catholic Monarchs) in recognition of their support for the Church in Granada and the New World. When Isabel died in 1504
she could look back on a productive reign with a clear conscience that she had fulfilled the duties of a Christian monarch.
But the burdens of empire were to become much greater with the passage of time, and the acquisition of an overseas empire
was to prove a mixed blessing.
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The reign of the Catholic Monarchs began with a succession crisis and ended with one. On Isabel's death, Ferdinand remained
king of Aragon, but not of Castile, to which the succession was problematic. Isabel and Ferdinand had arranged marriages for
each of their four children to strengthen alliances with Portugal, England and Burgundy. But their efforts to secure the future
of the union were frustrated when their only son John died in 1497, his sister Isabella died the following year, and the nominated
successor Joanna ('Juana la Loca') was judged mentally unstable and unfit to rule. When Joanna's husband, Philip of Burgundy,
also died unexpectedly in 1506, Ferdinand became regent of Castile on behalf of Joanna and her infant son Charles of Ghent
(born in 1500). When Ferdinand died in 1516, Charles acquired a three-fold inheritance: in his person the two crowns of Castile
and Aragon were finally united, together with the reconquered territories in the peninsula, the Atlantic, the New World, the
Mediterranean (including Naples, recaptured by Ferdinand from the French in 1504), and North Africa; and to these territories
he also added the Burgundian inheritance of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Franche Comté. When he was elected Holy Roman
Emperor in 1519, the same year in which the first Spaniards reached Mexico, a fourth group of territories were added to the
monarchy: the Habsburg lands in Germany, Poland, Austria and Hungary. Within a three-year period, King Charles I of Spain
-the Emperor Charles V- became the most powerful man the world had ever seen.
Charles's accession established the Habsburg dynasty in Spain and ushered in the second great cycle of development for Spain
and the empire. In many ways, this second cycle replays on a grander scale the central themes of the first. Like the Catholic
Monarchs, the Habsburg kings of Spain had to grapple with problems of imposing and maintaining their authority on a politically
diverse and geographically widespread collection of territories; they had to defend the territorial integrity of the empire;
they took very seriously their responsibilities as defenders of the Christian faith; and they needed to raise large sums of
money to do so. Charles adopted many of the solutions devised by the Catholic Monarchs -he became a skilful diplomat, travelled
a great deal, led from the front and imposed his authority through the power of his personality while keeping the powerful
elites on his side. But initially he had a number of disadvantages: he was a foreigner, a French-speaking Fleming, and he
got off to a bad start by sidelining native Spaniards and appointing Burgundians to senior positions, while giving the impression
that he intended to strip the assets of Castile and Aragon to fund his imperial ambitions.
The early years of Charles's reign were marked by suspicion and resentment which boiled over in a series of revolts by the
comuneros and the germanía (1520-1521). In Castile, a number of towns experienced serious disturbances fuelled by resentment at the conspicuous presence
of Burgundians in influential positions, the King's hasty departure from Spain on imperial business, and various long-standing
complaints about the privileges of the aristocracy. In Valencia, the grievances were against the Muslims as well as the nobles.
Both revolts had the effect of rallying the nobles in support of the royal cause, and were quickly suppressed. The rebels
had made their point, nevertheless, and Charles spent most of the 1520s making amends for his high-handedness and for having
taken the Spaniards and the regional parliaments (Cortes) for granted. 1522-1529 was the longest continuous period he ever spent in Spain; he made sure he learned the language and
understood the local customs, and in 1526 he contracted a popular marriage with Isabella of Portugal, who gave him an heir,
the future Philip II, the following year. Charles had put down roots in Spain and won the hearts of Spaniards, and more important,
their political and financial support in defending the faith and the territories outside the peninsula.
Charles was at pains to make clear that he had no intention of extending the empire in Europe by conquest. But, equally, he
would not contemplate surrendering territory on any front. There were three main troublespots: in the south and the east there
was the old enmity with Islam, and the need to maintain naval power across the long and difficult frontier in the Mediterranean
and North Africa, and along the Danube. Across the centre of the empire, and effectively dividing it in two, lay France. In
the north, the greatest threat of all came from the rise of Protestantism. What began as a religious movement quickly took
a political turn as secular leaders throughout northern Europe turned the mood of rebellion to their own advantage. Charles
accepted that there was corruption and abuse among the clergy and the religious orders which needed to be dealt with, and
encouraged a Catholic Counter-Reformation in response. But as the secular guardian of the church, the Emperor became increasingly
alarmed at the political threat of the German princes, and the way in which perfectly justified calls for moral reform were
causing widespread civil unrest and rebellion against the authority of the Pope. It was Charles's confrontation with Luther
in 1521 which led him to pledge his 'kingdoms, dominions and friends, body and blood, soul and life' in defence of Christendom.
With that pledge he committed Spain and the Spaniards to more than a century of conflict throughout Europe and the Mediterranean,
and with it vast amounts of resource, both human and financial.
Charles was in a better position than Ferdinand and Isabel had been to afford a religious war on such a scale, but the cost
to Castile in particular was high. Imperial armies depended on Spanish manpower and military expertise, but they had to be
paid and the Emperor had increasing recourse to the cruzada, to general taxation, and to international sources of capital. The nobles were exempt from direct taxation, and constant
recourse to grants and taxes to meet imperial commitments made the tax system more and more regressive as the burden fell
increasingly on those least able to pay. Charles's greatest asset, however, was the ability to raise loans. By the early 1530s,
when imports of silver bullion began to flow in large quantities, it was becoming clear that the economic potential of America
was enormous. But the impact on Spain proved much less favourable than it might have been, and on balance was sharply negative.
Charles could raise large loans from German and Italian bankers to fight his wars in Europe because he could use imported
silver from Peru as collateral. As a result, income was mortgaged for years in advance, and when the loans could not be paid,
the crown was regularly bankrupt. Far from being a benefit to Spain, America proved a triumph for international venture capitalism:
for the Genoese who underwrote much of the cost of the discoveries and then cashed in on the trading opportunities, and for
the Italian and German bankers who saw Charles, and later Philip, struggling to hold back an unstoppable tide of social change
by throwing huge sums of money at it, and were happy to feed their habit because their credit was good. Vast quantities of
money flowed into the royal exchequer from America, but none of it stuck, and the Spaniards became net contributors to the
cost of sustaining the empire.
The struggle to maintain control over such a large and turbulent empire eventually began to take its toll. Quite apart from
the effort of securing the empire on several fronts in Europe, Charles also had to contend with a range of other important
issues. The bad press which Spain was receiving about the conquests in South America and the abuse of the native populations
by the conquerors and settlers, led to a high-profile enquiry into the legitimacy of conquest and brought about changes in
the law governing the rights of Indians and the responsibilities of settlers. The growing pressure for reform of the church
from within the Catholic sector, coupled with the increasing incidence of heretical belief was met by higher levels of activity
from the Inquisition, tougher censorship, and the final suppression of Islam in Aragon in 1526. And the need to ensure that
adequate systems of government were in place in Spain during his frequent absences abroad brought about an extension of the
system of councils -early examples of modern government departments- and placed more power in the hands of the civil servants.
By the 1550s Charles had concluded that his vast multinational conglomerate was too large to be manageable and he planned
a phased abdication and demerger: he split the empire into two parts, handed on the original Holy Roman Empire inherited from
the Austrian Habsburgs to his brother Ferdinand, and left the Castilian, Aragonese and Burgundian inheritances to his son
Philip. Charles himself retired to a monastery at Yuste, in Extremadura.
The accession of Philip II in 1556 brought about a change of style but not of substance. Philip had been groomed to be king
from an early age, and he regarded being king as a job to be taken seriously. He learned the lessons of his father's reign
and was determined that he would not spend his life travelling from pillar to post. He established a capital in Madrid, built
a headquarters at the Escorial and ran the empire from a tiny office with the help of a small group of trusted advisors. Where
his father had been a general, he preferred the role of chief executive. On the domestic front, Philip remained unswervingly
loyal to the Catholic cause, and cracked down even more strictly on the merest suspicion of unorthodoxy, using a range of
repressive measures -the Inquisition and the auto de fe, the index of prohibited books and a ban on Spaniards studying abroad- to reinforce the prevailing orthodoxy. In the 1560s
he decided that he needed to intensify the assimilation of the moriscos and reduce the security threat posed by a substantial
ethnic minority in the east and south of the peninsula. In the face of a series of prohibitions against speaking Arabic, reading
Arabic literature, and wearing traditional dress, the moriscos rebelled in 1568 and after a savage two-year conflict, the rebellion was crushed and the moriscos were forcibly dispersed throughout the peninsula.
Philip's regime was more centralist, more absolutist and more repressive than his father's, but the major foreign policy issues
remained unchanged, and there was no let-up in the associated cost. Charles's division of the empire no doubt made good sense,
but it left Philip two principal hot- spots to deal with: the on-going Islamic threat in the Mediterranean and the political
and religious conflict in the Netherlands. Fighting on both these fronts continued to be ruinously expensive, and proved impossible
to direct from an office in central Castile. Even a defensive policy in the Mediterranean needed a large, well-equipped navy.
The Spanish fleet scored a number of successes in the 1560s in defence of Oran and Malta, and in the 1570s as part of the
Holy League with Italy in defence of Cyprus. In 1571, at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece, the combined Christian fleet under
the command of Philip's half-brother, Don John of Austria, inflicted a decisive defeat on the Turkish fleet, the battle in
which Cervantes took part and in which he took such pride. But Philip's efforts to defend Spanish possessions in North Africa
and in the Mediterranean were compromised by the need to deal simultaneously with a serious revolt in the Netherlands.
Unrest in the Netherlands was brought about by a cocktail of interrelated factors: resentment that the political centre of
gravity of the empire had shifted to Spain; the virulence of the local brand of protestant religious thought (Calvinism);
separatist movements in the northern provinces led by William of Orange; and Spanish heavy-handedness, including a conspicuous
military presence and unsubtle attempts to gain control of local affairs. Had Philip spent more time in the area he might
have been able to respond more sensitively to the changing mood. But after Calvinists rioted and desecrated Catholic churches
in 1566, Philip sent the Duke of Alba to investigate. Alba sentenced more than a thousand people to death and imposed a draconian
tax to pay for the army. By the early 1570s, virtually the whole of the Netherlands was in revolt, supported by protestant
allies in Germany, France and England.
In 1585, England signed a treaty agreeing to aid the rebels, and Philip decided that, unless he could stop English involvement,
he would never recapture the United Provinces. The result was the attempted attack on London by the 'Invincible Armada' in
1588. The invasion was doomed to failure by lack of surprise, poor communication between the navy in the English Channel and
the army in Flanders, bad weather and the fact that the commander-in-chief was directing operations from Madrid. The failure
of the Armada cost hundreds of lives, was a massive waste of money, and caused a serious loss of confidence among Spaniards.
Philip's reputation never fully recovered. The debacle was widely interpreted as a punishment for over-weaning pride. In fact
it was a classic case of over-commitment on too many fronts, but there is no evidence that the lessons were learned in Philip's
lifetime. He went on taxing and borrowing, and when he died in 1598, the crown was in debt for eight times its annual revenue.
The Netherlands were an insoluble problem, but Philip's decisive annexation of Portugal in 1580 finally brought the whole
peninsula within a single monarchy, and added another overseas empire (Brazil, parts of Africa, India and the far east) to
the growing extent of Spain's possessions in the New World. Philip III succeeded his father in 1598, and the turn of the century
brought mixed fortunes; Spanish influence on the world stage had never been greater, but the mood at home was more sombre.
A serious outbreak of plague weakened an already overstretched populace and a bout of national introspection gave rise to
a wide-ranging review of international strategy. The new regime moved quickly to address the balance of payments crisis by
concluding treaties and cease-fire agreements with England and the United Provinces, and by trying to control the import of
manufactured luxury goods such as textiles.
Philip III has often been perceived as a weak king, largely because he delegated much of his executive authority to a 'favourite'
or first minister, the Duke of Lerma, and dedicated himself to more regal pursuits such as hunting and collecting works of
art. Lerma was undoubtedly the wrong choice in the long term: his most serious error of judgment came with the expulsion of
the moriscos in 1609, and over time he allowed power to corrupt him absolutely. But Philip's decision to share the burdens
of office with a first minister was sensible, and Lerma's initial assessment of the problem was undoubtedly correct: Spain
was over-committed and under-resourced for the role it was attempting to play, and a period of retrenchment was essential
if the structural weaknesses in the Spanish economy were ever to be corrected.
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All forms of historical narrative are misleading, and in the case of Spain and the empire the risks are particularly great.
A narrative of growth, overreach and exhaustion can easily become, as it did for the Spaniards of Cervantes's time, a providentialist
account in which pride goes before a fall. Yet the process by which the empire, particularly the empire in Europe, grew by
leaps and bounds with each successive generation, was as much the result of accident as design. The union of the crowns of
Castile and Aragon was only one of a number of possible outcomes from the turbulence of the 1470s, and Charles's succession
in 1516 was an endgame which few could have foreseen when Isabel died over a decade earlier. Even Charles's attempt to downsize
the unruly empire in the 1550s was thwarted by Philip's decisive assertion of his claim to the throne of Portugal in 1580.
And all the while, the astonishing extent of the discoveries in the New World regularly added thousands upon thousands of
square kilometres to the sum of Spanish possessions -and of Spanish responsibilities- overseas. But it would be foolish to
ignore the recurring themes which dominate the successive cycles of growth and development, and which help to explain the
social complexity of Spain at the turn of the seventeenth century: the gradual but inexorable emergence of an absolutist monarchy
and a normative culture; the changing dynamic between the crown and the other power bases within society, particularly the
nobility, the church and the urban elites; the importance of religion as an ideological driver; and the role of America in
sustaining imperial ambitions abroad and widening the wealth gap at home.
Although in many ways Spain at the end of the sixteenth century was more cohesive, both in concept and reality, than it had
been a century earlier, the Spaniards then, as now, defined themselves in terms of a range of distinctions: differences of
region, class, wealth, ethnicity, religion, culture, language and sex. Distinctions of these kinds are inherent in all societies,
but what makes them particularly important in early modern Spain was the shifting nature of certain established correlations,
especially changes in the distribution of wealth, the relationship between wealth and rank, and the balance of religion, ethnicity
Wealth is the key to understanding these changes and divisions. Taken as a whole, Spain was an extremely prosperous country
in the early modern period, but the gap between the rich and the poor grew steadily wider throughout the sixteenth century.
At the same time, the traditional correlation between social class and economic circumstances came under significant strain.
New routes to wealth were open to all classes and ethnic groups, and no class was immune from poverty. The result was to reverse
the polarity between wealth and status: where once membership of the ruling class would almost inevitably bring prosperity,
in the changing circumstances, wealth was increasingly used to buy rank. There were three major factors driving these changes:
demographic stability and growth, major shifts in land use and tenure, and the new commercial opportunities offered by the
With very few exceptions (the revolts of the comuneros and the germanía in the early 1520s, and the rebellion of the moriscos in the 1560s) Spaniards enjoyed over a century of peace and stability within the peninsula itself. By exporting military
conflict to America and other parts of Europe, the conditions were created for sustained net growth of the population until
well into the 1580s. This growth was not uniform, however, and some significant changes took place in its shape and distribution.
Emigration caused by forced expulsions, the demands of conquest and colonisation in America, and wars in Europe was balanced
by the immigration of Catholic refugees from the religious wars and merchants attracted by the investment potential of New
World trade. The outflow of able-bodied men opened the way for women of all classes to take a more active role in society,
a significant social change which is reflected in the prominence given to women in Cervantes's fiction and on the contemporary
stage. At the same time, there was a pronounced shift in the economic centre of gravity of the peninsula from north to south,
and from the countryside to the towns. Both trends account for the emergence of Seville as a major commercial and cultural
centre during the sixteenth century, a role reflected in several of Cervantes's Novelas ejemplares.7
The Spanish economy depended on agriculture, and the political stability and population growth of the sixteenth century favoured
both livestock and farming. Sheep farming was particularly successful. The mountainous terrain of much of the country made
sheep and goats the only viable industry, the fine wool of the merino sheep fetched good prices among weavers in northern
Europe, keeping sheep was not labour- or capital-intensive, and it was compatible with the long-standing aversion of the upper
classes to manual labour. Sheep farming was also extremely well organised by a powerful guild, the Mesta, which enjoyed political
support from the crown. Despite growing competition from silk and cotton, wool continued to be a major industry throughout
the sixteenth century, and would undoubtedly have made a greater contribution to the economy had the domestic textile industry
been developed in parallel. As it was, the export of wool did not cover the cost of importing finished cloth, of which Spain
was a net importer.
Farming also flourished in response to stability and growth, and large amounts of additional land were brought into cultivation.
The reluctance of emigrants to the New World to adjust to local conditions and diet created a strong export market for foodstuffs,
wine and olive oil, as well as manufacted goods, and Spain remained a net importer of food. With favourable political and
economic conditions and wealth of natural resources, Spain could have done a good deal better had more American silver been
used for investment and less for conspicuous consumption. Nevertheless, it was possible to make a good living from farming
and many people did. We have only to look beyond the surface rural poverty of Don Quijote to see how many prosperous gentlemen farmers there are in the subtext. Note, for example, the precision with which Cervantes
fills in the family background of Grisóstomo and Marcela, the two protagonists of the pastoral episode in Book I, chapters
11-14, both of whom have inherited wealth from parents who worked hard and did well from farming.8
But the real beneficiaries of a strong agricultural economy were the large landowners.9 Land is a finite resource, and a primary source and repository of wealth. We have already seen how the Catholic Monarchs
bought political and military service from the nobles by making grants of land and associated income in conquered territories,
and this process continued in different forms under the Habsburg kings, with large areas of crown lands being granted to a
rapidly growing aristocracy, or sold into private ownership to raise capital for military expenditure. Many of these disposals
were of baldíos, crown lands in common use, and the privatisation of ownership often brought severe hardship to common people whose traditional
rights of access and use were denied. As more land was granted or purchased, large estates were accumulated by families who
took legal steps to ensure that they could not be alienated and would be transferred intact to subsequent generations.10 The 'land grab' by the Spanish nobility in the sixteenth century undoubtedly helps to explain the growing obsession with
lineage, the association of identity with place, and the importance given to legitimate, patrilineal, succession and the sexual
integrity of women: rich, powerful men do not want their carefully accumulated assets accidentally transferred to another
The benefits of land ownership were also open to members of other classes, including those on both sides of the Atlantic who
got rich from trade.11 There was no monopoly of class or ethnic group, and the aristocracy, the urban middle classes and the conversos were all represented among the successful merchant class. Large fortunes were made from American bullion: for every 20% that
went to the crown, 80% went into private pockets and ultimately had to be banked, invested or traded for another asset. Many
of the 'new rich' preferred to invest in status rather than trade or industry. A crown which was desperate for cash was more
than willing to sell patents of nobility, with the associated tax-exempt status, in exchange for large, up-front contributions
to the imperial revenue account. The emergence of a 'new rich' concentrated in the southern half of the peninsula and including
descendants of religious minorities caused considerable concern among the nobility and gentry of Old Castile, many of whom
had missed out on the prosperity brought by reconquest at home and conquest abroad. In the face of influential new money,
the old Christian ruling classes closed ranks and hit back with the one thing money cannot buy: blood.12
Long-standing discrimination against conversos became institutionalised in Toledo during the 1540s, and took the form of statutes of limpieza de sangre, which restricted access to a wide range of ecclestiastical and secular posts and privileges to those who could demonstrate
that their blood was of pure Christian origin. Philip II ratified this practice in 1556 and it came into common use. Purity
of blood was a social and economic issue as much as a religious one. In practice, and over time, the importance attached to
purity of blood also reinforced the claims of low-born old Christians to enhanced social status: a humble, 'blue-blooded'
peasant might have a greater claim to be considered honourable than a social superior of less immaculate racial origin. The
blood factor added a further dimension of confusion to a social order which had already been rendered fluid by money. No-one
could be certain which was the true indicator of status: inherited wealth, new money or Christian blood.13
But the wealth of the few was gained at the expense of the majority. For every farmer or merchant who made good there were
many more who barely lived above subsistence level. Over and above the daily vicissitudes of early modern rural life -low
life expectancy, malnourishment, disease, infant and early male mortality- the Spanish peasantry had to contend with two devastating
consequences of imperial ambition: inflation caused by American bullion and the resulting excess liquidity in the European
economy, and high taxation needed to meet the costs of religious wars abroad. Ground down by these two millstones, many agricultural
workers deserted the countryside, flocked to the towns and joined the ranks of the urban poor. The lucky ones were able to
scrape a hand-to-mouth existence from casual labour in manufacturing or service; many had recourse to begging, prostitution
or organised crime. The urban underclass which grew up in the shadow of the conspicuous prosperity of early modern Spain is
featured in Cervantes's short fiction, in the picaresque novels of the early seventeenth century, and in the visual art of
painters like Velázquez and Murillo.
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Cervantes was a shrewd observer of the world around him, but the literary realism which is such a feature of his fiction is
not primarily documentary in nature. The world he depicts is clearly recognisable as his own, but he does not write simply
to record the fact. Cervantes's world was complex and full of conflict, and writers of fiction need conflict to generate plot
and character. His genius consists in allowing the circumstantial evidence of his own society to act as testimony to a much
wider range of issues. This may be why readers and critics of Cervantes have found it difficult to detect what he really thinks
about his material. Very occasionally, as in the Ricote episode of Don Quijote where he is outspoken about the expulsion of the moriscos, we can detect genuine anguish in the writing. More often, he comes across as a wryly detached, non-committal ironist who
can see both sides of the question. Does he really think that Quixote is a fool, or does he secretly admire his misplaced
Cervantes is much more an analyst and observer than a policy-maker, but he clearly had strong views about many of the political
and social issues which preoccupied his age. He took a close interest in the complexities of class, wealth and status and
developed many permutations of these themes in his work. His religious views appear to be orthodox, notwithstanding the occasional
touch of anticlerical satire; divine providence is a frequent driving force behind the construction of plots in which vicissitudes
turn out for the best and hidden truths must be revealed; and the overtly Catholic agenda of his prose romance Persiles y Sigismunda is only conceivably open to question on the grounds that it protests too much. Cervantes is often discreetly critical of
divisiveness and intolerance in his own society by indirect reference to societies outside Spain: La española inglesa and El amante liberal are both set in worlds -one protestant, the other Islamic- where religious and cultural diversity is shown to be rather more
tolerantly managed than it was within the peninsula. He was a brilliant observer of regional and linguistic diversity, urban
life and manners, and he clearly had strong views about the sexual basis of the honour code.
Spanish society in Cervantes's time was a complex weave of many potentially contradictory strands. Traditional structures
were under strain: the ruling class was becoming increasingly segmented; the grandees were growing in number and wealth but
had been effectively emasculated by prosperity; many of the gentry had fallen on hard times, while the 'new rich' were rising
up to take their place. Alonso Quijano was clearly dysfunctional in this context. While all around him the land-owning classes
were enlarging their estates and begetting heirs, he was allowing his estate to decline, selling off land to buy books which
encapsulated an outworn ideology, living with his niece and housekeeper, unmarried and childless. And when he reinvents himself
as Don Quixote in a desperate attempt to put the clock back to the frontier society of the fifteenth century, he rides out
into a world in which rich farmers put their sons through university and Dukes and Duchesses have transformed their castles
into chateaux where they pass the time playing effete masquerades. The old ethos of service has disappeared, along with the
respect due to the chivalric ideal; everyone now wants to be paid -innkeepers, his squire Sancho, even his lady-love Dulcinea
tries to touch him for the loan of six reales.
Although Spain remained largely free of political and military conflict for most of Cervantes's lifetime, the internal boundaries
between regions, languages, classes and castes, were all too apparent. The towns and cities, Seville above all, were a potent
melting pot in which rich and poor, criminals and polite society, Old Christians and new, lived side by side. Rinconete and
Cortadillo both experience the permeability of these boundaries and the way in which large parts of Spanish society moved
to the margins. The world of organised crime centred on Monipodio's headquarters mimicks the self-deluding order of conventional
respectability, but Cervantes does not treat the criminal underworld and polite society as worlds apart. Cervantes's characters
are continually crossing geographical, political, cultural and religious boundaries, negotiating and testing the sometimes
artificial distinctions between the different spheres. Preciosa (La gitanilla), Isabel (La española inglesa), Costanza (La ilustre fregona) are all exiled into other worlds, to be redeemed by the power of integrity, truth and love. It is difficult not to look
for the origins of this recurrent narrative structure in Cervantes's own experience of captivity and redemption in Algiers
during the late 1570s.
Each of these three female characters is rescued from some form of internal or external exile back into their rightful place
within the ruling class, but Cervantes is not foolish enough to believe that virtue and nobility are linked: he is merely
using conventional measures of distinction associated with literary romance -youth, beauty, ability, breeding, blonde hair
and a pretty dress- to indicate other more significant forms of distinctiveness and value. But there is one manifestation
of exile which Cervantes treats more literally: the untouchable status of the violated woman. Cervantes clearly had no problem
with female sexuality: his works are full of feisty women who are prepared to make the first move as well as those who allow
themselves to be seduced and live to regret it. But rape is another matter, and La fuerza de la sangre plays out the vivid drama of violent sex and retributive marriage which dominated the Spanish stage for over fifty years.
Amid all the fluidity of Spanish society, Cervantes seems to argue, there are some things that never change. The violated
woman has no value in the sexual economy of the time, and she can only be redeemed by marriage to the rapist, however implausibly
this is brought about. Once her virginity is lost, or her faithfulness compromised, she cannot provide that essential guarantee
that a man's children are his own, or that his property will pass to his heir. In a society obsessed with lineage and with
an abhorrence of miscegenation, honour and status are reduced to a simple biological fact: blood is the most powerful delineator
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- James Casey, Early Modern Spain. A Social History (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).
- Marcelin Defourneaux (trans. Newton Branch), Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1970).
- John Edwards, The Spain of the Catholic Monarchs 1474-1520 (Oxford and Malden Mass.: Blackwell, 2000).
- J.H. Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (London: Arnold, 1963).
- J.H. Elliott, Spain and its World, 1500-1700 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989).
- Carroll B. Johnson, Cervantes and the Material World (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
- Henry Kamen, Spain 1469-1714. A Society of Conflict (London and New York: Longman, 1983).
- John Lynch, Spain 1516-1598. From National State to World Empire (Oxford UK and Cambridge Mass.: Blackwell, 1991).
- John Lynch, The Hispanic World in Crisis and Change 1598-1700 (Oxford UK and Cambridge Mass.: Blackwell, 1992).
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