Daily Archives: 8 December 2012

Spain’s Era of Desengaño: ‘Queremos comer sin trabajar’

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 5112-5153:

The great plague of 1599–1600 wiped out at a single blow much of the population increase of the sixteenth century, and opened a new era in Castilian demographic history: an era of stagnation, and perhaps of demographic decline.

The economic consequences of the plague were to be seen in the labour crisis with which the new century opened, and can be traced in the 30 per cent increase in salaries in the three years that followed it. González de Cellorigo, an official in the chancellery of Valladolid who published in 1600, under the shadow of the plague, a brilliant treatise on the problems of the Spanish economy, accurately prophesied its effects: ‘Henceforth we can only expect that everything requiring human industry and labour will be very expensive… because of the shortage of people for tillage and for all the types of manufactures that the kingdom needs.’ The acute labour shortage, and the consequent upswing of salaries, were, as González de Cellorigo appreciated, irreparable disasters for the Castilian economy, since they destroyed the possibility that the years of peace might be used to build up Castilian industry to a point at which it would again be able to compete with foreign industries in the home and overseas markets.

But the most serious long-term consequences of the plague may have been psychological rather than economic. Already, before it was struck by the plague, Castile was weary and depressed. The failures in France and the Netherlands, the sack of Cadiz by the English, and the King’s request for a national donativo in 1596 as bankruptcy struck, completed the disillusionment that had begun with the defeat of the Invincible Armada. Then, to crown it all, came the plague. The unbroken succession of disasters threw Castile off balance. The ideals which had buoyed it up during the long years of struggle were shattered beyond repair. The country felt itself betrayed – betrayed perhaps by a God who had inexplicably withdrawn His favour from His chosen people. Desolate and plague-stricken, the Castile of 1600 was a country that had suddenly lost its sense of national purpose.

Castilians reacted to the moment of disillusionment in different ways. Optimism had gone, to be replaced by bitterness and cynicism, or else by the resignation of defeat. The new mood of fatalism and disillusionment naturally tended to reinforce certain latent tendencies that had already been encouraged by the unusual circumstances of the sixteenth century. During that century, events had conspired to disparage in the national estimation the more prosaic virtues of hard work and consistent effort. The mines of Potosí brought to the country untold wealth; if money was short today, it would be abundant again tomorrow when the treasure fleet reached Seville. Why plan, why save, why work? Around the corner would be the miracle – or perhaps the disaster. Prices might rise, savings be lost, the crops fail. There seemed little point in demeaning oneself with manual labour, when, as so often happened, the idle prospered and the toilers were left without reward. The events of the turn of the century could only increase this sense of insecurity and strengthen an already widespread fatalism. It was fatalism that characterized the outlook of the pícaro, and the seventeenth century was essentially the age of the pícaro, living on his wits – hungry today, well fed tomorrow, and never soiling his hands with honest work. ‘Queremos comer sin trabajar’: we want to eat without working. The words could be applied to Castilians in many walks of life, from the townsman living comfortably on his annuities to the vagabond without a blanca in his purse.

It was in this atmosphere of desengaño, of national disillusionment, that Cervantes wrote his Don Quixote, of which the first part appeared in 1605 and the second in 1614. Here, among many other parables, was the parable of a nation which had set out on its crusade only to learn that it was tilting at windmills. In the end was the desengaño, for ultimately the reality would always break in on the illusion. The events of the 1590s had suddenly brought home to more thoughtful Castilians the harsh truth about their native land – its poverty in the midst of riches, its power that had shown itself impotent. Brought face to face with the terrible paradoxes of the Castile of Philip III, a host of public-spirited figures – such men as González de Cellorigo and Sancho de Moncada – set themselves to analyse the ills of an ailing society. It is these men, known as arbitristas (projectors), who give the Castilian crisis of the turn of the century its special character. For this was not only a time of crisis, but a time also of the awareness of crisis – of a bitter realization that things had gone wrong. It was under the influence of the arbitristas that early seventeenth-century Castile surrendered itself to an orgy of national introspection, desperately attempting to discover at what point reality had been exchanged for illusion. But the arbitristas – as their name suggested – were by no means content merely to analyse. They must also find the answer. That an answer existed they had no doubt; for just as Sancho Panza had in him something of Don Quixote, so also even the most pessimistic arbitrista was still something of an optimist at heart. As a result, the Government of Philip III found itself bombarded with advice – with innumerable projects, both sensible and fantastic, for the restoration of Castile.

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