Daily Archives: 9 September 2012

Reassessing Ferdinand and Isabella’s Legacy

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2181-2234:

The reign of Ferdinand and Isabella was called by Prescott ‘the most glorious epoch in the annals’ of Spain. Generations of Spaniards, contrasting their own times with those of the Catholic Kings, would look back upon them as the golden age of Castile. The conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, and the triumphant emergence of Spain on to the European political stage lent unparalleled lustre to the new State created by the Union of the Crowns, and set the seal of success on the political, religious, and economic reforms of the royal couple.

Against the conventional picture of a glorious spring-time under Ferdinand and Isabella, too soon to be turned to winter by the folly of their successors, there must, however, be set some of the less happy features of their reign. They had united two Crowns, but had not even tentatively embarked on the much more arduous task of uniting two peoples. They had destroyed the political power of the great nobility, but left its economic and social influence untouched. They had reorganized the Castilian economy, but at the price of reinforcing the system of latifundios and the predominance of grazing over tillage. They had introduced into Castile certain Aragonese economic institutions, monopolistic in spirit, while failing to bring the Castilian and Aragonese economies any closer together. They had restored order in Castile, but in the process had overthrown the fragile barriers that stood in the way of absolutism. They had reformed the Church, but set up the Inquisition. And they had expelled one of the most dynamic and resourceful sections of the community – the Jews. All this must darken a picture that is often painted excessively bright.

Yet nothing can alter the fact that Ferdinand and Isabella created Spain; that in their reign it acquired both an international existence and – under the impulse given by the creative exuberance of the Castilians and the organizing capacity of the Aragonese – the beginnings of a corporate identity. Out of their long experience, the Aragonese could provide the administrative methods which would give the new monarchy an institutional form. The Castilians, for their part, were to provide the dynamism which would impel the new State forward; and it was this dynamism which gave the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella its distinguishing character. The Spain of the Catholic Kings is essentially Castile: a Castile, overflowing with creative energy, which seemed suddenly to have discovered itself.

The Court was the natural center of Castile’s cultural life; and since Spain still had no fixed capital it was a Court on the move, bringing new ideas and influences from one town to another as it travelled round the country. Since Isabella enjoyed a European reputation for her patronage of learning, she was able to attract to the Court distinguished foreign scholars like the Milanese Pietro Martire, the director of the palace school. Frequented by foreign scholars and by Spaniards who had returned from studying in Italy, the Court thus became an outpost of the new humanism, which was now beginning to establish itself in Spain.

One of the devotees of the new learning was Elio Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522), who returned home from Italy in 1473 – the year in which printing was introduced into Spain. Nebrija, who held the post of historiographer royal, was a grammarian and lexicographer, and an editor of classical texts in the best humanist tradition. But his interests, like those of many humanists, extended also to the vernacular, and he published in 1492 a Castilian grammar – the first grammar to be compiled of a modern European language. ‘What is it for?’ asked Isabella when it was presented to her. ‘Your Majesty,’ replied the Bishop of Avila on Nebrija’s behalf, ‘language is the perfect instrument of empire.’

The Bishop’s reply was prophetic. One of the secrets of Castilian domination of the Spanish Monarchy in the sixteenth century was to be found in the triumph of its language and culture over that of other parts of the peninsula and empire. The cultural and linguistic success of the Castilians was no doubt facilitated by the decline of Catalan culture in the sixteenth century, as it was also facilitated by the advantageous position of Castilian as the language of Court and bureaucracy. But, in the last analysis, Castile’s cultural predominance derived from the innate vitality of its literature and language at the end of the fifteenth century. The language of the greatest work produced in the Castile of the Catholic Kings, the Celestina of the converso Fernando de Rojas, is at once vigorous, flexible, and authoritative: a language that was indeed ‘the perfect instrument of empire’.

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Reforming the Spanish Church c. 1500

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 1782-1806:

Isabella‘s faith was fervent, mystical, and intense, and she viewed the present state of the Church with grave concern. It suffered in Spain from the abuses commonly ascribed to it throughout fifteenth-century Europe: pluralism, absenteeism, and low standards of morality and learning in secular and regular clergy alike. Concubinage in particular was accepted as a matter of course, and was no doubt further encouraged by a practice apparently unique to Castile, whereby the child of a cleric could inherit if his father died intestate. In some sections of the Church, however, and especially in the Religious Orders, there was a deep current of discontent at the prevailing laxity; in particular, the Queen’s Jeronymite confessor, Hernando de Talavera, constantly urged upon her the need for total reform. Under Talavera’s guidance, the Queen devoted herself wholeheartedly to the work of raising the moral and intellectual standards of her clergy. As effective nomination to bishoprics came to be increasingly exercised by the Crown, the morals and learning of candidates ceased to be regarded as largely irrelevant details, and high social rank was no longer an essential passport to a diocese. As a result, the standard of the Spanish episcopate rose markedly under the Catholic Kings, although some of Ferdinand’s own appointments still left a good deal to be desired. Cardinal González de Mendoza, who succeeded Carrillo at Toledo in 1482, hardly conformed to the model of the new-style prelate; but the remarkable munificence of his patronage no doubt did something to atone for the notorious failings of his private life. In 1484 he founded at Valladolid the College of Santa Cruz, which set the pattern for further foundations designed to raise educational standards and produce a more cultivated clergy; and he probably did more than any other man to foster the spread of the New Learning in Castile.

While the Queen and her advisers worked hard to raise the standards of the episcopate and the secular clergy, a movement was gaining ground for reform of the Religious Orders. The Franciscan Order had long been divided between Conventuales and Observants, who wanted a return to the strict simplicity of the Rule of St. Francis. Among the Observants was the austere figure of Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, whom the Queen regarded as a providential substitute for her confessor Talavera, when the latter became first Archbishop of Granada in 1492. Already in 1491 Alexander VI had authorized the Catholic Kings to take in hand the reform of the monastic orders, and two years later Cisneros launched himself with characteristic energy into the work of reform, and continued to direct it with unflagging vigour after his appointment to Cardinal Mendoza’s see of Toledo on the cardinal’s death in 1495. Starting with his own Order, the Franciscans, he set about imposing a strict observance of the Rule in face of the most intense opposition. The Franciscans of Toledo, expelled from their convent, came out in procession beneath a raised cross, intoning the Psalm In exitu Israel Aegypto, while four hundred Andalusian friars preferred conversion to Islam and the delights of domesticity in North Africa to a Christianity which now suddenly demanded that they adandon their female companions. Slowly, however, the reform advanced. It spread to the Dominicans, the Benedictines, and the Jeronymites, and by the time of Cisneros’s death in 1517 not a single Franciscan ‘conventual’ house remained in Spain.

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Two Separate Spanish Economies c. 1500

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2149-2165:

Two separate economic systems continued to exist side by side: the Atlantic system of Castile, and the Mediterranean system of the Crown of Aragon. As a result of the expansion of the wool trade and the discovery of America, the first of these was flourishing. The Crown of Aragon’s Mediterranean system, on the other hand, had been gravely impaired by the collapse of Catalonia, although there was some compensation for Catalonia’s losses in the increased economic activity of late fifteenth-century Valencia. Ferdinand’s pacification and reorganization of Catalonia, however, enabled the Principality at the end of the century to recover a little of its lost ground. Catalan fleets began to sail again to Egypt; Catalan merchants appeared once more in North Africa; and, most important of all, a preferential position was obtained for Catalan cloths in the markets of Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples. But it is significant that this recovery represented a return to old markets, rather than the opening up of new ones. The Catalans were excluded from direct commerce with America by the Sevillian monopoly, and they failed, for reasons that are not entirely clear, to break into the Castilian market on a large scale. They may have shown a lack of enterprise, but they also seem to have suffered from discrimination, for as late as 1565 they were arguing that the Union of the Crowns of 1479 made it unreasonable that Catalan merchants should still be treated as aliens in Castilian towns. As a result of this kind of treatment, it is scarcely surprising that Catalonia and the Crown of Aragon as a whole should have continued to look eastwards to the Mediterranean, instead of turning their attention towards the Castilian hinterland and the broad spaces of the Atlantic.

Castile and the Crown of Aragon, nominally united, thus continued to remain apart – in their political systems, their economic systems, and even in their coinage. The inhabitants of the Crown of Aragon reckoned, and continued to reckon, in pounds, shillings, and pence (libras, sueldos, and dineros). The Castilians reckoned in a money of account – the maravedí [named after the Moorish Almoravid dynasty]. At the time of the accession of Ferdinand and Isabella the monetary system in Castile was particularly chaotic.

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Castilian Economy, 1501: All for Wool

From Imperial Spain: 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliott (Penguin, 2002), 2nd ed., Kindle Loc. 2057-2076:

In spite of the increasingly grave problem of the national food supply, Ferdinand and Isabella adopted no vigorous measures to stimulate corn production. On the contrary, it was in their reign that the long-continuing struggle between sheep and corn was decisively resolved in favour of the sheep. The great expansion of the mediaeval wool trade had revitalized the economic life of Castile, but there inevitably came a point at which further encouragement of Castilian wool production could only be given at the expense of sacrificing agriculture. This point was reached in the reign of the Catholic Kings. The importance of the wool trade to the Castilian economy, and the value to the royal treasury of the servicio y montazgo, the tax paid the Crown by the sheep-farmers, naturally prompted Ferdinand and Isabella to pursue the policies of their predecessors and to take the Mesta under their special protection. As a result, a whole series of ordinances conferred upon it wide privileges and enormous favours, culminating in the famous law of 1501 by which all land on which the migrant flocks had even once been pastured was reserved in perpetuity for pasturage, and could not be put to any other uses by its owner. This meant that great tracts of land in Andalusia and Estremadura were deprived of all chance of agricultural development and subjected to the whim of the sheepowners. The aims of this policy were obvious enough. The wool trade was easily subjected to monopolistic control, and, as a result, it constituted a fruitful source of revenue to a Crown which, since 1484, had found itself in increasing financial difficulties, exacerbated by the flight of Jewish capital. An alliance between Crown and sheepowners was thus mutually beneficial for both: the Mesta, with its 2½ to 3 million sheep, basked in the warm sunshine of royal favours while the Crown, whose control of the Military Orders gave it some of the best pasturing lands in Spain, could draw a regular income from it, and turn to it for special contributions in emergencies.

There were no doubt certain unintended advantages to Castile, in the intense royal encouragement of the wool industry. Sheep-farming requires less labour than arable farming, and the vast extent of the pasture-lands helped to produce a surplus of manpower which made it easier for Castile to raise armies and to colonize the New World. But on the whole the favouring of sheep-farming at the expense of tillage can only appear as a wilful sacrifice of Castile’s long-term requirements to considerations of immediate convenience. It was in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that agriculture was confirmed in its unhappy position as the Cinderella of the Castilian economy, and the price which was eventually to be paid for this was frighteningly high.

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