Imperial but concise work on Spain’s rise

Imperial Spain is J. H. Elliott’s brief but concise
work on Spain’s rise to greatness and subsequent decline, covering almost three
centuries of Spain’s history, starting with the dynastic union of Ferdinand and
Isabella and ending with the Bourbon dynasty and Philip V’s accession to the
throne. Elliott is widely regarded as a leading Hispanist, known for his
extensive research into Hispanic history, particularly 17th century
Spain, and the publication of his works, such as Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492 -1830
and Spain and its world 1500 – 1700:
Selected Essays. Published in 1963, while Spain was still under the control
of General Franco’s dictatorship, Imperial
Spain was intended to challenge the version of history favoured by Franco,
which presented a focus on state centralisation, thus Elliott aimed to present
‘a balanced account of the Spanish past’ (Elliott, 2002) rather than the
Castilian inclination that was commonplace in that era.

Elliott
explores the unification of Spain, the imperialist expansion that led to
Spain’s greatness, and the many factors that contributed to the decline of
Spain and its empire. Touching on issues of differing levels of development
between the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Catalonia, we see Catalonia’s
prosperous and independent history, outshining Aragon, the devastating effects
of the Black Death on the kingdom’s population, and the start of a strained
relationship between kingdom and king under the rule of Alfonso V. Elliott also
covers the suppression of Catalonia and the Catalan resistance, with his
previously published work The Revolt of
the Catalans: A Study in the Decline of Spain, 1598-1640 allowing him to
provide great detailed understanding of the subject area.

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Elliot dedicates
a whole chapter to the economy of Charles V’s reign, detailing the struggles with
the French, Turks and other imperial losses that resulted in economic decline.
As well as this, the following chapter highlights the negative effects of
religious imperialism that not only Charles V suffered in his role as Holy
Roman Emperor, but his son Philip II suffered too, through their failed
attempts to convert the many heretics of the world including Protestants in
Germany and the failed Armada launched against England. Another topic covered
briefly by Elliott is the political bias shown by monarchs, if not through the
close relationship the Lanuza family shared with the Crown of Aragon, then
through the appointment of validos such as the Duke of Lerma, with whom the
monarchs shared vested interests.

Another key
idea that Elliott discusses in Imperial
Spain is the centre-periphery model of Castile and the rest of Spain which
he presents as the reason for Spain’s economic decline, particularly under the subtitle
‘The Castilian Economy’ and the final chapter, ‘Epitaph on an Empire’. It is
quite fitting then that on the last page of the book, Elliott quotes Ortega y
Gasset, saying “Castile has made Spain and Castile has destroyed it”, using
Ortega y Gasset’s words effectively to support his own interpretation that the
centralised state of Castile caused Spain’s economic decline while criticising
the widely accepted narrative of the time of the book’s writing that a
centralised state of Castile triumphed in unifying Spain as a country.

Although he
provides great detail surrounding the different monarchs, Elliott only briefly
touches on issues of the overseas empire, with mainland European colonies more
thoroughly inspected than the Americas. And despite the fact that it is
necessary to understand the monarch before we understand their imperial
policies and actions, the lack of focus on Spain’s overseas empire does not
provide the full picture. This is a weakness of the book as the title ‘Imperial Spain’ would suggest that
inside there is a detailed focus on the effects of the Spanish Empire, and this
is not the case. However, Elliott acknowledges this in the 2002 republished
edition of the book, stating that he ‘greatly regretted’ not including more
detail on the Spanish Empire in America, and he later went on to write Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and
Spain in America, 1492 -1830 in order to publish the information he did not
have space for in this short work.

This book is
a synthesis of specialised studies and texts as well as an unpublished doctoral
thesis, which at the time of the book’s publishing were not widely accessible
and required extensive translation, thus Elliott provided readers of the time
with essential key information from these texts. On the other hand, for the readers
of today who have internet access, translation may remain an issue but ability
to access the texts does not, therefore Elliott’s list of specialised texts
provides them with key texts that can give further insight due to their focused
nature. Further to this, in the updated 2002 republication, Elliott included in
the ‘Further Reading’ section pieces of more recent, contemporary research and
texts that have emerged since the publication of the original version in 1963.
This addition was made in order to fill in the gaps of the areas that Elliott
did not cover in this book or those which had not yet been developed when the
book was published for the first time.

The book is
structured chronologically, with each chapter looking at a different period,
although information is organised thematically under subtitles within each
chapter to provide more focus on specific events or issues from that time
period that relate to one another. In the original version Elliott did not use
footnotes which would have been an inconvenience for readers who required more
information about certain topics, however this was remedied when it was
republished in 2002.

Elliott set out to provide a balanced account of
Spain’s social, economic and political history which he achieved through the
focus on aspects other than Castile, despite appearing slightly prejudiced
toward Castile, the success of his work can be seen through the fact that it
was republished 40 years later and is still widely used by students of Spanish
history.