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Youngstown OhioImperial Spain: 1469-1716
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Author: J. H. Elliott
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Youngstown Ohio A Distant Warning

Spain experienced a metamorphosis in the 16th century. It had been a divided country battling with an age-old enemy. Its separate parts worked more against each other than with each other; Castile concentrated on the fight to reconquer the land from the Muslims, while Aragon and Catalonia fixed their sights on a Mediterranean trading empire and control of southern Italy. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, well-known as the patrons of Columbus, the Moors were conquered, the Jews expelled, and all three main parts of Spain joined under one crown. Spain soon acquired a vast empire in the Americas and Asia. Through marriage, its fortunes were hitched to the Habsburg crown, thus despatching Spanish arms and treasure to the endless European wars in Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries. Spain rose to a certain proud zenith, both in war and in administration of its vast lands. The arts began to flourish. Portugal came under the Spanish crown for sixty years. The glory days did not last long as history goes. By 1640, Spain had crashed. It was bankrupt, taxed-to-the-limit, and losing everywhere. Its European empire fell away, even Portugal threw off Castilian rule. Government fell to mostly incapable favorites of the weak and indecisive kings. Bereft of a middle class, the only good income was to be had from the church or the court. In short, the imperial greatness, which had shot across the world like a brilliant comet, had winked out in financial collapse and administrative failure, though literature and painting continued to shine. Poor education and religious ultra-conservatism had denied Spain the leaders that might have saved it.

Elliott's history of Imperial Spain paints a clear picture of the reasons for this abrupt rise and decline. He concentrates not on battles, foreign adventures or any sort of "glory", but on administration, finance, the strong differences between Castile and Aragon/Catalonia, the Inquisition, trade, and domestic policy. I admit that such a mix may not be everybody's cup of tea, but if you are serious about learning the reasons for Spain's brief term at the top, you will certainly need to read this work, an amazingly complete study that stands with some of the best history books ever written. Though the title contains the years 1469-1716, the vast bulk of the book concerns only the sixteenth century.

It seemed to me, as I read IMPERIAL SPAIN, that the book should be required reading in Washington, but of course our "leaders" are not interested in history. They reflect in their actions an uncanny resemblance to that Spain of its glory days, thinking that glory can never end, that the mighty shall not fall. Since we seem unable to avoid foreign wars, our education system is inadequate, we are facing a rising tide of religious obscurantism, and worst of all, we operate at a huge deficit, there are some disturbing parallels. Could we learn from the history of Imperial Spain ? No doubt. Will we ? No way.

Youngstown Ohio A justly celebrated historical classic

Over the years I have managed to read a fairly large number of historical works dedicated to surveying particular periods of history, but I have rarely found one that managed to combine learning with readability as well as this one. Although a historian, Elliott must of necessity tell a story, and that is how Spain went from being a relatively unimportant afterthought on the tip of Europe to being for a period of time perhaps the dominant power on the globe, only to fall into a state of decline and veritable collapse. It is an amazing, improbable story, yet Elliott manages it without ever losing the reader in historical minutiae.

Elliott tells his story by focusing on the reigns of the great monarchs of the 15th and 16th centuries of Spain, and the considerably less great monarchs and their "favorites" (noblemen who actually ran Spain--as Elliott puts it at one point, the kings reigned, but the favorites ruled) of the 17th century. The highpoint of the story comes rather early, with the remarkable reign of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, surely the greatest monarchial partnership Europe has known. Two gifted, talented, and powerful monarchs, they worked together brilliantly to create one of the great empires of Europe, managing such feats as driving the Moors out of Spain and creating a dynasty in the New World (as well as funding Columbus' discovery of it). Unfortunately, they, the Most Catholic Kings, also were responsible for the Inquisition. Elliott takes a balanced approach to the Inquisition (not my own inclination, since it seems to me to be an unmitigable horror), not minimizing its effects, but trying to understand it in context.

From Isabella and Ferdinand, Elliott takes the reader through the reasons that Ferdinand was reluctantly forced to arrange for the monarchies of Castile and Aragon to the Habsburgs (it is fairly complex, but essentially there was no acceptable heir), and the eventual accedence of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to the thrones of Spain. Although not quite as glorious a time as under Isabella and Ferdinand, Charles V's reign was also a highpoint in Spanish history. Although to a large degree an absentee monarch, his reign is characterized by his attempts to expand his empire--which embraced a substantial portion of Europe--and his wars against against heresy, i.e., protestantism, whether in its Lutheran, Calvinist, or English forms. Indeed, if religious zeal--even if profoundly misguided--were a criterion of religiousity, then Charles V might go down as the most religious monarch in European history. That protestantism survived is surely not to be blamed on Charles V (I'm a Baptist, by the way, so I'm hardly lamenting his failure). In the end, however, Charles V's wars put such a great strain on his various subjects as to lead to general financial chaos, and his expenditures led to multiple bankruptcies, not only in his own but in his son's reign.

Phillip II is in many ways the polar opposite of his father. Although the monarch of the Dutch territories and Spain, he was not like his father the Holy Roman Emperor. He was also not a warrior king, although many wars were fought under his reign. While Charles V waged war closer to the field, Phillip II waged war at his desk and papers with a pen. The last of the great Spanish kings of the imperial period, Phillip II struggled desperately to carry on his father's goals amidst dwindling funds and financial resources.

The final sections of the book chronicle the long, slow, depressing period of decline, the period depicted so vividly in DON QUIXOTE. Ironically, although the 17th century was a period of waning Spanish successes, it was nonetheless a far richer period artistically, not just through the work of such great writers as Cervantes and Lope de Vega, but a host of great painters like Velazquez and Zurburan.

Elliott is a truly fine historian, but he is also an engaging one. I remained interested in the fate of Spain from the beginning to the agonizing end. I would strongly recommend this volume to anyone who wants a stronger background into the formation of modern Europe. It also makes an absolutely perfect introduction to the historical setting of Cervantes's DON QUIXOTE (my immediate purpose in reading it).

Youngstown Ohio Concise but insightful

This book is accessible to a general reader although it assumes some basic familiarity with European history. Without being overly long, it does a great job of cutting to the heart of matters: what were the factors that made Spain a world power in the 16th century and why did this power ultimately fall apart? Elliott concisely helps the reader to understand Spanish politics, the Inquisition, tax policy, foreign affairs, as well as social and religious tensions.

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