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February 4, 2010

why Spain fell

In preparation for a trip to Spain, I just read J. H. Elliot's Imperial Spain: 1469-1716. This book is nearly 50 years old, and I don't know whether Elliot himself or his many students have changed the story profoundly. But the arc is epic and very well told. In 1540, the ruler of Spain also governed the Holy Roman Empire, the low countries (which were the most dynamic economies of Europe), half of Italy, and the Americas from Texas to Argentina. The culture of Spain itself was profound and influential. One century later, his successor could hardly keep Spain itself together, he had declared bankruptcy, and Spanish culture was sinking into a mediocrity from which it would take at least a century to recover.

The various explanations for Spain's decline are resonant today, and each would appeal to different modern ideological movements.

I suspect that all these explanations are valid, and the decline was overdetermined. It still represents one of history's great cautionary examples.

February 4, 2010 9:12 AM | category: none


from Elin Whitney Smith, by email:

Thanks for this post!

Elliot also says:

"The conscious transformation of Spain into the redoubt of the true faith ... served to cut Spain off from that powerful intellectual current which was leading elsewhere to scientific inquiry and technical experiment." ("The decline of Spain" in "Crisis in Europe 1560 -1660" ed. Trevor Aston, NY p196)

What he doesn't say is Spain (read the Church) changed its policy with regards to the printing press. Before Protestantism the Church had supported the press and Spain had an active press in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as well as Spanish. But Luther's success in circulating his ideas frightened the Church. Soon printers needed the Church's permission to publish. This was enforced in Spain.

Spanish printers voted with their feet and moved to the Spanish Netherlands which were Protestant. This made Holland a print intensive culture. As a consequence common people from the crafts producing class in Holland and then England and other Protestant countries became literate and numerate and began to produce goods in new ways. They started the "putting out" method of production that eventually led to capitalism.

Thus they were able to produce goods much more cheaply than previously, and Spain's New World gold and silver went to buy goods made in Holland and England.

Elliot quotes Gonzalez de Cellorigo (Spain's minister of finance)

"Our republic has come to be an extreme contrast of rich and poor and there is no means of adjusting them one to another. Our condition is one in which there are rich who loll at ease or poor who beg, and we lack people of the middle sort, whom neither wealth nor poverty prevents from pursuing the rightful kind of business enjoined by Natural Law." (Ibid. p.196)

The Spanish people of the middle sort were still producing goods the old way and their goods were essentially unmarketable.

Had Spain not been in a competitive context (in economic competition with the rest of Europe) they might have survived their control of the press. China and Korea had the press (before Europe) and successfully controlled it but they didn't have to deal with England or Holland where the press wasn't controlled.

February 12, 2010 2:08 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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