Book Notes: Imperial Spain, 1469-1716, by J. H. Elliot
August 14, 2011
I heard of this book via William Lind, the military/politics commentator. It is a chronicle of a great empire in decline. At one point, Spain’s territories stretched from the Philippines — named after King Philip II of Spain — to California, which was named by Spanish explorers in the 16th century and is derived from the Latin calida (“hot”) and fornax (“furnace”). By the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, Spain’s decrepit Hapsburg dynasty could not even replicate itself, and the country passed to the rule of the Bourbons, which is to say, the French royal family. At this point, a new French-speaking administration was introduced, which cleared out the old government, and the country began to revive itself although it never again achieved greatness.
I would like to say a lot more about this book. That is why I haven’t written about it so far, although I read it several months ago. I hope that at least I can give a little impression, and you can go read the book yourself.
For the most part, the book is a standard history, which reads like a succession of newspaper headlines. It was first published in 1963. It consists mostly of the comings and goings of monarchs, alliances and changes of borders, mostly involving warfare. Probably any history needs to start here, and, when you are talking about two and a half eventful centuries, you can fill a whole book up without talking about much else. There is little about the economics of the situation, which I consider one of the primary drivers of the expansion and contraction of empire. A government with a strong economy has the material wealth to back expansionary policies, and also has a moral superiority, for the simple reason that it is successful and people recognize that. The beneficial rule is appreciated. A government with poor economic policies soon finds that it no longer has the wealth to finance its military, while at the same time its existing territories begin to revolt against the hated and oppressive rulers, and the empire contracts.
Thus, it is, I would say, a boring book, of the sort you were forced to read in high school, without the sort of themes I just mentioned which could tie together these great movements of history. It serves, like many books, as a source of raw material.
One of the interesting aspects of this long period of decline was that it was not, for the most part, characterized by the sort of psychotic, megalomaniac emperors that Rome had during its decline. One of the central figures was the Count-Duke Olivares (1587-1645), who was prime minister during the time of greatest collapse. The Count-Duke, as portrayed in the book, was by all appearances genuinely devoted to public service. He was energetic, charismatic, decisive, and intelligent. He also held about as much power, as the prime minister and king’s favorite, that any one minister could hold in any society. He immediately began a reform program of the greatest ambition. Nevertheless, the result was disaster.
William Lind characterizes the government’s response to the endless crises of the day as: “they abolished the ruff.” The ruff is that dramatic wheel of lace that sits around the neck in old portraits.
The book is mostly a record of the frenzy of activity that consumed the government during that time. Revolts in the (Spanish-owned) Netherlands, demands from nobles, political alliances, court intrigue, the endless press of bills to pay, the struggle to build political consensus, this, that and the other policy experimented with. And yet, throughout all this activity, all of which seemed very important at the time, essential even, which goes on for page after boring page, we get the impression that nothing much of real meaning was actually accomplished, except for some sartorial changes as noted by William Lind.
Does that sound like a government you know?
To us students of economics, the most important things are only hinted at. Within chapter after chapter of the comings and goings of ministers and aristocrats, of policies and treaties and agreements, we get a few crumbs that suggest where the crisis was ultimately stemming from.
The great deflation of 1628 brought heavy losses to private individuals , but instant relief to the royal treasury.
Are you getting a feel of why the Netherlands and eventually Portugal decided to separate themselves from Spain?
In the midst of this environment of oppressive taxation and monetary chaos, in which productive enterprise had been snuffed out generations previous, everyone with talent and ambition sought to become a part of the Church or State; in other words, among those who extracted the production of others.
Everything, then, conspired to attract the population to the economically unproductive occupations in society.
Too bad they didn’t have “financial innovation” in those days.
The Spanish tax system had evolved into the most oppresive sort, which had heavy levies on the productive middle class while exempting nobility from taxation entirely.
The increase in the rate of the servicios therefore had extremely important social effects, in that it tended to widen the gulf between the exempt rich and the overburdened poor, and at the same time induced wealthy merchants and businessmen to abandon their business and buy privileges of hidalgua [a low-level title of nobility] in order to escape the burden of taxation.
The middle class essentially disappeared.
‘There are but two families in the world,’ as Sancho Panza’s grandmother used to say, ‘the haves and the have-nots’; and the criterion for distinguishing between them ultimately lay not in their rank or social position, but in whether they had anything to eat. …
The best guarantee of a regular supply of square meals was, by tradition, service in Iglesia, o mar, o casa real — Church, sea (trade), or the royal service (at the Court or army). By the seventeenth century the refrain had been narrowed down to Iglasia, o casa real. Castilians from all walks of life had come to look, as a matter of course, to the Church, Court and bureaucracy to guarantee them the living which they disdained to earn from more menial occupations, and once despised and unrewarding.
The reasons for the decline of the Empire seem pretty obvious now, don’t they?
I’ll end with one last note on the monetary chaos of the time.
Although, as I have said, it is a boring book, it has a lot of interesting material, especially today when similar things are happening.