Spain: Historical Sketch

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Spain: Historical Sketch

(COURIER: Don't feel you have to do this coming into Madrid from the airport. In fact, it might be better to use it on the road, when the group has been in Spain a few days and will be more interested in the subject.)

Noah's Nephews  Tubal and Tarsis, Noah's nephews, are supposed to have been Spain's first inhabitants. Be that as it may, we do know that pre-historic settlers were all over the peninsula.

Altamira Cave Drawings  Altamira is on the north coast of Spain at the Bay of Biscay. One hundred years ago, an archaeologist was searching these caves for ancient utensils and stone weapons, and he happened to bring his daughter along. The daughter, probably bored, glanced up at the roof of the cave; her attention was caught by what appeared to be dim paintings. She discovered one of the oldest evidences of civilization in Europe: it became a sensation.

The people who made these paintings lived 13,000 years ago, when northern Europe was still covered by ice! The paintings are mainly of bulls, and seem to have been painted with bulls' blood! Did they worship the bulls? Why select this animal? Does Altamira prove an early addiction to bulls in Spain?

Tribes  From the very first, the Iberian peoples were divided into warring tribes, and did not unite until unity was forced on them by conquerors. This separatism has never ended; it recurs again and again in Spanish history, and even today, as you know, Spain is plagued by secessionist movements in the Basque country, and in Catalonia.

Early Adventurers  Greek navigators discovered Spain, and their accounts were later used by Roman writers. They described three main tribal groups in Spain: Ligurians, Iberians, and Celts. (Theories abound about where they came from.)

Phoenicians: These were great seafarers, the "Columbuses" of their day. They founded Spain's earliest cities; e.g. Gadir (now called Cadiz), founded about 1100 B.C. They were interested in the mineral wealth of the country.

Carthaginians  They founded more permanent settlements in the 5th century B.C. E.g. Cartagena, Malaga, Cordoba, and Seville. Carthage eventually found itself at war with Rome (its only rival for maritime supremacy). When Carthage lost Sicily to Rome (242 B.C.), the Carthaginians decided to colonize Spain. The great Carthaginian leader was Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal. The city of Barcelona was named for Hamilcar Barca: the city was first called "Barcino". Hasdrubal was another Carthaginian who subdued the savage tribes of the peninsula, founding Nova Carthago ("New Carthage"), now called Cartagena.

Hannibal: This Carthaginian general decided to take revenge on the Romans by invading Rome by land. But first he had to complete the subjugation of Iberia. Then he gathered an army, crossed the Pyrenees with his famed elephants, and continued over the Alps into northern Italy. But he made the mistake of not attacking Rome directly; the Romans were able to rally, and eventually defeated him. But the Carthaginians under Hannibal's brother were still strong in Iberia, and this forced Rome to send an army under Scipio Africanus to Iberia, where after hard fighting for about 12 years, they captured Cartagena in 218 B.C.

Romans  It took Rome 200 years to colonize Iberia. They had not come to colonize Iberia in the first place, but to break the resistance of the Carthaginians. It took Hannibal only a few years to conquer Iberia.; but it took the Romans 200 years to colonize it. By 19 B.C., under Augustus, the process was complete.

Effects of Roman Colonization: Visible everywhere, even today. Roman bridges, aqueducts, arches, roads. But also less tangible, yet stronger effects: Latin language (Spanish incorporates about 13% of Latin, Italian about 12%, Portuguese about 15%), laws, architecture, and later Christianity.

Effects of Iberia on Rome: Colonization is usually a two-way street. Rome was affected by its Iberian colonies. Four emperors were born in Iberia: Trajan, Hadrian, Theodosius I, Honorius. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, though not born in Spain, was of Spanish parentage. The Roman writers Seneca, Quintilian, and Martial were also Spanish.

At this time, Spain's soil was so fertile that it produced all the grain needed by the empire: it became, along with Egypt, the granary of Rome.

Christianity  Who brought it to Iberia? Tradition says that both St. Paul and St. James visited Iberia, and that the Virgin Mary also visited St. James in Iberia when he was preaching there. The new faith spread rapidly in the 1st century, and there were the usual persecutions.

Visigoths  These barbarians swept into Spain in the 5th century, as Rome was breathing its last. The Visigoths were the most "cultured" of the Goths (that's what the prefix "Visi-" means). They were soon converted to Christianity and eventually founded a unified kingdom on the peninsula. In faith, they were "Arians" — adherents of a sect of Christianity which had been condemned but which was still strong. The sect was founded by Arius, and it denied the divinity of Jesus. Finally, Reccard, the wise king of the Visigoths, renounced Arianism and embraced Roman Christianity at the Third Council of Toledo in 589. This marks the rise of Toledo as a religious and therefore a political capital.

The Visigoths did not intermingle with the Iberian natives, but formed a sort of military aristocracy. They quarreled among themselves, even after the acceptance of Roman Christianity, and this prepared the way for the invasion of the Moors.

The Moors  A legend states that the reason the Moors invaded Spain was because of Roderic, the last Visigothic king. Roderic was struck by the beauty of the daughter of one of his friends; he secretly watched as she bathed in the Tagus River at Toledo. One day he lost control, and his friend, her father, in outrage, fled to North Africa to instigate an invasion by the Moors.

The most surprising fact about the invasion: its rapidity. The Moors found little resistance, when it had taken Rome 200 years to do the job. The Moors did it in two years (for the main part of Spain), and seven to reach the Pyrenees.

Why this sudden success? The Visigoths were divided. The serfs were dissatisfied. The Jewish population wanted change and assisted the Moors.

The fateful year 711: An army of 7,000 Moors under Tarik landed near Gibraltar, in what is now the port of Tarifa (named for Tarik). Roderic, the Visigothic king, was utterly defeated at the lagoon of La Janda, near Cadiz. The Moors were generally welcomed by the Spanish people, and this enabled them to extend their conquests all the way up to the mountains of Asturias, where Christian forces held out.

Life under the Moors: Iberia became part of the Province of Morocco, subject to the Caliph of Damascus. The Arabs settled in the warmer south, while the Berbers went north. The Moors were generally tolerant, and allowed Christians and Jews to practice their own religion, provided they pay a special tax. Those Christians who continued practicing their faith became known as Mozarabes.

The rise of Cordoba: In 756 Abd-al-Rahman, whose family was overthrown in Damascus, fled to North Africa and then crossed to Spain, where he established an independent emirate at Cordoba. Cordoba became one of the marvels of the Mediterranean world, rich in palaces, gardens, libraries, and universities. Visitors at the time wondered at its splendor, and at its mosque, then the largest in the world. Its population was said to number one million (only 240,000 today), with 300 mosques, public baths, 26,000 buildings, 8,000 shops, and 400,000 books in its main library. The main mosque, called the Mezquita, still stands in Cordoba: it is famed for its hundreds of candy-cane arches and extravagant decoration. Cordoba was equal in importance to Baghdad and Cairo. Its publishing houses turned out editions of the Koran and love poems (Arabs are famous for those). Granada at this time was only a provincial town.

The Reconquest  This began slowly, and took about 600 years. We mentioned that a stand was made by Christian forces in the Asturian mountains. Out of this came a separate Christian kingdom of Asturias, which expanded to include Leon. There was internal strife among Christian leaders. But strife also broke out among the Moors; they were divided into two sects, the Almoravides and Almohades. By this time the Arabs had died out and the Moorish population was mainly Berber. The Christian king Alphonso VIII defeated a Moorish army at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and this marks the end of real Moorish power in Spain. From that time on, the Moors could fight only a defensive, rear-guard war against the Reconquest. But it took another 300 years before the Moorish kingdoms actually fell.

El Cid, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, nicknamed "El Cid Campeador", a knight from Burgos, was the symbol of his era: brave, loyal, independent, and a fierce fighter. His conquest of Moorish cities made him the national hero of Spain. (But it should be mentioned that when he disagreed with his fellow Christians, he didn't hesitate to join the Moors out of self-interest. Thus, one must distinguish between popular symbol and historical fact in speaking of El Cid.)

Reconquest of Toledo took place in 1085-86. Thus, the former Visigothic capital was now back in Christian hands, and it became the political and spiritual capital again. (When you see the city, perched high up on bare rock, you'll appreciate the difficulty of taking it.)

Significance of the Reconquest: This long, 600-year crusade shaped the Spanish character. The Spanish came to identify their own unity as a nation with the Catholic faith. The Reconquest took on a symbolic meaning comparable to the Western frontier in the U. S. Example: St. James becomes the patron saint of Spain. In the 9th century, the body of St. James was "discovered" in Galicia, and then entombed at Compostela. A great cult of Santiago de Compostela (St. James of Compostela) spread from Galicia as the Reconquest took it farther south. The feast day of Santiago, July 25, is the national holiday. All through the Reconquest, visions of Santiago were reported: before a battle, he once appeared to the Christian forces riding on a white horse. Christian armies used his name as a war cry against the Moors. In view of this background, one can well understand such later phenomena as the Inquisition, saints with their visions, St. Teresa, Spanish asceticism, monasticism, and fanaticism. But Spain wouldn't be what it is without all these.

Spain's Golden Age  It begins in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom. To Americans, of course, 1492 means Columbus; and in fact the two events are connected — by means of Queen Isabella of Castile. Castile and Aragon were the two strongest kingdoms in Spain. When Isabella married Ferdinand of Aragon, Spain was at last united. Isabella at this time gave financial support to Columbus (Colon in Spanish) for his voyage of discovery. There were other explorations at the time, and shortly thereafter: Cortes in Mexico, where he discovered gold: Pizarro and his brother in Peru and Ecuador, where gold also was found. This had fateful effects, as we shall see in a moment.

The Inquisition: This was an inevitable byproduct of the Reconquest, which linked purity of faith with national loyalty. The Pope at this time called for a crusade against non-Christians in Spain, and this meant Moslems and Jews. Under the Moors, remember, Christians and Jews were able to practice their faith by paying a special tax. Now Ferdinand was in fact offered large sums of money by Jewish merchants in exchange for religious tolerance. He was about to accept, when the head of the Inquisition charged him with playing Judas — betraying Christ for silver — and so he had to capitulate. The Inquisition was on — with a vengeance.

The "Catholic Monarchs": Because of this and other acts of intolerance in the name of the church, the Pope rewarded Ferdinand and Isabella with the title, "Catholic Monarchs", which is still used in Spain to refer to them ("Reyes Catolicos").

Fateful effects of gold: Gold was the undoing of Spain, ironically. With this precious metal available in the New World, there was little incentive to develop native industry. The barrenness of Spain today is a direct consequence of American gold. The Romans had developed agriculture in Spain, irrigated farms, and turned the land green; this was continued under the Moors. But when gold arrived, it was sold to other European states in exchange for basic commodities, so agriculture and industry alike languished in Spain.

Charles V, seeing gold coming into Spain and then leaving it, tried to develop a local industry, sheep raising. But this aggravated the economic problem. At the time, silk was the cloth worn by the rich (imported from the Orient), along with wool and furs. Linen was the poor man's fabric. The softest, most sought-after wool was the wool of the Merino sheep, which flourished only in Spain. A law was passed imposing the death penalty for anyone exporting Merino sheep from Spain. The idea was to keep the Merino wool in Spain, thus to increase demand. The privileged position of sheep meant that fences had to be taken down to promote sheep raising. Crop harvests were trampled down, agriculture declined. Green grazing areas became fewer and fewer in Spain. With foliage gone, there was nothing to hold the soil; wind and erosion transformed central Spain into a wasteland.

Other disasters: More and more Spaniards left their country to seek adventure in the New World. Something like 20% of the population was in monastic orders, making for a declining birthrate. Interminable wars decimated the population further.

Conclusion: In what sense, then, was Spain's "Golden Age" in fact golden? Only in a superficial sense: a colonial map showed large territories under Spanish rule, there was imported gold with which to build palaces, launch Armadas, and purchase exotic goods from abroad. There was art and literature, to be sure. But these, it seems, are the only part of Spain's Golden Age that really lasted. The rest passed away, and with it Spain's leading position in Europe.

The Habsburgs  The children of Ferdinand and Isabella had married into the House of Habsburg, the ruling dynasty of Austria. Their grandson was Charles V, who inherited the whole Austrian Empire as well as Spain and the Low Countries. When Charles V came to Spain, it marked the beginning of the "Golden Age". Charles' reign, though, was taken up with subduing the German Protestants, defending Vienna, his capital, from the Turks, and maintaining order in the Low Countries. His son, Philip II, born in Spain (Valladolid), brought the Golden Age to its zenith by building El Escorial, defeating the Turks at the great battle of Lepanto (1571), adding Portugal to his domains (it became independent again in 1640), and crushing rebellions among Protestants in the Low Countries. But his fateful mistake was to try to conquer England. His Armada, commanded by an incompetent orange grower, foundered in the English Channel and was defeated. Disillusioned by events, Philip retreated into religious brooding, and passed his days living like a monk in El Escorial (you'll see the spartan-furnished rooms during your visit).

Later Habsburgs: Under Philip III and IV, Spain's decline set in. The last Habsburg was Charles II, who was mentally unbalanced and impotent. Lacking an heir, Spain's throne was prey to outside forces, as all of Europe waited until Charles' death to act.

The Bourbons  Spain got a new king, the grandson of France's Louis XIV, Philip V. The Bourbon family now ruled France and Spain as well, though the two countries remained politically separate. Example of the decadence of these times: Philip V was a hypochondriac. One day he believed he had actually died, and ordered a funeral for himself. It took the efforts of his wife and courtiers to convince him that he was still alive, and to call off the funeral. It was during his reign that Gibraltar fell into the hands of the English, where it remains today.

Modern Spain  Spain reached its nadir at the time of Napoleon, who made his brother Joseph King of Spain. During this period of humiliation, the Spanish rallied and fought a desperate behind-the-lines war with the French conquerors. Goya's drawings of French atrocities in Spain illustrate the growing nationalism of the Spanish. But the Spanish weren't able to hold on to their American colonies, which one by one broke away. All through the 19th century, though the Spanish had their land back again, they were preoccupied with squabbles among different contenders to the throne. A war with the U.S. in 1898 cost them Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Spain was neutral during WWI. In 1931, a republic was declared, and the king, Alphonso XIII, left for Italy. Ideological strife continued throughout the 1930's, leading to the outbreak of the most savage fighting in Spain's history.

The Civil War (1936-39): It began with a revolt of the Spanish troops in the colony of Morocco, led by General Franco, who crossed to the mainland of Spain. The pro- and anti-Republican forces were about equally divided in popular support, in arms, and in talent. The ensuing conflict took over one million lives, and the memory of this disaster continues to shape Spanish psychology. The Spanish will strive at all costs to avoid another such civil war, which is one reason why so little anti-Franco activity (at least on a large scale) ever broke out as long as he was alive — and even now that he is gone.

A popular plebiscite in 1947 expressed the wish of the Spanish people to return to a monarchy. And now that Franco is gone, King Juan Carlos holds much of the future of Spain in his hands, and the signs are that an increasingly democratic regime will try simultaneously to maintain stability while giving reign to parties of almost any ideological complexion.

In 1949, diplomatic relations with foreign countries were established, and in 1956, Spain joined the United Nations.


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