Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Your humble narrator just spent a pleasant week in Spain, playing the Ugly American in the company of a tour group from several Anglophone and Latin American countries.  Such groups are apparently rather common in Spain; indeed, since the country has 44 million permanent residents and gets 56 million tourists a year, the odds are quite good that a passer-by on a Madrid or Barcelona street is a foreign visitor. Your narrator need not have worried about sticking out in a crowd. In fact, he and his petite amie were probably less conspicuous than the large groups of Russian and Japanese tourists who milled about, snapping photos and shoving other people aside.

When I was in graduate school many scholars considered Spain an outlier of European civilization, not properly part of the West (so-called). This may still be a common view, but my own limited observations suggest we would better characterize Spain as a frontier, with all that this term implies. For nearly eight centuries the Iberian peninsula was a contested borderland between the Arab world and Western Europe, and like other borderlands it birthed a blended culture. From the Islamic world the Spanish took Arab metal-working and architectural techniques, a number of Arabic words and place names (e.g. El Cid, from the
Arabic word for "lord" [sidi], and La Mancha, from the Arabic "Drylands"), and several elements of their cuisine, including saffron, rice, citrus fruits, and almonds. (An aside: the first time I ever ate marzipan that didn't make me gag was at a coffee shop in Toledo, Spain.) Medieval Spain was also a violent place; Castilians, Aragonese, and Moors built over 3,000 castles on the peninsula during their long war, and by the sixteenth century Spain had generated a large caste of warrior-aristocrats, the hidalgos, who became the vanguard of Spanish expansion into the Americas and the butts of Cervantes's novel. Moreover, like Europe's eastern frontier (per William McNeill, Europe's Steppe Frontier [Chicago, 1964]) or the southeastern part of North America, Spain retained human slavery long after its demise elsewhere in Europe. Arab, African, and even Native American slaves labored in Spanish fields and built the kingdom's castles and cathedrals. All of these elements made Spain a distinctive, even exotic, part of Western Europe.

Spain's frontier period came to a end, famously, in 1492, when its dual monarchs conquered the last Muslim state on the peninsula, expelled the kingdom's Jews, and began the exploration and colonization of the Americas. In the sixteenth century American gold helped turn Spain into the center of European culture, evidenced by European high fashion of the era, with its geometrically cut doublets and ruffed collars: the Spanish style. Spain's prominence ended with the precipitous decline of its power in the seventeenth century, the result of inflation, ruinous military expenditures, and a demographic catastrophe (plague and the expulsion of the remaining Moors) that bled the kingdom of twenty percent of its population. Following this disastrous century, Spain became even more thoroughly integrated into the West. It acquired a new European ruling dynasty, the Bourbons; adopted Enlightenment institutions, including one of the world's first great art museums (the Prado) and a much-admired liberal constitution; and embarked on a round of industrialization and railroad-building during the reign of Isabella II (1833-68). In the twentieth century Spain began running
a bit ahead of the rest of Europe, in cultural and political terms anyway: its artists, such as Dali and Gaudi and Picasso, pioneered modern (post-Impressionist) art, and, less happily, its murderous civil war offered the rest of Europe a premonitory glimpse of World War Two. Fortunately, the damage caused by this disastrous conflict is little in evidence today, though our Barcelonan tour guide was happy to tell us about the efforts of Montserrat monks to preserve the Catalan language during the dictatorship of that human-shaped bag of flaming excrement, Francisco Franco. Such small, local acts of defiance may may help explain why as many as 26 percent of Spaniards are regular church-goers today.

Photos above by author.  Top picture is of the bell tower at Seville Cathedral, formerly the minaret of the city's main mosque; middle picture a column detail from the Alhambra in Grenada; bottom photo a tilework illustration of the proclamation of the Constitution of Cadiz (1812), on display in the Plaza d'Espana in Seville.

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