Wednesday, June 27, 2012
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
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
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.