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 consequence of inflation, ruinous military expenditures, and a demographic catastrophe (plague and the expulsion of the resident Moors) that bled the kingdom of 20% 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
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% of Spaniards are regular church-goers today.
Photos above by author. Top picture is of the bell tower at Seville Cathedral, former the minaret of the city's main mosque; middle picture is a column detail from the Alhambra in Grenada; bottom photo is a tilework illustration of the proclamation of the Constitution of Cadiz (1812), on display in the Plaza d'Espana in Seville.