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Imperial Spain 1469-1716 – J. H. Elliott

September 23, 2016

The story of Spain’s rise to greatness from its humble beginnings as one of the poorest and most marginal of European countries is a remarkable and dramatic one. With the marriage of Ferdinand & Isabella, the final expulsion of the Moslems and the discovery of America, Spain took on a seemingly unstoppable dynamism that made it into the world’s first global power. This amazing success however created many powerful enemies and Elliott’s famous book charts the dramatic fall of Habsburg Spain with the same elan as it charts the rise.


Since victims of the Inquisition were never informed of the identity of their accusers, the Edict of Faith presented an ideal opportunity for the settlement of private scores, and encouraged informing and delation as a matter of course. `The gravest thing of all,’ wrote Mariana, ostensibly reporting the opinion of others, but perhaps expressing his own, was that through these secret inquiries people were deprived of the liberty of listening and talking to one another, for there were in the cities, towns, and villages special persons to give warning of what was happening. …’

there was a new spirit of caution abroad, which inevitably inhibited the wide-ranging debate and inquiry that had characterized the reign of the Catholic Kings.

For half a century after the first revolt of the Alpujarras in 1499 an uneasy balance had been preserved between the Old Christian authorities and the ‘new Christian’ population of Andalusia. Al­though pragmatics had been issued in 1508 prohibiting Moorish dress and customs, they had not been enforced, and the Moriscos had succeeded in preserving unbroken their links with their Islamic past. Few of them spoke any language but Arabic; they continued to wear their traditional dress, investing much of their wealth, as they always had, in the silks and jewellery worn by their women; they  refused to abandon such practices as regular bathing, which the Spaniards regarded as a mere cover for Mohammedan ritual and sexual promiscuity; and they pursued with their customary savagery their family vendettas, although Spanish attempts at repression forced the participants to seek refuge in North Africa or to take to the mountains as outlaws.

There was, then, a new confidence in the Castile of the later 157os. The long years of ordeal seemed at last to be over, and the crusading spirit of an earlier generation had been resurrected by the triumph of Lepanto and by the challenge of the Protestant advance. This was a time of extraordinary intensity in Castile’s spiritual life – an intensity which was apparent at many levels, and extended to many different spheres. It was reflected, for instance, in ‘the reform movement within the Religious Orders.

In some fields, such as political thought, the challenge was obvious. Later sixteenth-century Spain produced a succession of writers, like Arias Montano and the Jesuit Pedro de Ribadeneyra, who were concerned to refute the teachings of a pagan Machiavelli, by reaffirming the scholastic tradition that all power is divinely derived and that its exercise should conform to the dictates of a Natural Law implanted in men’s hearts. In other fields, however, the challenge was more subtle and less easily met, although the ultimate response was perhaps more satisfying than that of the political theorists. Renaissance humanism had found its philosophical expression in neo-Platonism, to which earlier sixteenth-century Spanish writers were strongly attracted. This was especially obvious in the vogue of the pastoral novel, with its idealized vision of an earthly paradise – a vision difficult to reconcile with the Christian doctrine of man’s fall.

These were years of bitter dissension between the different Religious Orders, and also of feuds within the Orders themselves, as the conservatives and the progressives battled for control. The Jesuits, especially, came under heavy attack from the secular clergy and from the other Orders – particularly the Dominicans – who suspected them of harbouring Illuminist and heretical tendencies in their midst.

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From → Church History

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