Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Cortés’s Castilians fought from a long tradition of tactical adaptation based on individual freedom, civic rights, and a “preference for shock battle of heavy infantry” that “grew out of consensual government, equality among the middling classes,” and other distinctly Western traits that gave numerically inferior European armies a decisive edge.
Schweikart and Allen, A Patriot’s History, 7.
Spainwas recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and . Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land. Portugal
Zinn, A People’s History, 2.
Was there a middle class in sixteenth century
Zinn’s image of the desperate circumstances of the Spanish peasantry obscures both the existence of large commons in early modern
Rural people of the day were keenly aware of their citizenship rights, locally and in federations. For example, in 1542 a villager testified that he was a native of La Bóveda, but was currently a vecino of Villaureña, and of the Tierra of the city of
Toro( ), where he had certain rights. Zamora
Vassberg, The Village and the Outside World, 7.
Vassberg also notes that diversity existed among Spanish villagers in different geographical areas from “independent landowners” to “landless wage-earners” (11). Zinn’s emphasis on disparities of wealth may hold true for Andalusian peasants, but not for Basque farmers. Schweikart and Allen’s tradition of civic participation finds further support in Vassberg’s text.
Since the High Middle Ages the monarchs of
had recognized the right of municipal self-government, and had accepted the principle (although they occasionally violated it) that local offices should be held by local citizens, with preference to the native-born. … The right to local self-government was regarded as the natural birthright of every Spaniard. We can see that in the actions of the conquistadores in the Castile New World: one of the first things that they did everywhere was to set up municipal governments, following the Spanish model familiar to all of them. … Although they were divided by social and economic inequalities, rich and poor felt united by strong bonds of mutual privilege and responsibility.
Vassberg, The Village and the Outside World, 12-13.
During the Reconquest, “settlers moving into new areas were typically allotted lands; therefore, the norm in these medieval settlements was for vecinos to be adult male property-owners (Vassberg, 16). This practice seems to render Zinn’s 2 percent figure unlikely, although it seems a reasonable figure for feudal societies. It may be worth noting that an article claiming to be “the first quantitative assessment of Castilian ennoblement,” published in 2007 would make it unlikely that Zinn’s figures could be any more than a crude guess.* In any case, Zinn’s figure may be more accurate for the seventeenth century than for the fifteenth and sixteenth. There certainly was a polarization between rich and poor in
The performance of the Castilian economy was thus [due to economic and geographic centrality of the new global economy] a crucial factor in the performance of all the other major European economies. For the first three-quarters or more of the sixteenth century Castile’s population multiplied, the arable was extended, agricultural production increased, the level of urbanisation rose, the manufacture of silks and woollens flourished in the great textile centres of Toledo, Granada, Segovia and Cordoba; wool exports remained buoyant until the 1590s, and traffic with the Indies until the 1610s. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century this expansion first petered out and then fell back on itself. The progressive downturn of the Castilian economy was arguably one of the triggers of the general crisis of the European economy in the seventeenth century, the mark of the shift of economic preponderance from the Mediterranean to the
Atlantic, and the archetypical model of the ‘failed’ economy.
Thompson and Casalilla, Castilian Crisis, 2.
Academic Tribalism: Neglect of
Americanist historians as a group often seem ignorant of
[T]he failure of the Spanish economy has in a long tradition that extends from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth been explained in terms of arbitrary government, a bad religion, the tyrannical Inquisition, reactionary hidalgo values, the wretched laziness of the people, the absence of a capitalist and entrepreneurial spirit and other failings of the national character, as much as in terms of objective economic analysis.
Thompson and Casalilla, Castilian Crisis, 3.
Why was Spain's early lead eclipsed by France and England, which became the dominant power? Schweikart and Allen, for their part, emphasize
However, in a strange twist of ideologically driven scholarship, Zinn’s greater attention to the works of Bartolomé de Las Casas does more than shelves of work by conservative writers to advance the idea that “concepts of equality and freedom” are central to European thought.
Even if the curriculum were confined to thought strictly European in origin, it would still present a rich variety of conflicting ideas, including the very concepts of equality and freedom from oppression invoked by those who would reorient the curriculum.
Statement of the National Association of Scholars
Conservatives claiming left-wing bias in the Academy chant this mantra while scholars focused upon the ideologies of European global hegemony delve into the writings of Las Casas. While Schweikart and Allen decry the “crescendo of damnation” (7) of Columbus and his heirs during the quincentennial, the 1991 publication Rethinking Columbus: Teaching about the 500th Anniversary of Columbus’s Arrival in America offers a synopsis of Las Casas’s History of the Indies: “The Spanish Fight for Justice in the Indies” (82-83). Conservative pundits claim that liberation from slavery was a European idea, a point they allege left-wing scholars suppress, but Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2004) includes ten pages from the writings of Las Casas (35-44).
European Political History
The long road to American democracy as a fit product for export may have grown from seeds planted in ancient
There were early Reconquest towns and villages that functioned as direct participatory democracies: all the citizens of a place would meet in open assembly (concejo general de vecinos, or concejo abierto) to make governmental decisions. But with population growth, and the increasing complexity of municipal life, the open assembly was gradually supplanted by the governing council (concejo reducida, or cabildo). This council was increasingly dominated by the local socioeconomic elite, especially the
. The old direct democracies had largely disappeared by the mid-1300s, but they survived much longer in certain small and remote villages where universal poverty encouraged the maintenance of egalitarian customs. hidalgos
Vassberg, The Village and the Outside World, 15.
Neither A Patriot’s History nor A People’s History offers sufficient detail regarding the worlds of colonizing Europeans to locate their partially accurate facts in a trustworthy narrative. The Spanish conquistadors and the Indians they subjugated lived in and produced a richly varied world that defies the gross generalizations of ideologically driven histories.