04 March 2008

Sixteenth Century Spain: Contrasting Images

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.

Spain was recently unified, one of the new modern nation-states, like France, England, and Portugal. Its population, mostly poor peasants, worked for the nobility, who were 2 percent of the population and owned 95 percent of the land.
Zinn, A People’s History, 2.

Was there a middle class in sixteenth century Spain? What civic rights existed for Spanish peasants? Neither Howard Zinn’s emphasis on gross disparities of wealth, nor Schweikart and Allen’s image of Spanish proto-republicans offers substantive information concerning the European society that initiated the centuries long conquest of the Americas. The portrayals of American indigenes vacillate between prelapsarian hunters and farmers living in harmony with pristine nature and brutal, warlike savages. Likewise, sixteenth century Europeans are caricatures offered in fleeting images.

Zinn’s image of the desperate circumstances of the Spanish peasantry obscures both the existence of large commons in early modern Spain and clear evidence of rights of citizenship. David Erland Vassberg’s The Village and the Outside World in Golden Age Castile: Mobility and Migration in Everyday Rural Life (1996) points out that commons were “under the jurisdiction of a powerful city, bishop, military commander, or noble lord” (7), but does not quite present the image conjured by Zinn’s word “owned”. Vassberg also supports part of Schweikart and Allen’s emphasis on civic rights. Sixteenth century Spanish villagers knew theirs.

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 (Zamora), where he had certain rights.
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 Castile 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 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 Spain during its decline from preeminent power during the days of Columbus and Cortés. Indeed, migration patterns that resulted from conquests in the Americas were one of the contributing factors to the seventeenth century crisis that included urban decline, economic stagnation and ruralization, and consolidation of polarized class structures. These are central themes in The Castilian Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: New Perspectives on the Economic and Social History of Seventeenth-Century Spain (1994), edited by I.A.A. Thompson and Bartolomé Yun Casalilla.

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.

Spain’s initial success in the colonizing enterprise may have produced the opposite of its desired goal of extending national wealth. This lesson should give us pause when we think we comprehend our own long-term economic self-interest.

Academic Tribalism: Neglect of Spain

Americanist historians as a group often seem ignorant of Europe, although some take a few courses in European history as graduate students. In this ignorance, historians reflect the sort of knowledge that characterizes the United States population as a whole. We are a provincial people. But, historians of England, France, and Germany often are lacking appallingly in knowledge of Spain as well. Academic specialties in the past of certain nations generally develop through cultivated gaps in knowledge regarding others. Thompson and Casalilla note the effects of superficial analysis.

[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 England’s “adoption of the joint-stock company as a form of business,” its greater openness to “risk taking and innovation,” and “property rights and political rights” that grew out of labor scarcity (15-16). England’s state sponsored pirates also played a significant role in retarding the growth of Spain’s American colonies (11-12), they suggest. Zinn, for his part, is less concerned for the differences among European colonizing powers than for their shared ideologies of supremacy over indigenous peoples.

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 Greece, but there were many setbacks along the way. England’s thirteenth century Magna Carta was one episode, later muted by the tyranny of the Crown. Likewise, thirteenth century Spain showed more incipient democracy than would be true three centuries later.

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 hidalgos. 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.
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.

* Mauricio Drelichman, “Sons of Something: Taxes, Lawsuits, and Local Political Control in Sixteenth-Century Castile,” The Journal of Economic History 67 (2007), 608-642.


Peter Wood said...

Contrasting Howard Zinn's use of de Las Casas to a single sentence by the National Association of Scholars is not very enlightening. De Las Casas is a major source used by historians and anthropologists of widely varying political outlooks. As an anthropologist, I taught writings by De Las Casas for many years. I am also the executive director of the National Association of Scholars, and believe there is considerable warrant for the view that the leftward tilt of the academy has hindered intellectual freedom. De Las Casas stands in my estimation as a key historical figure who, among other things, demonstrates the capacity of a man to see beyond the horizons of his particular moment in history. He argued, against the temper of his times, that the Indians of the new World were fully human and deserved what we might today call the respect of their human rights. I think you err in giving Zinn and other "scholars focused upon the ideologies of European global hegemony" a sort of ersatz ownership of de Las Casas. And you err as well in carricaturing the NAS as a bunch of "conservative writers." We are not cabined in one part of the political spectrum. That's a canard that the radical left throws on anyone who dissents from its orthodoxies. Shame on you for swallowing it.

Peter Wood

James Stripes said...


Thank you for the constructive criticism. You are correct that a single sentence from "Is the Curriculum Biased?" fails to substantiate linking the position and political advocacy of the National Association of Scholars to the conservative ideology that drives A Patriot's History of the United States. I might have said more regarding your organization to establish the political agenda NAS shares with Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.

Nevertheless, my failure to substantiate that relationship does not render it false. It is dishonest of you to assert that the National Association of Scholars is not an organization with a conservative agenda. Although the NAS may include "members from across the political spectrum"* in terms of most issues that divide Democrats from Republicans, its positions with respect to faculty and student recruitment, curricular developments, and affirmative action cannot be portrayed with any accuracy by words at odds with the meaning of "conservative".

You know the truth regarding the positions of NAS, of course. I provided the link to your organization's website so that anyone wishing to verify the representative nature of the single sentence quote offered here may do so and make his or her own judgment.

Be that as it may, you misread my comparison if you think this song concerning sixteenth century Spain is about you. The focus of this particular post, as well as of Patriots and Peoples as a whole, concerns the convergences and divergences of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States. That should have been clear to you. Bringing in a single sentence from a statement by your organization serves to emphasize that Schweikart and Allen are not alone in their perspectives.

You and I agree that Las Casas is "a key historical figure" that made a courageous stand "against the temper of his times." I did not mean to claim "ersatz ownership" of his writings and legacy by left-wing scholars. That you read my statement as doing so highlights my lack of clarity. My intent was to demonstrate a fallacy in certain conclusions stemming from dichotomous categories. I failed to make this point lucid, and accept this point in your criticism. Thank you.

I'll likely say more regarding Las Casas in the near future, and certainly will welcome comments from scholars, such as yourself, who have read and taught his works.

Many allege the existence of a "leftward tilt of the academy." Schweikart and Allen's text was created in response to this perception. Zinn's work, on the other hand, stems from a perception that the academy, and American society as whole, tips the other direction. This blog, Patriots and Peoples, is one modest effort to withhold judgment on such gross generalizations while thoroughly examining the substance of these two contrasting texts.

Whatever else might be hindering intellectual freedom, the funding crisis in higher education combined with growing reliance upon adjuncts in place of tenure track professors manifests perhaps the most potent threat to the free inquiry that you and I both value. Adjuncts must be aware at all all times of becoming too political or not political enough, of appearing too far to the right or to the left. Most of them are unable to devote any significant time to sustained inquiry of any sort either because they teach too many classes, or because they struggle with the pressures of additional jobs outside the academy. The long term consequences of staffing colleges and universities with part-time employees will impoverish us all.

* "Who We Are," National Association of Scholars,,
accessed 6 March 2008.

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