Sunday, April 30, 2017

The History of Spain. By Peter Pierson.

Peter Pierson’s The History of Spain is a no-nonsense guide covering Spain’s evolution from the re-conquest of Muslim al-Andalus, to the end of the 20th Century. It begins with an orienting chapter of basic geography and current regional social studies. Next is a highly condensed chapter of 11 pages that rockets a reader from Neanderthal excavations through the end of Muslim control. Pierson presents the Muslim Empire as a comparatively positive cultural and intellectual influence, given its’ relative tolerance towards non-Muslim perspectives as compared to Christian Europe. Unfortunately, this rich influence is presented in less than four pages. The true subject of the book is Western development.

The next four chapters are an uninspired chronicle of kings, wars and dates. For almost half of the book, a reader is bombarded with a dizzying pantheon of never-to-be-remembered royal names. There are tiny bits of Spanish pride in cultural advance and the arts. A couple of artists’ names slip into the text. But the Colonial period apex of Spanish culture, often called the Golden Age, is reduced to four sentences. The victims of Spain during this time (native Western Hemisphere populations, Jews and impoverished peasants) are handled progressively, though briefly. Their oppression is presented in a factual manner, and seen as sad occurrence in Spain’s history. However, these groups remain a faceless, voiceless mass. Their presentation contrasts sharply with that of the kings. Frequently, monarchs are accorded personality and details that individuate them. A personal letter from King Frances I to King Charles V (Pierson, p. 60) is one example of this frequent, imbalanced practice. It is not uncommon for a prominent monarch to receive a miniature biography. Presentation of rulers with personality, but non-elites as masses is inaccurate history. Reading this section on Imperial and Colonial Spain, one would think that the people had no thoughts, no ambition, and simply toiled for Spain’s rulers. One may argue that Pierson’s book relies upon secondary reading material to present his overview, and much of that is biased against populations. However, there are a multitude studies by historians of niche groups, subcultures, non-aristocratic individuals and movements. This is what historians do: they excavate primary material from archaeology and research to depict past life. Pierson could have employed a few of these. A chronicle of kings may easier to come by, but it fails to present a whole picture of a period.

As the book moves into the mid-18th Century, the balance improves. The improvement has little to do with Pierson’s efforts. Both historians and reporters of that time were becoming aware that classes below the aristocracy were vital to societies. The middle class was developing a sense of itself and creating a liberal agenda to promote its political and economic concerns. Working class people were becoming more aware of themselves as a class and agitating for recognition. As a result, the general historical material that is Pierson’s main source of information becomes more holistic. Names and quotes from individuals who are not elite begin to emerge in this historian’s text and his work begins to breathe with the vivid life of a whole culture involved in defining itself and determining its course. This changed, balanced view, proceeds through an immensely tumultuous 18th & 19th Century where Spain’s prominence as an international power falls, colonies are lost, and domestic divisions between national groups or classes become prominent. It is a difficult, frequently violent trajectory from these conflicts, through the 20th Century’s Civil War, Franco’s Fascist dictatorship, and Spain’s eventual transformation to democratic republic. Pierson handles the material with an unembellished, factual account of development. The second half of the book is an improvement over the first half. For readers seeking a brief overview of 18th through 20th Century Spain, this book provides a satisfactory narrative.

Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. London, Greenwood Press, 1999.