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Book Review

Imperial Spain 1469-1716 by JH Elliott

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Publisher: Penguin History

1 of 1 The Spain project began to show signs of viable life when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella  of Castille in 1496
The Spain project began to show signs of viable life when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castille in 1496

JH Elliott’s classic work was first published in 1963 and reprinted in 2002 with a new foreword and expanded and updated bibliography. A portable paperback of some 400 pages – handy for the plane -  it tracks how two vast kingdoms, Aragon (of which Catalonia was part) and Castile would together form the heart of ‘Spain’ as we know it today.

The Spain project, as it were, began to show signs of viable life when Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella  of Castille on October 19, 1496 at a private residence in Valladolid, thereby bringing closer - though by no means in every aspect - the union of the two great kingdoms.

 However, ‘Spain’ as we know it it today only came into being in 1715, when Philip V,  the first Bourbon King of Spain finally united the Crowns of Castille and Aragon under Castillian law with a French-style administration.

Elliott’s scholarly but accessible book covers the social, political, and economic history. Sheep were a big deal throughout Castille, and there was an over-reliance on the wool trade. Elliott explores how the influx of silver and precious gems from the Americas was accompanied by a rise in prices at home. Meanwhile, Castilian cloth was sub-standard, due to a massive demand and lack of availability of competent weavers. Foreign imports of superior yet cheaper cloth were sanctioned, which of course upset local producers.

Under the reign of King Charles 1, Spain was competing for attention from the king’s interests in a sizable chunk of Europe, as he was also the Holy Roman Emperor - he was Charles V in that sphere of his influence. (Charles’ mother was Juana the Mad, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who was Queen of Castille from 1504 to 1555.)

That old bug-bear, corruption  was part of the scene - wages paid to officials were so unfeasibly low that one can see how venality grew. 

It was also a time of warrior prelates. The Bishop of Zamora, Antonio de Acuña killed his jailor, while attempting to scape from prison during the revolt of the Communeros against Charles 1.

Clerical immunity was ignored when sentence on the bishop came to be pronounced. He was tortured and garotted and his body strung from a turret of the castle at Simancas. “A gruseome warning that had lost its point, “ writes Elliott, “ for open defiance of the king and his ministers was already a thing of the past.”

Paddy Kehoe

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