Spain and the Enlightenment



AT his death in 1700 Charles II, last of the Spanish Hapsburgs, bequeathed Spain and all its global empire to the age-long enemy of the Hapsburgs—Bourbon France. The grandson of Louis XIV, as Philip V of Spain, fought bravely during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) to maintain that empire unimpaired; nearly all Europe rose in arms to prevent so dangerous an aggrandizement of Bourbon power; in the end Spain had to yield Gibraltar and Minorca to England, Sicily to Savoy, and Naples, Sardinia, and “Belgium” to Austria.

Moreover, the loss of sea power left Spain only a precarious hold on the colonies that nourished her commerce and her wealth. Wheat in Spanish America gave from five to twenty times the yield per acre that came from the soil of Spain. From those sunny lands came mercury, copper, zinc, arsenic, dyes, meat, hides, rubber, cochineal, sugar, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, tea, quinine and a dozen other medicaments. In 1788 Spain exported to her American colonies goods valued at 158,000,000 reales; she imported from them goods valued at 804,000,000 reales; this “unfavorable balance of trade” was wiped out by a stream of American silver and gold. The Philippines sent cargoes of pepper, cotton, indigo, and sugar cane. At the end of the eighteenth century Alexander von Humboldt estimated the population of the Philippines at 1,900,000, of Spanish America at 16,902,000; Spain herself, in 1797, had 10,541,000.1 It is one credit to Bourbon rule that this last figure almost doubled the population of 5,700,000 in 1700.

Geography favored Spain only for maritime commerce. In the north the land was fertile, fed with rains and the melting snows of the Pyrenees; irrigation canals (mostly bequeathed to their conquerors by the Moors) had reclaimed Valencia, Murcia, and Andalusia from aridity; the rest of Spain was discouragingly mountainous or dry. The gifts of nature were not developed by economic enterprise; the most venturesome Spaniards went to the colonies; Spain preferred to buy industrial products from abroad with her colonial gold and the yield of her own mines of silver, copper, iron, or lead; her industries, still in the guild or domestic stage, lagged far behind those of the industrious North; and many of her rich mines were operated by foreign management for the profit of German or English investors. The production of wool was monopolized by the Mesta, an association of flock owners privileged by the government, entrenched in tradition, and dominated by a small minority of nobles and monasteries. Competition was stifled, improvements lagged. A meager proletariat festered in the towns, serving as domestics to the great or as journeymen in the guilds. Some Negro or Moorish slaves adorned affluent homes. A small middle class lived in dependence upon the government, the nobility, or the Church.

Of the agricultural land 51.5 per cent was owned in vast tracts by noble families, 16.5 per cent by the Church, 32 per cent by communes (towns) or peasants. The growth of peasant proprietorship was retarded by an old law of entail, which required that an estate should be bequeathed intact to the eldest son, and that no part of it should be mortgaged or sold. Through most of the century, except in the Basque provinces, three quarters of the soil was tilled by tenants paying tribute in rent, fees, service, or kind to aristocratic or ecclesiastical landlords whom they rarely saw. As rents were raised according to the productivity of the farm, the tenants had no incentive to inventiveness or industry.2 The owners defended the practice by alleging that the progressive depreciation of the currency forced them to raise rents to keep pace with rising prices and costs. Meanwhile a sales tax on such necessaries as meat, wine, olive oil, candles, and soap fell heavily upon the poor (who spent most of their income on necessaries), more lightly upon the rich. The result of these procedures, of hereditary privilege, and of the natural inequality of human ability, was a concentration of wealth at the top, and at the bottom a somber poverty that continued from generation to generation, alleviated and abetted by supernatural consolations.

The nobility was jealously divided into grades of dignity. At the top (in 1787) were 119 grandees—grandes de España. We may guess at their wealth from the probably exaggerated report of the contemporary British traveler Joseph Townsend that “three great lords—the dukes of Osuna, Alba, and Medinaceli—cover [own] almost the whole province of Andalusia.”3 Medinaceli received one million reales yearly from his fisheries alone; Osuna had an annual income of 8,400,000 reales; the Count of Aranda had nearly 1,600,000 reales a year.4 Below the grandees were 535 titulos— men who had been given hereditary titles by the king on condition of remitting half their income to the Crown. Below these were the caballeros— chevaliers or knights named by the king to lucrative membership in one of the four military orders of Spain: Santiago, Alcántara, Calatrava, and Montesa. The lowliest of the nobles were the 400,000 hidalgos, who owned modest tracts of land, were exempt from military service and from imprisonment for debt, and had the right to display a coat of arms and be addressed as Don . Some of them were poor, some joined the beggars in the streets. Most of the nobles lived in the cities, and named the municipal officials.

As the divine guardian of the status quo the Spanish Church claimed a comfortable share of the gross national product. A Spanish authority reckoned its annual income, after taxes, at 1,101,753,000 reales, and that of the state at 1,371,000,000.5 A third of its revenues came from land; large sums from tithes and first fruits; petty cash from christenings, marriages, funerals, Masses for the dead, and monastic costumes sold to pious people who thought that if they died in such robes they might slip unquestioned into Paradise. Monastic mendicants brought in an additional 53,000,000 reales. The average priest, of course, was poor, partly because of his number; Spain had 91,258 men in orders, of whom 16,481 were priests and 2,943 were Jesuits.6In 1797 sixty thousand monks and thirty thousand nuns lived in three thousand monasteries or convents. The Archbishop of Seville and his staff of 235 aides enjoyed an annual revenue of six million reales; the Archbishop of Toledo, with six hundred aides, received nine million. Here, as in Italy and Austria, ecclesiastical wealth aroused no protest from the people; the cathedral was their creation, and they loved to see it gorgeously adorned.

Their piety set a standard for Christendom. Nowhere else in the eighteenth century was the Catholic theology so thoroughly believed, or the Catholic ritual so fervently observed. Religious practices rivaled the pursuit of bread, and probably exceeded the pursuit of sex, as part of the substance of life. The people, including the prostitutes, crossed themselves a dozen times a day. The worship of the Virgin far surpassed the adoration of Christ; images of her were everywhere; women lovingly sewed robes for her statues, and crowned her head with fresh flowers; in Spain above all rose the popular demand that her “immaculate conception”—her freedom from the stain of original sin—be made a part of the defined and required faith. The men almost equaled the women in piety. Many men, as well as women, heard Mass daily. In some religious processions (until it was forbidden in 1777) men of the lower classes flogged themselves with knotted cords ending in balls of wax containing broken glass; they professed to be doing this to prove their devotion to God or Mary or a woman; some thought such bloodletting was good for the health7 and kept Eros down.

Religious processions were frequent, dramatic, and colorful; one humorist complained that he could not take a step in Madrid without coming upon such a solemnity; and not to kneel when it passed was to risk arrest or injury. When the people of Saragossa rose in revolt in 1766, sacking and looting, and a religious procession appeared with a bishop holding the Sacrament before him, the rioters bared their heads and knelt in the streets; when the retinue had filed by they resumed the sack of the town.8 In the great Corpus Christi procession all the departments of the government took part, sometimes led by the king. Throughout Holy Week the cities of Spain were draped in black, theaters and cafés were closed, churches were crowded, and supplementary altars were set up in public squares to accommodate the overflow of piety. In Spain Christ was king, Mary was queen, and the sense of divine presence was, in every waking hour, part of the essence of life.

Two religious orders especially prospered in Spain. The Jesuits, through their learning and address, dominated education and became confessors to royalty. The Dominicans controlled the Inquisition, and though this institution had long since passed its heyday it was still strong enough to terrify the people and challenge the state. When some remnants of Judaism appeared under Bourbon laxity the Inquisition snuffed them out with autos-da-fé. In seven years (1720-27) the Inquisitors condemned 868 persons, of whom 820were accused of secret Judaism; seventy-five were burned, others were sent to the galleys, or merely scourged.9 In 1722 Philip V testified his adoption of Spanish ways by presiding over a sumptuous auto-da-fé in which nine heretics were burned in celebration of the coming of a French princess to Madrid.10 His successor, Ferdinand VI, showed a milder spirit; during his reign (1746-59) “only” ten persons—all “relapsed” Jews—were burned alive.11

The Inquisition exercised a strangling censorship over all publication. A Dominican monk reckoned that there was less printing in Spain in the eighteenth century than in the sixteenth.12 Most books were religious, and the people liked them so. The lower classes were illiterate, and felt no need for reading or writing. Schools were in the hands of the clergy, but thousands of parishes had no schools at all. The once great Spanish universities had fallen far behind those of Italy, France, England, or Germany in everything but orthodox theology. Medical schools were poor, ill-staffed, ill-equipped; therapy relied upon bloodletting, purging, relics, and prayer; Spanish physicians were a peril to human life. Science was medieval, history was legend, superstition flourished, portents and miracles abounded. The belief in witchcraft survived to the end of the century, and appeared among the horrors that Goya drew.

Such was the Spain that the Bourbons came from France to rule.

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