Spain was still in the Middle Ages, and preferred it so. It was a God-intoxicated country, crowding its somber cathedrals, making devout pilgrimages to sacred shrines, multiplying monks, comforted with indulgences and absolutions, fearing and revering the Inquisition, kneeling as the consecrated Host was borne in awesome processions through the streets, cherishing above all else the faith that brought God into every home, disciplined children, guarded virginity, and offered Paradise at the end of the burdensome testing called life. A generation later George Borrow found “the ignorance of the masses so great,” at least in León, “that printed charms against Satan and his host, and against every kind of misfortune, are publicly sold in the shops, and are in great demand.”4Napoleon, still a son of the Enlightenment while signing concordats with the Church, concluded that “the Spanish peasants have even less share in the civilization of Europe than the Russians.”5 But the Spanish peasant, as Byron testified, could be as “proud as the noblest duke.”6
Education was almost confined to the bourgeoisie and the nobility; literacy was a distinction; even the hidalgos seldom read a book. The ruling class distrusted print;7 and in any case widespread literacy was not needed in the existing economy of Spain. Some commercial cities, like Cádiz and Seville, were fairly prosperous, and Byron, in 1809, thought Cádiz “the prettiest city in Europe.”8 Some industrial centers prospered; Toledo was still famous for its swords.9 But the country was so mountainous that only a third of the soil could be profitably cultivated; and the roads and canals were so few, so difficult and ill-kept, so obstructed with provincial or feudal tolls, that corn could be more cheaply imported than domestically produced.10 Disheartened by a difficult soil, the peasants preferred the pride of conspicuous leisure to the precarious fruits of tillage; and the townsmen found more pleasure in smuggling than in ill-paid toil. Over all the economic scene lay the burden of taxes rising faster than income, and demanded by a widening officialdom, a pervasive police, and a degenerating government.
Despite these difficulties the high spirit of the nation survived, supported by traditions of Ferdinand and Isabella and Philip II, of Velásquez and Murillo, by the spread and potential wealth of Spain’s empire in the Americas and the Far East. Spanish art enjoyed a repute rivaling the Italian and the Dutch. Now the nation gathered its treasures in painting and sculpture into the Museo del Prado, built at Madrid (1785–1819) by Juan de Villanueva and his successors and aides. There, among its greatest glories, are the frightening masterpieces of the supreme painter of that age, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828).*Vicente López y Portaña handed him down to us in an uncompromising portrait fully in accord with the powerful and somber spirit who showed war in all its gory savagery, and who loved his country and scorned its king.
Spanish literature—till civil and foreign war consumed the nation—flourished under the double impulse of Catholic scholarship and the French Enlightenment. A Jesuit priest, Juan Francisco de Masdeu, issued, in installments from 1783 to 1805, a learnedHistoria crítica de España y de la cultura española, which achieved integral history by weaving cultural history into the general record of a civilization.11 Juan Antonio Llorente, who had been general secretary of the Spanish Inquisition from 1789 to 1801, received from Joseph Bonaparte (1809) a commission to write a history of that institution; he thought it safer to do this in Paris, and in French (1817–18). The flowering of prose and poetry that had adorned the age of Charles III had not quite faded at his death: Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744–1811) continued to be the voice of liberalism in education and government; Leandro Fernandez de Moratín (1760–1828) still dominated the stage with comedies that earned him the title of the Spanish Molière. During the War of Liberation (1808–14) Manuel José Quintana and the priest Juan Nicasio Gallego poured out passionate poetry to stimulate the revolt against the French.
Till that struggle tore them apart, most of the leading writers had been won to French ideas of intellectual and political liberty; they and the Freemasons were afrancesados—Frenchified; they deplored the monarchical emasculation of the provincial cortes that had once kept Spain alive in all its parts; they hailed the French Revolution, and welcomed Napoleon as challenging Spain to free itself from a feudal aristocracy, a medieval Church, and an incompetent government. Let a masterly Spanish historian sing a powerful dirge to a dying dynasty:
In 1808, when the Bourbon monarchy was working toward its own destruction, the political and social situation of Spain might have been summed up as follows: An aristocracy, especially the courtiers, which had lost respect for the kings; rotten politics, ruled by personal animosities and reciprocal fears; absolute lack of patriotism among the upper classes, who subordinated everything else to passions and greed; the delirious hope of the masses, centered upon a Prince—Ferdinand—who had already shown himself to be both false and vengeful; and finally the profound influence, in intellectual circles, of the ideas of the Encyclopedists and the French Revolution.12
An earlier chapter has described, from Napoleon’s corner, the collapse of the Spanish monarchy: Charles IV (r. 1788–1808) allowed his wife Maria Luisa and her paramour Godoy to take the government out of his hands; Prince Ferdinand, heir apparent, maneuvered his father into abdicating; Godoyistas fought Fernandistas; Madrid and its environs were in chaos. Napoleon saw in the confusion an opportunity to bring the entire Peninsula under French rule and security within the Continental Blockade. He sent Murat and a second French army into Spain, with instructions to maintain order. Murat entered Madrid (March 23, 1808), and suppressed a popular insurrection on the historic Dos de Mayo—the Second of May. Meanwhile Napoleon had invited both Charles IV and Ferdinand to meet him in Bayonne, in France near the Spanish border. He frightened the Prince into restoring the throne to his father, and then persuaded the father to abdicate in favor of Napoleon’s appointee, provided Catholicism should be recognized and protected as the national religion. Napoleon bade his brother Joseph to come and be king of Spain. Joseph, unwilling, came, and received from Napoleon a new constitution for Spain, granting much of what the Spanish liberals had hoped for, but requiring them to make their peace with a chastened Church. Joseph went sadly to his new responsibilities, and Napoleon returned to Paris happy with his absorption of Spain. He had reckoned without the Spanish masses and Wellington.