Grandeur and Decadence of Spain



THOSE of us who have been brought up on the English historians easily forget that after as well as before the defeat of the Armada Spain was the greatest, richest, farthest-flung empire on earth, and that she considered herself, not without reason, superior to Elizabethan England in literature and to contemporary Italy in art. When Philip II came to the throne (1556), the Spanish monarchy ruled Spain, Roussillon, Franche-Comté, Ceuta, Oran, the Netherlands, the duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Philippines, the West Indies, most of South America, part of North America, all of Central America; add (1580–1640) Portugal and the Portuguese possessions in Asia, Africa, and Brazil; add also a protectorate over Savoy, Parma, and Tuscany, and an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire ruled by Philip’s uncle, Ferdinand I. Spain had an army of fifty thousand men noted for their bravery and discipline, and led by the best generals of the age; a navy of 140 vessels; an annual revenue ten times that of England. The gold and silver of America flowed into Spanish ports. The Spanish court in this age was the most splendid, and the Spanish aristocracy the proudest, in the world. The Spanish language was spoken by millions of people outside Spain, and in many countries the educated classes learned Spanish as in the eighteenth century they would learn French. Spanish architecture adorned cities in five continents.

Spain had now some eight million population. Agriculture languished as more and more land was turned to pasture sheep for the production of wool. About 1560 there were fifty thousand textile workers in Toledo alone. The demands of her colonies stimulated Spain’s industries; Seville became one of the busiest ports in Europe; and the colonies in return sent cargoes of silver and gold. The influx of precious metals raised prices hectically—in Andalusia 500 per cent in the sixteenth century; wages clambered in feverish, and finally futile, pursuit of living costs. Much of the industry was manned by Moriscos—Moors superficially converted to Christianity. Domestic service was largely left to slaves captured in African raids or in wars against “infidels.” The Spanish commoners scorned labor, and were philosophically content with little; to sleep in a hut, bask in the sun, strum a guitar, and mourn the stinginess of beauty seemed better than to sweat like a slave or a Moor. The expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609 shared with the high prices of Spanish products in the decline of Spanish industry.

The expulsion of the Jews in 1492 had left a vacuum in the commercial and financial structure of Spain. The Genoese and the Dutch became the chief carriers of Spain’s foreign trade. Spain, governed by grandees more adept in diplomacy and war than in economic affairs, allowed her wealth to depend upon the import of gold; for a time the government grew richer while the people remained poor; but much of the gold was poured out for war, much of it was taken by foreign merchants carrying Spain’s trade, until the government was almost as poor as the people. Spain repeatedly repudiated its debts (1557, 1575, 1596, 1607, 1627, 1647) or compelled their conversion into new loans; it was these financial crises that forced her to end her war with Henry II in 1559, with Henry IV in 1598, and with the United Provinces in 1609. In history we must chercher not la femme but le banquier.

In Spain we must also look for the priest. Nowhere else on the globe had religion such power over the people, and therefore over the government. Spain rejected not only the Reformation, but—except for an Erasmian moment—the Renaissance as well. It remained medieval amid modernity, and contentedly so. The poverty of the people gloried in the wealth of the Church. Everybody was pious, from the kings who were “more Catholic than the pope,”1 to the bandits who were never found without religious medallions or scapulars. In 1615 some forty thousand Spaniards marched in a demonstration demanding that the Pope make the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin (i.e., her freedom from the stain of original sin) a de fide dogma—a belief obligatory on all Catholics.2 Priests, monks, and friars were everywhere, not smiling on the joys of life and love as in Italy or France, but casting an aura of El Greco somberness over all affairs except bullfights. Spain had now 9,088 monasteries, 32,000 Dominican and Franciscan friars,3 and a rising number of Jesuits. Churches were dark, rich in awesome relics, and adorned with realistic terrors in their art. Stories of the saints and their miracles were the cherished poetry of the people. The lyrics of St. John of the Cross and the writings of St. Teresa made mysticism popular. The Church herself had to protest against the claims of “Quietists” to divine communion and beatific visions; in 1640 the Inquisition laid its claws upon a sect of Alumbrados—”Enlightened Ones”—who claimed that their mystical union with God cleansed them of sin even in their erotic ecstasies. We must bear in mind this pervasive and perfervid piety if we are to understand why the Spanish people could look with passionate approval upon the burning of heretics, and bleed itself to bankruptcy and exhaustion in fighting for the faith in Germany and the Netherlands. There was something noble in this insanity. It was as if the nation felt that unless its faith were true, life would be a meaningless absurdity.

So the Inquisition continued its conscientious ferocity. It checked with “moderate” punishments—such as a hundred lashes—such heresies as that fornication is no sin, or that marriage is as holy as monastic celibacy. But for “relapsed” Marranos—converted Jews who secretly returned to Judaism—death or life imprisonment was the standard expiation. When Philip II arrived in Spain (1559) he was welcomed at Valladolid with an auto-da-fé in which 200,000 persons, presided over by the King, saw ten heretics strangled and two burned alive.4 One of the condemned appealed to Philip for mercy; he refused it, and won the admiration of the people by saying, “If my own son were such a wretch as you are, I myself would carry the faggots to burn him.”5 Philip occasionally checked the tendency of the Inquisition to extend its authority at the expense of the civil power, but by and large he encouraged the institution as an instrument of national fervor and unity. It was of some convenience to him that the condemned could be used as galley slaves,6and that in one year (1566) he received 200,000 gold ducats as the government’s two thirds of Inquisition fines and confiscations.

The Inquisition prided itself on preserving the medieval faith undiluted, and on saving Spain from the religious disunity that was convulsing France. Its emphasis on belief rather than conduct left the protection of morals to the clergy—who were themselves notoriously lax in their behavior—and to civil officials whose authority with the public was impaired by their subjection to Inquisition imprisonment and fines. Female purity was guarded not only by religion and law, but by the punto, or point of honor, which required every male to defend or avenge by the sword the threatened or violated chastity of any woman in his family. Dueling was illegal but popular. Decent women were usually kept at home in a semi-Arabic seclusion; they dined apart from the men, seldom accompanied them in public, and used closed coaches when they stirred outside their homes. Suitors made their plea with music from the streets to maidens behind grated windows; they were rarely admitted into the house until the parents on both sides had come to an agreement; nevertheless there were many love marriages.7 Under Philip II the level of morality was kept as high as the beauty of the women or the imagination of the men allowed; the natural venality of officials was moderated by the watchfulness of the King; and until the defeat of the Armada the morale of the nation was sustained by the belief that Spain was leading a holy war against Islam, the Netherlands, and England. When that dream broke, Spain collapsed in body and soul.

Meanwhile Spanish life had its characteristic splendor and charm. Charity was widely spread, and good manners ran through every class. Half the nation claimed noble blood, tried to live up to the pretense of chivalric courtesy, and insisted on dressing like the uppermost tenth. Under Philip II dress was fairly simple: the men wore ruffs, doublets, tight dark hose, and buckled boots; the ladies (all were ladies) covered their curves with stiff, flat corsages, veiled from the other sex all of their faces except their eyes (which are especially inflammatory in Spanish women), and so coyly hid their feet that a glimpse of these was among the most exciting rewards of a lover’s prayers.8 In the relaxing of morals that followed Philip’s death, female dress became fancier, fans were flaunted in wordless badinage, rouge glowed on faces, shoulders, bosoms, and hands, and mysterious legs were concealed in hoopskirts so ample that theater owners charged each such inflated woman for two seats.

The bullfight continued to be the favorite spectacle. Pope Pius V issued a bull against it in 1567, but Philip II protested that such a prohibition would loose a revolution in Spain, and the edict was ignored. Religious processions added a solemn poetry to prosaic days, and carnival masks covered a multitude of sins. Music was a passion only secondary—and closely allied—to religion and love. The guitar-shaped vihuela strummed hypnotic obbligatos to amours, and madrigals enjoyed a passing popularity. In church music Spain rivaled Italy. Tomás Luis de Victoria, the Velázquez of Spanish music, grew up in St. Teresa’s Ávila and may have felt her influence. He had a voice and a vocation; probably he was ordained to the priesthood in 1564; certainly, a year later, Philip gave him an allowance to study music in Italy. By 1571 he was choirmaster in the Collegium Germanicum in Rome. In 1572, aged thirty-two, he issued a book of motets containing the inspired O vos omnes setting to Jeremiah’s lamentation over Jerusalem. Returning to Spain (1583), he presented to Philip II a book of Masses including one of his noblest compositions, the Mass O quam gloriosum. For the obsequies of Philip’s sister Maria, widow of Emperor Maximilian II, he wrote a deeply moving Requiem Mass which a distinguished historian of music has ranked as “one of the most magnificent compositions of the entire literature.”9 He called it his swan song; after its publication (1603) he gave himself wholly to his duties as a priest. He was among the outstanding ornaments of Spain’s most famous reign.

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