Golden Age or Black Legend?

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Spanish historians refer to the Spanish Golden Age of Art and Literature as the Siglo de Oro, which translates as the Golden Century and generally dates from 1492 to 1681, a rather long century according to my calculations. However, the period spanning the reigns of Felipe II, III and IV is a little over a century from 1556 to 1665. It also coincides with what is known as the Black Legend, when the Spanish empire gained a reputation for cruelty and intolerance.


Chapter 12: Golden Age or Black Legend?

The reigns of Castilian Kings Felipe II (1556-1598), Felipe III (1598-1621) and Felipe IV (1621-1665), who incidentally were Felip I, II and III in Catalonia and the rest of the Crown of Aragon, were a difficult period for the Principality. As we shall see later with Felipe V, the name Felipe has negative connotations for most Catalans. The story goes that before the current King Felipe VI was born, his father asked a prominent Catalan politician what he should be called. "Call him anything but Felipe!" came the reply. The advice was ignored.

Catalonia had been hit by plague and crop failures. Although Mediterranean trade continued, mercantile power and prosperity shifted to the Atlantic ports with easy access to the Americas and Northern Europe. In fact, the Crown of Aragon was prohibited from trading with the New World so ports such as Barcelona or Valencia were doubly handicapped.
Although the territories of the Crown of Aragon retained their own laws, Castile was so dominant and Felipe such an autocratic and centralist monarch that it is fair to begin to talk of the Spanish Empire and Spain. From the reign of Felipe II onwards, the preservation of Catalan autonomy, culture and language  becomes a main concern against the imposition of Castilian government officials by an absolutist monarch unwilling to consult the Corts.

Felipe II

As far as the official history of Spain is concerned, the reign of Felipe II was, if anything, even more important than that of his father. By a slow process of piecemeal abdication from 1550 onwards, Carlos V left his son as king of Castile, Aragon and the Italian possessions of Naples and Sicily as well as the Netherlands and newly conquered American and African territories. Felipe II became King of Portugal in 1581 and during his reign the Spanish began the exploitation of colonies as far afield as the Philippines, which were named after him. The expression "The empire on which the sun never sets" was coined during reign of Felipe II and reflects the extent and power of the Spanish empire at the time.

On the military front, the reign began well with victories against the French at Saint Quentin and Gravelines in 1557 and 1558 and a little later, the major victory against the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. However, Felipe is best remembered for losing a large part of the Dutch possessions, which declared independence from Spain in 1581, and the crushing defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English and the intemperate weather conditions in 1588. Although historians attribute these victories and defeats to Spain, they were in fact Atlantic campaigns serving Castilian foreign policy and Mediterranean Catalonia had no inclination to get involved.

Phillip's main contribution to the Siglo de Oro was the building of the great monastery-palace of El Escorial. His decision in 1561 to turn the nearby small town of Madrid into the capital of the Spanish Empire began an ambitious building programme that would be continued by his successors. From a Catalan point of view, the decision to concentrate administration and decision-making in a town chosen mainly for its central location changed the course of history.

Stuck in the middle of Castile's vast central meseta, Madrid is the highest capital of any major European country. Unlike most other cities, it is not set on the coast or a navigable river and, although located in the centre of the Iberian peninsula, in the 16th century this made it impossible to get to. It meant a series of radial caminos reals or royal roads had to be built in order to connect the capital with the provinces and there is no other country to which the term centralism can be more aptly applied than Spain.

Public investment since the time of Felipe II has been based on political rather than economic considerations and roads, railway lines and even flight routes fan out from Madrid deliberately marginalising the towns on the periphery. Prioritising the capital has meant that private investors have had to pay for transport infrastructure with the resulting need for profit, hence the high cost of toll motorways in Catalonia.

Airports in Spain are controlled by a national board AENA, which prioritises international flights to Madrid making it difficult for international businessmen to get directly to Barcelona or Bilbao. Similarly, the Mediterranean corridor, the freight railway linking Barcelona, Valencia, Cartagena, Malaga and Algeciras with Europe has been repeatedly blocked by central government in favour of a Central corridor connecting Madrid with Europe by blasting a tunnel through the Pyrenees at a much higher cost. Modern national transport policy is a direct consequence of Felipe II's decision to make the small town of Madrid the capital of his empire in 1561.

Another consequence of the decision was that unlike other provincial capitals located on rivers or the coast, Madrid had no history of commerce and so had no merchant bourgeoisie or skilled tradesmen. It was initially a city populated by courtiers and government officials and its business life was dependent on its role as a centre of government. This favoured the aversion of the Castilian nobility to work and money-making mentioned in an earlier chapter. To this day, Madrid businesses depend as much on government contracts as they do on competing for international markets, which gives them an unfair advantage over provincial capitals such as Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao or Seville.

Another cause for Catalan concern was the consolidation of the Spanish Inquisition and Felipe's general religious intolerance against not only Jews and Muslims but also Protestants. This not only had a detrimental effect on Catalan trade but also is a cornerstone of what is known as the Leyenda Negra or Black Legend. For Northern European historians, it was the violence with which the military campaign was conducted against Dutch Protestants that sealed the Spanish reputation for cruelty. To this day, Spain's military commander in the Dutch campaign, the Duke of Alba, is the bogeyman that haunts children's nightmares in Holland.

Felipe II is famously quoted as saying "Before suffering the slightest damage to religion in the service of God, I would lose all of my estates and a hundred lives, if I had them, because I do not wish nor do I desire to be the ruler of heretics". The violence with which the Spanish conquistadors evangelised, but also raped and tortured, the indigenous population of the Americas adds further fuel to the Black Legend.

As Felipe II strived to enforce Catholic orthodoxy through an intensification of the Inquisition, students were barred from studying abroad and books printed by Spaniards outside the kingdom were banned. This brought an early introduction of censorship and propaganda, hinted at in the Columbus chapter and used for many other purposes.

Admittedly, the School of Salamanca flourished but none of this benefitted Catalonia, in general, or Barcelona, in particular, which being a sea port has long been an entry point for new and unconventional ideas to the peninsula. The city's prosperity has always been based on the fact that it is a difficult to control melting pot of races, cultures and creeds. This contrasts sharply with the closed mentality of land-locked Central Spain.

Literature and The Arts

Although the repressive measures continued after Felipe III came to the throne in 1598, his reign was a relatively peaceful one involving few major military campaigns and it was from the beginning of the 17th century that Spanish Arts and Literature really began to flourish.

Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 and his literary achievements were soon joined by the likes of Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, Luis de Góngora and many others. Incidentally, Quevedo was particularly anti-Catalan and is responsible for famous quotes such as, "Whilst there's one Catalan left in Catalonia, and rocks in empty fields, we have an enemy and war" or 'A Catalan is the saddest and most miserable creature created by God and Catalans are a thief with three hands". These give an indication of the prevalent attitudes at the Castilian court of the day.

El Greco had produced great masterpieces throughout reign of Felipe II but the heights of the Spanish Golden Age are really marked by Velázquez, Zurburán and later Murillo. Obviously, with El Escorial to fill and Madrid to build, this burgeoning of artistic talent also led to excellence in architecture and its accompanying crafts.

This was a fallow period for Catalan art and literature and there are virtually no important buildings in Barcelona dating from the 16th and 17th century. Having visited Madrid on many occasions and travelled extensively around Northern Castile, in particular, it is clear to me that when Castile and Madrid are up, Catalonia and Barcelona down. Plateresque and Baroque styles feature highly in the former whilst Romanesque, Gothic and Modernista are the major artistic and architectural attractions of the latter.

Ups and Downs

All this has to do with money and investment. Religious and royal patronage and economic buoyancy are always great stimulants for arts and architecture. Barcelona and Catalonia suddenly disappear from the history books because the Catalans were no longer dominant either politically or financially. The monarchs ruled from Castile and Madrid and the focus for trade had moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Not only did Catalans have to pay customs on goods imported from and exported to Castile but they were also prohibited from trading with the Americas until the late 18th century. Portugal had an important investment in the Americas as did Castile. However, the third of the Iberian peninsula's great power bases, the Crown of Aragon, was excluded.

The opportunity for Castilians and Catalans to collaborate and co-operate in the great Iberian adventure in the New World was lost. Castile has always been jealous in victory. Rather than treating the language and culture of Catalonia as assets, they have habitually been seen as threats.

Catalan mercantile experience and political maturity would also have helped the Spanish empire to set up efficient systems of government in the Americas. The riches brought back by the conquistadors were squandered and the instability of Latin America is a reflection of the political systems originally established by Castile.

The relationship between Castile and Catalonia has always been as victors and vanquished rather than as equal partners in a joint venture. For this reason a cohesive Spanish national identity always has and always will be impossible.

The Start of The Thirty Years War

In 1618, at the end of Felipe III's relatively peaceful reign what would become known as the Thirty Years War broke out. As an inheritance, the monarch left one of Europe's major conflicts to his son Felipe IV, who came to the Spanish throne in 1621.

The background to the conflict is complex but the Thirty Years War initially pitched the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman and Spanish Empires and their allies against the German and Scandinavian Protestant states and England. However, the conflict lasted so long that it turned into the first major war between Europe's fledgling great powers. When France entered in 1635 on the side of the supposed Protestants, the war became more territorial than religious.

Despite the flow of silver and gold from the Americas, the overambitious military campaigns led the Spanish monarchy to declare bankruptcy for the first time of many under Felipe II. The relative peace under Felipe III gave the overtaxed Castilian population some respite but when Spain became involved in the Thirty Years War, the coffers needed filling again.

The Crown began to look beyond Castile to the supposedly rich mercantile colonies of Portugal, Catalonia, Sicily and Naples. It is not surprising that all these territories were to rebel against Felipe IV and his minister Count-Duke Olivares over the coming years.

Now Read Chapter Thirteen of Catalonia Is Not Spain - The Reapers' War

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