This Week’s Special: Henry Kamen’s “The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?”

by Michael Boyle

The story that is usually told about early-modern Spain involves depicting it as one of the great powers of Europe. Whether recounting tales of the voyages of exploration, the contributions of Velasquez, El Greco, and Cervantes, or the military power of Spain in Europe itself, Spain is seen as a major player in a number of areas, from its unification in 1492, until the defeat of the Armada and the failed attempt to invade England, in 1588. This is what the phrase “Spanish Golden Age” or Siglo de Oro (century of gold) refers to – the typical picture of Spain as a powerhouse economically, politically, and artistically in the 16th century. The problem with this is that the picture appears to be illusory. In terms of real strength, relative to other nations in Europe, Spain was never very powerful.

The historian who is most responsible for correcting this view is Henry Kamen, with his landmark paper, “The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?” published in 1978. Kamen essentially argues that once we dig a little deeper and look at how Spain measured up to the major powers in Western Europe, we see that, in reality, it was a poor and weak nation, the economic sick man of Europe. Kamen’s reevaluation challenges the view many of us hold about the European powers, especially in the 1500s. There was never really a great and powerful Spanish Empire that then became weaker and weaker, in the wake of the defeat of the Armada. A more accurate picture is that Spain was always a second-rate power, and what is usually described as a decline from greatness is just the revealing of what had always been true, in terms of its economic relationship with Northern Europe. The basic position of Spain never really changed, even if it was masked for a while with the gold and silver coming from America. And even the gold and silver, once we ask where it actually went, more often than not went right back out of Spain, for the purpose of buying products from Northern European powers.

The standard story tells us that Spain declined from a period of great imperial power and that this decline began after the defeat of the Armada in 1588 and continued for about two centuries. Kamen concedes that Spain did experience a significant weakening, after the defeat of the Armada, but maintains that the notion that this represented some decline from a prior position of great power is false: “The point is not that Spain did not suffer crises and reverses, for the contrary is obviously true. The real questions are: Did these reverses represent the collapse of a once highly flourishing society? Were the reverses so extensive as to cover nearly two centuries and so universal as to embrace all aspects of activity? The answer in both cases is a firmly negative one that must throw serious doubt on the relevance of ‘decline.’”(1)

A much more accurate picture of Spain, says Kamen, is to look at it as an economic colony of Northern Europe. Spain manufactured little and mostly exported raw materials, especially wool. This is the same sort of relationship one would expect to find in terms of a European colony in Africa or Asia and the mother country. Describing it as a dependence pattern, Kamen argues that this sort of lopsided relationship had existed between Spain and Northern Europe since the 1400s and lasted through the 1700s.

Why does all of this matter? Because it challenges our whole narrative of European history, in the early modern period. Rather than Spain being a great imperial power with control of vast territories and wealth, in reality the Spanish Golden Age, while undoubtedly great artistically, saw the same dependency patterns persist in terms of economics that had prevailed in previous centuries. Spain entered the modern period as essentially a colonial outpost of Northern Europe and remained that way for centuries. The gold and silver coming from America did not really help it at all, over the long term. If anything, it masked the true position of Spain relative to other nations by making possible military gambles like the Armada. If Spain, as Kamen argues, was always a dependent of Northern Europe, it also makes Northern Europe’s dominance in the 1600s and 1700s, particularly with the Dutch, French, and British, more understandable and certainly more consistent with the underlying economic trends.

  1. Henry Kamen, “The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?” Past & Present 81 (Nov. 1978), 35.

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  1. Seems to remain a controversial claim:

    In a comparative perspective, our findings support the view that when Spain colonised America and built a worldwide empire it was not a poor country of warriors but a relatively affluent nation and, by the end of the sixteenth century, when it had achieved ‘the political hegemony of Europe’ (Hamilton 1938,p.168), Spanish per capita income was among the highest in Europe, second only to Italy and the Low Countries. Since the 1590s Spain experienced an absolute decline that only became relative in the
    early nineteenth century. Spain’s decline has its roots in the seventeenth century while its backwardness deepened in the first half of the nineteenth century.


  2. davidlduffy,

    Kamen begins his text by noting that, at the time of his writing, the ‘myth of decline’ was itself considered non-controversial, the accepted interpretation. If it is now controversial – requiring further clarification and argumentation – that may be due to Kamen’s impact.

    It is notable that the article you link to depends on a comparison with the economies of other European nations, which the authors don’t really make until towards the end. Problematically, the graph of comparison reveals that changes in the Spanish economy occur within a much narrower range than that of any other country but Italy.

    Personally I would criticize the notion of “decline” from a different direction. The notion has its roots in the popularization among European intellectuals, in the 18th century, of the belief that empire was the healthiest condition a state could aspire to, but that it was a fragile condition needing continued expansion and defense. (This still informs policy in the UK and the US, apparently in Russia as well.) Unfortunately this view is skewered in the interests of whatever class happens to hold dominance at the moment empire is achieved. Empire is an unstable condition, riddled with internal risks, and always threatened by external dangers. Theories accepting empire as a normative aspiration must always view proliferation of such risks and dangers as trending toward decline. But perhaps the truth is rather that more stable political and economic conditions are healthier and that imperial pretensions – economic, political, or military – manifest a pathology with inevitable symptoms of risk and danger, and their equally inevitable realization in crises.

    Dependency theory does seem to be richer, and more useful for the sake of criticism and explanation.


  3. Davidlduffy,

    Hamilton was one of the previous generation of scholars Kamen was reacting against, arguing (among other things) that the data could not support their conclusions. More recently, Jonathan Israel and Kamen went back and forth on Kamen’s thesis in 1981. Kamen rejected Israel’s arguments and explained in detail why. His recent work (for example, his 2002 Spain’s Road to Empire published by Penguin and his 2008 Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity published by Yale UP) is consistent with his earlier views.


  4. Ejwinner:

    “Empire is an unstable condition, riddled with internal risks, and always threatened by external dangers.”

    Yes, and Kamen adds that Spain’s empire was created by a whole host of external actors and influences, so to even describe it as Spanish in the sense of a Spanish nationality can mislead us as to the reality. BTW, one of the reasons Kamen takes a broader view of things is undoubtedly becuse a major inspiration of his (and source in the article) was Fernand Braudel of the famous French Annales school of history.


  5. I agree that the claim is controversial. I’ll stick by the more conventional view, that, at a minimum, pre-Columbus, Spain was no worse off than other European countries. That then, the early post-Columbian discoveries were beneficial, but, not so much with the Aztec and Inca gold, but more with the silver mines of Mexico, Bolivia and elsewhere, Spain’s economy became very inflated. That, and the long, ruinous war to try to retain the Spanish Netherlands, led to decline from this peak.

    Per David and the link, although the War of the Spanish Succession itself was not helpful, the replacement of the extinct Spanish Hapsburg line with the Bourbons helped.

    Having grown up in the U.S. Southwest, I don’t think a country that, even at the edge of colonization, could do what it did was totally weak. Related to this, the “French Quarter” of New Orleans was actually built almost entirely during the Spanish possession period of 1763-1800.

    To bring this back to European politics, the Napoleonic takeover and the Peninsular War hastened the decline. So, too, did the Spanish Bourbon restoration.

    Otherwise, I think demographics played a role. England’s population, for various reasons, skyrocketed from being far behind Spain’s not just in 1500 but 1600 to pass it. That, in turn, helped it develop its own colonial realms.

    So, no, it doesn’t *successfully* challenge my view at all.


  6. @ SocraticGadfly

    “…at a minimum, pre-Columbus, Spain was no worse off than other European countries.” Depends on what we’re talking about. In terms of culture, one can certainly make a case, particularly with the art of the Nasrids of Granada. Economically, however, the case is more difficult. More recent scholars have confirmed Kamen’s insight into the dependency relationship between the huge exports of raw wool and the imports of finished products:

    “Economic underdevelopment

    As early as the twelfth century the kingdoms of Castile and León exported raw materials and imported finished goods, and this helped shape Spain’s economic structure in the following centuries. Fine cloth from Flanders accounted for a staggering cash outflow, and imports were not limited to luxury items but included a whole range of basic manufactured goods. Castile’s main exports were iron, wool, hides, and livestock (especially horses, when not banned by royal decree), grain, cordovan, wine, cumin, and almonds.”

    Teofilo F. Ruiz. Spain’s Centuries of Crisis: 1300-1474. Blackwell, 2007, p. 24.


  7. Michael … England also exported raw materials to Flanders, did it not?

    Also, in all of this, per narratives of when decline began and why, we’ve not, until now, mentioned the Inquisition, both before and after the Reconquista was finished. Perhaps some of the decline is in Protestant-Catholic narrative?


  8. SocraticGadfly,

    Excellent points all!

    First, yes, England was a large exporter, but Kamen notes (p. 42) that Spain was too far into the dependence cycle to apply the standard colonial model, which Britain would do with its colonies, which is part of what spurred the growth of British manufactures. Nualah Zahedieh (Economic & Social History, U of Edinburgh) describes some of what happened with the British:

    “England’s transoceanic trade was not large; even in 1700 it accounted for about 20 per cent of total overseas commerce. It was the rapidity of growth rather than its absolute scale which drew fascinated attention from contemporaries and later historians. But although still quite small, the trade does seem to have had a strategic significance in late seventeenth-century economic development. In the shipping industry the long distance of the trade meant a high ratio of shipping capacity to volume of trade, and the plantation trade in particular provided a major stimulus to the merchant fleet. The import trade from America allowed England to substitute colonial products for foreign supplies and also stimulated a range of finishing and processing industries, whilst that from the East pioneered a market for cotton textiles, encouraging imitation and import substitution by domestic industry as well as growth of textile printing. In the export trade, colonial demand for a wide range of miscellaneous manufactures, different from traditional exports and concentrated in relatively few hands, encouraged merchants and wholesalers to invest in production, bringing about a broadening and deepening of England’s manufacturing base. There was diversification into new industries, such as silkmaking, hat-making, and a multitude of smaller trades such as card-making.Finally, the expansion of transoceanic trade played a major role in attracting foreign capital and stimulating the financial innovations which have been dubbed a ‘commercial revolution’. Colonial expansion was not a sufficient condition for economic development, as demonstrated in Spain and Portugal, but it was certainly an important positive stimulus, as recognized by contemporaries. The fact that Englishmen seized the opportunities opened up by transoceanic commerce goes a long way towards explaining English development in this period.”

    Nuala Zahedieh. “Overseas Expansion and Trade in the Seventeenth Century” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. 1: The Origins of Empire. Nicholas Canny, ed. (Oxford, 1998), pp. 420-1.

    Let’s not forget as well the ascendancy of the Royal Navy over the Dutch (and everyone else) to the point that Portugal gets the help of England against Spain in return for Bombay and Tangier (these -as well as trade access to Brazilian and East Indian markets- were formally acquired in the dowry of Charles II’s wife, daughter of the Portuguese monarch who had replaced the Hapsburgs there). See the piece by Jonathan Israel in the same volume as Zahedieh for the Royal Navy story.

    There’s also a revolution in financial practices in Britain in the 1600’s and 1700’s, also discussed by Zahedieh, Jacob Soll, and a number of other scholars. Soll’s key work here is his 2014 book The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations. Soll (who seems to use the older model of Spanish history critiqued by Kamen, although he doesn’t discuss it) also talks in detail about the utter failure of reform in Spain.

    Kamen mentions the Inquisition and the problem of skewed external evaluations of Spain starting on pp. 25. BTW, Kamen is probably best known for his work on the Inquisition. The Inquisition doesn’t get off the hook by any means (e.g., torture), but as far as a comparison with contemporaneous justice systems, it comes off better than one would expect given its reputation.

    Also, compare the infamous expulsion of the Jewish community from Spain with the situation in Britain, where they were allowed residency after the English Civil War. Although previous expulsions had occurred there, too, in the early modern period the Jewish community made important contributions to Britain’s economic takeoff (including trade connections in Latin America, all the more crucial since the Navigation Acts made it tougher for outsiders to do business in areas controlled by Britain.) See Zahedieh for details.