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