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Best books on Spanish history
The history of Spain is one of the most fascinating ones of world history. Many different peoples and cultures have settled in Spain, including Iberians, Celts, Tartessos, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Basques, and Moors. That mixture and blending of cultures have heavily influenced the building of the modern Spanish identity and how Spaniards interacted with the native peoples of the Spanish American and Asian possessions. Discover the history of the land that has given birth to Miguel de Cervantes, Pablo Picasso, or Hernán Cortés by reading these books (or listening to The History of Spain Podcast).
1. A CONCISE HISTORY OF SPAIN. William D. Phillips Jr and Carla Rahn Phillips
For casual readers and travelers interested in visiting Spain A Concise History of Spain is one of the best options out there in English. It’s an introductory and concise survey that covers the history of Spain from Prehistory to the present, and not only focusing on political history, but also culture, society and prominent people. The book includes photos, illustrations, and maps to make it easier to read and understand. The authors, both professors, offer interesting insights on how the diverse geography of Spain has influenced its history, or the prominent role of the Catholic Church.
2. VISIGOTHIC SPAIN 409-711. Roger Collins
Roger Collins is one of the leading historians of the Spanish Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. Visigothic Spain 409-711 it’s a scholarly account on the history of the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain, covering the period between Roman and Muslim Spain. The history of Visigothic Spain and the Germanic peoples that settled in the Iberian Peninsula is widely unknown, but it’s still indispensible to understand the history of the later Christian Medieval states, since these claimed to be the restorers of the Visigothic Kingdom as opposed to al-Andalus. In this account Roger Collins provides a chronological overview of the political and military events, aspects of the society of the Visigothic Kingdom and the current state of research on the history and archeology of the period.
3. A HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL SPAIN. Joseph F. O’Callaghan
Medievalist historian Joseph F. O’Callaghan writes a comprehensive and in-depth book on the Middle Ages of Spain and PortugalIt encompasses the history of Spain from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, which is amazing considering how much it costs. Professor O’Callaghan gives primacy to political and military events, but also covers aspects such as institutions, society, economy, religion and culture. A History of Medieval Spain is the best one-volume book on the history of Medieval Spain, and it’s great for both general history readers and students.
4. RIVERS OF GOLD: THE RISE OF THE SPANISH EMPIRE. Hugh Thomas
This is the first book of the trilogy of Hispanist Hugh Thomas on the rise of the Spanish Empire in America. I shall warn you that this book, as well as the rest of books of Hugh Thomas, is not written for casual readers, but for students, academics, and people who want more than a simplified account. This first volume is a voluminous account of the early Spanish exploration and conquests of America, covering the epic stories from the discovery of America by Columbus, the conquest of the Caribbean, first expeditions to mainland America and the first circumnavigation of the world under Magellan and Elcano. Truly decisive events of world history!
5. THE GOLDEN EMPIRE: SPAIN, CHARLES V, AND THE CREATION OF AMERICA. Hugh Thomas
Second volume of Hugh Thomas’ series on the rise of the Spanish Empire in America. The Golden Empire is the chronicle of the initial years of Spanish hegemony over the Caribbean and Mexico, the conquest of the Incan Empire, the exploration of North America led by Hernando de Soto, and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Moreover, Hugh Thomas makes an effort to unveail the personality of Charles V of Spain. This in-depth survey includes the theological debate between Las Casas and Sepúlveda to determine if the Indians had soul (yeah, for real, but it was an important precedent to the human rights debate).
6. WORLD WITHOUT END: SPAIN, PHILIP II, AND THE FIRST GLOBAL EMPIRE. Hugh Thomas
Final book of the trilogy of leading Hispanist Hugh Thomas on the rise of the Spanish Empire in America. World Without End covers the administration and expansion of the American colonies under Philip II, the challenges to an universal Spanish monarchy, or the Spanish presence in the Philippines. Hugh Thomas also talks about a wide-range of issues, such as how Philip II felt unworthy of the vast domains that he inherited from his father, the Spanish plans to conquer Spain, or the royal attempts to protect the Native Americans from abuse. It’s a very detailed work, and its scholarly nature and structure is not made for a casual audience.
7. CONQUEST: CORTES, MONTEZUMA AND THE FALL OF OLD MEXICO. Hugh Thomas
An epic story that proves that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, a contact between two alien civilizations. Leading historian Hugh Thomas writes a detailed account on the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire under conquistador Hernán Cortés, who managed to form a coalition with many native allies to overthrow the Mexicas. Conquest also portrays Hernán Cortés and Montezuma with vivid details, and all the events are explained with context, analysis and interpretations. However, for a more casual survey, read Conquistador by Buddy Levy.
8. THE CONQUEST OF THE INCAS. John Hemming
Another epic story of conquest, greed, bloodshed, and infighting. John Hemming combines rigorous historical research with a great narrative style, and he explains how the Spaniards under conquistador Francisco Pizarro managed to conquer Peru, then controlled by the Incan Empire. In addition to that, Hemming covers the difficult process of integration and the resistance following the conquest, the social impact of the conquest, or a background to understand how the conquest happened.
9. THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR: EUROPE’S TRAGEDY. Peter H. Wilson
Peter H. Wilson authors a monumental and dense book on the Thirty Years’ War, the most important conflict of 17th century Europe. The war was both political and religious, as Habsburg Spain was trying to combat Protestanism and maintain its hegemony in Europe. It’s indispensable to know about the Thirty Years’ War to understand the decline of the Spanish Empire and the building of the modern European states. It’s not a boring military history book, since the author does a great job talking about the political, cultural and religious aspects, but again it’s very lengthy.
10. BOURBON SPAIN, 1700-1808. John Lynch
This one is difficult to find, but it’s the only one in English focused on 18th century Spain. John Lynch does a great job summarizing and analyzing the history of this period under the Bourbon dynasty. This was a period of reforms and revitalization of Spain, but it wasn’t enough to make the structural changes that the Kingdom of Spain needed. Lynch deals with a wide range of difficult issues, such as the limits of the Bourbon reforms, the role of the Spanish American colonies, or the influence of France over Spain.
11. THE HISTORY OF MODERN SPAIN: CHRONOLOGIES, THEMES, INDIVIDUALS. Adrian Shubert and José Álvarez Junco
Magisterial volume that updates the Spanish History since 1808. Adrian Shubert and José Álvarez Junco collect the work of different historians into an indispensable book for students of late modern and contemporary Spain. The first part of the book covers the political history of Spain from the Spanish War of Independence / Peninsular War to the present, but more pages are dedicated to themes such as the economy, religion, nationalism or sexuality, and to mini-biographies of several personalities. A masterpiece and a must-read for those interested in modern Spain!
12. PENINSULAR WAR: A NEW HISTORY. Charles J. Esdaile
British historian Charles J. Esdaile writes a balanced and comprehensive narration of the Spanish War of Independence, aka Peninsular War. That devastating war is essential to understand the fall of the Spanish Empire, as well as the fall of Napoleonic France. The Peninsular War is not called the Spanish ulcer for nothing, you know. The long discussions about Spanish domestic politics may be too much for some, but it’s a great account of the war, more balanced from a Spanish perspective. David Gates’ The Spanish Ulcer is equally great, but more focused on military history.
13. THE SPANISH AMERICAN REVOLUTIONS 1808-1826. John Lynch
Historian John Lynch provides a magnificent survey on the Spanish American Wars of Independence, that started when Napoleon invaded Spain. In The Spanish American Revolutions Lynch provides a background of why revolutions broke out in Spanish America (with the notable exception of Cuba) and why Bolívar, San Martín, or O’Higgins were unable to fulfill their ambitions of building powerful states. This edition also incorporates the latest works on the aftermaths of these revolutions and what happened in Central America. Nonetheless, it’s a shame that such regionally dispersed wars are covered in less than 500 pages, and that this book was originally written in the 70s, but there are no English books up to date about these wars.
14. SPAIN’S FIRST DEMOCRACY: THE SECOND REPUBLIC, 1931-1936. Stanley G. Payne
The Second Spanish Republic between 1931 and 1936 has been overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War that broke out. To change this, American Hispanist Stanley G. Payne tells the story of the Second Spanish Republic in vivid detail. It’s an indispensable book to understand why a civil war started, by studying the successes and failures of reforms and the political polarization and violence of the turbulent 1930s.
15. THE SPANSH CIVIL WAR: REVISED EDITION. Hugh Thomas
Hugh Thomas authors what’s probably the most balanced and rigorous account on the controversial Spanish Civil War. It’s a very dense and pretty dry one-volume book, but it’s worth reading if you don’t want a simplified version of a very complex conflict, that was not fascism vs democracy as some try to make it seem. Revised with new material, it includes the atrocities committed by both sides. For a shorter and more accessible account, read Payne’s work on the matter.
16. THE FRANCO REGIME, 1936-1975. Stanley G. Payne
American historian Stanley G. Payne writes about the regime of Franco, from the Nationalist uprising to Franco’s death. Payne answers the great question about Franco’s dictatorship: how was Franco able to outsmart everyone else and die in his bed, unlike other dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. It’s an accessible account to the rule of Franco, a period marked by authoritarianism, repression, economic growth and social changes. Very recommended if you want to read a work that is not clearly pro or anti-Franco, but one that recognized the complexities of that period and Franco as an individual.
Still hungry for more history books?
If you want more history books of a particular period of Spanish period, you can visit the store of the website. You can also find cookbooks, universal works of Spanish literature in English, or travel guides of Spain and Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. There is even merchandising that I had designed! Finally, if you want to hear the history of Spain since the beginning in audio format, listen to The History of Spain Podcast in all major podcast directories, including Apple Podcasts.