History of Spain Podcast Q&A #1
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is the first special episode, a Q&A to answer your questions. Some of you have sent me questions as I asked you to do, but since there weren’t enough, I had to turn to my Ask Me Anything Twitter threads. That’s not bad, because all of you will be able to hear many good questions and answers that I’m sure will clarify some misconceptions about Spanish history. Without further delay, let’s start with the Q&A.
Kev Kenny asks me this question related to Visigothic Spain:
In “Visigothic Twilight” you suggest that Reccared was a weak ruler after his father Leovigild. He seems quite important uniting the Iberian Peninsula under one religion, no?
You are right, he was important, but he made a lot of concessions to the nobility and especially to the Catholic Church. Leovigild had already attempted to unify religiously Spain with a reformed, quasi-Catholic version of Arianism, but he failed. In all other aspects Leovigild was very successful though. Reccared was successful in converting the Visigoths to Catholicism, but he could do that because his father had left him a consolidated kingdom, and other than that he didn’t do much more because he had ceded much of his power to the nobility and clergy.
Another question about the Visigoths comes from Craig Jennings:
Did the Visigoths ever fully integrate into Spanish society and culture?
Yes, during the reigns of Leovigild and Reccared in the second half of the 6th century the Visigoths adopted pretty much everything of the Hispano-Roman society, and the two groups intermixed much more after that. It’s true that the writings talk about the Visigoths and the ‘gens gothorum’, the Gothic people, but after the late 6th century that doesn’t mean the Goths of the writings were actually of Gothic descent. In any case, all the processes of interaction between two cultures involve an exchange, the cultural integration and assimilation is never one-sided. Therefore, the Visigoths also had an impact on the culture and costumes of the Hispano-Romans, even though this impact was smaller than the cultural influence the Hispano-Romans had on the Visigoths.
About the Muslim conquest, Kent Wang asks:
Did the Muslims ever completely conquer Iberia? They landed in 711 and the Battle of Covadonga happened in 718 or 722. Did they manage to achieve complete dominance of the peninsula in between those dates?
It’s not an unusual question, really, I’ve wondered that myself too. I would say that on paper yes, but actual control was extremely weak or didn’t even exist in some areas of the Iberian Peninsula. The same happened to the Spanish Empire or even all modern countries, you see how they theoretically control this or that land, but if you see the map carefully or study events it’s way more complicated than that. In some regions you always have less control than in others. That can mean that you have weak control over a large region, a small one, or on a neighborhood level, but the thing is that states never have uniform control over a territory. To answer more directly the question, they had weak-to-no control over Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country and the Pyrenees.
After my response, he made this other question:
So what happened in Asturias and the northern areas? Did they go from Roman to Visigothic to nominal Umayyad and then very quickly to Kingdom of Asturias?
There was a small Berber garrison in Gijón, but that was pretty much the entire Muslim presence in Asturias. We could say that Asturias was briefly occupied by the Umayyads. Asturias and Cantabria had revolted from time to time during Visigothic rule and they had periods of self-government when Visigothic rulers were extremely weak or during the transition from Roman to Visigothic rule in the 5th century. So that along geography and lack of economic development and urbanization are the main factors that made the north independent first.
Another question related to Asturias, this time from Richie:
Is Covadonga the Mecca for Spaniards?
Not really, last year Covadonga received close to 1.500.000 visitors, I would say that mainly due to the rise of Spanish nationalism, but it’s not a Mecca for Spaniards and it’s far behind the most visited places of Spain. The closest equivalent to the Mecca in Spain is clearly Santiago de Compostela, the city of pilgrims with a religious and spiritual meaning, similar to the pilgrimages to Mecca, Medina or Jerusalem.
My proof-reader Guillem Navarro leaves me a very interesting question to answer:
Why does the central government of Córdoba look so weak? Why did it have so many problems to control the territories of al-Andalus?
Okay, the oversimplistic answer would be that the provinces revolted because they could. The continuous revolts of the territories of al-Andalus, especially the marches, were led by Arabs, Berbers or Muladis, so religion didn’t play a role, there wasn’t some sort of Christian uprising or a Spanish protonationalist response against Islamic rule. The administration of the Emirate of Córdoba was quite bureaucratic in Córdoba and the nearby areas, but as you moved away from the capital their power rested upon the Arab and Berber settlements or the Muladi families of the region. In that aspect, it wasn’t different from the Christian kingdoms, as the Umayyads relied upon clients just like Christian kings relied upon the loyalty of the nobles of each region.
What mattered to keep the loyalty of the provinces of al-Andalus were basically two things: the military, political and economic strength of the Emir, and the relations of clientage between the Umayyads and the Arab, Berber and Muladi clans, and among the clans. To keep the loyalty of the clients their Umayyad patrons had to make concessions, like autonomy, offices, income, tax reductions, marriages, or any other form of benefit. When a client revolted, the Emir needed to draw on his network of loyal clients and cultivate new clients, that could rise to prominence in a region and substitute the rebel clients. However, as you can imagine, if nothing was changed, the new clients would revolt too when they saw the opportunity and the cycle of revolts would never end.
António Rodrigues sent me this question:
How was the daily life of a simple peasant and what holidays did he have?
This is a very dense topic and I would need very in-depth research to answer it appropriately. I would suggest you to read Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul Newman, The Middle Ages: Everyday life in Medieval Europe by Jeffrey Singman, and in Spanish Vida cotidiana en la Edad Media by the Medievalist Julio Valdeón Baruque. These books cover many aspects, like diet, cooking, housing, clothing, hygiene, or pastimes.
Kent Wang asks me another question about the everyday life, and I can answer this one:
What did peasants eat, what did the elites eat? How did this change from the various periods, Roman, Visigothic, Muslim?
In Roman Hispania the diet was based on cereals, olive oil and wine, the classic Mediterranean diet. The plebs prepared puls, a staple dish of Roman cuisine that is basically a pottage of cereals or legumes, and there were variations to include meat, vegetables, or cheese on it. The elites had the same Mediterranean diet, but since they were richer, they could consume much more frequently meat, honey, milk, oysters, and they used spices and sauces like garum. Garum was mainly produced in Spain and exported to other parts of the Roman Empire, and I talked about it in episode 8 ‘Hispania: Principate and Romanization’. The Roman diet didn’t change much with the arrival of the Visigoths, but their diet gave more importance to the consumption of meat and they probably introduced the growing of spinaches and hops.
Unlike the Visigoths, the Muslims introduced many changes in the diet and crops of Spain. They introduced rice, orange trees, lemon trees, eggplants, melons, watermelons, apricots, sugar canes, and many spices and nuts that made the cuisine of Muslim Spain much tastier and more sophisticated than any other cuisine of Europe. With the brief research that I’ve made I couldn’t find the differences between the diet of the elite and the plebs in al-Andalus. However, what all these periods have in common is that the local resources and environment were very determinant for the diet of the locals. Trade was much more limited than it is today in a globalized world, meaning that if you lived in the Pyrenees you would barely eat fish, unless it’s freshwater fish, and you would have a diet more based on meat and fruits than someone who lives in fertile lands suitable for agriculture. Keep that always in mind.
My patron Shane Lewis lays out an alternate history question:
If the Marinids had been at their zenith, would have Fernando and Isabel been successful?
Well the Marinids of Morocco had been overthrown already in 1465, so you are asking me to make a lot of assumptions here. The Marinids had overthrown the Almohads in Morocco and they later gained a foothold in the Iberian Peninsula by controlling the Strait of Gibraltar. However, they never controlled more than that and they never were as threatening as the Almoravids and Almohads had been. The Marinids had been decisively defeated in 1340 in the Battle of Río Salado, which led to the end of North African interventions in the Iberian Peninsula and the Castilian conquest of Algeciras. So to answer your question, yes, the Catholic Monarchs would have been successful in the Granada War, even if the Marinids still ruled and were at their height of power.
The Twitter account Knowledge Voyage asks me a question that I really like:
What if Spain continued the Reconquista into North Africa rather than go to the New World?
As the great French historian Fernand Braudel put it, the discovery of America was an accident that distracted Spain from its natural area of expansion. In her last will, Queen Isabel of Castile ordered many things, for example that her daughter Juana would succeed her or that the indigenous people of America must be treated fairly. Moreover, she ordered to his successors: “And that they don’t cease in the conquest of Africa and fighting for the faith against the infidels.” Her last will was only partly followed, because the European matters were prioritized, with wars in Italy, the Netherlands, France, Germany and England. So instead the Spanish Empire only occupied a few coastal strongholds, like Oran, Tripoli or Tunis, and Spain progressively abandoned many of these cities. There were also some very resounding defeats, like the Algiers Expedition of 1541 that was led by Emperor Charles V himself and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. We can say that since the arrival of the Habsburgs Africa was seen as a secondary objective, and they preferred to use their resources in the wars of Europe and against the Ottoman Empire. If the Europeans hadn’t discovered America and the Trastámara dynasty had continued to rule Spain, I believe that Spain could have conquered North Africa and re-Christianize it.
The Twitter user Mada is one of my most active followers, and his first question is:
Was it even feasible for the Spanish to win against America in the 1898 war?
No, the US was already the 1st economic power in the world by the 1890s, while 19th century Spain was plagued by internal conflicts and it only had a few overseas territories. It’s an exaggeration of American propaganda to call Spain an empire by the time of the Spanish-American War. Spain lost any status of empire after the Spanish American Wars of Independence succeeded in the 1820s. Yet the US declared war on Spain after the either false flag or accidental explosion of the Maine and Spain had no other choice but to fight. The troops and navy had had a low morale for a long time, since they had to suppress revolutions in Cuba and the Philippines, and the US intervention destroyed any morale left. For instance, Admiral Pascual Cervera knew very well that the Spanish fleet wasn’t a match for the American fleet, so he decided to fight honorably in the naval Battle of Santiago de Cuba while trying to minimize losses. For honor and pride Spain still had to fight a war that most Spanish leaders knew was lost from the start. However, politicians couldn’t just cede and give what the Americans were asking without a fight, as that would have caused revolts and a crisis of the establishment in Spain.
He also sets out this interesting question:
Was the Spanish Civil War a continuation of the Carlist Wars?
No, the Carlist Wars had a component of both modern civil war and the ancient regime wars of monarchical pretenders. Also, the Carlist Wars were about liberalism and centralization vs regional privileges, the germ of regional separatism. What’s funny is that Catalonia and Basque Country were even more conservative and traditionalist than other regions of Spain, but decades later Catalonia was dominated by anarchists, socialists and communists.
Then José Barrera sent me two questions related to WW2 and Francoist Spain:
What if in 1940 Franco had offered to declare war on Germany if Britain would give Spain Gibraltar. Do you think Churchill would have done it?
That’s impossible to imagine, because Franco had been aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the Spanish Civil War. What we know is that Churchill bribed several influential Spanish politicians and generals to keep Spain out of the war. In any case, Franco was smart enough to die in a bed in 1975, unlike Hitler or Mussolini. Had he joined the Axis, a revolt could have happened and a foreign intervention would have occurred for sure.
The other question of Barrera is this one:
Spain didn’t participate in WW2. Spanish economy was not destroyed like rest of Western Europe. So why is Spain still a relative economic backwater?
Spain was destroyed after a civil war and we didn’t receive any money from the very generous Marshall Plan. Yet after ending political isolationism in the late 1950s and removing the Falangists from power, there was a period of high economic growth, much like in the rest of the “Free World”, and at the death of Franco Spain was in the top 10 of industrial economies. I wouldn’t say we are an economic backwater, since we are the 4th largest economy of the EU with just 46 M inhabitants. Still, political mismanagement and disunity, the lack of medium and large-sized companies and many other factors make Spain perform below its full potential. Our private sector is very weak, with most companies being microcompanies of less than 10 employees, and that’s a great obstacle to become an innovative country.
Now I have three questions related to the formation of Spain and Spanish identity. My patron Shane Lewis sets out a very important question:
When did Spain officially become Spain?
This is a much more complicated question than it sounds, and it will require a long answer. With the marriage of Queen Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon in 1479 the two crowns united, but they didn’t use the titles of King and Queen of Spain. A humanist wrote to the bishop of Braga the following: “We call Fernando and Isabel monarchs of Spain, because they own the body of Spain, and the fact that two little fingers like Navarre and Portugal aren’t part of this body it’s not enough to prevent us from calling them monarchs of Spain.” People in the Crowns of Castile and Aragon and abroad started to refer to Isabel and Fernando as Monarchs or Lords of Spain or the Spains. One of the impediments to officially use the title King and Queen of Spain was the lack of a legal union in terms of common laws and institutions, but the political union did happen. The same problem continued with the Habsburgs, who kept the Iberian political entities legally differentiated, although they used the abbreviated title King of the Spains and the Indies, because it’s not practical to always say the full list of titles: King of Castile, of León, of Aragon, of Sicily, of Granada, of Toledo, and on and on. During the reign of Felipe IV Count-Duke of Olivares, who acted as prime minister, attempted to centralize Spain and move towards the legal formation of Spain, first with the Crown of Aragon, Navarre and Portugal contributing their fair share in terms of taxes and manpower. Those attempts failed and that’s when Portugal regained independence and Catalonia was briefly occupied by France.
Later the Bourbons substituted the Habsburgs in the 18th century and they were successful in eliminating the institutions of the Crown of Aragon and in their efforts to move towards the administrative and legal unification of Spain. King Felipe V maintained his position after the War of the Spanish Succession, and he removed the institutions and laws of the Crown of Aragon between 1707 and 1716, although its territories except Valencia maintained their own private law. However, Navarre and Basque County maintained their fueros, that is their Medieval privileges and institutions. Then in 1812 the Cádiz Cortes promulgated the first Spanish Constitution that abolished the institutions of the Ancient Regime and recognized the Spanish nation and sovereignty, defined by all the citizens of Spain, Spanish America, Asia and Africa. The Spanish Constitution of 1812 talks about the Kingdom of the Spains, so we can say that in 1812 Spain was founded as a nation-state. But if you are even more picky, then you could say that Spain was founded in 1868 with the Glorious Revolution, because after that the official name of the country was Kingdom of Spain, in singular.
To sum up, there’s not a unique answer to the question of when Spain was founded. As a political union under the same monarchs and with the same foreign policy, Spain was founded in 1479 with the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs. After that it was perceived by foreign powers as a united political entity and referred to it as Spain. Some people would answer 1714 or 1716 with the Bourbon reforms, but I don’t think that a higher or lower degree of centralization determines if a country or a nation exists or not. Many more people would say that 1812 marks the foundation of Spain, officially under the name Reino de las Españas, Kingdom of the Spains. Therefore, I would go either for 1479, or 1812 if you want the official constitution of Spain.
Gary, the host of The French History Podcast, asked me:
When did the Spanish race emerge?
To my understanding, during much of Prehistory the Iberian Peninsula was populated by people of North African origin. Then Celtic people migrated, and Pre-Roman Iberia was divided between Celts, Iberians and Basques. Then the Romans conquered Spain in two centuries, and slowly integrated and mixed with the local population. The so-called Hispano-Romans appeared out of this partly genetic and partly cultural union, and they are pretty much the bulk of the current Spanish population. The Visigoths and other Germanic immigrants did leave a genetic legacy, but it wasn’t that substantial because they were between 100.000 and 150.000 people in a region with 5 or 6 million inhabitants. The Arabs, Berbers and Jews left their DNA too, since the average Spaniard has between 5 and 10% of North African and Middle Eastern DNA. In the Christian repopulations of the Middle Ages the Franks and Central Europeans participated too. For instance, there are more people in Andalucia with blue or green eyes and blonde hair than in the rest of Spain, and that’s because of certain repopulations of the 16th century with Central Europeans.
The last question about the Spanish identity comes from Mada:
When did the Spanish identity emerge?
I talked about it in episode 16 ‘Visigothic Conversion to Catholicism‘ if I recall correctly. I talked about the vague medieval idea of nation, especially the “mother Spain” of Saint Isidore of Seville. Some Christian Medieval monarchs, like Alfonso III of Asturias, Fernando the Saint, or Queen Isabel of Castile, dreamed about the political and religious unification of Spain and the restoration of the Visigothic order. That means that they dreamed about a united Iberian Peninsula, with Portugal included, and about a Catholic-only Spain. That’s the idea of the Reconquista and Neogothicism. Of course, the modern idea of nation didn’t appear until the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleonic France, that’s when the Spanish identity was embraced by both the elite and the plebs. Yet forging the Spanish identity came with its problems – notably with the lack of unity of the Spanish people after the Spanish American Wars of Independence and the rise of peripheral nationalisms like the Basque and Catalan nationalisms.
The remaining questions are about my views on several issues, from history to Spanish culture, or more personal questions. My patron Sian Williams asks me about:
My views on bullfighting.
Honestly, I have a very indifferent view towards bullfighting, I don’t have a strong opinion for or against bullfighting and I’ve never been to a bullfight. There are good arguments on both sides. Taurinos, those who are in favor of bullfighting, say that bullfighting is an ancestral art form, while antitaurinos, those who are against it, say it’s rather a barbaric and archaic practice, like Gladiator combats and slavery were. Antitaurinos argue that the death of the bull is painful and extended because the spectacle demands it, while taurinos say that bulls are killed in a very efficient manner and that the bullfighter can be killed too. I think that in this case the antitaurinos win, the pain that bulls suffer during the spectacle is undeniable. However, I think it’s also a very strong argument for bullfighting the fact that toro bravos, those bulls raised for bullfighting, live several years under extremely good conditions in very extensive pastures before being used in bullfights. Compare that to how the vast majority of livestock that we consume to eat live. If bullfighting was banned, then no one would dedicate money to raise these bulls and they could face extinction. I would say there’s a lot of hypocrisy about this issue, and by the way, the meat of those bulls killed is eaten later. Moreover, taurinos perceive that the bullfighting debate is used to attack Spanish culture. That’s not completely false because in Catalonia it was banned to eliminate anything that seemed remotely Spanish, while other typically Catalan activities related to bulls, like street bulls, are still permitted.
Another question from António Rodrigues:
Why aren’t there more independent countries in the Iberian Peninsula, besides Spain, Portugal and Andorra?
I prefer to think about it in the opposite way, why do Portugal and Andorra still exist? And the same for the British colony of Gibraltar. Yes, yes, I know my British and Portuguese listeners will not like this, but Spain is incomplete now because it doesn’t control the entire Iberian Peninsula, that’s the original idea of Spain, the idea was to have a political entity that controlled all Hispania. That was the dream of many Christian monarchs, including Portuguese monarchs. For instance, Miguel da Paz, son of the King of Portugal and a daughter of the Catholic Monarchs, could have inherited all the Iberian kingdoms, except for Navarre that had yet to be conquered. But he died when he wasn’t yet 3 years old and the Iberian Union had to wait until 1580. As for Andorra, it exists because of a Medieval dispute of rights between the bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix. What should have happened with the formation of modern nation-states is that Spain and France should have divided Andorra, just like Spain and Portugal divided the Coto Mixto and the Pueblos promiscuos, in English the Mixed towns. The Coto Mixto and Mixed towns were remnants of the feudal system and functioned as microstates that paid no taxes and were exempted of military service, and a division between the two neighbor powers is how an abnormal situation like the existence of Andorra should have been solved.
Andrés Coimbra tweeted:
Do you think El Cid should get a movie or a TV show?
Yes! There is a 1961 Hollywood superproduction depicting the life of El Cid in a romanticized way. It’s a very good epic drama, but it’s historically inaccurate. I think El Cid deserves a movie with the real story, not depicting him as a Christian hero of the Reconquista, but as a self-made man who founded his own kingdom with his military, political and leadership skills. And not related, but thankfully last year Amazon Prime released, at least in Spanish, the TV series Hernán, about the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. I’m about to start watching it and I’m very excited!
The last question that I picked to answer in this episode is from Mada:
What would be the craziest alternate history timeline in any moment for Spain’s history as an empire?
I would say the Spanish conquest of China. Few people know it, but there were plans to conquer China using the Spanish Philippines as a base and allying with Japan. Of course, such an attempt would have failed because, unlike indigenous Americans, the Chinese were used to Euroasian diseases too and China is just too big.
Okay, that’s all for this first Q&A, I think there have been many interesting questions and I hope the answers I’ve given have been insightful enough. The next episode will be a regular episode, episode 30 titled ‘Reforms of Abd al-Rahman II’. In the following episode I will cover the early reign and reforms of Emir Abd al-Rahman II, the cultural transformation of al-Andalus, and the foreign policy of the Emirate of Córdoba. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and material to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!