Old Spanish practices

<strong>Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity</strong>

Henry Kamen

<em>Yale Uni

The Spanish are sensitive - to say the least - about their past. Barely a week goes by here in Valencia without an acquaintance bringing up some thorn of contention relating to the country's history. As an Englishman - and therefore an unwitting representative of Her Majesty's government - I am often called upon to discuss matters relating to the Armada (invencible in the Spanish mind), the "pirate" Drake or the "seizure" of Gibraltar - phenomena which still rankle, centuries on. Among friends this is usually just a bit of fun, but on more than one occasion complete strangers have taken me to task over some obscure past event, usually relating to some supposed wrong done to Spain, national pride still clearly wounded.

This sensitivity is due, in part, to deep insecurities about what Spain really is. It would perhaps be more accurate to view it less as a country and more as a mini subcontinent. Like India, Spain lies on its own (albeit minor) tectonic plate and is crashing into a much larger continent to the north; joined to, yet also somehow semi- detached from Europe, it is a world unto its own, divided into myriad, very different regions and would-be nations. Unlike France or the United States, there is no revolutionary idea that holds the place together. More like Britain, it is bound by less easily defined concepts such as custom, shared history, or even a state of mind - and then not always very clearly. "In a nation like Spain," the exiled Spanish Jewish writer Isaac Cardoso wrote from Italy in the 17th century, "there are so many nations intermingled that the original one can no longer be recognised."

Not surprisingly, given these shaky foundations, a body of historical myths has been developed to help bind the country together. As Henry Kamen argues in this thought-provoking essay, it was largely in reaction to Napoleon's invasion of 1808 that certain ideas about Spain and its past began to be formed as part of a growing national consciousness. And almost all these ideas related to the 16th century - the "Golden Age" of Spanish history: the century during which, supposedly, the country reached its high point, only for a long and steady decline to set in.

The problem for Kamen is that most of these notions were based on misconceptions about the country's past, and were deliberately shaped as myths in accordance with the political landscape of the 19th century, and the ongoing struggle at the time between Liberals and Conservatives. In seven chapters he tackles them one at a time - for example, "The myth of a Christian Spain", or "The myth of an empire" - and attempts to explode them.

It is engaging and controversial stuff, and along the way we learn that Madrid under Philip II was never the "capital of Spain" (it was merely his seat of court and administration), that Spain never really had an empire (it inherited most of its territories, while any conquests were only achieved with large amounts of foreign manpower and money), and that the Inquisition did not cut Spain off intellectually from the rest of Europe, as is usually assumed. There is even room to argue that the country never suffered any great "decline".

Certain regional myths are equally dismissed. The Catalan national day - the Diada - is celebrated on the wrong date, while the Battle of Almansa in 1707, blamed by Valencians for the loss of their local customs and rights, was fought without the involvement of a single Valencian.

In many cases Kamen is quite convincing, and he clearly delights in bursting some of the ideas that have ballooned from the flowery and unscientific historical writings of the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the myths, particularly those concerned with the image of a strong united Christian nation under the "Catholic kings" Ferdinand and Isabel, were taken on board by Franco to help bolster his regime, and these were being taught in schools until very recently. Yet the misconceptions persist. Indeed, one of Kamen's main gripes is that, in his eyes, many Spanish historians are still engaged in mythologising the country's past.

Needless to say, Imagining Spain caused something of a polemic when it was published in Spain in 2006. There is plenty to disagree with here. (Did the Spanish themselves really have such a small part to play in pushing out the French in the Peninsular War? Was it really all down to the British?) But in a sense that is missing the point. Kamen is trying to shake up the history of Spain with this book. Mytholo gising, as he concedes, will persist because of the country's lack of a "coherent, commonly shared historical memory", but in the meantime he's given the myth-makers a resounding shot across the bows.

Jason Webster's most recent book is "¡Guerra!", about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything