The question of Spain

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Tue Oct 24 23:31:47 MDT 2000

Lou posted:

>  >From the introduction to "The Castilian Crisis of the Seventeenth Century",
>edited by I.A.A. Thompson and Bartolomé Yun Casalilla (Cambridge University
>Press, 1994):
>Yet Spain’s role in early-modern Europe was pivotal. The economy of
>Castile, which was four parts or more of Spain in terms of manpower and
>wealth, was in many ways the hub of the entire economy of Europe. Not only
>did it sustain, as long as it was able, the military and political hegemony
>of the Spanish monarchy, which was itself the raison d’être of so much of
>Europe’s international finance and exchange, it was also the link between
>the North and the Mediterranean and between Europe and America, a key
>market for grain, naval stores, copper, woollens, silks and linen, an
>important supplier of raw wool and the main source of Europe’s precious
>metals. The performance of the Castilian economy was thus a crucial factor
>in the performance of all the other major European economies. For the first
>three-quarters or more of the sixteenth century Castile’s population
>multiplied, the arable was extended, agricultural production increased, the
>level of urbanisation rose, the manufacture of silks and woollens
>flourished in the great textile centres of Toledo, Granada, Segovia and
>Cordoba; wool exports remained buoyant until the 1560s, foreign trade until
>the 1590s, and traffic with the Indies until the 1610s. In the last quarter
>of the sixteenth century this expansion first petered out and then fell
>back on itself. The progressive downturn of the Castilian economy was
>arguably one of the triggers of the general crisis of the European economy
>in the seventeenth century, the mark of the shift of economic preponderance
>from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and the archetypical model of the
>‘failed’ economy.

*****   Splendour and Misery


The century that followed the great Indian epidemic of 1576-9 has
been called 'New Spain's century of depression' - a century of
economic contraction, during the course of which the New World closed
in on itself. During this century it had less to offer Europe: less
silver, as it became increasingly expensive to work the mines, and
fewer opportunities for the emigrants - the 800 or more men and women
who were still arriving in the 15905 in each flota from Seville. At
the same time, it also came to require less of Europe - or at least
of Spain. European luxury products found themselves competing with
the products of the Far East carried to America in the Manila
galleon. But much more serious from the point of view of Spain was
the establishment in its American possessions of an economy
dangerously similar to its own. Mexico had developed a coarse cloth
industry, and Peru was now producing grain, wine, and oil. These were
exactly the products which had bulked so large in the cargoes from
Seville during the preceding decades. In fact, the staple Spanish
exports to America were ceasing to be indispensable to the settlers,
and in 1597 Spanish merchants found it impossible to dispose of all
their goods: the American market, the source of Andalusia's
prosperity, was for the first time overstocked.

>From the 1590s, therefore, the economies of Spain and of its American
possessions began to move apart, while Dutch and English interlopers
were squeezing themselves into a widening gap. It was true that
Seville still retained its official monopoly of New World trade, and
that Sevillan commerce with America reached an all-time record in
1608, to be followed by a further twelve years in which trade
figures, while fluctuating, remained at a high level. But, as an
index to national prosperity, the figures are deprived of much of
their significance by the fact that the cargoes were increasingly of
foreign provenance. The goods which Spain produced were not wanted by
America; and the goods that America wanted were not produced by Spain.

The changing demands of the American market presented the Castilian
economy with problems of readjustment which it was ill equipped to
tackle; for, during the preceding decades, there had been a signal
failure to reverse the economic trends apparent during the later
years of the reign of Charles V, and neither industry nor agriculture
was in any state to meet the challenge of changing demand and of
increasing foreign competition. Indeed, Castile's economy was showing
every sign of stagnation, and even, in some areas; of actual
regression, as contemporaries themselves became increasingly aware
during the closing years of the century.

The first point to strike contemporary observers was the depopulation
of Castile and the decay of agriculture. To some extent, their
observations were misleading. What passed for depopulation in Castile
during the second half of the sixteenth century may often have been a
redistribution of population as a result of internal migrations.

Of thirty-one towns in Castile, twenty, in fact, showed an increase
of population between 1530 and 1594, and only eleven a decrease:

City                    1530            1594

Valladolid              38,100          33,750
Cordoba                 33,060          31,285
Medina del Campo        20,680          13,800
Alcazar de San Juan     19,995          10,285
Medina de Rioseco       11,310          10,030
Santiago (1557)         5,380           4,720
Orense (1557)           5,290           3,500
Vigo (1557)             5,025           4,225
Tuy (1557)              3,805           2,480
Corunna                 3,005           2,255
Betanzos                2,850           2,750

It is noticeable that nine of these eleven towns with a declining
population are in the northern half of Spain - the region likely to
be most affected by the war with the Netherlands and by the spread of
piracy in the Bay of Biscay. What contemporaries assumed to be a
general depopulation may therefore have been a depopulation of the
north - the most prosperous part of Castile in the earlier years of
the century. The southwards migration of the inhabitants of this
region could easily suggest a demographic disaster at a time when the
population increase of the early sixteenth century may perhaps not
yet have spent itself.

Apart from a shift of population from north to south, which was not
necessarily inimical to economic advance, there was, however, another
shift of population, the implications of which were very disturbing.
This was the drift from the countryside to the towns. There are many
indications that the position of the Castilian peasant and
agricultural labourer was deteriorating in the second half of the
sixteenth century. In the region of Valladolid, for example, there
were increasing complaints after 1550 about peasant indebtedness and
the dispossession of peasantry from their lands by creditors from the
towns. It was all too easy for a small peasant to run into debt as
the result of a succession of poor harvests. Even in good times his
profits were limited by the tasa del trigo; and at all times he was
liable to be subjected to the attentions of the tax collector, the
billeting officer, and the recruiting sergeant.

The ordinary Castilian villager had few defences against these
merciless agents of a higher power. There was, for instance, little
protection to be had against the depredations committed by a
licentious soldiery, and Calderon's El Alcalde de Zalamea, written
around 1642, describes the kind of incident that was all too common
in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. The soldiers despised
the peasants in whose houses they were billeted, and treated them
with mingled brutality and disdain. Military discipline, precarious
at the best of times, seems to have declined sharply over the course
of the years: captains tended to take the side of their soldiers in
any incident that occurred between them and the civil population, and
to see in the complaints of the civil authorities a threatened
infraction of their jealously guarded fuero militar. As a result
there were endless conflicts between civil and military jurisdiction,
in which the municipal authorities were generally worsted, since
military tribunals winked at the offences of their men, and the
highest tribunal of all, the Council of War, could be relied upon to
take the part of its captains and maestres de campo.

Calderon's rich peasant, Pedro Crespo, who took the law into his own
hands and had the offending captain hanged, is at once the idealized
symbol of a peasantry which had little effective legal protection
against the provocations of the soldiery, and the expression of a
spirit of resistance which, at least in Castile, was infrequent,
partly because it had so little hope of success. Faced with a company
of soldiers to be billeted in his village, and already crushed by the
weight of royal taxes and seigneurial and ecclesiastical dues, the
unfortunate peasant was liable to take the line of least resistance
and to abandon his village, seeking shelter and safety with his
family in the anonymous world of the town.

The exodus to the towns gradually transformed Castile into a land of
deserted villages, with tragic consequences for the country's
agrarian development. All over the Mediterranean region, the second
half of the sixteenth century was a period in which local food
production was proving increasingly inadequate for a still growing
population. Castile, with its rural labour force dwindling, was no
exception to this; and from about 1570 it began to be heavily
dependent on grain supplies from northern and eastern Europe. After
1570, therefore, Castilian grain prices were rising; the fields were
deserted; and the country was tied still more closely to a northern
Europe from which it was already importing the manufactures that its
own industries could no longer supply at competitive rates. While the
Cortes of Castile constancy lamented the decay of agriculture, little
was done to prevent it. The radical reforms that were really needed
could be achieved only through a collective effort and a revaluation
of national priorities so drastic as to appear inconceivable....

<>   *****


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