Early Modern Spain: A Social History

James Casey, Early Modern Spain: A Social History. ISBN-13: 978-0415206877   ISBN-10: 0415206871.

Casey does an excellent job showing the shifts in both the aristocracy and the common people from the sixteenth century onward. His explanation of the shifts in power as the lower class gained more and more rights through commercialism, the monarchy began to centralize, take power from the landowners, and create nation-wide laws and policies, and the effect of counter-reformation policies of the Catholic church will help you put your ancestors in a broader context than genealogical data. His inclusion of the average occupations, ages, and expectations throughout time and the various regions of Spain also give greater insight into the life of the common people.

Summary by Chapter

Inhospitable Land

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Spain was trying to ‘live down its Moorish past.” In the European perspective, the country had no beauty either in the city or the countryside. The country itself turned away from Europe. The Mediterranean had poor harbors, and little hospitable land around them. Across the country, there’s a lack of trees, thin soil, and lack of water. There were few horses to travel the country quickly. Perhaps because of this, the roads were not well known or mapped out, making for poor communication between cities. Maps came slowly; first detailing only roads, then adding in elevations and landforms.


Few People

Census enumerations began in medieval times within the individual kingdom. The records of the Catholic Church provide an accurate picture of the lifespans of its church members. The expulsion of the Jewish and Moorish populations reduced the population, but there was a steep decline in the 1600s. Warfare was a significant drain on the country’s population, with unmarried men first volunteering then being conscripted into service. Colonization also contributed to this exodus, with citizens leaving for the Caribbean islands.

Spaniards married younger than the rest of their European contemporaries. with women being married from 22 to 25 years old. There were elaborate systems used to measure the goods exchanged between a bride and groom, and the bride was typically incorporated into the groom’s household. And although women typically gave birth to five children, infant mortality rates were close to 50%.

People usually lived in small communities, with Madrid and Seville as the only major cities. Most of the town’s waste was dumped onto the streets, where it was broken down and eventually used for fertilizer. Human bodies were interred within the local churches, or in a shallow grave in the churchyard, posing a large danger to public house. The lack of wood also led to single-room houses with few furnishings.

The bubonic plague, typhus, and other diseases also greatly reduced populations. These plagues lowered the population, stopped trade, and brought about a universal fear of such an illness. This led to the first cases of nationally imposed quarantines, as several cities had to band together to blockade the infected populations.

Transition of Feudalism to Capitalism.

The major problem for Spanish farmers was the lack of water. River typically ran unevenly, and through rocky terrain unfit for farming. Individual towns worked to build dams, locks, and canals to bring water to their fields. Because agriculture required much effort, there were many publications about how to do it well, and were distributed to both gentry and commoners, focused on creating fertility rather than increasing production. Ploughing was difficult, as oxen were difficult to maintain and horses were low-quality. These animals were typically rented and only used the first time a field was ploughed.

Because of that, plants that required shallow root depth were commonly planted, specifically carob, olives, almonds, vines and mulberries. Vineyards flourished,

Because of the diversity of climate within the country, trade was necessary to obtain goods. Feudal lords typically controlled the trade of grain, with embargos on the free trade of grain not being lited until the enlightenment. Peasants also lived in a state of constant debt, making it difficult to have the means to buy supplies, or guarantee payment, as their income depended entirely on the quantity of crops they produced.

Treasure & Cost of Empire

Most industry involved agriculture, building houses, manors, and churches, and producing clothes. Because this industry was heavily localized, there was great regional variation throughout Spain. Most of the wool and silk were heavily exported. In order to ensure high quality and equal opportunity, many guilds restricted the amount of supplies their members could produce or sell. Fairs were the primary way of gathering together diverse suppliers with consumers.

The influx of gold and silver from America brought an influx of coinage to Spain, most of which immediately went to foreign consumers. This caused the monarchy to stabilize the currency and create a system of credit. Frugality was emphasized, with a stable family household touted as the pinnacle of a successful economy. While the increasing amount of raw produce boosted the country’s manufacturing market, it still lagged behind the rest of Europe. The government worked hard to ensure that raw goods passed through Spanish ports before anywhere else, and banned many foreign goods in an effort to increase the consumption of Spanish goods within Spain itself. In many ways, Spain played the middlemen of international trade routes.

Taxation was also a problem, with the unstable economy making it difficult for peasants to pay monetary fees. Many tax systems failed, with the retreat from international wars and exacting taxes from the wealthy providing some stabilization. The state moved much of its debt from internal to international lenders, with taxation determined by local authorities, providing a highly decentralized government.

Feudal Lords

Spain lacked a centralized government. Instead, it was a conglomeration of autonomous communities whose first priority was protecting their local interests. These institutions were self regulated, and grew more distinct as the public lands were bought by wealthy landowners, who quickly took control of local systems. These lords rented out lands to peasants, who typically paid back their debts through free labor. National restrictions kept these lords from cornering all the goods in the market, allowing for the above-discussed trade, and paid taxes to the crown. Land transactions were monitored by the community and the national government, assuring that no seigneurs gained too much power. Most communities were self governed, with justices (supposedly) keeping each other in check. Over time, these community figures took more and more of the taxation responsibility, with the community beginning to resist the control of the seigneurs.

Urban Commonwealth

Roughly one-tenth of Spain’s population lived in cities. Most towns were independent entities, with walls around their perimeter and a maze of streets and buildings within. Central squares, called plazas, provided centralized locations for trade. These cities relied on making money, and individuals gained prestige by doing well in the market. This desire to make money was tempered by the governmental appointment of magistrates from the nobility, maintaining a balance of power between the aristocracy and mercantile class.

Peasants, unable to find work elsewhere, flooded cities. The government tried to regulate the amount of poor in the cities by only allowing in people without employment or charging higher prices to those from out of town. Welfare did exist, with schools for poor children, collections of food and clothing being distributed, and regulations on beggars. Hospitals housed the poor alongside the infirm, and regulations on food purchases per-family were frequently put in place in an effort to prevent food shortages. Grain storage also proved key to providing for the poor class. These people tended to flood cities in times of famine, adding extra need to already strained resources.

These benefits were funded through taxation, which caused frequently dissentions and rebellions among the populous. Through gradual changes, the municipal government shifted power from the aristocracy to the citizens of the city. Taxation continued, with the steady supply of inexpensive bread being the greatest defense against unrest.

Consolidation of Aristocracy

Landed aristocracy was gradually replaced by a nobility of men of known families who had worked their way to the top, displaying good judgment in the management of their communities. This happened slowly. Ancestry was still very important, and no amount of wealth could make up for a aristocratic heritage. People still gained the title of nobility through wealth or intimidation, and the monarchy imposed restrictions to maintain a tightly run bureaucracy and keep too many wealthy people from becoming nobility. The nobility frequently were in debt, and the marriages of their daughters and maintenance of younger sons were highly intricate processes, meant to bring wealth into the family, or at least curb the decline of the estate.

Spain also lacked a central place of government until 1561, when Madrid was chosen as the seat of government. The city expanded rapidly, and while the bureaucratic elites who ran the government were taken from the nobility, individual talent was viewed as more important than ones family or wealth in obtaining a position. Within court, these individuals tended to remain loyal to their locality, marring persons from their hometown rather than those they met at court and leaving when the costs of courtly life outweighed the benefits of living in their homes.

As the system stabilized, the military might of the aristocracy declined, with power shifting to the crown itself, and the overall numbers of troops shrinking. And, while local ties still remained strong in the ruling class, their removal to the capitol strengthened their ties to the monarchy and helped consolidate and streamline Spanish government.

Obedience to Law

Laws and regulating the interactions between people worked much like a pyramid. At the base were the local leaders, ruled by district governors. Each kingdom within Spain had their own courts, with popularly elected magistrates. The bulk of litigations was usually solved on the local scale, with few appeals moving upwards through this bureaucratic pyramid. Many of these disputes were motivated by a sense of honor. Both sides wanted to appear to be in the right, and would often defend their honor (be it their lands, their goods, or their reputation) through violence instead of courtly litigations. Desires to increase ones property or ones trade capacity through theft of land or produce led to frequent land seizes or burglary, particularly in remote areas of the country. Such acts led to increased violence, be it local wars or dueling between the aristocracies.

The Catholic Church banned dueling in the Council of Trent, and the simultaneous push towards conciliation by the crown helped smooth the way towards honorable reconciliations. In this way, the state became a guardian of peace, attendant to the greater public welfare. Reinforcement of their laws relied on officers loyal to the Spanish crown, not local communities and judges brought in from distant towns. While the public seldom embraced these ‘foreigners,’ they provided a means for mediation by independent parties, especially as they were moved to a new town roughly every three years to maintain their objectivity. This system further linked the national government to the local aristocracies, strengthening the universality of regulations and the power of the crown.

The Catholic Church was instrumental in sustaining the concept of mercy as the legal system grew more and more standardized, bringing attention to the soul of condemned men. From this came policies towards reformation rather than automatic execution. Prisons began to be popularized, with the hope that time spent there would lead to corrected citizens.

Policing Family

Family was one of the most important social institutions of Spain. Families frequently kept household books which record the financial transactions of the household. Letters prove to be another effective way of studying the families, as the transient nature of Spanish families necessitated letter writing as the best means of communication.

Ancestry was of supreme importance. Families would frequently come together for burials, as all wished to be buried in or near the family church or tomb. Frequent memorial services were enacted for the dead, keeping ones ancestors in remembrance. Both makes and females could inherit from their parents, and heirs were expected to care for their living ancestors with their inheritance. Dowry was also on the rise, with women not only bringing in a substantial amount of goods to the marriage, but also being entitled to half of the goods acquired throughout their married lives. because of this, potential husbands were carefully examined before marriage, with negotiations ensuring that both parties were aware of all family connections and monetary wealth the other possessed. Intermediaries played a vital role in these negotiations, both civil officers working with both parties and church leaders investigating impediments and granting dispensations for almost 20% of marriages in the mid-1700s.

The good of the potential spouses was taken into consideration in this process. While parents frequently chose the spouse, consent was required from both bride and groom. The prevalence of the Catholic Church ensured a strict set of canon laws were maintained.

In general, women stayed at home. Nevertheless, running the household was considered a partnership between the spouses, with the wife focused on domestic tools and the husband supervising the outside world. They were encouraged to only have as many children as they could care for, and the high mortality rate helped maintain small family sizes. Godparents were carefully selected to care for children, and parents were expected to bring up their children to be morally sound and well educated. Although few Spaniards attended school, such institutions became increasingly common, separating pupils by class.

Community of Faithful

The Inquisition restored public order by ensuring that all citizens of the country were good Catholics. This led to first the slow decline, then expulsion of both Jews and Moores, and the strengthening of church policy through the Council of Trent, which helped integrate new converts into the church and greater society. Severity of punishments typically depended on family backgrounds and connections. The nobility could be reconciled with church doctrine with little punishment, while others could be executed for their heresy. While the connections between church and state waned after the Inquisition, the Catholic Church frequently obtained land cheaply, and tithes from the congregation allowed the institution to expand across the country. Clergy made up a significant percentage of the population, with many families encouraging their children to enter such a stable career. Witchcraft and magic were not prevalent, and the counter-reformation did little to change to reliance on saints and other Catholic traditions.

Catholicism provided a sense of community. Not only could locals gather together for mass, they celebrated the frequent church festivals, holy weeks, and embark together on pilgrimages.



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