WE ASKED NINE EXPERTS TO COMMENT ON THE BEST RECENT BOOKS ABOUT SPAIN AND ITS EMPIRE.
Richard Kagan, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of Lucrecias Dreams: Politics and Prophecy in Sixteenth-Century Spain (California, 1990).
"Two of the best recent books address the relationship between ethnicity and religion. David Nirenbergs Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1996) examines relationships among Christians, Muslims, and Jews in fourteenth-century Aragon. Conceptually brilliant, it launches a frontal attack on convivencia, the idea that the three religions of medieval Spain lived in peaceful coexistence. Rather, Nirenberg postulates a societynot unlike todays Jerusalemin which racial tensions and violence formed part of the glue of everyday life. Equally valuable is the recent recovery of Ahmad ibn Qasim al-Hajaris Kitab Nasir al-Din ala al-Qawm al-Kafirin (The Supporter of Religion Against the Infidel) (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1997). Published with the original Arabic alongside an English translation, this is the fascinating memoir of one of the moriscos (converted Muslims) expelled from Spain in 1609. Al-Hajari found his way to Paris and other parts of Europe, reminiscing about his former life and offering interesting insights about the different kinds of Christians he encountered during his travels."
Bruce Taylor, research affiliate at UCLAs Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and author of Armatures of Reform: The Mercedarian Order in the Spanish Golden Age (Oxford, forthcoming).
"This year Spain celebrates another of its great international anniversariesthe four hundredth anniversary of the death of Philip II (1527-1598). Our assessment of the king is now greatly enhanced by Henry Kamens Philip of Spain (Yale, 1997), which succeeds in embracing the complexity of the subject while ignoring the narrow criteria and pernicious bias that have traditionally characterized biographies of the Prudent King. That said, the Black Legend of Spanish crueltyin which Philip himself is seen as the chief malefactoris hardly as prevalent in modern historiography as Kamen would have us believe, nor is he the first historian to have taken up the cudgels against it; witness Geoffrey Parkers Philip II (Open Court, 1995) in particular. But Kamens is the broadest vision to date, providing an example of what can be done through an expert survey of the immensely rich documentation that survives from this period in Spanish and foreign archives."
Stanley Payne, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and co-author of España y la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Spain and the Second World War) (Editorial Universidad Complutense, 1996).
"The loss of most of its American empire in the 1820s had surprisingly little effect on Spain, caught as it was in a traumatic transition from a traditionalist regime to capitalist liberalism. The demise of the remains of the old empire in 1898, however, was something else entirely, and in this centenary year Spain is deluged with accounts of that last colonial war and losing struggle with the United States. The most important single volume of this outpouring is Más se perdió en Cuba: España, 1898 y la crisis de fin de siglo (More Was Lost in Cuba: 1898 Spain and the Crisis of the Centurys End) (Alianza Editorial, 1998), edited by Juan Pan-Montojo, which considers the effect on Spain of the Cuban independence struggle and the Spanish-American War. The defeat was seen as a national humiliation that might lead to the downfall of the monarchy and the political system. It opened a period of domestic crisis and greatly accelerated a debate among intellectuals about national identity in the modern world."
Carolyn P. Boyd, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "Historia Patria": Politics, History, and National Identity in Spain, 1875-1975 (Princeton, 1997).
"Beginning with Person and God in a Spanish Valley (Princeton, 1989), the historian and anthropologist William Christian has written a series of influential books analyzing the ways in which ordinary Spaniards have sought access to the sacred. Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ California, 1996), his latest and most remarkable work, examines multiple sightings of the Virgin Mary that broke out in the Basque country shortly after the proclamation of the secularizing and mildly anticlerical second republic in 1931. Employing printed and manuscript sources, as well as oral interviews with surviving seers, believers, and onlookers, Christian describes sympathetically but objectively the visions and the visionaries, and the social, cultural, and political forces that shaped their experience. The result is a masterful exploration of religious belief and behavior that not only provides a rich new perspective on Spain in the 1930s but also illuminates more generally the ways in which individuals and communities search for meaning, reassurance, and power."
Eric Van Young, professor of history at the University of California at San Diego and author of a manuscript titled "The Other Rebellion: Popular Violence and Ideology in Mexico, 1810-1821."
"In recent years the rich literature on Latin American social and cultural history has taken a turn toward subaltern studies, examinations of resistance and rebellion and of the religious sensibilities of common people. In his thoughtful and well-researched The Power of God Against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century (Stanford, 1998), Paul Vanderwood explores a religious uprising by villagers in northern Mexico in the 1890s, the millennialist beliefs of its adherents, its brutal suppression by the government of Porfirio Díaz, and the relationship of the movement to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Similarly insightful is the classic work of the Peruvian historian Alberto Flores Galindo, Buscando un Inca: Identidad y utopía en los Andes (Instituto de Apoyo Agrario, 1987), which links Inca revivalist and utopian thought both backward to the colonial period and forward to Perus troubled twentieth-century political life."
Paul Freedman, professor of history at Yale University and author of The Image of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford, forthcoming).
"Medieval Iberia: Readings From Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources (Pennsylvania, 1997), edited by Olivia Remie Constable, is a valuable new resource for teaching about medieval Spain. Translated writings by medieval monks, notaries, chroniclers, and government officials depict everyday life and politics, affording a vivid picture of the collision and coexistence of different cultural worlds. While the diversity of medieval Spain is emphasized, its history is effectively integrated into a European and Mediterranean context, combating the tendency to see Iberia as peripheral to both European Christianity and Islam. The collection is an excellent complement to David Nirenbergs Communities of Violence. By looking at Jewish-Muslim relations, Nirenberg avoids the distortion, often imposed by sources from the governing (Christian) authority, of viewing medieval life in terms of Christians versus minorities."
Thomas B.F. Cummins, professor of art history at the University of Chicago and author of Toasts With the Inca: Andean Abstraction and Colonial Images on Kero Vessels (Michigan, forthcoming).
"Vicente Rafaels Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule (Cornell, 1988) is a beautifully written book, capturing the ironic twists and spins that are put on Christian doctrine and language instruction in the Philippines by those who are instructed. In 1492 Antonio de Nebrija confidently wrote in his Spanish Grammar that language was always the companion of Empire, but as Rafael demonstrates, the act of colonial translation is a decidedly two-way street that escapes the intentions of imperial logic. Jeanette Pertersons The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Texas, 1993) is an equally stimulating book, richly articulating the creation of colonial images within the context of Christian conversion. Focusing on one monastery, she analyzes the multiple and contradictory layers of meaning that native artists found in Aztec and Spanish pictorial forms and iconographies."
David J. Weber, professor of history at Southern Methodist University and author of The Spanish Frontier in North America (Yale, 1992).
"Whatever the Spanish empire was, it is also what we remember it to have been. In todays United States, past and present seem to conjoin in the plazas of refurbished Spanish old towns, from San Diego to San Antonio to St. Augustine. The historic ambience that these sites evoke, however, is largely a twentieth-century creation. No one has explained the making of these preserved towns better than Chris Wilson, whose The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition New Mexico, 1997) analyzes the political, economic, and cultural contexts of Santa Fes Spanish pueblo revival and the reinvention of Hispanic arts, crafts, and public ceremony. As the makers of the myth intended, todays romantic Santa Fe conveys a sense of timelessness and ethnic harmony. Wilson, however, finds deep class and cultural fissures between Hispanics, Pueblos, and Anglos, and he raises disturbing questions about the invention of Spanish tradition."
Esther Allen, translator of Rosario Castellanoss The Book of Lamentations (Penguin, 1998) and co-translator of The Selected Nonfiction of Jorge Luis Borges (Viking, forthcoming).
"Recently, in Spains leading newspaper, the exiled Cuban literary luminary Guillermo Cabrera Infante bemoaned the lackluster Latin American generation that succeeded
the famous Boom of the 1960s, and named two novelists from Spain, Fernando Savater and Javier Marías, as among the best now writing in Spanish. Add to that list Eduardo Mendoza and Arturo Pérez Reverte, and you have the core of a new Boom, but one originating in Spain. Curiously, its impact has yet to be felt in the United States. This is particularly mysterious in the case of Marías, one of the most acclaimed European writers of his generation. Though Maríass A Heart So White (Harvill, 1995), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, was in 1997 awarded the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the best novel translated into English, and though his work is deeply indebted to Tristram Shandywhich he translatedand the novels of Henry James, Marías remains virtually unknown here. But be warned: The Spaniards are coming."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.