Did Spain decline?
The purpose of this essay is to pose and answer a seemingly simple question - did Spain decline in the early seventeenth century? The first part of the essay is devoted to a discussion of the definition of 'decline'. I will then argue that Spain did indeed decline. The causes of decline were numerous, but in this essay I concentrate on the two most fundamental ones. The first was the empire itself, and the imperial policies pursued in defence of it. It was simply too expensive to defend the empire with the resources that Spain had. Secondly, the economic base of the country was being eroded even as it had to fight to keep its overstretched empire. The excessive demands of empire became impossible to fulfil. I will conclude by arguing that this ultimately resulted in the decline of Spain.
My definition of decline1 is drawn to a large extent from Earl J. Hamilton's classic article.2 Though it was written in 1938, the notion of decline put forward by Hamilton remains the clearest. In the late sixteenth century Spain was the leading power in Europe, but in the late seventeenth century it was not.3 This, if anything, is 'decline'.
Henry Kamen's criticism of the decline thesis is based on the assertion that Spain could not have declined, since it never 'rose' in the first place.4 I do not think that a 'rise' or 'Golden Age' is needed for decline, however. To substantiate the claim that Spain declined one merely needs to prove that as a consequence of a number of factors Spain became a lesser player on the European stage than it had been. It may be the case that Spain was already economically and politically weak in the late sixteenth century. In this essay I will attempt to show that this weakness was significantly exacerbated in the early seventeenth century, and that this lead to a diminished stature for Spain in European power politics. This is what I call the decline of Spain.
The most fundamental reason for the decline of Spain was, paradoxically, the Spanish empire itself.5 Spain controlled Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Sicily, Naples, Milan and the Netherlands in addition to the empire in America. The sheer size of the Spanish empire made it exceedingly difficult to defend, and gave Spain a great many enemies. Philip IV himself said: "with as many kingdoms as have been linked to this crown, it is impossible to be without war in some area..."6
Paul Kennedy argues that the Spanish saw each part of the empire as essential to the whole. The Italian provinces or the Netherlands, for example, could not be sacrificed out of a fear of collapse of the whole empire.7 This meant Spain had to fight the Dutch, the French, the English, the German princes, and even the Swedes. Spain defended its empire on all fronts, but could ultimately not afford to continue doing so.8 Spanish monarchs were forced to spend much more than they gained in revenues, and Spain experienced several state bankruptcies.9 At Philip II's death in 1598, Spain was a hundred million ducats in debt, the interest payments for which ate up two thirds of the Crown's revenues.10 In 1621 the Spanish king was told that the year's expenditures were met not with current income, but by income anticipated up to 1625.11 I think Paul Kennedy is worth quoting on this point: "What other fate (but decline) was due to a nation which ... was directed by governments which consistently spent two or three times more than the ordinary revenues provided?"12
The struggle in the Netherlands was the single greatest burden on Spain. In 1622, for instance, Spain spent 3 700 000 ducats in Flanders. The major achievement was an unsuccesful siege on Bergen-op-Zoom, with Spain losing over half of its army of 18 000 men in the process.13 The siege is illustrative of the whole Spanish effort to quell the Dutch rebellion. Between 1566 and 1654, Spain spent at least 218 million ducats on the war effort in the Netherlands, which was almost twice as much as Spain gained from its American empire.14 It is easy to see why a Spanish observer said that "The war in the Netherlands has been the total ruin of this monarchy."15 Add to this the decision to intervene in Mantua,16 and the construction of the Armada which cost 10 000 000 ducats,17 in addition to the seizure of the Spanish silver fleet by the Dutch in 1628,18 and it is not hard to understand that Spain could simply not afford to defend its empire.
The basic structural flaw of the empire and specific policies combined in the early seventeenth century with a number of economic problems. The most important of these are demographic decline, the lack of a suitable environment for the development of Spanish industry, and the growing dependence on foreign countries. Perhaps the most important cause of the decline of Spain was the demographic problems of its most important region, Castile.19 About 6.5 million of the 7.5 million people comprising Spain's population was Castilian. Castile provided the Spanish crown with most of its revenues and its best troops. Its economic health was crucial to the continued projection of Spanish power abroad.20
Castile faced serious demographic problems in the early sixteenth century. A great number of Castilians went to America or died in battle. Famine and plague claimed tens of thousands of Castilian lives.21 Castile experienced five major plagues between 1589 and 1694.22 In 1599, for example, about ten per cent of the population of Castile died from the plague. The agricultural crisis23 caused a doubling or trebling of the number of deaths.24 In 1609, the great majority of the Morisco population of Spain was expelled.25 Though the Moriscos lived predominantly in other parts of Spain than Castile, their importance was such that their expulsion even from Castile is relevant. The Moriscos were an essential part of Spanish agricultural production, and Vicens Vives points out that they also essentially supported the system of cencos al quitar.26
It is estimated that Castile lost about twenty five per cent of its population between 1600 and 1623. Such a dramatic drop in the population meant the basis for the Crown's revenues was dangerously weakened in a time when it was engaged in continuous conflict in Europe.27 The problem is obvious, since according to Elliott, Philip IV's foreign policy was as costly as Philip II's.28 Relatively it put a much greater strain on the economy. Also, the military might of the Spanish army had been largely dependent on the Castilian infantry, but their number was greatly reduced. At the end of the Thirty Years' War, the majority of troops in the Spanish army were foreigners.29
Kamen argues that Spain was already a 'dependent' country in its 'Golden Age'.30 Israel's account is much more convincing, however.31 He argues that Spain became dependent after its Golden Age, which contributed to its economic decline. The Spanish cloth industry, for example, showed significant vigour until the end of the sixteenth century. The Dutch and French cloth industries suffered from the revolt and the Wars of Religion respectively, and did not pose a significant threat to Spanish domestic industry until the 1590s.32 Also indicative of Spanish economic dynamism in this period is the growth of the towns, Spain being more urbanized than France or England.33 After 1595, the Spanish textile industry collapsed under the weight of competition from France and the Netherlands. Spain was also becoming more and more dependent on agricultural imports, which was arguably a serious problem since Spain's transportation system was primitive relative to other European countries, and importing therefore difficult.34 By 1621, foreign goods dominated the Spanish market. However, there were hardly any French ships in Spanish ports before 1659, so the economic decline of Spain in this respect was not yet final. The process was completed in 1648 and 1659, when the embargoes against the French and the Dutch were lifted.35 Now Spain was a dependent country.36
The final cause of the economic problems of Spain was that it was not an environment were a new capitalist economy could thrive.37 One of the major reasons for this was the lack of a sufficient domestic market for industrial goods. Agricultural prices were high because there was an 'exodus' from the countryside caused primarily by heavy taxation on the peasants.38 The expulsion of the Moriscos worsened the situation.39 The average peasant lived barely above subsistence level, and was often forced to fall in debt.40 Thus, the majority of the population lacked the money to create a domestic market for manufactured goods.
Investment is needed for economic development, but there was hardly any incentive to invest in early modern Spain. Those who had money would rather put it into obtaining a noble title than business because of the heavy taxation of commoners.41. They did not become a productive bourgeoisie, but rather part of an economically inefficient aristocracy.42 This was a society polarized into rich and poor, with no significant middle class to develop a capitalist economy.43 The investment there was did not produce economic growth, since it was directed into personal loans and government bonds rather than agriculture, industry, or trade.44
Another problematic aspect of Spain as an economic environment was its culture.45 It would perhaps be going too far to argue that the lack of a Protestant work ethic as formulated by Max Weber was the cause of Spain's inability to convert its vast wealth into economic growth. However, it seems obvious that the cultural climate was a hindrance on economic development. Spanish culture in the period was contemptuous of manual labour. It was considered dishonourable. Vicens Vives illustrates this well by quoting from the Lazarillo de Tormes: "...any no-good wretch would die of hunger before he would take up a trade."46 A further quote, from the arbitrista Alfonso Núñez de Castro, illustrates the Spanish attitude accurately:
Let London manufacture those fine fabrics of hers... Holland her chambrays ... the Indies their beaver and vicuña ... so long as our capital can enjoy them; the only thing it proves is that all nations train journeymen for Madrid, and that Madrid is the queen of Parliaments, for all the world serves her and she serves nobody.47
In other words, it was thought that Spain could enjoy the products of other countries without producing anything itself. This was increasingly the reality, since Spanish industry declined in the early seventeenth century. However, as we have seen, Spain became a dependent country. De Castro's assertion was true, but not in the way he assumed. I think it is clear that though the ultimate causes for Spanish decline lie elsewhere, the culture of early modern Spain was a factor in its economic malaise.
The decline of Spain should be seen in terms of European power politics. Spain was the pre-eminent power in Europe in the sixteenth century, but by the middle of the seventeenth century it had been seriously weakened. Portugal succesfully revolted against Spain and regained its independence. In 1648, Spain recognised the independence of its most prized European possession, the Netherlands. In 1659, after decades of essentially futile struggle, Spain agreed to peace with its arch-rival France. Several historians rightly argue that though the Treaty of the Pyrenees was not humiliating as such, it did mark the end of Spanish imperial ambitions in Europe and of her ability to to dominate the continent.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Spain had become a second rate power. The Spanish War of Succession offers ample evidence of this. Foreigners intervened freely in Spanish affairs, and Spain had to rely on French troops to defend its soil. Also, this was the first time in centuries that the Spanish had to fight a defensive war inside Spain‘s borders. Spain’s weakness in this conflict offers a stark illustration of the country’s diminished stature in European affairs.
I have argued that there were two essential causes of the decline of Spain. The empire was too large for Spain to defend with the revenues it had. Spain's economy was also being weakened. Demographic problems in Castile combined with a lack of investment, a growing dependence on foreign countries, and a culture adverse to capitalism. Not only was Spain unable to keep up with the rising economies of Northern Europe, its economy declined in absolute terms. As a consequence Spain's ability to wage war weakened. It could not defend its overstretched empire or pursue an aggressive foreign policy. In other words, the power it could project on the European stage had become much less. Spain had declined.
1. It may be the case that such a broad term as 'decline', which perhaps contains a normative element, cannot in any objective sense be used to describe historical phenomena. It is clear that no objective definition of the term 'decline' can be put forward. There is no Platonic 'idea' of decline. However, these philosophical objections to the use of the term are beyond the scope of this essay. I will here assume that the term is useful and has meaning. Indeed, if one were to argue that the whole concept is useless, this would simply mean that the question 'did Spain decline?' would be meaningless, and the question unanswerable.
2. Hamilton, Earl J., 'The Decline of Spain', The Economic History Review
, Vol. 8, No. 2. (May, 1938), pp. 168-179. For a similar definition of decline, see Elliott, J.H. 'The Decline of Spain', Past and Present
, No. 20, (November, 1961), pp. 52-75.
3. I do not think there is scope in such a short essay to attempt a more precise delineation of the time period of Spain’s decline than ‘the early seventeenth century’.
4. Kamen writes: “It is difficult to see how so undeveloped a nation could have 'declined' before ever becoming rich.“ He is wrong - it is quite easy to see how this happened. Spain declined by becoming even poorer than it had been. See Kamen, Henry, 'The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?', Past and Present
, No. 81 (November, 1978), pp. 24-50. In his newer book, Kamen curiously brushes off the decline debate, while giving only his own article and J.K.J. Thomson's book as references for his claim that it has been "wholly superseded". See Kamen, Henry, Spain's Road to Empire: the Making of a World Power 1492-1763
, London, Penguin Books, 2002 and Thomson, J.K.J., Decline in History: The European Experience
, Malden, Polity Press, 1998.
5. One might argue that if the cause of the decline of the Spanish empire lay in the existence of the empire itself, Spain was not as powerful as it seemed, and it doesn't make sense to talk of Spanish decline. However, as Paul Kennedy points out, the other major European powers certainly considered Spain's empire a significant threat to themselves. Particularly the French feared Habsburg encirclement of their possessions. Furthermore, as I have already argued, a 'Golden Age' is not needed for decline, and thus the structural deficiencies inherent in the Spanish system do not detract from the fact that Spain did decline.
6. quoted in Kamen, Henry, Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict
, London, Longman, 1983, p. 208.
7. Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000
, London, FontanaPress, 1989, p. 65.
8. I think J.H. Elliott is right in stressing not only the failures of Spain, but also its successes. It is remarkable that Spain was able to hold on to its empire for as long as it did. See Elliott, John H., Imperial Spain 1469-1716
, London, Edward Arnold Publishers, 1963, pp. 378 - 382.
9. In 1557, 1575, 1596, 1607 and 1627. See Elliott, Imperial Spain
, p. 285 and Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, p. 60.
10. ibid., p. 60.
11. Kamen, Spain
, p. 216.
12. Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, p. 61.
13. Israel, J.I., 'A Conflict of Empires: Spain and the Netherlands 1618-1648', Past and Present
, No. 76 (August, 1977), pp. 42-43.
14. Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, p. 64.
15. ibid., p. 64.
16. Elliott, Imperial Spain
, pp. 330-331.
17. ibid., p. 279.
18. Kamen, Spain
, p. 208.
19. For the classic account, see Elliott, 'Decline of Spain'. See also Thomson, Decline
, pp. 165-172.
20. ibid, pp. 56-57. Paul Kennedy points out that the very reliance on such a narrow tax base was a major problem for Spanish finances in the long term. See Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, p. 68.
21. The plague was especially damaging since the population was undernourished and the medical system archaic. See Vicens Vives, Jaime, 'Demographic, Agricultural, and Industrial Decline of Spain in the 17th Century' in his An Economic History of Spain
, Princeton, Princeton University Press, p. 414.
22. In 1589-1591, 1629-1631, 1650-1654, and 1694. See ibid., p. 415.
23. See below.
24. Casey, James, 'Spain: a Failed Transition' in Clark, Peter (ed.), The European Crisis of the 1590s: Essays in Comparative History, London, George Allen & Unwin, p. 211.
25. Elliott, 'Decline of Spain', p. 59. According to Pierre Vilar, about 500 000 Moriscos were expelled. See Vilar, Pierre, 'The Age of Don Quixote' in Earle, Peter, Essays in European Economic History 1500-1800
, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 102.
26. Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', p. 424. For a discussion of the system of cencos al quitar, see Vassberg, David E., Land and Society in Golden Age Castile
, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 206.
27. For a general account, see Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, pp. 40-93.
28. Elliott, 'Decline of Spain', p. 56.
29. Kennedy, Rise and Fall, p. 56.
30. Kamen, 'Decline of Spain', pp. 41-48. Also see Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, pp. 68-69; Casey, 'Spain', pp. 218-219; and Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', pp. 419-422.
31. Israel, J.I., 'The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?', Past and Present
, No. 91 (May, 1981), pp. 170-180.
32. ibid., pp. 173-178.
33. ibid., p. 173.
34. Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', p. 414.
35. Israel, 'Decline of Spain', p. 177.
36. Foreigners were also dominant in the trade with the Spanish empire in America. See Kamen, Henry, The War of Succession in Spain 1700-15, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969, p. 28. Financing of the Spanish military was also to a great extent in the hands of foreigners. See Thompson, I.A.A., War and Government in Habsburg Spain
, London, The Athlone Press, 1976, p. 284.
37. Kennedy, Rise and Fall
, pp. 68-69.
38. Elliott, Imperial Spain
, pp. 289-290; Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', pp. 412-413.
39. Crop yields also dropped in the late sixteenth century. See Vassberg, Land and Society
, pp. 197-204.
40. ibid., 184-185, 204-210; Elliott, Imperial Spain
, p. 289.
41. Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', p. 417. See also, Elliott, Imperial Spain
, pp. 280-281.
42. Vicens Vives writes: "... the Castilian hidalgos minor nobles
of the 17th century deprived the Spanish economy of an enormous human potential, which went into other, completely unproductive professions: 'Church, royal household, or the sea.'“ Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', p.418.
43. Elliott, Imperial Spain
, p. 306. Elliott quotes Don Quixote
: "There are but two families in the world, the haves and the have-nots."
44. Elliott, 'Decline of Spain', p. 67; Thomson, Decline
, p. 185.
45. See, for instance, Elliott, 'Decline of Spain', pp. 65-66.
46. quoted in Vicens Vives, 'Decline of Spain', p. 416. Begging was not considered dishonourable.
47. quoted in ibid., p. 416. My italics.
Casey, James, 'Spain: a Failed Transition' in Clark, Peter (ed.) The European Crisis of the 1590s: Essays in Comparative History
, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
Elliott, John H., 'The Decline of Spain', Past and Present
, No. 20 (November, 1961), pp. 52-75.
Elliott, John H., Imperial Spain 1469-1716
, London, Edward Arnold Publishers, 1963.
Hamilton, Earl J., 'The Decline of Spain', The Economic History Review
, Vol. 8, No. 2 (May, 1938), pp. 168-179.
Israel, J.I., 'A Conflict of Empires: Spain and the Netherlands 1618-1648', Past and Present
, No. 76 (August, 1977), pp. 34-74.
Israel, J.I., 'The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?', Past and Present
, No. 91 (May, 1981), pp. 170-180.
Kamen, Henry, The War of Succession in Spain 1700-15
, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
Kamen, Henry, 'The Decline of Spain: A Historical Myth?', Past and Present
, No. 81 (November, 1978), pp. 24-50.
Kamen, Henry, Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict
, London, Longman, 1983.
Kamen, Henry, Spain's Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power 1492-1763
, London, Penguin Books, 2002.
Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000
, London, FontanaPress, 1989.
Thompson, I.A.A., War and Government in Habsburg Spain
, London, The Athlone Press, 1976.
Vassberg, David E., Land and Society in Golden Age Castile
, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Vicens Vives, Jaime, 'Demographic, Agricultural, and Industrial Decline of Spain in the 17th Century' in his An Economic History of Spain
, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Vilar, Pierre, 'The Age of Don Quixote' in Earle, Peter, Essays in European Economic History 1500-1800
, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1974.