Understanding the Past – 16.11.1999


John Elliott

1999 Balzan Prize for History, 1500-1800

For his outstanding contributions to the history of Spain and the Spanish Empire in the early modern period. He has transformed our understanding of the problems confronting Spain and its leaders in the age of its incipient decline; his scholarly and elegant writings have brought the history of the Iberian peninsula back into the mainstream of European and world history.


Some of the most original and creative work done by historians during the second half of the twentieth century has been on what has come to be known, at least in the Anglo-American world, as the Early Modern period, running from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. There are a number of reasons why these centuries, spanning the period between the Renaissance and the French Revolution, should have attracted so much attention. Traditionally, the Renaissance was regarded as marking the birth of the modern world. But the claims of the Renaissance to have ushered in modernity were increasingly contested both by medieval historians, who found many earlier intimations of modernity in medieval civilization, and by those historians who regarded science, technology and a “rational” view of the universe as the hallmark of modern civilization, and traced their dominance back to the Scientific Revolution of the later seventeenth century.

These shifting historical perspectives have strengthened the case for regarding the three centuries between the Renaissance and the French Revolution as a relatively self-contained and coherent historical period of transition, characterized by the coexistence of medieval and modern, of continuity and change. Not surprisingly, therefore, the period has provided the opportunity for vigorous debate, as historians of different persuasions and schools of thought have identified different elements in European civilization during those centuries, which appear either as survivals of an earlier age or as harbingers of the new. Documentation, both archival and printed, exists in abundance, and the debate was given a sharper edge by the great influence exercised by Marxist or marxisant ideas over historical writing during the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. Marxist attempts to pinpoint the time and place of transition from feudalism to capitalism opened up new areas of inquiry, particularly in the realms of social and economic history, even while having reductionist consequences for other fields of study.

My own period of formation as a historian came in the immediate post-war years, just at the time when the publications of the French Annales school, led by the great figures of Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, and Fernand Braudel, were beginning to have an impact on the British academic world. Fernand Braudel’s great work, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (1949) opened my eyes, as it opened those of so many others, to the immense possibilities of a comprehensive approach to the past, and of a genuine histoire totale, that most seductive and impossible of all kinds of history. But, coming out of the British tradition of empiricist history, I found it difficult to go along with certain aspects of the Annales approach – with its comparative neglect of cultural and intellectual history, its inherent determinist tendencies, and its relegation of power, politics and personality to a subordinate place in a world that was portrayed as being dominated by great impersonal forces shaped above all by geographical and economic imperatives.

In choosing Spain, and in particular the Spanish seventeenth century, as my prime area of research, I was motivated by several considerations, some personal, some historiographical. A visit to the country while I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University made a deep impression on me, but I was also influenced by what seemed to me the great opportunities awaiting anyone prepared to embark on a study of Spanish history, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the period of Spain’s rise to imperial greatness and of its subsequent decline as the dominant power in Europe. The archives were rich; the seventeenth century in particular, as a “century of decline”, had been relatively neglected by Spanish historians who preferred to devote their attention to the grandeurs of the age that preceded it; and native Spanish historiography had hardly begun its recovery from the turmoil and traumas of the Civil War, and remained largely isolated from the new historiographical trends in post-war Europe.

Above all, the history of seventeenth-century Spain seemed to me to pose a number of major historical problems which both touched on contemporary concerns, and were capable of illuminating the wider historical process. An Englishman living through the post-war period of economic and imperial decline could not fail to find resonances in the experience of seventeenth-century Spain, where the issue of “decline” was also a matter for intense debate. But an investigation which concentrated on the first half of the seventeenth century – the last decades of Spain’s European hegemony – was also bound to address such challenging problems as the root causes of Spain’s economic and political difficulties; the relationship between those difficulties and the loss of international power and prestige; the relative weight to be given, in any attempted explanation of decline, to the attitudes and assumptions of the country’s ruling elite; and the possible paradoxes inherent in the coincidence of an age of economic “decline” with a Golden Age for the arts.

Such concerns led me to focus much of my archival research on the years between 1621 and 1643 during which Spain was governed by the Count-Duke of Olivares, the favourite and first minister of Philip IV. The attempt to reconstruct the ideas and policies of Olivares as he struggled to preserve Spain’s European hegemony while embarking on a programme of reforms designed to check or reverse the process of decline, offered insights into problems of government and society, both Spanish and European, which I have sought to follow up during the course of my historical career. In particular, an intensive study of the origins of the revolt of the principality of Catalonia in 1640 against the government of Olivares in Madrid – the subject of my doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, The revolt of the Catalans (1963) – provided an opportunity to explore in depth the structural problems of a Spain made up of different kingdoms and provinces, each with its own distinctive histories, laws and traditions. It also brought me face to face – at a time when an authoritarian central government was again seeking to repress many of the manifestations of Catalonia’s distinctive identity – with the whole problem of national identity, and of the part played in its construction by nationalist historiography.

I found, therefore, that my study of Spain, which resulted in a number of books and articles, including a work of synthesis, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 (1963) and a large-scale political biography, The Count-Duke of Olivares (1986), constantly brought me back to historical problems common to other parts of Europe. The awareness of this made me appreciate the extent to which the understanding of Spanish history had been vitiated by an underlying assumption that, as the Franco regime liked to insist, “Spain is different”. While the history of Spain, like that of any other country, has distinctive characteristics which should not be underestimated or ignored, the peninsula formed part of a wider European civilization, to which it made significant contributions, and with which it shared many common traits. I constantly sought, therefore, to incorporate Spanish history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into a larger, European, context. My attempt to do this has, I believe, played its part in ending the isolation of Spanish historiography, and in encouraging European and American historians to pay more attention to the impact of Spain on the course of European history.

A historian of Early Modern Spain, however, cannot properly confine himself solely to the European scene. With the acquisition of a vast overseas empire during the course of the sixteenth century, Habsburg Spain acquired an American extension. A first visit to the Americans, North and South, in 1963-1964, brought home to me the scale and importance of Spain’s American empire, and the need to integrate the Spanish conquest and colonization of the New World into the wider picture of Spanish and European history. While much had been written about the process of conquest and colonization, and their impact on the indigenous peoples of America, less attention had been paid to the consequences of that process for Europe, other than the consequences for European economic life of the influx of large quantities of silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru. This encouraged me to produce a short survey, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (1970) suggesting some of the implications for Europe – intellectual, cultural and political, as well as economic – of the discovery and subjugation of America and its native peoples. This book, while much indebted, like all my writings, to the works of many distinguished predecessors, drew attention to a rich and rewarding field, which has been increasingly cultivated in the past two decades.

My work, therefore, pursued at Cambridge University until 1967, at King’s College, London, from 1968-1973, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1973-1990), and back in England, as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University (1990-1997), has moved to and fro between Spain, Europe and the Americas. In the process, it has sought to find, and explore, the relationships and connections between these different worlds, and to suggest ways in which a knowledge of the history of anyone of them can illuminate the history of the other two. My attempts, for instance, to explain the structure and workings of the Spanish Habsburg Monarchy as a “composite monarchy” made up of different kingdoms and territories acquired by conquest or inheritance, and preserving their distinctive laws and traditions after their incorporation into a union of kingdoms subject to a single monarch, has been taken up by historians of Britain and continental Europe, who have found the idea of “composite” states or monarchies useful for understanding the political and constitutional arrangements of the polities they study.

The concept of an Early Modern Europe of “composite” states also has implications for our general understanding of European history, and indeed for the future of Europe itself. Historical writing of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has tended to see the course of European history as moving inexorably towards the creation of a Europe of centralized nations-states. But the rise of supra-national organization, and the simultaneous resurgence of “suppressed nationalities” and of regional and ethnic communities insisting on their own separate collective identities, have cast into doubt the standard reading of European history as representing an irreversible movement towards the inevitable triumph of the centralized and centralizing state. In terms of political structure and organization, Europe at the end of the millennium appears to be reverting to some of the characteristics of the Europe of composite monarchies of the Early Modern period, and this in turn seems likely to encourage investigation into the ways in which political dialogue was conducted between the component parts of loosely structured unions.

This constant, and often unpredictable, interaction between the past and the present, is at once a justification for the enterprise of history itself, and a challenge to historians to persist in re-thinking the past, if only to ensure that the collective memory is not diminished, and that present and future generations are made aware, not only of the roads taken, but also those not taken, by their predecessors. But if the direction of historical research is to some extent guided, as it is bound to be guided, by contemporary preoccupations and concerns, it cannot dispense with the close testing of evidence, or with the interpretation of that evidence in a rigorously historical context which has not been distorted to conform to contemporary preconceptions and tastes.

One of the greatest dangers that confronts historical writing at the end of the twentieth century is that the current mode for relativism will blur fact and fiction, and lead to the assumption that one story is no more trustworthy than another. My own efforts have been guided, like those of all the best historians of our age, by the conviction that, even if the reality of the past can never be recovered in its entirety, there are degrees of plausibility in reading and interpreting it, and that the interpretation that is most plausible is the one that shows the most respect for the available evidence, and the most regard for the context of place and time.

 But one of the most significant historiographical gains of the last half century has been the realization of how many different kinds of evidence exist, and how numerous are the ways in which it can be interpreted. As traditional boundary lines are crossed and the barriers between disciplines are torn down, so the challenge to historians to range more widely in search both of new perspectives and new types of evidence grows stronger by the day. Over the past few decades, for instance, cultural anthropology has exercised a profound influence on the writing of history, and in particular the history of the Early Modern period. In my own case, it provided new insights into the significance of the royal court, and court culture, in Spain and Europe. Similarly, any historian seeking to understand Spanish society of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cannot afford to ignore the evidence provided by literature and art, both of which have been the subject of intense study by literary specialists and art-historians. Once again there is a need to integrate this work into a more comprehensive vision of the history of Spain.

It was the awareness of this that encouraged me to embark on a collaboration with a specialist in the history of Spanish Golden Age art, Jonathan Brown. The resulting book, A Palace for a King (1980), was an attempt to reconstruct the history of the palace of the Buen Retiro in Madrid, a pleasure palace built for Philip IV in the 1630’s and destroyed in the course of the Napoleonic wars. This was intended to be a “total” history of the building and decoration of a palace, and covers such questions as the motivations for its construction, the organization and financing of its construction and decoration, the iconographic programme behind the paintings commissioned for it (including Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda), the festivities organized in the palace and its gardens, and the political implications of expenditure on luxury projects in times of war and economic hardship.

It may well be that this kind of collaborative venture between specialists working in different fields will become increasingly common in historical research and writing. It provides one way, at least, of countering the effects of the growing specialization and fragmentation of knowledge in an age characterized by the proliferation of universities and departments, and the consequent proliferation of specialist monographs. One of these effects, where historical writing is concerned, has been the increasing popularity of “micro-history”, the detailed reconstruction and interpretation of a single episode or of a life which, but for the chance survival of documentation, would otherwise have been lost for ever to view. While micro-history, in skilful hands, can genuinely enhance our understanding an age or a theme, it can also result in work of little more than antiquarian interest, trivializing where it should illuminate.

Following in the tradition of the best historians of our times, I have always believed that the historians should be addressing large questions, and, wherever possible, attempting to communicate the results of his or her research in a form accessible to an intelligent lay readership. Precisely because the current trend is towards the fragmentation and atomization of the past, it seems to me more important than ever that the next generation of historians, working in collaboration or independently, should be willing to risk the bold synthesis, and attempt to restore a larger coherence to the study of an age. Coherence comes through the making of connections – the kind of connections that I have sought to make in my own work between developments in Spain, Europe and the Americas. But connections can also convey a spurious sense of unity and uniformity where none exists.

One antidote to this is comparative history, whose virtues were long ago preached by Marc Bloch. Although one of the hardest kinds of history to write, it also has much to offer, and may well attract growing numbers of adherents in the years to come. I first attempted comparative history in my Richelieu and Olivares (1984), a comparison between two rival statesmen which sought to identify both the similarities and the differences between the problems that faced them, and their responses to them, on either side of the Pyrenees. At present I am engaged in a much larger and more ambitious comparative project, a comparison between British and Spanish colonization of America. The purpose of this, as of all comparative projects, is to test assumptions about the uniqueness of historical experience, by seeking to discover what is truly exceptional, and what is experienced in common. The results in turn should raise new and interesting historical questions about why individuals or societies react in one way rather than another to a particular set of challenges or problems.

For ultimately, if one believes, as I do, that human history is not programmed by vast impersonal forces, but is about the choosing of options at any given moment, the challenge to the historian is to adduce every kind of evidence, and bring every possible perspective to bear, on the question of why particular options were chosen or rejected. The challenge is enormous, but also immensely stimulating. The exploration of European, and extra-European history, during the extraordinarily dynamic and creative period that stretches from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, has been, for me at least, a constant source of stimulus and enjoyment. There is no greater pleasure than attempting to communicate that enjoyment to others.

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