Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

The Condition of Spain

A.D. 1450-1500

When Ferdinand and Isabella became King and Queen of Spain that country was divided into four States: Castile, which included the old provinces of the North, Galicia, the Asturias and the Basque country, Leon, Old and New Castile, Estremadura, Andalusia, and Murcia; Aragon, which included Catalonia and Valencia; the Moorish kingdom of Granada; and the independent kingdom of Navarre. You have heard how Ferdinand conquered Granada. Soon afterwards he annexed Navarre. Castile and Aragon being firmly united, the four States were merged into the kingdom of Spain. It was the home of many races, but thenceforth it constituted but one nationality.

The people of Spain were divided into four classes: 1. The nobles, who were of various ranks and grades; 2. The clergy; 3. The burghers of cities which held fueros, or charters, from the kings; and 4. The common people. In some provinces there was a fifth class, consisting of slaves—prisoners taken in war, captives bought from roaming slave-traders, or peasants belonging to the land they tilled. But the slavery of whites gradually died out, except on war-galleys, which were rowed by slaves a long time after Ferdinand and Isabella.

In those days the nobles—the highest among whom were called Grandees of Spain—possessed vast estates and enormous incomes. They lived in castles, with their retainers in towns and villages round them. Some of them were as powerful as kings. The Duke of Infantado could put thirty thousand men into the field. The Duke of Alva had an income of half a million a year of our money, which would buy as much goods or labor as several millions to-day. The income of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, of whom you have heard, was still larger. The family of Gonsalvo de Cordova, of whom you will hear presently, was nearly as rich, and so were a dozen others. All these nobles called themselves subjects of the king; but on their own estates they were monarchs of all they surveyed. They paid no taxes, but were bound to lead their fighting men to the king's wars.

The clergy were a large and powerful body, with the Archbishop of Toledo, who was called Primate of Spain, at their head. They also paid no taxes, and broad estates were assigned for the support of the several cardinals and archbishops and bishops. The Archbishop of Toledo had three-quarters of a million a year of our money, which was as much as five millions to-day. Many of the priests could afford to live in palaces; some of them had armies of retainers, whom they led to the wars. It became the fashion under Ferdinand and Isabella for the head of the Church to be likewise head of the government; thus Cardinal Ximenes ruled Spain in Ferdinand's later years. We should not think it a wise plan to put a bishop or archbishop at the head of the Cabinet in Washington; but four hundred years ago in Spain people looked at the thing in a different light.

The cities which had fueros or charters had a right to elect members to a Congress or Cortes, which made laws for the cities and the country round about them. I do not find that these laws were binding upon king, nobles, or clergy. But as the burghers had a way of their own of resenting invasions of their liberties by rising in arms, and as, moreover, the men in the cities had enrolled themselves in a brotherhood for mutual defence, I find that, so long as the Cortes continued to meet, neither king nor nobles cared to quarrel with them. After a time they fell into disuse, and their meetings ceased.

The common people of Spain—muleteers, shepherds, farm laborers, ploughmen, vine-dressers, and the like, in the country, and shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, servants, and the like, in the cities—do not seen to have enjoyed any rights worth mentioning, except the right of living, when they did not incur the wrath of the Church. They were often robbed by the nobles, and driven into the armies against their will. But when the nobles were not busy robbing people, and there was no war raging, and they did not quarrel with the Church, the common people appear to have led fairly cheerful lives, and to have danced merry boleros and sung tuneful romances on summer evenings.

Since the Moorish conquest Spain had made progress. Christians had learned from the Moors their methods of agriculture. They tilled every field that was covered with soil, and watered it from the near-by rivers. Thus all the land was made to yield its increase, and Spain had quantities of fruit and oil and wine to send abroad in exchange for foreign goods. The forbidding and sunburnt desert over which you will now travel if you go from Madrid to Toledo was then a garden, fed with water from the Tagus. The Moors were as expert breeders of cattle and sheep as they were good farmers. They raised fleet mules which were preferred to horses, and a breed of sheep, called Merinos, which yielded the softest and brightest wool in the world. You will see on some of our pastures sheep of that same Merino breed to-day. I have told you in former chapters of the products of the Moorish looms and factories and foundries. They also were copied by the Christians.

Thus at the close of the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the cities of Spain were numerous and rich. You have heard of Cordova and Seville and Malaga and Granada.. Toledo, with its turbulent people, was at the end of the fifteenth century as splendid and bustling as any. Valladolid, in Castile, which is now a small place of ten thousand population, could put thirty thousand soldiers in the field. Saragossa was the centre of so rich a country that it was called "the abundant." Barcelona was a great seaport, whose flag was seen in all harbors. Valencia was its rival for the trade of Africa. Salamanca, the home of learning, was crowded with students from all parts of Europe. Burgos was a hive of industry.

At that time the Spanish hidalgos were cultured and accomplished gentlemen, as well as valiant warriors. In comparison with Spain, England was a poor, weak, obscure country, peopled by an ignorant race, which at this time was busied in hanging witches, and among whom laborers worked for fourpence a day—a country where Jack Cade thought to better matters by turning everything topsy-turvy, and Parliament had nothing better to do than to prohibit the importation of flour until it reached a price when it was too dear for the poor to afford it.

The increase of wealth and the splendid example of the Moors led to much extravagance in living in the cities of Spain. People lived in houses with mosaic floors, fretted arches by way of ceilings, delicately carved windows. They wore clothes of cloth-of-gold and silver, and of silk richly embroidered. Ladies carried priceless gems round their necks and in their hair. The queen herself was not fond of show. When not engaged in affairs of government she spent her time in embroidery and fancy needle-work. A law was passed that no one but nobles should wear silk; but it was not obeyed. The rich burghers in the cities, like the nobles, gave grand feasts, at which rich food was served on gold and silver plates; after the banquet the ladies danced in gowns which were worth a fortune, and which were as stiff as if they were made of boards. When a man died another fortune was spent on his funeral. Ferdinand tried to stop this by law, but the priests said he was trying to take the bread out of their mouths, and he gave up his attempt.


"Remember that thou too must die!"

The king and queen led frugal lives. Isabella never used a carriage; she travelled on horseback. Both wore plain clothes and ate plain food. Isabella rarely touched wine. But the court did not follow her example. In one thing, however, she was extravagant. Printing had lately been invented. She sent for all the printing-presses and all the printers she could get; so that it is said there were more books printed in Spain during the century which followed the invention of printing than in all the rest of Europe put together.

One popular Spanish pastime she could not endure. That was the custom of bull-fighting, which lasts to the present day. In her youthful days she was taken to a bull-fight, and she saw horses gored to death, and the poor bull, after being teased by the cruel picadors, finally stabbed to death by the keen blade of the matador. As she came out she said she would never see such a spectacle again. She kept her word; but in this, as in the other case, her people did not imitate her.

In one more instance this admirable woman failed to carry her point. When the priests of Castile begged to be allowed to establish the Inquisition to crush the Jews, she objected, though she was a devout Catholic; but afterwards she yielded to the bullying of her confessors and her bishops, and assented to the introduction of the Holy Office in Spain, on the condition that it should be mercifully administered.

I wish I could tell you that it was; but I cannot. On the contrary, the cruelties which were practised upon heretics, or persons suspected of being heretics, by the priests of the Inquisition were so horrible that I will not undertake to describe them. You will find them set forth in larger books than this. It is enough here to say that during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella several thousand persons were burned to death after being tortured in the dungeons of the Inquisition, and that probably a still larger number of persons were despoiled of their property in favor of the Church under threats that they would be accused of heresy.

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