restricted access The Maravall Problem: A Historical Inquiry
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The Maravall Problem:
A Historical Inquiry

I AM A HISTORIAN OF EARLY modern Spain. I first came into contact with José Antonio Maravall in graduate school, when I wrote a paper about the 1520 Comuneros Revolt and I read Las Comunidades de Castilla. My teacher had been a friend of Maravall. I had lived in Spain for over a decade just after Franco’s death and during the transition to democracy, so immediately I realized two things about the book, aside from what it had to say about the Comuneros: The author had a tremendous chip on his shoulder about Spain’s peculiar political development over the past few centuries, and he was the father of the Socialist minister of education. Soon I realized the relationship was the other way around. A few years later, I was fortunate to attend several graduate seminars in Berkeley’s Spanish Department, where for the first time I became aware of Maravall’s enormous impact on scholars of literature. I heard, for example, that the seventeenth century was a time of rigid absolutism and secularization, both of which I knew for a fact to be untrue, and that is when I began thinking about the Maravall problem.

I cannot pretend to rule on Maravall’s gifts as a scholar of literature and political philosophy, and I certainly do not question his erudition or breadth. But I can state that, despite his reputation and self-description as a social historian, his work is neither social nor is it history, and I think it is fair to say that I am not alone among historians in thinking this. I have spent most of my career thinking about social class, power, and political authority; this essay therefore will look at Maravall’s historical analysis of power at the top, his understanding of those at the bottom, and his account of how those two levels interact.

Critics and reviewers often note that Maravall historicized literature in the context of social considerations. For example, a reviewer of his enormous study of picaresque literature said, “Social history and literary text are here joined in a hermeneutic circle. The mentalidad is skillfully constructed from the documentary and historical evidence, then confirmed by appeal to the literary texts” (Dunn 280). But this circular linkage between the social and the literary, which is attractive and desirable, is never, in fact, complete, as the [End Page 45] reviewer says, for Maravall offers little historical and virtually no documentary evidence beyond the use of normative treatises, the occasional nugget from Cortes minutes, and secondary sources. My trouble with Maravall comes from this incomplete linkage, not because it is incomplete, because at some point we have to learn to live with the gap, but because he pretends that it is not. To be fair, he does provide a caveat on this point:

This does not mean to say that for me literature offers a portrait of a society. Not in this case nor in any other; neither the Spanish Baroque comedia nor the picaresque novel are realist documents. … [But] the documents of the time that speak to us of the life of some student in the lecture halls of Salamanca or Alcalá de Henares or of a thief in the Seville jail transmit visions that are impregnated with what one might see in a gracioso or a pícaro on stage in a corral de comedias or in the pages of a printed book. … Literary works thus were elements incorporated into the manner of living of these individuals in society. Literature, particularly theater and the picaresque novel, is not a portrait, but it is a testimony in which the mental image of society is reflected. There may not always be a material correlation or a true correspondence between one and the other, but the active participation of literature in the life of [social] groups is no less real for that …

(Maravall, Picaresca 12-13)

Read this carefully, and count the sleights of hand. In particular, I do not know what to make of the last sentence, but I know that in practice the proviso is discarded both by the author and his readers, who...