Alvarez Nogal’s splendid book about the financial institutions and negotiations of the Castilian Crown, as the political core of the global Hispanic monarchy, should be mandatory reading for all of those who believe that the metanarrative of Europe’s “early modern” history centers on the intentional or inadvertent development of an entity, “the State,” as government institutions responded to the military and fiscal pressures associated with major wars. He makes clear that like military affairs, fiscal policies and institutions were not developed with an eye to increasing the “strength” (understood in terms of capacity and autonomy) of the “state,” or any other abstract entity likely to be reified by historians as a historical actor; nor was such a process a consequence of administrative action taken for other motives. In fact, the opposite was the case: As more direct efforts were made to get the men and money necessary to meet the monarchy’s multiple worldwide military commitments, the Crown’s administrative institutions, including the great royal councils and even the monarch himself, were “weakened,” in the sense that they increasingly lost both capacity and autonomy.
Although it is a commonplace that American gold and silver funded the ambitious foreign and military policies of the global Hispanic monarchy, Alvarez demonstrates conclusively, through a detailed analysis of fleets and treasure registers and accounts, the degree to which the arrival in Castile of these precious metals influenced both policy decisions and the Crown’s negotiations with the great bankers whose financial services [End Page 326] it needed to achieve royal objectives. The book’s focus is Philip IV of Habsburg’s reign from 1621 to 1665, during which this huge collection of principalities and other domains was badly shaken by military defeats, especially by the Dutch United Provinces and France, and rebellions, especially that which cost the Habsburg dynasty control of Portugal and its vast overseas dominions. Unable to sustain heavy multiple demands on its resources, the Crown declared bankruptcy in 1627, 1647, 1652, and 1663, and Alvarez provides an excellent account of the causes and consequences.
Although it is evident that the interactions with bankers and the distributions of American wealth were increasingly concentrated under the authority of Crown officials in Madrid, thereby conforming superficially with the state-building model, this pattern of action both stemmed from and contributed further to disobedience to royal orders, declining support from Castilian elites, official corruption, and commercial fraud. Even at the royal court itself, major councils, like those of Finance and of the Indies, frequently issued conflicting decrees in response to divergent policy visions. But such conflicts among royal officials of declining prestige were of decreasing significance as effective authority was more often exercised by municipal officials and prominent businessmen, especially those of Genoese and Portuguese origin.
One of Alvarez’s major discoveries, well expressed in a series of excellent tables on which all discussions of royal finances will henceforth depend, is that calculation of the royal treasury’s share of American precious metals requires a much broader range of official documents than the monarch’s account in the fleet registers; the Crown’s share actually depended on the way in which total imports of gold and silver, including “private” accounts, were subsequently handled, which can be grasped only through an examination of a much broader range of official documents. Moreover, though Alvarez does not deal directly with the impact of royal fiscal policies and administration on American and Castilian commerce and production, he provides a context within which all research concerning these matters needs to be grounded.