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  • Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity
  • Enrique A. Sanabria
Imagining Spain: Historical Myth and National Identity. By Henry Kamen. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. 256 pp. $38.00 (cloth).

This book is the English version of the eminent historian Henry Kamen's Spanish-language exploration of how nineteenth-century politicians and ideologues in Spain understood and used the history of the early modern period to construct national identity myths. The release of that Spanish version in 2006 touched off a great deal of controversy, as Kamen was sharply accused of, among other crimes, diminishing the native Spanish role in the building of one of the world's most expansive empires, suggesting that Spaniards have internalized the historical myth of the Black Legend (which refers to the representation of the Spanish as cruel, intolerant, and religiously fanatical in anti-Spanish literature and history), and blatantly exposing his elitist privileging of the English language over the Spanish. Kamen is aware of the criticism and even delivers some of his critics' most stinging words in the postscript to Imagining Spain, not to respond to their misunderstandings of the book but rather to demonstrate the enormous power that interpretations of Golden Age triumphs and failings still have, [End Page 509] because contemporary Spaniards continue to be engaged in the process of mythologizing the past to make sense of the present as well as define the future. In two hundred readable and enjoyable pages, Kamen offers a fascinating dissection of the Golden Age foundational myths that not only emerged from and within the context of nineteenth-century squabbles between liberal and conservative politicians but were also essential in creating a sense of cohesion despite rather shaky foundations of the Spanish nation before the Napoleonic Invasion.

Kamen breaks down the Spanish myths by assigning one of his seven chapters to each. In the first of these, Kamen tackles the persistence of the myth that Spain was a historically unified nation by the reign of Philip II (1556–1598), arguing instead that both nineteenth-century politicians and twentieth-century historians have proceeded from the false assumptions that Spain has always existed, that she was harmonized with a capital city, and that early modern Spain could boast little ethnic strife. Harboring these assumptions led to teleological interpretations of the past to convey a much more durable and stronger sense of Spanish identity than was actually present, one in which, for example, Jews and Muslims but also Basques and Catalans shared in a peaceful national culture with Christian Castilians. In the following chapter, Kamen explores the reasons behind Spain's numerous failed monarchies and suggests that, historically speaking, Spaniards had never truly warmed up to the institution. What's more, Kamen maintains the modern monarchy is the default choice of a people who still have to defend its very existence every day. Chapter 3 posits that the presence and infusion of anticlericalism and anticlerical discourse over the course of nineteenth-century political squabbles informed the construction of the myth of a historically Christian Spain by renowned historians such as Ramón Menéndez Pelayo, who helped establish the framework of religiously united early modern Spain that Franco Regime officials misrepresented as long-lived and immutable so as to justify their political vision of the nation. In the fourth chapter, Kamen builds upon a great deal of his previous work (for instance his Empire: How Spain Became a World Empire [Yale University Press, 2004]) in juxtaposing the remarkable racial and national diversity of the people who built the empire militarily and financially with the homogenous picture presented by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars and politicians grappling with the sudden and humiliating loss of the empire after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

One of Kamen's long-time areas of expertise has been the Spanish Inquisition, and he readily acknowledges that he once fell into the trap of accepting Black Legend–influenced understandings of the ecclesiastical [End Page 510] tribunal to explain why early modern Spaniards were xenophobic, hostile to science, and deeply religious. Drawing from his The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (Yale University Press, 1993), Kamen once again argues that nineteenth...


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pp. 509-512
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