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Reviewed by:
  • Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain
  • Jodi Campbell
Honor and Violence in Golden Age Spain. By Scott K. Taylor. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. 320 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

Spain is not so different after all. That is one of the principal messages of this book, which deftly weaves together evidence from a variety of sources to examine honor as it was understood by ordinary people in a seventeenth-century Castilian town. Historians, literary critics, and anthropologists have long held fast to the idea that Spanish culture was fundamentally different from that of the rest of Europe, drawing in part on the evidence of Golden Age plays that centered on honor, shame, and vengeance. Scott Taylor insists that the representation of honor in these plays was an anomaly and that Spanish culture fits in very neatly with the rest of early modern Europe in terms of its perceptions of honor and conflict. To support this argument, he draws together and skilfully interprets evidence relating to literature, law, gender, violence, and judicial systems, creating a much broader and more nuanced picture of the role of honor in early modern Spain.

The quantity and popularity of Golden Age plays have made them a rich source for scholars of Spain, and the "honor plays," such as Pedro Calderón de la Barca's The Physician of His Honor, have attracted particular attention for their emphasis on sex and vengeance. Taylor argues that historians have taken these plays too literally in their portrayals of Spain as "a uniquely violent, honor-obsessed country" (p. 3). He turns instead to evidence from criminal court records to illustrate how people originated and resolved conflicts, and supplements these with records relating to royal pardons, dueling and fencing, confessors' manuals, and the notes of legal commentators. These sources together provide a combination of ideals and examples of how Spaniards across the social spectrum perceived and performed the expectations of honor.

Taylor's study breaks down the theme of honor into chapters on dueling, the legal system, men, women, and adultery. Each chapter begins with a scene from a Golden Age honor play illustrating some aspect of confrontation. Taylor then tests that scene against similar conflicts found in criminal records and commentary from his other sources. His argument throughout is that honor was experienced by ordinary Spaniards as a form of rhetoric, rather than a rigid code; it consisted of a broad range of phrases, gestures, and actions that Spaniards could employ to engage in—or avoid—conflict. Reputation was still a central concern, and Taylor's subjects always struggled to defend and enhance their public image and that of their families. But the techniques employed by ordinary nonfictional Spaniards prove to be much [End Page 760] broader and more flexible than the obsession with sexual purity and violent revenge that dominates the Golden Age honor plays.

Taylor may overestimate the extent to which historians have unquestioningly taken the honor plays as accurate representations of Spanish behavior. Even so, his approach is enormously valuable in that it provides a broader view of how people understood the legal system, how they explained and justified their actions, which kinds of affronts were taken most seriously and why, and the obligations inherent in typical family and social networks. Even more importantly, each chapter concludes by connecting its theme back to the conclusions scholars have drawn for the rest of early modern Europe, finding in each case that Spain's offstage culture of honor is in fact not so unusual.

This book challenges several long-standing assumptions, and not just those related to honor and vengeance. It argues that ordinary people did not feel bound by rigid social codes that led them irrevocably to open conflict; they had a much wider range of choices and often sought to defuse dangerous situations. The early modern legal system was not a tool of state oppression or at odds with the personal requirements of honor; people were adept at using the judicial system to pursue their interests, and judicial authorities took them seriously as participants and witnesses. In spite of contemporary behavioral codes that expected women to be passive and obedient, represented...


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