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Reviewed by:
  • Spain, Europe, and the Wider World, 1500-1800
  • Matthew James Crawford
Spain, Europe, and the Wider World, 1500-1800. By J.H. Elliott. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. 352 pp. $38.00 (cloth).

History can be full of surprises if you know how to find them. It takes skill and, often, the problem is one of perception rather than discovery. With this most recent collection of essays, J. H. Elliott demonstrates his masterful ability to recognize and interpret the surprising and the improbable even when it comes to some of the most well-trodden areas of early modern history. For example, in an essay on the interplay between Spain and Britain as they engaged in colonization of the Americas, Elliott offers the surprising tidbit that Bartolomé de las Casas, a prominent sixteenth-century critic of Spanish conquest and settlement in the Caribbean and the Americas, looked to the work of the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century chronicler of Anglo-Saxon England, for a better model of colonization (p. 149). This seemingly [End Page 846] "improbable connection" highlights one of the persistent themes throughout this volume: for all of their divisiveness and proclaimed singularity, a significant amount of exchange and mutual influence pervaded early modern European states and societies—even in the case of archenemies like Spain and Britain (p. 149). While there are no major revelations here, especially for those familiar with Elliott's other work, this volume provides many outstanding examples of good historical thinking and writing. For readers of world history, moreover, many of these selections demonstrate the utility of looking beyond the nation-state and its narratives of exceptionalism to explore broader connections and comparisons.

Although this volume is a sequel to Elliott's 1989 collection, Spain and Its World, it is not as exclusively focused on Spain in favor of more comparative and regional perspectives. All of the fourteen essays have appeared previously as journal articles, essays, or lectures from 1990 to 2007. Here, they are divided into three parts titled "Europe," "A Wider World," and "The World of Art." Although the third part reflects Elliott's scholarly interests in art and the relationship of a society's cultural production to its political, social, and economic experience, part 3 sits a little awkwardly alongside the other two parts.

Part 1 examines different aspects of the political history of Europe. The first essay offers a comparative analysis of the ways in which the Spanish, French, and British monarchies navigated the forces of unity and disunity that pervaded their composite states. Here, Elliott emphasizes the flexibility and longevity of these composite monarchies as a counterbalance to characterizations of European political history as "an inexorable advance towards a system of sovereign nation states" (p. 5). Such a claim might not seem as provocative today as it was in 1990, when the essay was first published, but that is evidence of the broad impact of Elliott's approach to early modern states and political institutions. The next essay challenges the assumption that mutual hatred between early modern Britain and Spain resulted in little interaction outside of antagonism. Instead, he shows that both the British and the Spanish studied each other closely and that lines of influence ran in both directions. The third essay offers an invaluable insider's perspective on the major developments in the debate over the thesis of a "General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" first proposed by Eric Hobsbawm in a 1954 article in Past and Present. Elliott has been a participant since the genesis of this debate and so, this essay offers a unique look at the past, present, and future of Hobsbawm's thesis. Elliott next focuses on the political dimensions of the crisis through a comparison of a mid seventeenth-century society that did not experience a major [End Page 847] revolt, Castile, with those that did, mainly France. Elliott finds that similar preconditions existed in Castile as in France and argues that it was the ability of Castile's poderosos—powerful aristocrats and bureaucrats—to engineer a more complete failure of the reforms of the minister-favorite, the Count-Duke of Olivares, that ultimately precluded the need for outright...