- Iberian World Empires and the Globalization of Europe 1415–1668 by Bartolomé Yun Casalilla
Economists have been increasingly interested in empires, institutions, and economic growth in recent decades. The result has been a much better understanding of institutional development throughout history, as well as a greater recognition of how those processes led to states of development today. Yet, historians have often accused economists of oversimplification and a lack of nuance. As Yun-Casalilla argues in this well-researched, sprawling history, economists have consistently been wrong on the matter of Iberian empires. Some of them view empires as a natural source of economic growth, whereas others cite the overseas empires of Spain and Portugal as impediments to the two countries’ [End Page 134] economic and political development. Neither of these viewpoints reflect what historians know to be true about these two empires, namely, that far from being historical anomalies, they had nation-building processes similar to those of other empires, like Germany or Italy.
Any generalization of the Iberian empires is doomed to be simplistic because these empires lasted for centuries and were constantly in flux. What was true of the Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century was not necessarily true of the Empire two centuries later. Yun-Casalilla effectively shows the historical evolution of these empires, contrasting their development with that of other empires at the time. He also reveals how institutions that are efficient in one era may become highly inefficient in another period. He makes a good case that the Castilian and Portuguese economies were not only efficient by sixteenth-century standards; they also demonstrated remarkable social stability. Globalization in Iberia came largely at the hands of informal institutions and global networks of elites, which became increasingly less efficient in later centuries. They later were known to “encourage and foster patronage, clientelism, nepotism, rent-seeking, fraud, and even corruption, which would become constitutive of the system itself and would affect the functioning of formal institutions created in these empires” (437).
Yun-Casalilla makes a convincing case that any attempt to characterize the Iberian empires as being one particular way is folly; these empires changed and evolved greatly over the years. He provides fine detail about the social, political, and economic evolution of these empires over time. He is less successful in defining the book’s audience, however. Most historians would be familiar with the story and agree with his arguments. Yun-Casalilla’s apparent aim is to convince economists that they have flattened the history of these empires; he claims an intent to “test some of the most important theories regarding Europe’s economic development.” But he actually gives these theories short shrift; instead of refuting them, he focuses too heavily on history. A chapter dedicated to what economists have said, and coherent and concise arguments showing it to be incorrect, would have been helpful and much more persuasive.
Yun-Casalilla’s failure to engage economists properly is unfortunate because the book has genuine strengths. The summary chapters at the end of each part place the arguments into helpful context, showing readers more of the forest instead of all the trees. The description of the Habsburg defensive barrier against the Ottoman Empire, as well as a section comparing and contrasting the Ottoman and Iberian empires, are innovative as well as informative; most researchers limit their focus to the English and sometimes the French empires. The fact that this is an open-access book electronically makes it an even more valuable addition to the literature. [End Page 135]