Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

2
THE HISPANIC BACKGROUND

THE INSTITUTIONS, traditions, and values brought to the Americas by Hispanic invaders shaped the future of Latin America more decisively than the culture of the vanquished Indians. Five centuries of struggle against the Moslems had made warfare almost an Hispanic way of life and created a large class of titled fighting men who regarded manual labor and most commerce with contempt. The Reconquest (Reconquista), as that struggle is called, was also accompanied by a growing concentration of land in the hands of the Christian nobility and the church. Although serfdom in Castile, in contrast to the situation in Aragón, had virtually ceased to exist by the end of the fifteenth century, the great majority of the peasants were heavily burdened by rents, seigneurial dues, taxes, and tithes. With some regional exceptions, there was little industry. The most lucrative economic activity in Castile -- the export of wool to Flanders and Italy -- enriched the great nobility who owned vast herds of sheep and extensive pasturages. The Portuguese economy displayed similar weaknesses. The claim of some scholars that a thriving "capitalism" existed in late medieval Spain and Portugal does not bear scrutiny. On the eve of the conquest of the Americas, the economies and societies of both countries presented a predominantly feudal aspect.

A turning point in Iberian peninsular history was the marriage, in 1469, of the heirs apparent to the thrones of Aragón and Castile -- Ferdinand and Isabella. The Catholic Sovereigns -- the title given to them by the pope in recognition of their crusading zeal -- broke the power of the great nobility but allowed this class to retain and even expand its social and economic privileges. The crowning domestic achievement of Ferdinand and Isabella's reign was the surrender of the Moslem city and kingdom of Granada in 1492, after a ten-year siege. More unified politically and religiously than ever before, and avid for the gold and silver that symbolized power and wealth in the age of the commercial revolution, Spain stood ready to launch the great enterprise of the Indies.

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