Spain, A Unique History; Stanley Payne

Reviewed by Graham Mulligan


Payne describes the study of Spanish history as problematic compared to other Western European countries. He summarizes the outsiders’ perceptions of Spain, the stereotypes, into four broad groups; the Black Legend stereotype of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the enlightenment second half of the seventeenth century and eighteenth century; the romantic myth of the nineteenth century; and the composite stereotypes of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


The Black Legend type viewed the Spanish as cruel, blood-thirsty, power hungry; the enlightened view was of a land inhabited by proud, lazy, unproductive people full of hollow vanity; then came the romantic type, picturesque Spaniards, people of faith and spiritual commitment; this is followed by the slow-to-modernize and politically stunted modern era, a Spain different from the rest of Europe.


Payne’s broad ranging analysis touches on the conflict or contrast of the two dominant cultures of Spain, the Castillian elite tradition featuring the serious, sobre, austere and calculating person, full of gravitas and dignity on the one hand, and the popular Andalusian, brave and frivolous, cheerful and lower class, on the other.


In the chapter on Spain and Islam, Payne laments the loss of half a millennium of Western Civilization and Latin Christendom due to the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711. His depiction is of jihad as a constant feature of Islamic culture resulting in a frontier between two civilizations, “hostile and violent but also permeable”. The perception of an ‘Oriental Spain’, unique in the West, is questioned by Payne. He asks ‘how much of an influence did the Muslims have on Spanish culture, society and institutions?’ The most important consequence, he says, was ‘to confer on Spain a historical role of frontier and periphery’.


In the final chapter, entitled ‘Controversies of History in Contemporary Spain’ Payne focuses his attention on ‘political correctness’ as an ideology dominant in the 1990’s. By this he means the ‘deconstruction of previously dominant paradigms, replaced by a contradictory combination of new political dogmas that coexist with radical subjectivism’. He opposes the elevation of race, class and gender in university studies of History, calling it ‘cultural Marxism’. The result of this in terms of Spanish history is a focus on the regions of Spain rather than on a national History of Spain. He goes on to decry the manner of historical research with regard to the Civil War and the Franco Regime. Payne argues for a ‘Spanish Transition’ to democracy ‘from the inside out’. By this he means peacefully evolving from an authoritarian regime to an egalitarian and democratic regime. This requires rejection of the politics of vengeance. He points to the political Left in contemporary Spain, saying it is not fair to ‘wave the bloody shirt’ as a campaign strategy. The use of ‘historical memory’ is a dangerous thing according to Payne, citing his favoured sources to call it myth or even political maneuvering.


Payne concludes his book with a denunciation of the ideology of the Left. Again, the term ‘political correctness’ is evoked. ‘Victimism’, he says, is central to this ideology, as is projecting guilt onto selected scapegoats ‘nearly all of whom are dead white males’.


For anyone interested in another portrayal of Spanish History, the multimedia project “De Bàrcino a BCN” under Jaume Sobrequés,
head of the History department at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona is a great alternative. It can be found here:


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