Francesco Guicciardini’s Description of Spain (1513)

Source: James Harvey Robinson, Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1906).  Transcribed by Keri Chiodo.
 

        “Spain is thinly populated, so that towns and burgs are rare, and between one great town and another scarcely a house will be found.  In short, the inhabitants are few.  There are some fine cities, like Barcelona, Sargossa, Valencia, Granada, and Seville; but they are few for such an important kingdom and for so great an area of country.  Aside from these principal centers, most of the towns are small and have rude buildings, of which the greater part, in many places, are built of mud and are, moreover, full of filth and dirt.
         The land is fertile and yields abundantly, since more grain is raised than is necessary for use at home.  The same may be said of the wine, which is sent by sea to Flanders and England.  Oil, too, is exported in great quantities every year to the countries mentioned above and to Alexandria, to the value of more than sixty thousand ducats.  The fertility is greatest in the lower parts of Andalusia and Granada, and would be much greater than it is if all the land were brought under cultivation; but it is worked only in the neighborhood of the towns and there badly; the rest remains untilled.  Much wool is exported annually, amounting, it is said, to two hundred and fifty thousand ducats, as well as the finest silk, especially from the lower regions.  From Viscaya come iron and steel in considerable quantity, and much grain, leather, alum, and many other products, so that if only this nation were industrious and given to trade it would be rich.
         The country is cold in the region of the Pyrenees, very warm in Andalusia and Granada, and more temperate in the central districts.
         The men of this nation are gloomy of temperament and swarthy of complexion; dark in color and short of stature; they are proud by nature, and it seems to them as if no nation could be compared with theirs.  They are prone to boast in their conversation of their own things, and endeavor to make the best possible appearance.  They have little love for foreigners and are very uncivil toward them.  They are devoted to arms, perhaps more than any other Christian nation, and are very skillful with them, owing to their agile frames and their dexterity.  In military matters they are great sticklers for honor, in such wise that rather than sully it they prefer to die. . . .
         The Spaniards are held to be clever and acute, but nevertheless they are not skillful in any of the arts, whether mechanical or liberal.  Almost all the artisans at the king’s court belong to the French or to some other foreign nation.  The natives do not devote themselves to trade, which they look upon as degrading; the pride of the hidalgo goes to his head, and he would rather turn to arms with little chance of gain, or serve a grandee in wretchedness and poverty, or before the times of the present king, even assault wayfarers, than engage in trade or any other business.  Recently, however, some attention is beginning to be given in a few places to trade, and already in parts of Spain cloth and silks are manufactured; . . . for example, in Valencia, Toledo, and Seville.
         But the whole nation is opposed to industry.  Accordingly the artisans only work when they are driven to do so by necessity, and then they take their ease until they have spent their earnings; this is the reason why manual labor is so dear.  The meanest cultivators of the soil have the same habit.  They will not exert themselves except under dire pressure of want, so that they bring much less land under cultivation than they might, and the little they do till is badly cared for. . . .
         Aside from a few grandees of the kingdom who display great luxury, it must be remembered that the rest of the people live at home in the utmost straits; and if they have a little to spend they put it all on their backs or in purchasing a mule, thus making a great show before the world when they have scarce anything at home, where their surroundings are mean in the extreme and where they exercise an economy truly astonishing.
         Although they know how to live on little, they are by no means free from cupidity.  On the contrary, they are very avaricious, and not having any of the arts to rely upon, they are driven to robbery, so that in earlier times when the kingdom was less orderly it was full of assassins, who were favored by the nature of the country, with its many mountainous regions and its sparse population. . . .
         The Spaniards have not turned their attention to books, and neither the nobility nor others have any idea of Latin, except a very few, who know a little of the language.  They are outwardly very religious, but not inwardly.  They have infinite ceremonies, which they perform with great exactness, and show much humility in speech, the use of titles, and the kissing of hands.  Every one is their lord, every one may command them; but this means little, and you can place no faith in them. . . .
         This nation down to our own time has been more oppressed and has enjoyed less glory and dominion than any other nation of Europe, for in the most ancient times the peninsula was occupied in great part by the Gauls. . . .Then the Carthaginians took possession of much of it; then the Romans conquered it all several times.  Later the Vandals subjugated the region, and from them Andalusia took its name.  Lastly the Moors the ? Africa conquered not only the southern regions, but extended their dominion into Aragon and Castile and even in some instances as far as the Pyrenees.  Down to our own time they held Granada.  Hence it may be said that Spain has been in a prolonged servitude and has enjoyed no dominion over others, the which cannot be said of Italy, or France, or of any other country of Christendom.  Certainly this is a singular fact if we consider how devoted the country is to arms and how warlike it has always been, even from of old, as the ancient writers testify. . . .
         The reason for this may have been that Spain has always had better soldiers than leaders, and that her people have always been more skilled to fight than to govern or command.  Happening upon this matter one day with King Ferdinand, he said to me that the nation was devoted to arms but unorganized, and that great results would be obtained should any one arise who could hold it well in hand.  The ancient writers praise the nation more for a wild anxiety to rush to arms and keep up war than for any other virtue.  Accordingly Livy speaks of the people as born to fight, and in another place he says they carry on war with more rashness than perseverance.  Yet I do not know whether this is the true reason or not.”

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