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The Shaping of Empire: History Writing and Imperial Identity in Early Modern Spain


Previous studies on politics and history writing in early modern Europe have focused on how early modern monarchs commissioned official royal histories that served to glorify the crown and its achievements. These works discuss the careers of royal historians and their importance at court, and examine how the early modern crown controlled history writing. In the case of Spain, scholars have argued that Spanish monarchs, particularly Philip II, strictly controlled the production of history writing by censoring texts, destroying and seizing manuscripts, and at times restricting history writing to authorized historians. Modern scholars have largely avoided analyzing the historical studies themselves, and have ignored histories written by non-royal historians.

My dissertation broadens the discussion by examining a variety of histories written by royal historians and authors from outside of the court, including clerics, bureaucrats, and military officers, motivated to write histories by their concern over Spain's recent imperial policies and campaigns. Their discussion of important events in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Americas uncovers the historical significant of empire as a concept, legacy, and burden during the rise and decline of Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My analysis of these works explores the uses of history writing as political commentary and as a platform for the expression of national, regional, and imperial identities.

The historians covered in this dissertation weigh in on the crown's past and present policies, and their texts reveal insights into the political culture of early modern Spain. Many of the authors covered in this study glorify the might of the Spanish monarchy and its status as the protector of the Catholic Church, and they celebrate Spain's wars against Protestants in Europe and the Ottomans in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, some Spanish historians rejected this imperial triumphalism, contrary to the view commonly expressed in modern scholarship. Non-royal histories of Philip II's controversial intervention in the French intervention, for example, reveal an important evolution in thinking about Spain's imperial legacy, demonstrating a shift from glorification of empire characteristic of royal histories penned during Philip II's reign, to a more sober assessment in the early seventeenth century, that includes recommendations for fewer military interventions abroad in favor of protecting Spain and its empire. This critical slant was also found in colonial Latin American history writing during the reign of Philip III. The famous mestizo historian Garcilaso de la Vega El Inca used his work to criticize colonial policies enacted under Philip II and advocate for reforms in the imperial administration of the New World.

My findings alter conventional wisdom about the thrust of history writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which has emphasized contemporary historians' universal praise of Philip II and his campaigns. Moreover, the multiple print runs of these histories, which passed through royal and Inquisitorial censors, reveals that readers took a keen interest in the discussion and suggests wider concern over Spain's imperial policies. By analyzing royal and non-royal histories, we discover a critical discourse among historians on Spain's past, present, and future, and find evidence that the crown and the Church permitted a freer expression of political views than previously argued.

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