Spain is such an old thing that we don´t even know if it exists. Although, if you think about it, it seems to throw many Spaniards of my generation into a tailspin and all the more so the more they are to the left. This was demonstrated once again the other day by Ramón Espinar (the former Podemos politician) in a Twitter thread, Twitter being our modern equivalent of the public proclamation or homily. Espinar took Isabel San Sebastián to task for how she spoke of Spain in her new novel, which is set in the period we generally call the Reconquest; it tells the story of a raid carried out against Santiago de Compostela by Almanzor. What was held against her, pace Espinar, is that she spoke of a Spain that did not exist at the time. Along the way, he attributed to the same writer “a concerted effort to reconstruct a (Spanish) nationalism that was essentialist and perennialist”.
I have not read the book that aroused young Espinar’s passion to instruct. I am sure that there is probably more than one anachronism in it, a problem that is congenital to the historical novel. But Espinar carried his reasoning so far —nowhere during the Reconquest does Spain appear— that he seemed to be the one who was writing a uchronic novel. Users who objected to his thesis came running to present massive documentary evidence that during the Middle Ages the name Spain existed and that in many languages it was declined in the plural and in the singular, that it figured in the discourse of kings and chroniclers. Espinar’s confusion, which is, to be sure, widespread, was to asume that because Spain did not have an immutable essence across uncensored centuries (which is correct, no such country exists), it did not therefore have an historical reality either —earthly, mutable, unlasting but real, and going back for centuries— to take into account and to answer for. What does not exist as an essence exists as a contingency. And that is how Spain has existed for centuries. It has changed in terms of content more than it has changed as a container. (Its borders, unusually for Europe, have hardly changed since the 16th C.)
It’s true: the Spanish nation is a recent political configuration created in the heat of the 19th C. The historian José Álvarez Junco devoted his Mater Dolorosa to the liberal elites’ arduous and unstable efforts at nation-making. But those who have read his important book know the author’s conclusions: the process of nation-making was effected in stops and starts and it is not fair to judge it to be a failure only because it was outshone by the case of France. The proof is that here we are, arguing about it on Twitter. In Yugoslavia —which was indeed a case of failure— they began to kill each other and they argue about it no more. On the other hand, nowhere does Junco say that there did not exist a premodern idea of Spain before the 19th C. The term “Spain” signifies many things and something different in every age. If it is recent as a nation —all political nations are from the day before yesterday— , it is certainly not recent as a State, which it is safe to say was forged in the Renaissance. Yes, I know: another commonplace repeated with smug complacency insists that the marriage of the Catholic Kings did not mean that the kingdoms were legally or administratively unified. “It’s just that they shared the figure of the monarch,” As if that were a minor thing! At that time to share a monarch was to share diplomacy, an army, foreign policy, the court and, to a certain extent, the administration of justice, which was meted out in the last instance by the King. The most important decisions affected everyone. The French, incidentally, did not all have the same laws either until 1789, nor did they speak the same language until one century later, but nobody takes it into their head to say, for that reason, that France did not exist before the French Revolution.
In order to account for the extent to which the community formed by Spaniards at the end of the 15th C. was not as feeble as is claimed, consider the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, one of the actions that left the deepest mark in our collective memory, The expulsion (contained in an edict prepared by the royal secretary Joan de Coloma, an Aragonese of Catalan origin) was applied with equal severity in all of the territories of the monarchy, from the Jewish quarter (la judería) in Seville to the one in Gerona (el Call), and the Jews who left did so with a single consciousness of a lost homeland: Sefarad, which is to say, Spain. Incidentally, it is often the case that those who say that Spain is an ideological construct, a Francoist phantasm, an historical misunderstanding that is taking too long to undo, change their minds when it comes to saying they are sorry for the Granada edict or the violence of the Spanish conquest of America: then the ghost of Spain materializes again as a real subject with an unbroken history, bound to undertake moral acts of reparation for crimes committed all throughout its long history.
I would be the first to argue for approaching the past rationally. For years in Rome I refused to promote the boast that the emperors Trajan or Hadrian were “Spaniards”. The idea of a nation is a recent creation, a tendency of which is to make a novel of one’s own prenational history for the sake of having one. But in the stripping away of national myths it is a good idea to proceed with caution so that, as we flee from one kind of ideological construction, we do not fall into another. We were talking here in this same space a short time ago about how ideas that are not weighed, sounded out, or discussed become “voices in the air” that dictate thought to us clandestinely. Thinking it is immune to the boasts of Francoist National Catholic historiography, my generation accepts uncritically the no less unscientific narrative that has been written by the pro-Catalan historians, from Bosch-Gimpera to Soldevila , down to the latest essay by Xavier Domènech (which our Vice-President Iglesias was so impressed with): they all hold that Spain is a mere superstructure, an ill-fitting legal suit for a certain number of “peoples”, who, unlike Spain, are supposedly realities as solid and natural as the Montserrat mountainside or Mount Gorbea. Yes, Spain is an invention, but so is the IPhone and we don´t throw it out the window because of that. My generation will have to decide whether or not to take the country called “Spain” to the pawn shop to exchange it for three or four of a smaller size, fraught with their own mythologies, or declare itself the general heir of all the goods and different histories it has been bequeathed, accepting the task of giving Spain continuity in history, the place where it most certainly exists and has existed, Precisely because Spain is not eternal, each generation has to look after it.