Spain can be pretty accurately described by Madrid’s cathedral: an awkward mixture of styles and ownership that has turned into a very Christian culture with a few quirks from past cultures still hanging around. Spain has been owned by and defined by different people and places throughout its history, and having a general idea about what’s been going on in Spanish history really explains quite a bit about its culture.
As with most of what we call Europe today, the Romans were Spain’s first civilization. At this point, Spain was dubbed “Hispania” (I know what you’re thinking. Sounds kind of like “Hispanic” don’t it? Curious!) You can still find lots of old medieval architecture throughout the country, most prominently in cities like Toledo (quite a famous city in Spanish history for this reason, but more on that later). You’ll also find Rome in Spanish culture, namely in Spain’s love for olives and red wine, and in its language – Latin! This started way before time as we know it was even time – all the way back in the BC years – and ended in the 400’s.
These nomadic people sacked Rome and took over most of Western Europe. There’s not much to be said about the Visigoths in Spanish history for a couple reasons. One, they didn’t leave much of anything behind, and what they did leave behind wasn’t particularly eye-opening, neither by way of architecture or culture. Two, the Visigoth occupation of Spain is sandwiched between the Romans and the Muslims, two very strong, very important parts of Spain’s history. The Visigoths lasted a few hundred years, up until the Muslim occupation in the 700’s.
The Spanish Muslims, known as Moors, moved up from North Africa to take over in the Visigoths’ place. This era would come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam, and one of the most important parts of Spanish history, accompanied by the Dark Ages in the rest of Europe. I’ve written briefly on some of the accomplishments these Moors achieved. Like the Romans, the Moors also left quite an impression on Spain’s culture; namely the architecture found down in Andalucía, as well as Flamenco, Paella, and, again, some twists on the Spanish language. The Moors gave many Spanish cities their names (that have since been transformed into something a little bit less Arabic and a bit more Spanish) like Madrid and Andalucía. This ordeal lasted about 700 years, to be followed by the Christians.
The Christians came to Spain in about the 700’s, just like the Muslims. At this time in Spanish history, the Christians claimed the Northern tip of the Iberian peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal) under 4 different kingdoms, while the rest belonged to the Muslims. For several hundred years, the two cultures lived in relative religious tolerance; while their relationship was strained, the two cultures created treaties and alliances.
When Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon were married in 1469, turning the 4 Christian kingdoms in the north into 1 kingdom, they got together with the Catholic Church (AKA the Spanish Inquisition) to start unifying Spain under one rule. In 1492, the Moors of Granada were defeated, officially creating a Christian nation. To sweeten the deal that same year, Christopher Columbus came back from across the pond with more riches than they could have hoped for. And this is where the Habsburgs come in.
A decade or so later, Isabella died, leaving Spain to her daughter Joanna. Joanna was married to a Habsburg, a royal family from Austria. Though Joanna’s husband died quickly, her father-in-law quickly stepped up to the plate, and eventually spread the kingdom of Spain to include Portugal, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, the East Indies, and the Americas. With all the land and all the money and resources the Habsburgs were getting from the New World, this was the Golden Age of Spain, the most power seen by the country throughout all Spanish history.
Eventually, after generations of incest (as was the royal way), the last Habsburg to rule Spain was Charles II. Because he was the result of such intense inbreeding, Charles II is known to have suffered various physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities. Through the generations of the Habsburgs, Spain had lost land, and had only the Iberian peninsula when Charles II came to the throne. He died young in 1700 as the last living Habsburg, and left the country to his grand-nephew, Philip, who was of French royalty. This initiated the War of the Spanish Succession, in which the Spanish and the French fought over who should rule Spain. The French, known as the Bourbons, won, and occupy the Spanish royal throne to this day.