Spain and Modernity: A Complicated Relationship

By Demetri Jenkins - MML Student (German and Spanish) at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Spain often evokes thoughts of an easy-going nation, which lacks the industry and modernity of other northern European nations. In a historical sense we view Spain as a once great European power which played only a secondary role in the making of modern history. This piece is intended to provide a brief introduction to the concept of modernity and to shed light on why Spain seems to be omitted from the European narrative. We see that there is an inherent bias in history; introduced by those who write it.

Modernity can be defined as that which “pertains to present or modern times.” Iarocci also defines the modern as ‘a particular way of conceptualising contemporary times, a manner of distinguishing the way things are now from the way they were then.’ Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle captured the essence of modernity in saying, ‘I am forced to admit that mankind will never have an old age; in each century men will be able to do things proper to youth as they will more and more those which are suited to the prime of life...’ Here, John. R. Rosenberg notes that Fontenelle is drawing a ‘distinction between the growth of an individual man and the development of his society.’ As individuals we are subject to the process of time, yet the concept of modernity is eternal.

Modernity has had beneficiaries as well as victims. Iarocci illustrates this by drawing on what he calls ‘the symbolic amputation of Spain from “modernity, Europe and the West.”’ He calls this ‘the most profound historical determinant in defining modern Spanish culture.’ What Iarocci is describing was a concerted effort by the Northern European powers to deny the ‘relative modernity’ of Spain and its empire, which was denigrated as being ‘barbaric, oppressive, fanatical, ignorant, bigoted, violent and superstitious.’ If Spain’s modernity was denied and erased from history, “modern” Europe would be able to ‘constitute its autonomy as the agent of universal history.’ This led to Spain being construed as a second-rate nation, ‘more akin to the Orient’ than to Europe. The effect on the Spanish people was profound. Iarocci asserts that ‘it is difficult to imagine another European country in which the crisis of non-modernity has played a central role in the cultural history of the nation as it did in the case of modern Spain.’ Here we see the how modernity is able to both spur and disturb senses of social belonging. For “modern” Europe, modernity was the tool through which it was able to write itself into history. But in the case of Spain, modernity had completely left it behind. As we have mentioned, the Spanish people and national psyche struggled with their sense of “otherness” from the rest of Europe. We see how modernity disturbed Spain’s sense of social belonging, both within Europe and within itself.

Further Reading:

· ‘Properties of Modernity: Romantic Spain, Modern Europe, and the Legacies of Empire’ Michael Iarocci

· "Infinite Imperfectability: Romancing Spanish Romanticism." John R. Rosemberg