Violencia – A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West, by Jason Webster

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Review by Michael Eaude.

Violencia history spain jason webster

Jason Webster takes a long, long view of Spanish history. Most history books concentrate on small chunks of time: this or that war; or a defined period like Raymond Carr’s classic Spain, 1808-1975. Jason Webster’s overview covers millennia in attempting to identify recurring patterns in Spanish history. He starts where mythological Iberia merges with archaeological finds, before entering recorded history with Phoenicians, Carthaginians – Hannibal started the Second Punic War with the siege of Roman Saguntum – and Romans.

And his title leaves no doubt as to his main theme: Violencia, in Spanish. From the times of ‘pre-Spain’, as he calls one of his chapters, the history of the peninsula has been violent: invasions by Romans, Visigoths and Moors, warring Christian and Moorish kingdoms, expulsions of Jews and Moors and, in more modern times, civil wars and military coups. All this is true, but I am not fully convinced by the argument, for violence is not specific to Spain. Invasions and wars and, internal to all societies, class conflict (violence occurs as people rise up and the state drives them down) are central to the history of all countries.

The eccentric and somewhat extravagant sub-title, A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West, suggests a more precise and challenging theme. Whilst Spain is often viewed in Northern Europe as a backward country, in fact, argues Webster, “Spain is a Cassandra, forever predicting the future of those around her… On highly important issues, she is almost always in the lead: the Crusades, the European Renaissance, the Discovery of the Americas, Western imperialism, Liberalism, post-colonialism, the Second World War, the Cold War and the recent Occupy movement are all either driven by, presaged by, or built on, Spanish endeavour and experience.” High and dizzying claims! Such a huge, generalizing argument totters at times, but its ambition enriches the book and makes the reader (this reader, anyway) look at Spanish history afresh. What would have happened to European medicine, science and culture if Arabian and Greek and Jewish learning had not passed through Spain into the rest of Europe? The great civilisations of the tenth century at Moorish Córdoba and of the twelfth century at Christian Toledo’s School of Translators brought knowledge from the Eastern Mediterranean – from Athens, Damascus and Cairo – into Europe.

Cassandra was the seer who was not listened to. Jason Webster’s book is a cry to Europe to study and learn from what is happening in Spain, because it will hit the rest of Europe tomorrow. Spaniards themselves are often to blame for the negative views of their country, because it is a country turned inwards and divided, “locked in perpetual civil conflict”. And this is another theme of the book. Webster posits a divide between the two sides of St. James (Santiago), the disciple of Jesus who became Spain’s patron saint: Santiago the Slayer and Santiago the Seeker. Santiago is Matamoros, Moor-killer, who would appear in battle to slay the Muslim infidels. And he is also St. James the pilgrim, the seeker after truth. 

Jason Webster has written a dozen books on Spain. Six are the Max Cámara detective novels, set mainly in Valencia and a great introduction to that city. His other six books are non-fiction and varied: among them are Duende, on flamenco; Andalus, on Moorish Spain; The Spy with 29 names, the fascinating story of Garbo, the World War Two spy decorated by both Britain and Germany; and Sacred Sierra, describing life on a hill-farm in the little-visited mountains inland from Castelló.

Webster is a scholar of Arabic and Islamic culture. This expertise shows in his precise and evocative description of the 800 years of Moorish presence in what is now Spain. It is a presence absent in the minds of most Spanish people. The Visigoths, invaders from the North, were present in Iberia for only three centuries, but are often cited as the forerunners of modern Spain, though they left almost nothing behind them but Christianity. The Moors are always the ‘others’: the Islamic invaders finally expelled back to Africa in the ‘Reconquest’. Yet their presence is everywhere: in names, in architecture, in customs, in food, in language, in the use of water in Valencia’s great market-garden etc.

I have expressed several quibbles and doubts in this review, but this is because the book made me think. Violencia is elegantly written, non-academic and erudite: a must for anyone interested in Spain. Jason Webster would say: buy it to know our future, for what happens in Spain presages the future of the West.

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Michael Eaude’s latest book is Sails & Winds (Signal), a cultural and political history of Valencia.

Jason Webster, VIOLENCIA, A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West (Constable, 2019) ISBN Hardback, 415 pages.

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