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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The First Global Empire: Philip II
The marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1469 unites the kingdom of Spain. After defeating the Moors in 1492, as well as financing the expedition of Christopher Columbus, Spain becomes a global empire. Spain also benefits from an early form of capitalism amongst its merchant classes—a force Spain weakens by deporting its Jewish citizens. The remaining Moors fill the void, however, and Spain flourishes.

Using the influx of wealth from the New World, Spain remains a superpower for more than one hundred years. Consolidated and powerful, leadership is passed to Philip II in 1556. He commands fifty thousand soldiers, the best generals, a navy of 140 vessels, and collects an annual revenue ten times that of England.

In addition, Philip reigns over all of Central America and parts of North and South America; also the Netherlands, several kingdoms in Italy, the Philippines, protectorates in Europe, and the West Indies. The Spanish court is the most splendid, its nobles are the proudest, and its architecture is on display on five continents.

Philip II nearly doubles the size of the empire when he absorbs Portugal and its holdings in 1580 (Portugal regains independence in 1640). However, despite his meticulous attention to detail, Spain's economy begins to decline. Prices skyrocket and wages fail to catch up. Industry, never a strong part of Spain's economy, simply grinds to a halt.

To compound these dire circumstances, wars grow more costly. Philip II grows so intolerant of the Protestants in England harassing his convoys that he bankrupts his government to finance a formidable armada. The Spanish Armada sails in 1588 and is destroyed by winds and storms. The loss is so disastrous that Spain is in denial of the repercussions. The economic situation worsens as Philip tries to rebuild his armada. As a result, the Spain of Don Quixote is a superpower in decline.

Phillip III
Taking power in 1598, Philip III is weak and totally unable to manage even one-tenth of the empire left by his father. He appoints the Duke of Lerma to govern in his stead.

The Duke of Lerma funnels more money into war supplies, in particular the Spanish Armada. Failure on all fronts prompts him to search for scapegoats. In 1609 the Moriscos are shipped to Africa (where many are killed as Christians and others die of starvation). The loss of the best members of the industrial, merchant, and banking classes weaken Spain even more. By 1618 Spain is in ruins.

While the rest of Europe is undergoing a period known as the Renaissance, Spain clings to its medieval values. The Roman Catholic Church is second only to the monarchy in terms of power. Spain is virtually ruled by Catholic laws and philosophies.

Thousands of young men enter the priesthood—approximately 32,000 men comprise the Dominican and Franciscan orders during this time. A number of these men form a secret, very powerful group: the Inquisition. This group behaves like police, enforcing the highest standards of morality; in fact, they punish sinners with a range of punishments from 100 lashes to execution. The Spanish Inquisition also persecutes those of other faiths, especially Jews and Protestants. As a result, many people of these faiths convert to Roman Catholicism out of fear.

Originally a term used to describe the minor nobility of Spain, the number of hidalgos explodes as Spain reaches her zenith as a superpower. A hidalgo is anyone with papers proving he descends from a noble family. Such a heritage meant, to the hidalgo, that he deserved the honor due to a person of nobility. Consequently, a whole segment of the population refuses to work and aspires to an aristocratic lifestyle; this, along with the expulsion of those who did work, is another factor in Spain's downfall.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Knights of traditional romances travel through colorful parts of the world, such as China, North Africa, and Asia Minor; they never visit Spain. Yet Don Quixote tries to be a knight...

(The entire section is 4,000 words.)