Repúblicas y republicanismo en la Europa moderna

For decades, historians of the early modern political thought have debated on the early modern origins and later developments of modern political systems. While authors tracing the roots of modern republicanism took republics as their only subject of study, more recent works on the importance of theories of imperial rule have focused on empires. This book breaks with this long lasting trends by showing some of the obvious limitations of such approaches and, interestingly, it does so by looking at the history of one of the protagonists in the early modern history of the Americas: the Spanish Empire. Can we write the history of the European republicanism studying an empire? Undoubtedly, it seems quite striking that a book on republicanism takes the Spanish Empire as one of the main subjects of study. In fact, half of the chapters address topics directly or indirectly related to this polity. How is that possible? According to Professor Giovanni Levi (author of a brief but compelling prologue) the answer is quite simple. We can learn a lot about the European republicanism looking at the Spanish Monarchy ‘because republican blood circulated through the veins of the empire’ (p. 14).

This idea breaks with recent (yet already recurrent) interpretations of the Spanish monarchy emphasising the primacy of the Court as the political space, and all the common places deriving from the centre-periphery explanatory model so influential in the study of the European empires in the Americas. Even more interesting, this idea of “mixed” polities allows to challenge some of the most basic assumptions of well-established narratives on the construction of the modern state such as the simplistic opposition between centralised territorial states (France and the Spanish monarchy), and republics with constitutional governments (the United Provinces and England). An analysis of the inner workings of the territorial monarchies shows that the monarchs exercised their power through a fluid interaction with urban republics either inside or outside their dominions. In this way, as Manuel Herrero shows in his chapter, the Spanish Monarchy, the traditional opponent of the republics par excellence can be understood as a truly “monarchy of urban republics”. Many would argue that the author is going too far, but what is obvious is that crucial aspects in the inner politics of the Spanish monarchy had more in common with the United Provinces than with France, and that is something crucial to fully understand the inner workings of this global empire.

I cannot summarise here the content of the whole book so I will mainly focus on those aspects with a clear interest for the readers of this journal. The introductory chapter by the editor differs in many ways from the usual introductions of collective volumes that only present (with more or less detail) the chapters’ contents. Its more than 70 pages are peppered with meaningful references to the different essays, but they are tied together with an astonishing literature review on both: the history of the multiple republicanisms in Europe, and the current revisionisms of the republican myths. To a certain extent, this chapter work together with the first one. In it, Thomas Maissen addresses the multiple (even contradictory) meanings of the term Republic, as well as the many uses (and abuses) of the concept of republicanism derived from the widespread interest on this subject in recent historiography. This master literature review connects with one of the added values of this work since it brings together, for the first time, different historiographies approaching the early modern history of European republicanism from very different territories and approaches. It is impossible to outline a common methodological framework for the different chapters of the book. However, as a whole, the distance from the methodology of the so-called Cambridge School is more than obvious, at least in two different ways. First, the book goes beyond its traditional focus restricted to the Anglo-speaking Atlantic to incorporate realities from Catholic Europe, the Iberian Atlantic (see below) and the Mediterranean (this is the case of the chapters by Benoît Marechaux and Felicia Roșu). Second, rather than restricting their analysis to the works by the main political theorists, most of the authors bet for an eclectic combination of a wide array of printed and archival sources collected in libraries and archives all around Europe.

The readers of the Journal of Early American History will find a wide array of interesting chapters in this book. It is impossible to bring here all of them, but I will focus on those of particular interest for them. Natalia Maillard depicts a vibrant book market in the Iberian Atlantic strongly dependent on the presses of two republics: Venice and Holland, something that openly questions the isolation of the Iberian Atlantic from their republican cultural influence. From an economic approach, the chapters by Yasmina Ben Yessef, Luca Lo Basso, and Klemens Kaps address the activity of diverse merchants to underline the commercial connections between republican capitals and imperial markets in the Atlantic. The circulation of tradesmen, financers, and economic ideas was not restricted to a unidirectional flux of capitals from merchant republics to empires. Carlo Taviani shows the direct connection between previous Genoese financial formulas and the Dutch, English and French trading companies, major actors in the commercial history of the early modern Atlantic. Beyond these specific chapters, specialists in the history of early modern America will profit from the book, as a whole, for different reasons. The first one is because it offers a more complete picture of the European republicanism by including more political spaces and a wide array of actors, something crucial to fully understand the later development of the Atlantic republicanism, a crucial episode in American early modern history. Second, because it is a real exercise of transnational history in the best possible way, and the only possible way to write the history of the early modern Americas is, precisely, breaking free from the national approaches that have distorted our previous understandings.

The truly transnational approach of the book is closely related with its central idea of connecting the political histories of republics and empires. The limitations of a clear-cut division between empires and republics, appear crystal clear from the angle of international geopolitics. The symbolic and economic conflicts between republics, such as those analysed by Renzo Sabbatini (Luca) or Thomas Weller (The Hanseatic cities), shows how far these polities were far from belonging to a common block. In fact, the republics continued siding with coalitions leaded by the monarchs fighting for European hegemony. The French attack against the Genoese republic (an episode here analysed by Carlo Bittosi) made clear the important role of this republic in European geopolitics. It was precisely this central role the reason why the republics had to develop a creative foreign policy (like that of Genoa studied in Matthias Schnettger’s chapter) to cope with the multiple conflicts affecting their interests. Undoubtedly, this was a major contribution to the making of European diplomacy, another major issue in the history of the early modern Americas. It can be argued, and with a reason, that the field of international politics offered a fertile ground for estrange partnerships. However, there was a direct connection between external and domestic politics. To a great extent, the good relations between King Philip iv established with the Commonwealth after the execution of Charles i, studied by Ángel Alloza, were possible due to strategic decisions, but also thanks to a shared political culture. Several chapters of this book provide examples of political principles shared by monarchies and republics. Igor Pérez Tostado shows the direct influence of Castilian political thought on the most radical sectors of British republicanism. The same can be said in the case of the Dutch radical republicanism, analysed by Arthur Weststjein in his insightful essay. The direct connection between monarchic and republican political thought is also analysed by Saúl Martínez Bermejo, who shows how authors from one or the other side relied on a common corpus of classics. Urte Weeber points in a similar direction when he shows that enlightenment thinkers looked at both monarchies and republics as a source of traced also far from the sphere of political theory. Focusing on Castilian towns, Domingo Centenero addresses the persistence of practices of local democracy, a sort of archaic communalism closely associated with modern republicanism. Finally, in front of a historiography that has emphasized the composite character of the Habsburg Empire, Manuel Herrero shows that beyond the huge differences among the multiple political cultures of the Habsburg dominions, they all shared something in common: the protagonist role of the cities.

The book present, as always, apparent limitations, and some of them will be more than evident for the readers of this journal. After reading the different chapters dealing with the Spanish Empire the reader comes always to the obvious questions: why did the authors decided to focus only in Europe? Did the Spanish settlers bring their republican political culture to the Americas? To what extent this republican political culture influenced the later processes of independence? Considering that the Spanish colonies opted for a republican model after becoming independent polities questions like these seem more than pertinent. However, in my view, the absence of the American territories is more an opportunity for future researchers than a clear shortcoming. Something similar can be said about my second criticism that will be, maybe, less evident for the specialists in the early modern history of the Americas. The book has been written and published in Spanish. This is far from being a problem per se, but considering that the historiographical debate on early modern republicanism is a debate in English, this reviewer wonder if the book would have the impact it deserves, especially in the Anglo-speaking academia. Once again, more than a shortcoming, this is an opportunity, this time for an editor. Hopefully, both shortcomings will be mitigated in the near future since that will be clear proof of the significant contribution of this book as a starting point to what will be a vibrant debate.

Acerca del autor:
José M. Escribano-Páez
The Journal of Early American History