A journalist by trade, Giles Tremlett is adept at grabbing the reader’s attention, opening his brief history with a revealing vignette. The Spanish football team are preparing to compete in the 2010 World Cup final. As the team lines up, viewers across the world are struck by the national anthem having no words. This, in Tremlett’s diagnosis, is because ‘Spain has no “national story” that it can celebrate in comfort’. Catalan and Basque separatism, alongside the Civil War (1936–9) and the ensuing Francoist dictatorship (1939–75), are just two issues about which Spaniards will offer radically different accounts. But, as both Tremlett and the academic Jeremy Robbins are keenly aware, the roots of the country’s many contradictions can be traced back to the birth of the nation. Spain as a modern state only came into being through the dynastic union of the Aragonese and Castilian crowns following the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, the so-called Catholic Monarchs, in the 15th century.
Tremlett begins his panoramic survey of Spain in classical times before going on to provide a concise and balanced description of the hybrid cultures of medieval Spain, noting, for example, the combination of Roman and Moorish features in the architecture of Cordoba. He emphasises the contributions to Spain of Islamic culture, such as the tradition of woman writing verse, resulting in Al-Andalus possibly generating more female-authored poetry than anywhere else in western Europe, without resorting to the anachronistic romanticising of multiculturalism that can blight descriptions of the period preceding the expulsion of Spain’s Moorish and Jewish populations.
The Spanish nation-state was forged largely through exclusion and overseas expansion. The culture wars of 21st-century Spain return incessantly to the foundational moment of Columbus’s arrival in the ‘New World’. In 2016, the revisionist Imperiofobia y leyenda negra (‘Phobia of Empire and the Black Legend’) became a bestseller,