12.06.15, Díaz de Durana, Anonymous Noblemen

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Teofilo Ruiz

The Medieval Review 12.06.15

Díaz de Durana, José Ramón. Anonymous Noblemen: The Generalization of Hildago Status in the Basque Country (1250-1525). The Medieval Countryside. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, nv, 2011. Pp. xiv, 277. ISBN: 978-2-503-53244-8.

Reviewed by:
Teofilo Ruiz
University of California, Los Angeles

One of the most debated tropes in the history of late medieval and early modern Spain is the often invoked assertion that Spain, by which it was often meant Castile, had the largest percentage of nobles in western Europe. Equally the claim has often been advanced—myself being guilty of such a statement—that everyone in the Basque region, just by the fact of having been born there, had noble rank and, thus, exemption from some royal taxes plus other judicial and social privileges. While the first of these premises is beyond dispute, the second requires modification and a more complex understanding of the processes that led to what Díaz de Durana describes as "the generalization of noble status." Regardless of how we may wish to examine these positions or modify them, the reality remains that Spain in general and the Basque region in particular had a larger number of people claiming and enjoying noble status than elsewhere in late medieval and early modern western Europe. This was due, to a very large extent, to the existence of a large number of hidalgos (the lowest level of the nobility) found throughout Castile and, in even more so, in certain specific regions of the Basque country.

One of the unresolved issues in Spanish historiography is the related questions of (1) how hidalgo status was obtained (after all, in many cases, there was little difference between those claiming hidalgo status and well-to-do peasants); (2) how did hidalgo status became universal in specific parts of the Basque territory; and (3) how regional differences in the evolution of the Basque region impacted the somewhat limited spread of hidalgo status or its generalization to all segments of society. These are questions that are central to the social history of late medieval and early modern Spain and, by extension, to that of the European west. These are also the questions that animate Díaz de Durana's research, the first comprehensive attempt to address these issues. Hidalgos played an important role in Spanish history. They formed the core of the Spanish armies that would remain hegemonic in European and American war theaters until the early seventeenth century. Hidalgos also became an important part of the Spanish literary imaginary, from Cervantes' unforgettable hidalgo to the proud but destitute nobleman in the first picaresque novel in western European literature, the Lazarillo de Tormes. And what this book seeks to do, and does quite successfully, is to explore the social context (with abundant case studies and examples to illustrate the argument) in which hidalgo status became generalized throughout most of the Basque Atlantic coast.

This is a complex work. It is abundant in details, following a discernable path from introductory historiographical reflections to broad statements about the Basque region and the progressive ennoblement of its inhabitants to specific case studies. In the latter, when we see individual hidalgos in conflict with other social groups, litigating to assure their rights, and connecting with powerful noble houses or lineages, the author provides a rare window into the world of these petty noblemen. The book reflects decades of research, a mastery of the sources, both primary and secondary, many of them (the primary sources) only fully available in the last decade and a half. Anonymous Noblemen, though noblemen not so anonymous after the publication of this book, also reflects the work undertaken by historical research teams or collective projects that have engaged in mapping the social contours of Basque society for over a decade.

The book is also not an easy read. Although the progression from the general to the specific noted earlier is easily grasped, Anonymous Noblemen reads sometimes as a collection of short research monographs. These discreet research ventures are held together by geographic and thematic links, but not always by the narrative thrust. Moreover, if the Basque region under examination encompassed the "provinces" of Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, and Alava (but not Navarre), the book's main focus and the locus for the most significant and revealing research and case studies is Alava. That Alava was distinct from the other two Basque provinces, and that the number of hidalgos there was probably only around 25% of the entire population makes this book one less aimed at explaining the universality of hidalgo status in Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya--a status confirmed for the latter in the Fuero Nuevo in 1526 and for the former between 1608 and 1610--than it is about why Alava did not undergo a similar development. This is not to say that the issue of the generalization of hidalgo status does not play a prominent role in the book's argument; it does, but it is always approached from the perspective of Alava. Thus, Díaz de Durana's case study and close reading of the extant evidence for Alava provides a point of comparison with the other two Basque regions and an explanation for the complete success of the hidalgos in one area and only their partial success in another.vAnonymous Noblemen's first three chapters introduce the issues and themes to be explored in later chapters, explores the historiographical debates about hidalguía or ennoblement in the Basque region, and provides a perfunctory discussion of the sources available for this inquiry and the historiographical state of the question. Perhaps these three very short chapters could have been consolidated into one single introductory chapter, with a great deal of the simple listing of historiographical contributions relegated to the notes. This is certainly the case since the same sources are invoked repeatedly in later chapters. In Chapter 4, the book begins in earnest by addressing the issues of what was the hidalgos' actual legal status.

One should stress that one of Díaz de Durana's most significant arguments is that hidalgos' legal standing and their percentage of the population differed greatly between the Atlantic shores of the Basque region, that is Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya, and the interior region of Alava. In the former, hidalgo legal status became universal (or almost universal) by the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. In the latter, it did not. Tracing the evolution of the hidalgos as a social class, Chapter 4, as well as other subsequent chapters, emphasizes what becoming (and preserving the statute) of hidalgo meant in terms of social, juridical, fiscal, and political aspects. Reviewing the gradual process by which one may acquire hidalguía, Díaz de Durana points out that hidalgos were exempt from most tribute payments; their residences were inviolable. They could not be arrested for debts or subject to torture in judicial procedures.

A very long Chapter 5 purportedly focuses on a study of social conflict, but a number of other topics intrude into the discussion. Here again the differences between coastal areas and the interior are crucial. While the categories of social conflicts--antagonisms between noble factions, between nobles and peasants, between rural nobility and urban patricians--remain more or less the same throughout the Basque region, the outcomes differed somewhat by region. A long description of hidalgo land ownership, fiscal resources, inheritance, and the like--all of them illustrated by case studies and substantial examples--seem to indicate that questions of jurisdiction over income and disputes about control of fiscal resources were often the issues found at the heart of these social conflicts.

The next two chapters examine, from a variety of perspectives, the connections between the increase in the number of hidalgos, the formation of the Basque provinces, the role of royal fiscal policy, and the establishment of provincial treasuries in the region. Some interesting examples of violent social conflicts that may have been better deployed in an earlier chapter are discussed here. Nonetheless, these case studies raise additional questions (at least for me) as to the traditional historiographical position that the Catholic Monarchs restored order throughout Castile. Clearly, as Díaz de Durana shows, it took longer to restore order in the Basque region that it did elsewhere throughout the Castilian realm.

The last three chapters move the narrative from a general discussion of hidalguía in the Basque provinces to a careful and thorough account of the life of hidalgos in the province of Alava. This is the heart of the book, and these chapters function as carefully crafted micro-histories. They reflect the author's intimate knowledge of the sources and of the region. Once again, one must be reminded that hidalgo status did not become universal in Alava. These chapters go a long way to explaining why and, by implication, why it did so in the other two Basque provinces. Conflicts between hermandades (leagues or associations formed to protect urban privileges and franchise) and hidalgos, trying relations between the latter and the peasantry, distance from the frontier, and other factors limited the spread of hidalgo status to a level somewhat equal to that found in other parts of Castile.

Through a dual program of actual violent confrontation and law suits submitted to the royal chancery, the hidalgos sought to establish and protect their privileges. Insightfully, Díaz de Durana shows, through a series of fascinating vignettes, that, albeit my remarks about fiscal benefits being at the core of these disputes and search for hidalguía, social standing also played as important (or even more important) role. In the end, it came to who had the right to sit in the front pews of the local church, who made the offerings during mass. It was a question of honor and, far more, of maintaining a clear distinction between the lower nobility and commoners. In reality, in Alava this distance was often so small that asserting it through continuous legal actions and violence became all important. But these conflicts, as also shown through a myriad of formidable examples in Díaz de Durana's last chapter, involved a rivalry between hidalgos and commoners for control of mayorships in the Hermandades and towns of Alava. Unlike Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya, in Alava the royal council took often the side of the commoners.

The answer(s) to why hidalguía became almost universal in some parts of the Basque region and not in others rests on a series of complex and interrelated factors. Being on the frontier with France and Navarre (in the case of Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya) and fulfilling military responsibilities to man the frontier garrisons and to provide armed forces for continuous border conflicts made a significant difference. So did forms of lordship, patterns of migration, the status and treatment of religious minorities after 1492, purity of blood statutes, the structure of land tenure in the region, and other factors that led the Basque Atlantic region to become the heartland of noble status in the Spanish realms. The interior Basque region conversely did not. It seems, based on Díaz de Durana's finding that frontier conflicts were the main determinant in such uneven developments.

As I noted earlier, this is not an easy book to read or to summarize. While the material is organized in a logical fashion from historiography to broad description to micro-histories for Alava, such an approach becomes, at times, repetitive. Social conflicts would have been best rendered in one or two chapters instead of being dispersed throughout much of the book. Nonetheless, his concluding remarks provide an excellent road map as to a different way of organizing the material. In the end, these are small quibbles. This is a book that goes a long way to explaining one of the most enduring puzzles in the history of the Basque, Spanish, and European lower nobility, that is, the universal spread of noble status to all those born in the Atlantic Basque region. Díaz de Durana also reminds us of the differences and peculiarities that could be found throughout the region. His case studies and micro-historical approach, most of all in the case of Alava, are rich in detail and analysis, bringing to life members of society hitherto ignored. That Díaz de Durana carries the story across the usual divide, 1492 and 1500, fictionally dividing late medieval from early modern, gives his Anonymous Noblemen a textured quality, placing his findings into a broader and more nuanced field of inquiry.

Few if any historians could have written this book. It reflects a lifetime of dedication to the subject, a meticulous fairness in examining the documentation, and an exemplary respect for those who, either before him or together with him, have contributed to the making of this history. It is the same admiration and respect that we, as readers, owe to Díaz de Durana for his thoughtful and "thick description" of this unique historical question: how birth in a particular place was the conduit to noble status.

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Author Biography

Teofilo Ruiz

University of California, Los Angeles