12.06.39, Liang, Family and Empire

Main Article Content

A. Katie Harris

The Medieval Review 12.06.39

Liang, Yuen-Gen. Family and Empire: the Fernández de Córdoba and the Spanish Realm. Haney Foundation Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 296. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4340-6.

Reviewed by:
A. Katie Harris
University of California, Davis

Yuen-Gen Liang's new book offers a promising new approach to the far-flung early modern Spanish monarchy and the bonds that held it together. Rather than focusing on the links created by administrative structures and institutions, on the projected imaginary of royal authority and justice, or on the career of a single individual imperial administrator, Liang instead examines empire through the lens of family. Successive generations of the Fernández de Córdoba, a noble clan that came to prominence in late medieval Córdoba, served the crown in Granada, Toledo, Navarre, and Algeria. In their capacity as corregidores (royal governors), military captains, and viceroys, the Fernández de Córdoba functioned as an imperial "officer corps" whose family networks helped knit together the composite monarchy.

Over the course of five chapters, Liang traces the movements and evolution of the Comares and Alcaudete branches of the Fernández de Córdoba lineage as they expanded alongside Castilian imperial power. The first chapter is the section of the book most likely to be of direct interest to readers of this list, as it explores the Fernández de Córdoba family's deep roots in the local community of Córdoba, where it first arrived in 1236 as part of the conquering Christian forces. Liang grounds the lineage in the particularities of Córdoba's physical and social landscape, in part to better highlight the changes the clan experienced in the course of its imperial service. The Fernández de Córdoba's territories clustered in southern Córdoba's rich Campiña region, on the border with Muslim Granada. In this frontier region, members of the lineage maintained a defensive posture both against Granadan incursions and against their fellow noble lords. Liang draws upon complaints and petitions preserved in the Archivo General de Simancas's Registro General del Sello to map the competition between rival branches of the Fernández de Córdoba lineage--rural divisions that were reflected in factional divisions in the city of Córdoba itself. Liang reads these squabbles over territory as characteristic of a nobility tied to and even defined by land. His emphasis is on the role of local environments and histories in shaping the Fernández de Córdoba's sense of family identity and persistent local attachments, even as the clan expanded far beyond the boundaries of Córdoba or even Andalusia. Thus, his examination of Fernández de Córdoba marriage strategies as they evolved over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries stresses the lineage's high female nuptuality and preferences for local marriage ties, but he also notes a change in the late fifteenth century as marriage partners came from farther afield and higher up the prestige ladder.

The second chapter marks the beginnings of the Fernández de Córdoba's transformation from a provincial nobility rooted in a local community to a cosmopolitan and mobile group of imperial officers. Here, Liang focuses on Diego Fernández de Córdoba, Marquis of Comares, who served the Catholic Monarchs in the conquest of Granada and in the invasions and governance of the North African port of Oran and the Iberian kingdom of Navarre. This loyal officer of the crown, argues Liang in the first half of the chapter, exemplifies an understudied group of middle ranking high nobility, whose activities were key to the project of conquest, colonization, and administration in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Diego Fernández de Córdoba and his peers matched or surpassed many of the great magnates in the soldiers they contributed to the Granada War, for example, and were far more likely to serve as viceroys during the sixteenth century than grandees. They reaped their reward in mercedes (titles, lands, jurisdiction, rents); in Diego Fernández de Córdoba's case, these properties lay on both sides of the Mediterranean. The second half of Chapter 2 examines Diego's loyalty to Ferdinand in the crisis that followed the death of Philip I in 1506 and Diego's service in Oran and Navarre. His alliance with the king separated him and his successors from the Aguilar and Cabra wings of the Fernández de Córdoba lineage, while his work in North Africa and Navarre took him into places and social connections far from his Andalusian roots. Liang makes good use of a collection of letters between Diego and a colleague to map the horizontal social network of professional and personal ties that "formed one of the frameworks of imperial administration." (74)

These bonds of patronage, friendship, and shared loyalty were inherited by his son-in-law, Martín de Córdoba, Count of Alcaudete, whose career in imperial administration is the subject of the succeeding two chapters. Chapter 3 examines Martín de Córdoba's efforts on behalf of the crown during the Comunidades Revolt and his tenure as corregidor of Toledo in the tense years that followed, while Chapter 4 focuses on his actions as viceroy and captain general of Navarre. Liang makes clear the crown's growing dependency on the service of middle-ranking high nobles like Martín de Córdoba, but the most interesting portions of his analysis center upon of the transformations effected upon members of the Fernández de Córdoba clan as they made the shift from provincial nobles to cosmopolitan imperial administrators. Marriage strategies for members of the lineage changed dramatically, for example, as surplus female relatives that would once have been joined to peers among the Cordoban nobility now took the veil instead. The few sons and daughters that did make marriages found mates among the high nobility from throughout Castile, Aragon, and Navarre. More broadly, the harnessing of the family's fortunes to the imperial endeavor spawned new ways of thinking. Empires, argues Liang, are not merely inert land, physical space, but also "an intermixing of bodies, performance of tasks such as governance and exchange, and an abstraction that existed in people's minds." (130-131) The constant movement of Martín and his family throughout the expanding Spanish terrains and their activities on behalf of the monarchy "enacted" empire as they developed an imperial perspective that grasped its simultaneity.

Chapter 5 follows Martín de Córdoba to Oran, where he served for nearly a quarter-century as captain general. The third member of the Fernández de Córdoba clan to fill this post, Martín would be followed by four more members of the family after his death in 1558. Liang links the family's service in Navarre and in North Africa by arguing that, just as imperial administrators enacted empire through their own mobility, through their social networks, and through imagining it in their own minds, so too was empire created by transmission of practical expertise in governance between family generations and between different imperial territories. Personal experience acquired in one frontier area was applied in another, and, in so doing, peripheral areas of the empire were bonded together. Liang offers an insightful interpretation of administrative reports submitted by Fernández de Córdoba administrators in Oran, reading them as a form of family historical writing and a mode by which knowledge and skills were transferred from one generation to another. An epilogue traces the family's fortunes through the end of the seventeenth century.

There are, of course, areas left underdeveloped or underexplored. The Fernández de Córdoba hitched their family's fortunes to that of the empire not merely out of loyalty, but for gain. The first generations in service to the imperial project won lands and rents, while later imperial administrators received lucrative offices, reimbursements, and other benefits (but no landed properties). It would be helpful to have a more clear discussion of the vicissitudes of the family patrimony as the Fernández de Córdoba expanded beyond Córdoba. Similarly, while many individual members of the family left Córdoba behind, they remained rooted in their community of origin. A closer look at their place in Córdoba's local society during the period in which they were becoming imperial administrators could help us better grasp their changing modes of thought. Many of those who remained behind were women, cloistered in the family's convents. To what degree did these family members display the same imperial mentality? Was empire also enacted within the convent walls? Exploring these kinds of questions could further enrich Liang's already nuanced consideration of the interrelation of family and empire.

These objections aside, Family and Empire offers a promising, if slippery, approach to thinking about empire, one that views it as interconnected people and their skills, knowledge, and experiences through which they imagined the empire and brought it into being. Such a perspective, one that looks to horizontal ties between kinship groups and between distant imperial terrains rather than vertical ties between center and periphery, seems to me have a great deal of potential, not only for understanding the early modern Spanish composite monarchy, but for other imperial projects in other epochs. It is also refreshing to see a discussion of the Spanish empire that focuses not on Flanders, Central Europe, or the Atlantic, but on the "forgotten frontier" of North Africa (and Navarre). Liang is a founding member of the Spain-North Africa Project (SNAP), a recently launched scholarly initiative working to push beyond national and temporal boundaries to bridge the gap between the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb and approach the area as an integrated whole (see http://web.me.com/mistertea/SNAP/Welcome.html for details). This is a very laudable effort, and this book, one of the first fruits of the project, demonstrates the salutary effects and innovative potential of addressing both sides of the Mediterranean as component parts of the Spanish imperial venture.

Article Details

Author Biography

A. Katie Harris

University of California, Davis