Economic Life in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain, 1085–1815
- Hilario Casado AlonsoHilario Casado AlonsoInstituto Universitario de Historia Simancas, University of Valladolid
- and Teofilo F. RuizTeofilo F. RuizDepartment of History, University of California, Los Angeles
The period between 1085 to 1815 witnessed important transformations in Spain’s economic history. The transition from a frontier society to one of the largest empires in the world was soon followed by its subsequent decline. During Spain’s Middle Ages two kinds of economies, societies and political structures, existed side by side: One represented by the various Muslim kingdoms and another by the Christians. Their frontiers shifted constantly between 1035 and 1212 to the detriment of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), concluding with the conquest of Granada in 1492. Economic dynamism resulted in Christian expansion, reflected in demographic, agricultural, livestock, and commercial growth during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries and comparable to that of other medieval kingdoms. Under the stress of the mid-14th-century crisis (plagues, wars, and civil conflicts), economic growth came to a partial halt in the second half of the century. Yet, unlike other areas in Europe, the late medieval crisis had less of an impact in Spain, differently affecting some of the Iberian realms.
After the second third of the 15th century, as it was the case in Portugal, the economy in the Crown of Castile began to grow once more. Castile became the demographic and economic hub of Spain to the detriment of other areas, such as Catalonia, Navarra, or Aragón, which had been more developed in earlier times. The Catholic Monarchs’ rule and their reforms made Spain one of the most prosperous economies in Europe and the center of a sprawling empire. The colonisation of the Americas and the Philippines with their untold wealth further bolstered Spain’s economy. As a result, most researchers agree that Spain reached the height of its economic growth in the mid-16th century, although in a number of regions growth extended into the 1580s. Based mostly in agriculture, the economy also benefitted from the development of crafts and, above all, trade, generating vast tax revenue for the Habsburg monarchy’s expansive policy of war.
After the late 16th century, however, the Spanish economy began to show signs of fatigue, leading to severe crisis that lasted until at least the mid-17th century. This recession heralded a major shift in Spain’s history. Whereas it was the inland areas of Spain that were the most populated and wealthy during the 12th and 13th centuries, these areas were also most affected by the crisis, while the coastal regions would be the first to emerge from the recession. Although Spain failed to reach the heights attained in other countries such as Britain, France, or the Netherlands, an economic revival occurred during the 18th century, moving the Spanish economy beyond what it had been during the final third of the 16th century. Nonetheless, as had occurred in the 17th century, coastal areas developed more intensely than inland, leading to the economic geography of modern-day Spain.