About Historical Studies of Old Spain in the Age of Brexit Britain and of Trump Presidency: On John H. Elliott’s History in the Making (2012).

What follows is an abbreviated version of a longer critical interrogation of the (un-)making of the meaningfulness of historical life in direct relation to the most recent piece titled History in the Making (2012), by the eighty-seven-year-old English historian John Huxtable Elliott. This will be a necessary departure from the conventional praises typically circling Elliott, almost like an exaltation of larks, but you can pick your favorite choice of collective allegorical animal apropos cultures of historical and cultural scholarship in our most pressing times. The hope is to provoke critical thought not only among self-appointed guardians of professional-history visions, likely to be direct progeny of our main historian in question. The historical knowledge production appertains here directly to Spain among other localities, and this one is surely caught up firmly, still by this late date, between Anglophone powers of both sides of the Atlantic, Great Britain and the United States. This is our imaginary Bermuda triangle of vortex and vertigo, disappearances and shipwrecks, whilst attempts at the revival of the “special relationship” are being broadcast urbi et orbi by the popular political media. We must all go on exploring possibilities beyond any type of national (-istic) demarcations never entirely following the directions provided by official interpellations.


Diligence and longevity must have their due: the career of our professional historian, English born and trained, covers the last fifty-odd years, starting say from the 1960s, about thirteen books against the background of Franco Spain, the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Europe, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill in power, in alternation with Clement Attlee, until 1955, the “swinging sixties,” etc. A lot of rain has fallen and not only in the plains of Spain ever since . Our celebrated historian’s good fortune has been to invest in the Early Modern and colonial legacies of the somewhat peripheral country of Spain, the so-called “Imperial Spain” moment of its history (say, 1500-1700; move a few decades up and down starting from the emblematic 1492 and reach the 1800 or 1830, the beginning of the Latin American nation formation, I suppose, and the beginning of “modernity” proper). This is surely a daunting landscape of vast imaginary presences to cover.

Three initial questions: What is the global impact or legacy of such “imperial Spain”? Why should anyone bother and pay attention today centuries later in the midst of a certain crisis of the profession of “history” and of the “humanities” against the larger constellations provided by the governments of Theresa May’s Brexit Britain, Trump’s U.S.A. and Rajoy’s Spain in the 21st century (it is the ghost of Winston Churchill passing back and forth the Atlantic as well, together with Margaret Thatcher, trying to blow new official life into the “special relationship”)? Elliott’s shopkeeping has been done quietly and dutifully, without inclination towards stridencies and no apparent appetite for polemics, at least outside the Iberian-peninsula circles (we will see soon his endorsement of a certain orthodoxy about the “myth” of the Catalans). Therefore, no one can fault him for revolutionary articulations. I fail to see major rewrites in the last two panoramic books covering the wider Atlantic world, inside which the nation still called Spain is to be included. But it is the latest work that directly concerns us here.


The already four-year-old History in the Making is a rather quiet affair afforded to the undisturbed perspective of a professional historian. If the dawn promised no big deeds, the horizon offers no vistas outside plural options for professionalism with no comments on the present tensions and dilemmas. Loyalty is to the arts and crafts of a professional historian the way he understand the social role to be. This is no avant-garde movement. The reader will not find mind-blowing events. Are there any storms in the teacups? Are there no elephants in the room? We are dealing with the no-frill, no-shrill, no-fuss, ever-so-gradual scaffolding of the profession of history according to a historian devoting his best energies to the foreign periphery of Europe, the focus is always on Spain, for the consumption of Anglophone readers on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a certain construction of orthodoxy, a certain manufacture of consent (Chomsky’s formula) apropos Elliott’s work, a quintessential-English calm, mood-free collation of visions landing on the “foreign country” and staying, so it appears, safely anchored there. This must have required strategy and brokering, keeping up the collaboration with British institutions of higher learning, Oxford University mainly I suppose, whilst securing the American platform since the Princeton years, and the sustained cultivation Spanish officialdom, its successive governments and a rich variety of cultural institutions (Casa América, Madrid; Duques de Soria; Fundación Consejo España – EEUU; Real Instituto Elcano, Royal Institute; José María Aznar’s Fundación FAES, etc.). There is in principle nothing wrong with this active public profile. One may defend a flexible, facultative dimension responding to various circumstances. Yet, let us underline the officialist and institutionalist imprint to this “imperial Spain.” Birds of a feather…


The chapter headings are: 1/ Why Spain?; 2/ National and transnational history; 3/ Political history and biography; 4/ Perception of decline; 5/ Art and cultural history; 6/ Comparative history; 7/ The wider picture. The title phrasing is reader-friendly unassuming: we are dealing with modalities of types of history with a dissenting middle section addressing the theme of decline. There is no Saint George and no dragons in sight, no big fights or wars. There is a wish for impersonality, a bit surprising for someone so public at least in the context of Spain. Elliott largely eschews from defining historiographic debates, also avoids battles among theories and quarrels among philosophies (no need to beat the theoretical drum). History in the Making is a bit of a peace-keeping mission into historical domains. Predictably, there will be no explicit, self-aware invocation of ideology either, much less self-positioning among plural options, and the intelligent response is to assume tacit self-awareness on his part. In the end, Elliott does not hesitate to espouse the values seemingly of another time and place, of sobriety and pragmatism, of concrete-timespace demarcations of objects of study made clear by textual evidence, of “facts” needing no quotation marks, of being closer to being “a splitter” than “a lumper” (J.H. Hexter), and more of “a truffle hunter” than “a parachutist” (Emmanuel Le Roy); yet he is willing, he says, to give it a try and try both, to “have its cake and eat it too” (recent line of larger Brexit-Britain reverberations), in direct relation to the more Atlanticist and ambitious works written in the second half of the 2000s. Yet, for all the magnificent canvas of imperial histories, our historian remains fundamentally anchored in the continental-European part of the world both feet on the Iberian-peninsula offshoot. And he does so whilst defending the high standards of the British historians, call the gesture “red, white and blue.” The divide between “one’s own” and “foreign” is not mine, is his. It remains a constant in this book until the end. The preface, probably written last, is vivid declaration of lack of faith in the need for greater abstractions, or theories. It is genuinely unconvincing:

“I believe that theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanations of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did” (p. xi).

The sentence is spurious and banal. It means nothing sustainable. Elliott is on the side of “good history” and the dis-relationship between the imaginary reconstruction of “their” thoughts and behaviors with ours begs the interrogation that will here not happen. This is like flying with nothing as though the imagination had no epistemological parachute, or theory. And where are you standing, on what “earth”? And why going there? What are you looking for? Why bother? What would that do? Why Spain?, indeed, is the initial chapter title and the question is, for him, non-rhetorical. The answer turns out to be a combination of youthful trips, fortuitous circumstances, personal predilections, early professional intentions and intersections and taciturn, if not tacit (ideological) interests. The nominal list includes: “temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation” (p. 4).


“Why Spain?” conveys, in quick-brush strokes, early student-trip encounters with Franco Spain in the summer of 1950. In what is probably the most detailed, sunny and biographical, also the most distant in time and less polemical, section of History in the Making, the author remembers his own shadow, the twenty-plus-years-old student from Cambridge travelling with his mates to a geography full of misery and poverty and yet of “enormous dignity” (p. 2). Spanish will not come first choice of the cafeteria menu at Cambridge and elsewhere, during 1950s, trailing the most significant impact of other modern foreign languages of power and prestige such as French and German, and perhaps this is still true today . Spanish history was, and is still, a less crowded field of professional endeavor in Anglophone countries, its Golden Age still customarily decorated with “Black-Legend” rubrics. “Why Spain?” paints the brisk portrait of a historian as a young man in foreign lands. The defining connection is the chance encounter with Museo-del-Prado Velázquez’s Conde Duque de Olivares imposing equestrian portrait. The two moments are put together: the Franco Spain in the 1950s and the 1640s society of “economic and technological backwardness, religious obscurantism and a general torpor that left it behind lagging far behind its European rivals” (p. 7). The approach to art and politics is in general term not that of recently deceased John Berger (his Ways of Seeing, first published in 1972 after a very successful BBC series), but is instead indeed closer to the Princeton colleague, the American art-historian Jonathan Brown’s Kenneth Clarkesque civilizational stance of high-culture-high-power Europe with whom there has been collaboration at least since 2002. One historical precedent in the Golden Age of archeology: the three-dimensional transplant, the Patio from the Renaissance Castle of Vélez Blanco (1506-1515), set up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city, eloquent example of the cultural appetites of a minority American elite in the age of the robber barons.


The promising combination theme of aesthetics and politics is not, I firmly believe, fully explored here, not even hinted at. There is the perception of a retraction from explaining why the study of absolutism still merits time and effort. Contemporaneity is not talked about, remaining stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no future release. Elliott does not point fingers in the best direction for the future for others to follow suit. He never goes in the direction of ambitious comparativism of political theory of absolutism, a la Perry Anderson say , much less in the relatively recent fashion of the “political theology” of a Carl Schmitt brought to life via Agamben’s “state of exception” among others . This is very hot water for almost all of us, not leaving the immediate global scene intact. Elliott historicizes the age of absolutism whilst no doing political theory, much less comparative political theory among different national modalities, leaving the immediate circumstances, its pressures and preferences, un-developed. There is the valid charge of cogito interruptus. What is history without politics? What is politics without history? Both terms go hand in hand and the demand must be, surely, for the explicit rendition of both in a life trajectory recollecting itself in tranquility after having spent considerable time in at least three nations in the West.

Yet, what Elliot is after is the patient reconstruction of the sensibilities of the political figures of power and privilege in the age of Absolutism, with or without the patient rendering of the certainly imposing and demanding Baroque aesthetic. His typical public presentation will be the history of mentalities of figures such as Count-Duke of Olivares, Hernán Cortés or Philip II, trying to imagine “their” world from “their” perspective, or so he says. Elliott is much less interested in other perspectives not necessarily being subsumed under such privileged examples, aesthetics remaining a rather thin dimension never fully strutting its stuff convincingly, despite the usual story of high achievement and embarrassment of riches for others to enjoy.

Our young man, historian in embryo, had still to navigate a series of figures (Butterfield, Plumb, Runciman, Knowles). There is also the presence of the scholar-diplomat Marañón, historiographic precedent in relation to Count Duque of Olivares, and of course the reference has to be to two towering figures of French historiography such as Febvre and Braudel (pp. 7-9). Past and Present is counterpoint to the Annales school, and our non-Marxian member of the English-historian collective no doubts in the doubling of the “Marxist and marxisant [sic, in italics in the original)” inclinations of the always more revolutionary French side he admired at some distance (national stereotypes can be played up, amusingly, also in relation to historians). The French do “total history” without compunction, hesitation and false guilt like they do their wines and cheeses and other delights in life, willingly and happily hereafter, and one cannot but feel that they are the true big players at least in the mid-twentieth-century Cold-War European vicinity.

Our more modest author does not get carried away. He declares his resistance to “a deterministic approach” of economic and social history (p. 9) in a gesture that clears the dust of impeachment away from the big wigs and the elegant jackets of their French counterparts ambitiously cutting a big swathe through human avatars . The theme was then as it is now, yet somewhat mitigated, that of the “difference” (p. 5) within the European terrain . Elliott is happy to oblige. How so? He is always keen to mitigate all the claims to (radical) difference and exceptionalism (he does not dwell on the debate between Sánchez Albornoz and Américo Castro raging during those decades, deferring to Peter Russell’s 1959 review, pp. 128 & 228). One may be allowed to wonder out loud how big the difference is between the two singularities, specificity and exceptionalism: is the latter too absolute, extreme, absolute burning holes into all comparative grids of intelligibility?

Elliott speaks of his acquaintance with the Archive of Simancas and with Catalonia in 1953. Archival pursuits no longer appear later in the text as though the digital world had made them obsolete. The theme of the revolt of the Catalans emerges. Here there is an uneven combination of sympathy for the Catalans under Franco by the “genuine outsider” status, neither Catalan nor Castilian (p. 19) against the historical legacy of the legacy of the centralist measures of Conde Duque de Olivares in congruence with the conventional theme of the centralized bureaucracy of historical absolutism (Anderson’s account within theoretical historical materialism is extraordinarily rich in this regard). How such centralization plays out in the 1700s, how that finds an echo during Franco years, and how that becomes the current cacophony in contemporary Spain, is a tight-rope walking blindfolded in between tall buildings. One wishes there had been a bit more explicit development.

His is also a “tricky balancing act… not being able to “claim to have been consistently successful in preserving [his] stance” (p. 20); yet, this is retroactively applied to the dominant figure of Vicens Vives, who worked from within dispelling internal Catalan myths (“myth” being false ideas held by others in historical matters, or otherwise, in informal conventional parlance). Again, there is no elaboration, which is a pity, so we may all surmise what those myths might have been perhaps still are and what consistency in relation to what might have looked like, or whether it is still lagging behind tense contemporary avatars. The anecdote with the policeman in the street who tells a Catalan-speaking Elliott to “speak in the language of the empire… [I]t seemed as though, in spite of the passage of three centuries, time had stood still” (p. 25). We do not know how the anecdote developed, and it must be contextualized today with his presentations for the virulently centralist former Prime Minister for Partido Popular José María Aznar’s FAES organization (his former Ph.D. student acting as mediator). One may wonder if any of this internal tension will have any great repercussions at all beyond the borders of the Iberian peninsula.


The work on the secretary (valido) of Philip IV points towards the centralization implemented and the defeat of the periphery to the center of the constituted nation . There are no easy, direct equivalences between these rapid-changing negotations standing in the quicksands of Iberian-peninsula politics with other domains inside the larger continental release or outlet . There is nothing about the recent Blair-epoch devolutions of Britain for example. Our historian puts himself solely as the “foreign scholar,” using “imperial Spain” phraseology, but keeping his distance from Francoist celebrations of a glorious past. All of this is very attenuated in the democratic decades, as though it was white noise to current predicaments. Books may still have an effect, even if unread and never opened. Such admission of retroactive incongruence must have played well with the ghost of the past holding hands with Vicens Vives, but not now against the complicated themes of regime centralization, and the Golden-Past title, with or without the necessary nuances. The Franco’s authoritarian regime in the 1950s and 1960s, ever so slowly unfreezes and opens itself up to the “free” West during the Cold War moment, the closer cultural domination of France gradually loses gradually its grip over the “Anglo-Saxon” nations, in the old nomenclature. General things appear to go in the right direction, accordingly. Elliott is 45, already looking at things from the American platform, by the official year of Spanish Democracy in 1975.

The self-description is that of an outsider perfectly willing to keep the foreign status. It is repeated more than once (pp. 19, 29, 30, 31, 32, 171, etc.); and the term of outsider is here, undoubtedly, to be understood with none of the counter-cultural connotations of popular-culture, scandalous swinging sixties, or turning the tables upside down in the historiography (would postcolonial historiography qualify?). Wake up and smell the coffee: this self-assignation does not wish to strike a dissonant note or a strident chord. There is no tongue sticking out of no rolling stone mouth throwing no brick at no winter palace, or Casa del Buen Retiro where the Monarchs would have enjoyed the good retreat from official duties. The “outsider” and “foreign” self-assignations here rest on the quiet “virtues” of neutrality, impartiality and the pragmatism of the balancing of fact against evidence, and thus building imaginary pasts according to the reconstruction textual evidence always circumscribed in time and place according to the archive, but there is no need to turn Derridian in the interrogation of what the archive means.

The rejection of what is called “essentialism,” still no need for appeals to the tools of deconstruction, goes hand in hand with the skepticism towards excessive comparativism of big trans- or international units. Radical, seemingly unmeltable, incomparable or exceptional particularity and the impossibly, unwieldy big units: how small is small and how big is big. Gradation and contextualism may do away with this false dilemma since we are all always already putting social units in relation with each other, and what would the matrix of comparativism ever be in the first place., where the vantage point of observation allowing and preventing a good observation for what community of readers or observers. The crucial issue is also how convincingly and what for. The good side of the coin: there is no xenophobia in Elliott’s scholarship; there are no intractable repudiation of schools of thought foreign to him; and perhaps it is simply a matter of “good manners” and not talking about what you dislike. The less good side is also the no apparent xenophilia, as though the nationalized demarcated object of study (Spain) did not manage to produce many instances worthy of emulation, also in relation to historiographic pursuits that could be exported to other localities. There is under-verbalization here. There is also mood neutrality, even if there is a certain (professional) proximity, a certain warmth even “love for Spain”, not atypically announced by state officials in public events. It is not clear what the fundamental intellectual merchandise is being delivered in the end of History in the Making. Or is it perhaps the case that we must all avoid such grandiloquent proclamations?

Our English historian has made his living and sticking to it with a keen sense of duty and diligence, making the most out of the aforementioned combination of “temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation.” There is no pushing the buttons of any type of orthodoxy, either British or Spanish; neither of “going-native” assimilation, no incidents with no policemen in a chronology closer to ours. There is no moment of being carried away emotionally in any one direction in particular as though the matters at hand warranted no big fuss . There is perceptible demarcation, the “been in it, but not of it,” as it is often said of English side of Britain, the Irish and Scots being different, versus continental Europe, and there is also something of a gentleman-like preservation of a distance, intellectual and emotional by the subject of study from the object of study, “Spain” indeed among other national entities (one is reminded in this regard of the English Prologue of the Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset). There is no sustained historical reconstruction of sensibilities of any social groups other than the ones in historical power and privilege as though they managed to monopolize all knowledge and all virtue. Identical charge can apply to the immediate here and now and there are oceans of immense neglect here.


I am developing a summary of an existential, historicist argumentation about the habitation of a “home,” or even possibilities for the vindication of expatriation, or theoretical exile, or migration, or “cultural translation,” as some scholarly tendencies have put it forth for the last two decades or so, in relation to the empiricist historicism informing History in the Making. There are no transculturations here and no apparent need for any of that. The “same-foreign” binary undergoes no fusion. The game of nationalities remains the same song along the chorus of existing United Nations with no gestures towards its insufficiencies, tensions, possible mutations. There are no desirable higher or lower planes, apparently, for the pursuit of interactions of these national/istic demarcations. “America,” with or without question marks, whether expansively or reductively understood to signify only the United States, represents no escape route, no alternative model, no desirability, no dilemma, no conundrum, for other, better knowledge production bringing into question the naturalness of Eurocentrism. Elliott has no commerce with Mexican intellectuals of the stature of Leopoldo Zea and this slow passing of ships in the night is telling. And why would he when this has not been his natural habitat, professional or otherwise? His history in the making is thus firmly in the antipodes of “postcolonial” endeavors provincializing the universalist claims of (post-)imperial Europe within the temptations of the West, currently monopolized internationally by the United States, and for how long.

But this line of thought would take us into the expansive geopolitical dimensions of cultures of historical and cultural study. Let us rein the signs of “history” and “making” and keep them tied up to the immediate dealings by our English historian in relation to his latest work. This making of history keeps history historical, out there, foreign; this is about the deeds of foreigners imaginatively inscribed in a society that is described as not ours. This making of history is mostly according to the making of Western historians, with majority-vote of Europeans, and Anglophone club of privilege among them, with rare incursions by other types, with the rare occasion of the anthropologists mostly delivering “cultural” dimensions of a certain relativism surely mitigating one and all claims towards essentialism (Geertz, p. 31ff). It is in this vicinity that our English historian provides a further twist to this screw in relation to the word of “hispanista,” which, to him, appears non-problematic (p. 35, 171). It is his vehicle, but “hispanism by itself is not enough” (p. 39). It must still fit into proper history, as the longer initial quote has it. I confess I do not know anyone who proudly shouts this self-definition from the tall buildings of his own native or adopted society. “Hispanista” here overlaps with the already clichéd anthropological divide between identity or sameness and difference or the “other,” and the nouns fall like chips on two separate camps or demarcations not to be blended. There is no crossing of lines. We remain in the binary, the dichotomy, no going higher and no going under, with an implied, implicit positive balance towards “one’s own society,” yet politely left under-verbalized and unresolved in History in the Making. “Spain” is here largely a “place” of heterotopia: a “foreignness” one goes to from time to time, or perhaps often, to get business done, perhaps to get a “good deal,” in the ominous language of the immediate present, but which delivers no fundamentals. Mutatis mutandis: the intelligent reader is invited to substitute the name of the country for another closer to his/her skin to feel the impact, if not the drama, of this cognitive situation. Would antiquarianism do as valid characterization?

Between my society and a society not my own, there is no return or two-way ticket; there is no “return of the gaze,” no apparent impulse to “turn the tables,” and no blowback either. There is no acknowledgement of the inequality of social forces involved. There is no interrogation of institutionality building bridges or walls between the various social groups in question. No declared or undeclared wars either. God forbid there is any invocation of ideological forces blowing fast and furious in the wings of these social agents, perhaps sitting rubbing thighs and shoulders during the public presentation, be in Madrid, London or elsewhere. There is, predictably, the easy fall into the conventional narrative of the “Black Legend” (p. 37ff). Play the song again, historicize and relativize it, give it a light touch, nuance it a bit or as much as you wish, and the song still remains the same, but without the energy of a Led Zeppelin. Explicitly, there is balanced exegesis and what else will be said publicly surrounded by state officials: “The persistence challenge is to make Spain comprehensible to an international readership” (p. 38). Elliott’s career has been mostly about brokering such collaborative comprehension. And yet these findings can be extrapolated to other nations (endlessly fascinating country with successes and failures, of universal importance, in perennial (re-, de-) construction and deconstruction in the vicinity of religious beliefs (the three big monotheistic religions), conqueror of an overseas empire, unity-and-diversity tensions within its own territory, “enormously rich if often controversial contribution to human civilization”). No one’s pulse will beat faster upon hearing this type of generic national performance.

There is something in History in the Making that remind me of the figure of the entomologist who keeps his facts and pieces of textual evidence nicely typed and labeled, and promptly updates the record of specimens within the taxonomies keeping them neatly in the collection boxes losing no composure while the strong winds are hurling all around out there beyond the closed blinds of a house not deemed in serious trouble. This history that is “there” does not appear to relate to the history “here” at any meaningful level of economics, politics, culture and aesthetics (but perhaps, the word “culture” must always be kept framed, after the impact of cultural studies, the impact of which our English historian does not give evidence he fully wants to follow or understand). A repetition is perhaps needed: the subject position keeps taciturnly, tacitly his own set of values, beliefs, predilections intact in the study of the history of the past of the object of study nationally, conventionally demarcated as “Spain.” There are no fundamental changes in trajectory and focus in the last fifty years, except crucially opening the lens and cover perhaps with soft eyes wider territory than the once central foreign mono-national entity. But the very division of subject and object of study is been kept here for pedagogic purposes: it has been long lost its hermeneutic plausibility at least since the hey day of positivism about a century ago. History in the Making walks the path of epistemological vistas without giving us big landscapes, a bit like the stubborn impulse following the blinkered vision fixated on the dangling carrot in front of the nose, call it Spain if you wish.

Embarrassing questions accordingly may follow the gallop along the pathways: what about the aetiology, the teleology of the study of history? What is the point of it all? What set of circumstances causes the study? Whither is it going? Any withering at all, perhaps? Are there any problems at all with “history,” as professional and non-professional endeavors? What is the intended audience of readers and interpreters of this “good history”? Where is the explicit political background of contemporary Britain and Spain? History in the Making does not want to rise up to the higher occasion of the epistemological justification of the importance of these historical studies for the societies directly implicated. Who is doing the promotion of these historical studies? Where is the explicit rendition of the social texture, or the “culture,” almost understood in the predominant sense of the biological sciences, (i.e. the cultivation, the preparation of nutrients, the husbandry of ideas), inside which these studies have emerged with such visibility? What ideas are being discarded like broken furniture; what new tools with which to move forward? History in the Making wants no drama. It is genuinely wanting and unsatisfactory work, intellectually speaking. This deliberate, dreadful silence on the part of the historian has been no obstacle for the conferring of many honorific degrees, at least fifteen according to unreliable Wikipedia information on him. Who would dare flick these tassels and pull from these infulae?

Chapter two is titled “national and transnational history,” and our “middle-class mid-twentieth century English man” (p. 40) reconstructs his Catalan years, summoning the unfamiliar, provincial ghosts of Ferran Soldevila, Vicens Vives, and Rovira i Virgili (pp. 42ff). Vives is called “dominant, if controversial” (p. 43) in the demythologizing of Catalan history (since “myth” is “bad” in the conventional English sense that it will be the erroneous belief system of other; let us underline the polite distancing of “controversial,” and the tactful withdrawal from the explicit rendition of the controversy). Conventionally therefore, the Catalans are “nationalist” in relation to their own historiography in a way that others, let us call them Spanish-nationalists perhaps, are less so or perhaps not at all. Elliott takes this “bad” nationalism via the famous formula of Benedict-Anderson’s “imagined communities,” all the way to (bad) “exceptionalism,” or “chosen nation syndrome” (p. 45, sic in quotes in the original), which can perhaps be better deciphered as stubbornly resistant particularity or unbelievably exceptional specificity, perhaps even messianic.

It is circumstantial evidence that will make the position clearer. Elliott’s distance is not elaborated. The implication is the encomium of medias res akin to the liberal-bourgeois narrative of the desirable occupation of the tightly held center between fascism and communism during the Cold War moment of history of the West that appears to be making a comeback, or the Suárez’s UCD transition to democracy with the tactful incorporation of the Franco regime finding its place on the right of the political spectrum, its following generations regaining power since the Aznar government (who remembers the notorious photo of the Azores with Blair and Bush and the launching of the Iraq war?). Inevitably, we are dealing with intellectual pursuits, knowledge production and ideological alliances and a variety of interests in environments that cannot be circumscribed to any one nationality in question, Britain and the U.S. included, and perhaps all imperial nations have made claims to exceptionalism, and we can also think of the Jewish community, and its claims to being the “chosen people” by the terrible God who did not spare them the horror of the Holocaust. We may imagine our English historian shaking his head in displeasure and disbelief at these explicit presentations of a firm conviction or declarative belief, in the self-important national, imperial specificity. His mood and mode always appear to walk away from exaggerated temptations of continued relevance challenging time passing, as though “history” would not inevitably fail to cut us all to size and deliver the flattening out in the possibility of comparativism in theory.

Elliott keeps his distance from the contemporary revolts of the Catalans and a certain independentist historiography (p. 47), not made explicit. Elliott receives praise from being “fair to all the parties” (p. 48), and he behaves a bit like a blue-helmet member of the United Nations officially deployed in areas of (intellectual, social) conflict. He can afford to do so, appearing, a bit unbelievably if you asked me, as though he had no axe to grind on this earth. Our good representative of the nation of Saint George has no ugly dragon to slay (Catalonia and England share patron saint!, would he mediate amiably for both possibilities, would his historical scholarship be handmaiden to this or that party, contingency, etc.?). The reader has been forewarned: the “outsider [was] of course” less emotionally involved than natives such as Vicens Vives indulging in his myths. The name of Pierre Vilar (1906-2003) is mentioned at this conjuncture in what appears a compliment, with “a more positive story to tell” (p. 49). Again, the curious reader may scratch the skull about the constituents of such positivity since the prose remains generally ungiving amid natives and outsiders, revisionist histories, gains and losses inside a trajectory that can be generally described, not without a good doses of healthy sense of humor, as the civilizational march with no major crises and existential dilemmas. Elliott returns to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, and the generalized importance of myths and legends and of the understandable fears and anxieties of being devoid of symbols for national-community construction. This is no code, but a series of banalities that amount to siding with centralist-nationalist histories without ever engaging in social groups fighting for power and privilege in a demarcated territory. Our historian puts forth the generality of not “clinging too tightly to an invented or distorted past [that] can all too easily lead to disaster” (p. 49). And the jump is to the equation of a bad qua mythological Catalanist history and the criminal Serbia (pp. 49-50). The analytical scissors cut no persuasive cloth. The comparativism is too timid, predictable and “safe.” The calculations of the tailor are “unionist” and “conservative.”

These are major, multi-directional issues, whether played in the Catalan domain or elsewhere: the perforce teleological and reductive national history (p. 51), and perhaps one should quickly add the more appropriate notion of the nation-state, which is the looming shadow that our English historian has fundamentally chased for most of his career. The inclusion of the more localized enclaves such as the patria (p. 55) does not appear to resolve the political tensions alluded to, neither in relation to the early-modern dimensions or the “modern” issues (Elliott avoids entirely and systematically the languages of the postmodern and of the (post-)colonial and this double avoidance is profoundly revelatory). Elliott says he shares the preoccupation of younger historians for a look into the state that is “less purely institutional” (p. 65), and the realization of the “inadequacy” of the aggregation of single countries adding up to the larger domain of European history (p. 73). He speaks of “cutting across” national boundaries, hence the advocacy of contact zones or “transnational history.” In relation to the seventeenth century, Elliot conventionally speaks of the two models, the Anglo-Dutch of near-republican model, greater representation and more plurality of creeds, and the more authoritarian and centralized and more religious uniformity, or the French model (p. 74): the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 (no broaching of nationalism here) is compared to the more centralized and repressive Castilian-centric Bourbon dynasty.

The “greater resilience” of the Anglo-Dutch model finds what I would describe to be an economic-deterministic apologia pro longa vita sua:

“Liberty and representative institutions proved in the long run to offer a better recipe for raising revenues and ensuring credit-worthiness than government decrees and royal promises” (p. 75), and Elliott leans on Roland Mousnier for such pillar of justification. The privileging of the dominant narrative of the centralized nation-state is brought into sharper relief, if only one pays attention to other darker areas, complexities and paths not taken. There are quite a few of these. Unions bring with themselves the “negative” opposite of disunion, or fragmentation, or even difference and diversity. Elliot closes this second chapter by proposing that the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Spanish composite state under the Austrias may still have new things to say to the historians of the nation-state (p. 79). In the end he will go further east, via good old Ranke, to the Ottoman Empire (p. 217), for others to pursue, as though by strong implication what Leopoldo Zea called “core [Carolingian Empire] Europe,” minus the British Isles, had nothing new to add to these burning issues anymore. Bringing none of this “home,” Elliott has nothing to add.

“Political history and biography” is the rather “British-populist” title of chapter 3. If the previous chapter attempted a relative depoliticization of his own foreign professional-historian position, this chapter will not dwell at all in political theory or contemporary politics (the geopolitics of transnational or international levels is something our scholar does not ever wish to contemplate in relation to pressures or fashions informing historical studies). Elliott remains committed to a history largely from above, hence his focus is typically always on the institutional-official archive of the nation-state history punctuated by a few good men in power preferably painted by recognizably famous painters . Biography remains a very popular British genre, and one that is only gender-neutral initially. Be it Conde Duque de Olivares, Hernán Cortés or Philip II, Cardinal Richelieu, Elliot’s natural tendency is in the antipodes of those with no history, or on the darker side of the Renaissance. There is no big space for ethno-history or “social history” from the more humble or subaltern or below. Extra-European domains acquire a wallpaper background decoration to more important avatars elsewhere. And this is fine at least for a certain type of historical craftsmanship which no longer appears to occupy center stage in the profession, and it is no secret that some globalize from here in the new century still holding tight to the banner of toleration and pluralism: I am mostly circumscribing the most immediate type of “history in the making” that will present no revolutionary findings in the course of a lifetime. Elliott appears to lose inspiration and emphasis once we begin to contemplate social spaces not covered by the looming shade of the nation-state. Where to go then: to the preoccupations of religious dimensions? To the intricacies of aesthetics? Both dimensions appear secondary or even tertiary to Elliott’s interests. There is no inclusion of religious belief and the Baroque is but the thinnest of presences. Marañón and Cánovas del Castillo helped him initially with Conde Duque de Olivares, who here appears to signify little more than Iberian-peninsula centralization program proper to absolutism.

But we are in the mental world of 1973 and Elliott crosses the pond to settle down in Princeton, New Jersey where he will reside for 17 years. It is in strong contrast to the French Annals colleagues that he sees the potential of a Spanish counterpoint to the “strong man” personality of Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel Ribera y Velasco de Tovar, Cardinal Richelieu. I recall the great line by John Beverley that most historians have been invested in telling the biography of the nation-state, with or without crises or detours . Elliott is to be included here, with or without his American vistas. The throwaway lines of Braudel open a big window of opportunity for Elliott (p. 88). Our English historian values what the Annals authors leave firmly behind: biography. He defends the power of human agency and he appears to open up warmly to the hegemony of the “culture” approach, leaning even closer to “cultural conditioning,” including his own (p. 93). He chooses Butterfield over Marxist or marxisant (sic, always in italics) interpretations of the past (p. 93): human agency and MacMillan’s “events, dear boy, events” over Braudel’s longue durée. It is impossible not to see a certain intellectual “nationalism” here against larger vistas provided by the United Nations of Spanish, French and American colleagues.

The follow-up is vastly unpersuasive: the history writing of the ambitious historian is about capturing an age, making human actions comprehensible in a narrative flow. History is a reconstruction that draws the reader in. The crucial aspect is the biography of the main or a principal actor, with or without the awareness of the “dangers of the ‘great man’ approach to the study of the past” (p. 96). And from what perspective is this executed, if not from that of the nation-state with its official resources, archives, etc.? You get the official public-intellectual profile of the English professor in contemporary debates in the Iberian peninsula about the legacy of empire and of the revolt of the Catalans to be contained, and what are other topics emerge forcefully? Two names are mentioned with appreciation: Domínguez Ortiz and Ruiz Martín open the historical age to him (p. 94). And a third one is added, the “leading historian of ideas” Maravall, credited with the top position in the podium of “Golden Age Literature;” yet his famous Baroque studies remain “controversial” (pp. 95 & 150); and here we go again: Elliot’s charge is that of a (narrow) Baroque functionalism. History in the Making provides no dealings with the monumental historiography of the Baroque sensibility.

There is no one single quote from Golden Age literature and culture colleagues in the humanities handling the “controversial” legacy of the Baroque inside Spanish-speaking nations and outside. Elliott appears never to have crossed paths with Golden-Age specialists, much less Latin American colonial specialists agonizingly making his meager living in the U.S. where he resided for nearly two decades. It is therefore not surprising that upon hearing of the “linguistic turn” (pp. 104-5), he turns to, who else, but a second anthropologist, Geertz, and the importance of symbols in the “theater-stage” in the context of 19th century Bali in Indonesia, which is not exactly close to Gibraltar. Isn’t our English historian “kicking the ball on the pitch a bit defensively”? (remember the aforementioned analogy of the footballer simply telling us that he is playing good football). This is a bit of a long boomerang throw, away from his favorite disciplinary and his most familiar geographies, particularly for someone who has expressed his skepticism of long-range comparativisms. Elliott wants to play catch-up with a certain culturalism promoted by American anthropology about the importance of symbolic production. He takes it back into Early Modernity, but the Spaniards are not returning to the fold of “their own” Golden Age, but the period remains lifeless, demanding no urgency, so stereotypically pinnacle of excellence in the arts, if not politics, so supremely excellent in achievement that quotations and explorations are unworthy scholarly behavior. History in the Making invites piety and abstract encomium to the uninitiated for whom, as the beautiful line by Walter Benjamin has it, this beauty untested, has nothing at all alienating.

There is a quick, solitary reference to Kantorowicz inside this reference to thick symbology. But where are the Spanish specialists in the immediate Museo-del-Prado vicinity and their open love for Velázquez? Perhaps there are all hiding in the shade of the sole statue of Jonathan Brown. The tone is light but the issues are vital in relation to a historical scholarship that does not wish to contemplate international disparities, much less decolonization of knowledge practices. It appears that the Spanish colleagues remain circumscribed there in their own corral and do not travel far, fast and furious with their intellectual merchandise officially speaking to foreign places such as Indonesia, America, Britain, etc., not even with the entire official apparatus also in the Mariano Rajoy years! There is no detectable crisis of identity in Elliott. There is instead an impressive continuity: the chapter concludes with the possibility of a return to the lingering validity of the biographical approach, one that is not, pay attention to the adverbs, “purely biographical” (p. 112) or done in “narrow[ly]” institutional terms. “Imagination, empathy, the ability to master a wide range of diverse kinds of evidence” are declared to be ineluctable cardinal virtues needed in the arts and crafts of the challenging reconstruction of “political actors” shaping and being shaped by the political world. Mutatis mutandis: the professional historians too.


These pages wish to constitute a critical acknowledgement of the historical work done about old Spain. National labels and demarcations will not go away tomorrow, even by and about those who, with or without exiles, do not feel particularly nationalistic. Others will nationalize you and your visa papers will tell the bureaucratic truth. Another matter altogether is whether historical and literary studies must yield smilingly to this Procrustean bed cutting short your legs, arms and a portion of the thinking headpiece. We will all have to deal with the concert of nations since the a-national condition of global universality, or cosmopolitanism, does not yet its effective recognition. The Brexit Britain / Trump Era appear to bring to visibility a resurgence in virulent nationalism. We all need good luck with that one.

History in the Making has been our chance to pay critical tribute to Elliott. It has also been excuse and pretext to address the mirage of the singularity of the foreign-nation object of study and point in the direction of institutionality and ideology. Elliott’s historical studies of old Spain showing the virtues of diligence, perseverance and longevity must have their place of honor, but this cannot not be the final word, particularly in the Age of Brexit Britain and Trump (the presence of Rajoy must take a subordinate role, despite the apparent warmth between both European conservative leaders). History in the Making is indeed brief introspective account of the historical reconstruction of foreign dimensions of the secondary-tier nation-state of Spain within the European platform. This historical reconstruction gradually expands to cover to reach “America” over a big Atlantic dimension. With or without reticence, there is no pulling back from this big scenario.


This is historians’ history and it is of the “conservative” antiquarian kind, never mounting, as far as I can see, a contradiction to official discourse, at least publicly. There is nothing in Elliott’s literature that will ruffle feathers to the Spanish authorities as far as I can tell. But perhaps these sensibilities remain subtle and delicate like peacocks’. Our synthesis: the ideological configuration of this historical narrative is that of the march of the “liberal West,” and as such it is fundamentally Hegelian frame, with or without extensive readings of the big German and this is not “externality” to the intrinsic value of the historical studies, with or without the declared toleration of the plurality of takes. History in the Making is insufficient hybrid account, part-memoir, part-summary of a fifty-year professional-historian “travel” leaving more questions open in the end than closing them already in the second decade of the new century. Elliott’s explorations have gone ever so naturally, almost like mothballs mesmerized by the light and the dust in the official archive, in the direction of the mindset of the man in power, king, administrator or colonizer (Hernán Cortés, Philip II, Conde Duque de Olivares, etc.). And where would the need come to want to complicate this mental picture with darker, mixed and in-between states of being (Inés de la Cruz, Guaman Poma de Ayala, Olaudah Equiano, Fredrick Douglass… )? History in the Making offers no regrets. Our English historian is entitled to his predilections inside the big tent of “Atlantic history.” And who would dispute his many honorary awards? Yet, let us not close our eyes to the immense distance from disruptive cultural studies and belligerent postcolonial studies to name but two (the legacy of Marxism of Past and Present must have vanished from sight like a fast-moving ghost with no trace!). You are defined by your immediate interests and by the other ones persistently kept in others’ studios. This history making is the relative loosening from the moorings provided by old-fashioned positivism, British empiricism and antiquarianism, the invocation of facts and events give him away. But it is still not far away, not far enough into the other side of foreignness, Spanish or otherwise, to the darker side of the Renaissance, the thick textures of the Baroque, even the Moon or beyond the demarcation line where America becomes a central preoccupation, or this social group claiming this sort of thing must be given priority, or the inequality of access to knowledge production must be fought against, etc. Hence, the provocative call has been suggested to the need to Americanize and even Mexicanize the expansive Eurocentric historiography provided by Elliott, which remains a certain ideological type of liberal orthodoxy . The large narrative is largely implied, yet falls within the expansive progress of the liberal West. This is Eurocentric consciousness with American expansiveness without ever bringing itself about unpleasant phenomena such as Western universalism, barbarization and marginalization, not his own problem. These reconstructions of old Spain are put to good use by officialdom in the promotion of the good modern name of Spain, or “marca España,” with the easy, full collaboration of our historian. History in the Making is the closing of the books of the dutiful shopkeeper. There are no frills. There is no fuss. There is also a laudable flexibility and openness of mind in the end and a certain loosening of the tie and the shoelaces in the leaving a bit behind the singularity of the foreign nation of object of study. Historical linearities are all theoretically suspended: there is no need to go back to absolutist origins or Platonic causes leading to myriad effects. The belief in the teleological meanings appears to have been eroded to the core, nagging doubts nest in the holes there and I am recreating Ortega y Gasset’s language. Will the catastrophic ends of the West hold sustainable meanings for us? There are no figures of this immediate future and the specific references to proper names and facts stopped in the 1970s.

Elliott has collaborated with a thick institutional texture in Spain (Casa Real, Casa América, Duques de Soria, Fundación Consejo España – EEUU, Real Instituto Elcano, Royal Institute, Ministries of Culture of various governments, under Aznar and Rajoy, the FAES Institute of former President Aznar, etc.). This social function defines his scholarship, if it does not of course determine or exhaust it. The social impact is less visible in Britain and the U.S., it is after all about the foreign nation, “America” being background to other more important facts and thoughts happening mostly on the European side of the Atlantic. Such institutional proximity is not conducive to send alarmist messages. It has instead resulted into putting bad press to bed, of tactful presentation of different perspectives without reaching civil war among historians, and in essence of dispelling the myths of others and speaking of the modernity of the nation in consort with others. The English historian has put his old-Spain history to good use on behalf of the Spanish officialdom, keeping the post-Spanish-Civil-War present-tense tensions at bay. In this sense he has behaved dutifully like a good civil servant fulfilling his civic duty, and when parts of the egg are proven to be rotten, they will be declared to be indeed excellent publicly. Remember the curate and the bishop in the classic Punch cartoon? Is it fair to extend this civic lesson to parts of History in the Making? And what about the considerable production of Elliott?

Elliot has limited traffic with “theory” or philosophy of history. This historian does history like the football player simply plays football, refusing the talk about tactics, strategies, history of the competition, the club, the finances, the intellectual and scholarly needs… History in the Making sticks to its own business without getting distracted about the “wider picture,” as the title in the thinnest chapter, the last one, has it. History in the Making amounts to some introspection about the sustained trajectory and the work produced, and the emphasis must be placed on the “some.” The prose never gets too close for comfort. There are no confessions. Potentially provocative awkward moments, as with Américo Castro, are not explored. There is supreme caution here. History in the Making is sustained exercise in diplomacy, later years treated summarily with not many proper names and meaningful events. The prose is neither distracting nor arresting: serviceable. There are typically no stylistic flights of fancy, and when these occur, as for example the brief inclusion of T.S. Eliot’s poetry in the end, readers are entitled to wonder what the major point about wisdom is after all. Perhaps the whole point of History in the Making is to say that history, with or without capital letters, is not really about making big statements whatsoever about anything. This business is instead about, so it appears, the dutiful book-keeping of antiquarianism apropos the national object of (obscure) desire, not one’s own, call it Spain if you wish.


Note: This is abbreviated version of a longer piece.