"Lazy, Improvident People": Myth and Reality in the Writing of Spanish History

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Since the early modern era, historians and observers of Spain, both within the country and beyond it, have identified a peculiarly Spanish disdain for work, especially manual labor, and have seen it as a primary explanation for that nation's alleged failure to develop like the rest of Europe. In "Lazy, Improvident People," the historian Ruth MacKay examines the origins of this deeply ingrained historical prejudice and cultural stereotype. MacKay finds these origins in the ilustrados, the Enlightenment intellectuals and reformers who rose to prominence in the late eighteenth century. To advance their own, patriotic project of rationalization and progress, they disparaged what had gone before. Relying in part on late medieval and early modern political treatises about "vile and mechanical" labor, they claimed that previous generations of Spaniards had been indolent and backward. Through a close reading of the archival record, MacKay shows that such treatises and dramatic literature in no way reflected the actual lives of early modern artisans, who were neither particularly slothful nor untalented. On the contrary, they behaved as citizens, and their work was seen as dignified and essential to the common good. MacKay contends that the ilustrados' profound misreading of their own past created a propagandistic myth that has been internalized by subsequent intellectuals. MacKay's is thus a book about the notion of Spanish exceptionalism, the ways in which this notion developed, and the burden and skewed vision it has imposed on Spaniards and outsiders.

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Editorial Reviews

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"Ruth MacKay's 'Lazy, Improvident People' is a critical examination of the common notion that Spaniards in general have historically preferred to do anything rather than dishonor themselves through manual labor. . . . To MacKay, the myth of the 'lazy, improvident' Spaniards amounts to a series of discourses in which intellectuals, Spanish and foreign alike, have for centuries been responding largely to each other in ways that reflect the specific political contingencies of their own moments rather than the social and economic realities that characterized the lives of the overwhelming majority of ordinary Spaniards. . . . The strength of this rich and thought-provoking monograph lies above all in the synthetic range achieved by the author via her thoughtful engagement with an incredibly broad assortment of sources. . . . MacKay is to be applauded heartily for offering us (to build upon her metaphor) a very 'fruitful' book indeed—one in which are contained seeds that will likely continue for many years to bear bountiful harvests of discussion and debate."—David Coleman, Newsletter of the American Academy of Research Historians of Medieval Spain, April 2007

"'Lazy, Improvident People' is well conceived, well organized, and very well written—in some places almost lyrical. Historians of Spain have encountered in the archives a Spain of vigorous farmers and artisans who confidently manage their business and local political affairs, achieving a remarkable level of domestic peace and prosperity. Yet when the Bourbon rulers came to Spain in 1700, they found the country in desperate condition, with workers and nobles idle because they considered labor vile. Ruth MacKay demonstrates that Enlightenment thinkers commenting on Spain either did not know what they were talking about or deliberately distorted what information they had. This is a tectonic shift in the writing of Spanish history and, by extension, all of European history."—Helen Nader, University of Arizona

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801473142
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Seventeenth-century Castile
Prologue : Castile and craftsmen in the early modern period 11
1 The republic of labor 20
2 The life of labor 72
Pt. 2 Las Luces
Prologue : work in the eighteenth century 111
3 The new thinking 120
4 The new work ethic 163
Pt. 3 "The problem of Spain"
Prologue : the short nineteenth century and the empire 201
5 A nation punished 207
6 The narrative 245
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