The best books about Spain’s golden age

Amanda Scott Author Of The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550-1800
By Amanda Scott

Who am I?

I was a stubborn teenager, and growing up, I vocally declared I would never set foot in Spain. The Spanish Empire was oppressive! It was full of religious fanatics! Yet… in college I took a course on Spain’s Golden Age, and for the first time I saw a different side of history, full of paradoxes and contradictions, Inquisitors and female mystics, bumbling priests and powerful nuns, decadence and poverty, emperors, tricksters, artists, pirates, scientists, and everything in between. Spain of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries was extraordinarily complex and far from one-dimensional. Now, years later, I have travelled to Spain over twenty times, lived in Pamplona, and I am a historian of early modern Spain at Penn State University.

I wrote...

The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550-1800

By Amanda Scott,

Book cover of The Basque Seroras: Local Religion, Gender, and Power in Northern Iberia, 1550-1800

What is my book about?

The Catholic Church in Early Modern Spain is often perceived as repressive and inflexible. In this book, I focus on how religious reform played out at the local level, and particularly on how women became the catalysts for negotiation and moderation. The Basque seroras were uncloistered lay religious women, hired and regulated much like the male clergy, whose central role in local religious life meant that they managed to survive in a world that technically left little room for deviation. The contradictions of their life and work revises how we think about the limitations placed on early modern women, and illuminates a world in which women wielded considerable religious authority.

The books I picked & why

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Lazarillo de Tormes / The Guide Boy of Tormes

By Anonymous,

Book cover of Lazarillo de Tormes / The Guide Boy of Tormes

Why this book?

Modern literature owes a tremendous amount to forms established in early modern Spain.  Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote is unequivocally the most famous, but even more popular were some of the short adventure stories of the day.  The anonymously authored Lazarillo de Tormes is the source of the pícaro stock character, or the young boy who gets along by using his wits and tricking those around him (think Tom Sawyer). In addition to being a great example of the literature of the period, Lazarillo is probably the best testament to the façade of wealth during the period, and to the impoverished Castile experienced by ordinary people.

Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics

By Richard L. Kagan (editor), Abigail Dyer (editor),

Book cover of Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics

Why this book?

No list of books about early modern Spain would be complete without something on the infamous Spanish Inquisition. Historians are well aware that Inquisition trials were complex, full of coercion and secrecy, but also sometimes appropriated by individuals for their own purposes. This is an extremely accessible introduction to the Spanish Inquisition, told through “autobiographies” of six prisoners, such as Islamic and Jewish converts, a prophet, and a transgender individual. The collection includes transcriptions of the actual trials, plus brief analyses that guide readers through religious, social, gender, and political themes.

Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia

By Allyson M. Poska,

Book cover of Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia

Why this book?

This book centers the experience of global empire on the ordinary women left behind in northwest Spain. In many parts of the peninsula, the empire was felt most acutely and at the day-to-day level through absence: Galicia, in particular, had extremely high levels of male migration, creating communities dominated by women. Drawing upon court cases, marriage contracts, testaments, and Inquisition records, Allyson Poska shows how peasant women seized legal and social power in the sometimes-permanent absence of their spouses, eschewing norms on sexuality, property, and family.

Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism

By Erin Kathleen Rowe,

Book cover of Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism

Why this book?

This brand-new, prize-winning book is a gorgeous synthesis of some of the most important trends in current Iberian studies. Early modern empire-building, missionary efforts, and the African slave trade fostered a new cult of black saints, which Rowe documents through stunning photography from tiny and forgotten churches across the peninsula. In focusing on black saints and their devotees—a largely understudied part of early modern Catholic culture—Rowe not only centers and elevates the diverse and often marginalized individuals who shaped global Catholicism, but also emphasizes important conversations about race and inclusion in early modern society.

Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe

By Bethany Aram,

Book cover of Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe

Why this book?

This older book remains one of my favorites because it challenges a number of easy assumptions about queenship, mental illness, and political strategy.  Juana was the third child of Isabella and Ferdinand, trained and educated to marry for diplomatic alliance, but never expected to reign in her own right. Yet early modern dynastic strategy was at the mercy of mortality and fertility, and Juana eventually became the unlikely monarch of Spain and the mother of the powerful line of Habsburg kings of Spain. Juana is typically dismissed as mentally unstable following the death of her husband. This book reexamines this stereotype, arguing that her eccentric behavior may have been strategic given the limitations placed upon her by her family, and deployed intentionally to protect herself and her children’s inheritance.

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