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What has Spain contributed to world history?

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

As an active writer on Quora I often respond to questions on the Spanish speaking world. This particular question is one that I thought would be relevant to students of Spanish at GCSE and A-level:

Spain: A historical powerhouse and modern-day influence

Regardless of what you think of the Spanish Empire and its postcolonial legacy, there is simply no denying its influence. The Spanish empire was certainly one of the most influential in all of human history. Allow me to point out a few of the more obvious achievements and points of influence of the Spanish empire.

1.The Americas and Caribbean:

Yes, the continent existed and was populated before Columbus arrived but there is no doubt that the Spanish crown changed the course of history by financing the establishment of colonies in the Caribbean, North America and South America. I’d go as far to say that this is the single most significant historical fact in recorded history. The legacy of these ventures has been experienced, in one way or another by everyone on planet earth. If this isn’t significant on every metric, I don’t know what is.

2. The novel:

The Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes wrote the first novel told in the conventional form with a third person narrator and set in contemporary society. At once ironic, comedic and profound, in 1602, Cervantes published Don Quixote de La Mancha and created the novel as we recognise it today. I’m pretty sure that counts as a significant cultural development.

3. Artistic Genius:

Velazquez, Goya and El Greco advanced the possibilities that painting offered. If were looking at the great painters of high Spanish empire, their oeuvre was almost incomparable. Obviously artistic tastes are subjective but if you look at their work and compare it to other painters of their era, there really very few painters who attained that level - a few Italians at this point and the French caught up centuries later.

If we look beyond the empire to more recent years - Salvador Dali and Picasso would also qualify as significant cultural developments.

I won’t even begin discussing Caribbean and Latin American art - that’s a library unto itself.

4. Institutions of Higher Learning:

Some of the most important Universities of the last millennium were founded by the Spanish empire. Many of them continue to be prestigious universities to this day. The University of Salamanca for example was founded in the 13th century and remains one of the most prestigious Universities in Europe. The University of Seville was founded during a phase of burgeoning Spanish power. The University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Santo Domingo was the first University in the new world and still continues to educate students to this day under the name of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo.

5. The Spanish Language:

With over 500 million native speakers worldwide, the Spanish language constitutes a vast, living, breathing heirloom passed down from Spain’s colonial past. The language represents and influences diverse cultures and people across the world. It’s influence goes far, far beyond the boarders of Spain. There are three times as many Spanish speakers in Mexico as there are in peninsula Spain. By most estimates there are more Spanish speakers in the USA than in Spain. The language itself, being a close descendent of Latin has a flexibility and expression that is truly a beauty to read, speak and hear. 11 Spanish language writers have won the Nobel prize for literature. Spain itself continues to be a powerhouse in publishing and literary activity and the ‘boom’ in South American literature was one of the most energetic surges of creativity artistic energy world literature in the second half of the twentieth century.

I’m barely even scratching the surface here. These are just some of the most obvious examples of the vast legacy of imperial Spain across different fields.

One final point I would make is that the concept of states ‘producing’ great artists, scientists and thinkers is highly debatable. The state itself most often produces nothing - at best it establishes the conditions in which the populace might produce economically, socially, creatively unimpeded.

The populace produces the real genius and innovation then the administrators of the state attempts to take the credit on behalf of the nation. Examples of this phenomena abound, but that’s a topic for another post.

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