Solo Madrid es Corte, the title of a book published in 1658, still resonates with meaning. From the late sixteenth century to the present, Madrid has dominated Spain. The economic aspects of this domination are the subject of David Ringrose’s Madrid and the Spanish Economy, 1560-1850.
Ringrose argues that, more than any other factor, Madrid determined the character and the weaknesses of the Spanish economy during this period. First, the demand created by Madrid’s burgeoning population and the measures introduced to ensure its supplies robbed other cities of the Spanish interior of their sustenance, doomed them to decline, and destroyed a flourishing “sixteenth century Castilian urban network” (p. 216). Second, Madrid’s population, composed of a small, demographically stable, and relatively prosperous “core” or “inner city” avid for imported luxuries, and a large, demographically unstable, and poor “outer envelope” created a “narrow market structure” (p. 87). Consequently, Madrid stifled the economy of central Spain, locking it into a pattern of agricultural self-sufficiency and intensifying the dualism between an economically stagnant Castile, focused on the capital and isolated from the currents of international trade, and a dynamic periphery, benefiting from the expansion of Europe’s maritime trade. Finally, the government’s gradual abandonment of the provisioning of Madrid gave rise to a new “agro-commercial” elite instrumental in the liberalization of Spanish government and society in the nineteenth century.
This summary neither does justice to the breadth of Ringrose’s thesis, nor does it reflect the narrowness of his methodology. This is a book of quantitative history. Ringrose provides figures on population, on the key demographic variables, and on the patterns of trade and consumption for Madrid and for a number of other Spanish cities as well. From these figures he constructs his trends, and from these he draws his conclusions. It is also a book of economic history that gives primacy of place to a theory, the central-place theory, and to a model, the model of London as a catalyst for growth in eighteenth-century England. Madrid, of course, is the obverse of London since it “undermined the economic position and central-place functions of the manufacturing towns of the Spanish interior” and encouraged “the development of a rural society based on local power, low-order central places, and markets … that left few incentives for the peasant to increase productivity” (p. 14). It is not a book that attaches any importance to contemporary opinions: indeed, Ringrose ignores almost entirely the rich economic literature produced in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Spain. Nor is it a book that dwells on individual experience. Ringrose gives few individual examples to illustrate the characteristics he ascribes to broad social categories, and those he does provide sometimes fail to prove his point.
If space permitted, it would be possible to develop a detailed critique of Ringrose’s use of numbers as well. While he refuses to uphold the accuracy of any single number, he gives the full-weight to the trends he derives from them. Moreover, he constantly transforms statistical inference into historical fact. Because in several cases the numbers and the trends are suspicious, the conclusions also become questionable. Despite these criticisms, there is much of merit in this book. It reinforces the opinion widely held in early-modern Europe that powerful capital cities were parasites upon the body politic and huge maws devouring wholesale the wealth of kingdoms.