Book Review: “Portugal: A Companion History” by José Hermano Saraiva

This book is part of a series published by Carcanet Press Limited called “Aspects of Portugal” which includes volumes on poetry, history and other books in Portuguese which have been translated into English. Eugénio Lisboa, who formerly worked as Cultural Counsellor at the Portuguese Embassy in London writes in the preface that he was constantly asked for a good short history of Portugal written in English. Lisboa and a friend approached imminent and popular Portuguese historian and television personality José Hermano Saraiva, asking for permission to translate his ‘História Concisa’ into English. Saraiva suggested he write an entirely new volume and so this book came into being.

Published in 1997, this short and concise history is a pleasant read. It really just hits the highlights of Portuguese history. The first chapter is entitled Ancient Roots and covers the origins of the Portuguese, Roman colonization, the barbarian and Islamic invasions and the Reconquest. The chapter is only twelve pages long so it is short on detail. The rest of the book entails various chronological eras in the same manner. This book is really meant to be a rudimentary introduction to the subject.

Perhaps the highlight of this book is the section of maps which were chosen, organized and added by the editors. The maps explain a wide range of history and each one has several paragraphs of description and clarification. The final map illustrates the country of Portugal and is accompanied by an historical gazetteer of place names. There is also a handy chronological timeline and a section of brief biographies of key historical figures.

The bibliography is selective and broken down by topic such as art and architecture, military, history, economics, politics, travel, etc. I especially liked the last chapter which contained a lively discussion of the history of Portugal from 1910 to the present. This book is perfect for someone who wants a basic background on the topic of Portuguese history and the added appendices will be important as reference material for future research. An enjoyable, if brief, read.

Book Review: “A History of Spain and Portugal” by Stanley G. Payne

Admittedly, my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese history is scanty. I’m in the middle of some serious research on Portugal and knowing the history of the two countries is connected, this book looked like a good bet. The book was printed in two volumes and was published in 1973 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Stanley G. Payne has a long and distinguished career as an historian and is considered a specialist in Spanish fascism. His last position before his retirement was chairman of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Payne states in the preface, these volumes were written to address the need for a reasonably full and up-to-date comprehensive history of Spain and Portugal which can be used as a textbook for courses in Spanish history or as an interpretive account for other readers. His intention is to give accounts of the political and institutional history, including the church and religion, as well as social and economic history. He does not go into too much detail about literary and art history by design as these subjects are well covered elsewhere.

For each kingdom on the Peninsula, Payne gives succinct details of how the peasants lived, how the nobility came to power, how royalty took over the government, how each kingdom (Leon, Castile, Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, etc.) came into being and was absorbed into what we call Spain today. He explains the economies of each kingdom. There were sheep and cattle in Castile, trade within the Mediterranean and without by the eastern kingdoms, ironworks in the Basque area, etc. He explains how peasants worked the land, some making rent payments to the overlord and some who owned their land. There were slaves who worked the land. He talks about the soldiers who fought the wars. Payne doesn’t talk much about the actual kings and queens and only mentions a few of the most politically important ones by name.

Payne is very precise in describing the religious situation in the Peninsula. There were pagans initially and then Christians, Muslims and Jews. He chronicles the histories of these people such as how they lived in harmony for the most part until the Catholic Majesties decided they wanted religious harmony and went to war. There were forced conversions or many people were expelled. The Catholic Church was powerful but royalty always had the ability to check this power.

Personally I found this book to be masterful. The history of the Iberian Peninsula is fascinating in and of itself. But Payne’s writing and treatment of the subject matter had me totally captivated. He minces no words here. From the history of the ancients to the modern 20th century, this is a great read. To me the best material deals with the social history. I certainly learned a lot of new vocabulary! It’s not necessarily a definitive work but more of a comprehensive overview. Some may find it a bit of slog but if you stay with it, you will certainly find this work rewarding.