The Black Legend

Ein sehr Nothwendige Trewhertzige vnd Wolgemeinte warnung vnnd Vermanungs Schrifft: Darinne der Spanier Tyranney List Anschlege vnnd Praticken wider die Christen entdecket vnd by zeite ihre Gewalt zu brechen sey

Printed in 1599

‘Of those important political events which make the sixteenth century to take rank among the brightest of the world’s epochs, the foundation of the freedom of the Netherlands appears to me one of the most remarkable. If the glittering exploits of ambition and the pernicious lust of power claim our admiration, how much more so should an event in which oppressed humanity struggled for its noblest rights.’ That’s how Friedrich Schiller begins his work ‘The History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands Against Spanish Rule’. Phrases like ‘the foundation of the freedom of the Netherlands’ and ‘in which oppressed humanity struggled for its noblest rights’ are undoubtedly great literature. However, they have nothing to do with historiography.

Because Friedrich Schiller, like many historians, made the mistake of accepting the assertions of Dutch sources without questioning them. But there were many pamphlets and books specifically designed to systematically discredit the Spanish enemy. From a legal standpoint, it was actually the rebellious Netherlands that was in the wrong. It was therefore all the more important to accuse the ousted rulers of moral failure. Dutch journalism did a very thorough job of this. If, nowadays, we know about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition but forget about the burning of heretics in Calvinist cities, if the treatment of South America’s indigenous people brings tears to our eyes but we have never heard about the inhumane torture used by Dutch factors, i.e. Dutch merchants in their colonies, against the indigenous people of the Spice Islands, then we are still, nearly half a millennium later, victims of the ‘Legenda negra’, the Black Legend. This term was first used by Spanish historians in the 19th century to describe the one-sided view of history that Protestants across Europe were spreading about their military and ideological enemy: the Spanish.

On Spanish Tyranny and Cunning

The MoneyMuseum has succeeded in acquiring one of the many short texts whose content is directed against the Spanish. This pamphlet is a good example of how the Black Legend was systematically used to promote the political causes of the Protestants. Our text, which has been translated into German, addresses the German public and was published in 1599. Its longer title is – translated from modern German – ‘A very important, honest and well-meant warning and admonishing piece of writing that [will] reveal the tyranny and cunning, plots and deceitfulness of the Spanish against the Christians and [describe] how their violence must be stopped as quickly as possible.’

Both the title and the content are nothing new. It was first published in a pamphlet issued in 1585. However, the reason for rekindling these old prejudices was highly topical and extremely political. After all, what could be more political than the question of who has to pay how much tax?

A later Imperial Diet in Regensburg in 1640: with the emperor and the seven electors or their envoys at the front, the secular princes on the left and the ecclesiastical princes on the right. Deputies of the imperial cities sat on the benches. In front of them is the scribe, who recorded the speeches made by the participants of the Imperial Diet.

The Imperial Diet, the Emperor and the Long Turkish War

Let’s take a little detour and have a look at the tax rates of the early modern period. As the leader of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Emperor had the right to levy taxes. But only under very specific circumstances and only if the Imperial Diet agreed. For example, one circumstance considered to be valid was the defence against a common enemy who had invaded imperial territory and had to be driven out. Now, let’s return to 1599, the year our brochure was printed, right in the middle of the ‘Long Turkish War’. One year earlier, during his Imperial Diet of 1597/8, the Emperor managed to persuade the imperial cities to pay a very high tax. The purpose of this was to finance the defence against the Ottoman forces.

While the ecclesiastical cites, which were rarely affected by taxes anyway, had agreed unanimously, there were many others, particularly among the Protestant princes, who did not wish to stick to this agreement. There were discussions as to whether a majority had the right to oblige the minority to adopt its decisions. And some of the Protestant princes tried to negotiate the high taxes downwards by using skirmishes they had fought against the Spanish.

The Spanish Winter of 1598/9

The Spanish army, which was tasked with making the Netherlands see reason, had established its winter quarters across the Rhine, i.e. in the north of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The affected areas accused the Spanish of having behaved as brutally as though they hadn’t been in a winter camp on neutral ground, but had invaded enemy territory.

We can assume that the Spanish did in fact take what they needed by force, as the Spanish king was notoriously short of money and had not provided his general with sufficient supplies. However, we should also remember that it wasn’t necessarily just the Spanish troops who behaved this way.

Besides, the key issue was something entirely different. During a local district assembly back in September 1598 – before anyone could have known that the Spanish would turn hostile – the Protestant princes had argued strongly in favour of raising an imperial army against them. The costs for this were to be apportioned across the entire empire by means of taxes. This didn’t happen: the princes lacked the majority they needed. Some Protestant princes therefore raised their own army, which they intended to lead against the Spanish.

This didn’t lead to any major battle because – as soon as the weather improved and they could leave their winter camp – the Spanish crossed back over the Rhine, thereby leaving imperial territory, to continue their war in the Netherlands.

In 1576, mutinous Spanish troops plundered and pillaged the city of Antwerp and killed around 9,000 citizens. This grisly event caused a stir across Europe as ‘The Spanish Fury’. The atrocities committed by the soldiers were depicted and disseminated in the form of numerous engravings.

The Journalistic Battle Over the Turkish Tax

And now, the discussion began as to whether the costs for this army against the Spanish could be deducted from the costs demanded by the Emperor for the Turkish tax. Legally, this was a clear-cut matter. It’s no coincidence that the Imperial Court repeatedly ruled against the Protestant princes. And it’s precisely because the legal situation was so clear that they had to revert to propaganda: the Spanish winter camp was exaggerated and presented as a horrific event, the brutality of which had never been seen before. Perhaps this really was the case. We don’t know. But you have to wonder whether these descriptions, which clearly had a specific purpose, can be taken at face value.

Our little pamphlet, for example, repeats all the existing prejudices of the Black Legend once again: the Spanish had allegedly ‘ruined and conquered Occidentalis Indiam (= America) with terrible inhumane cruelty’ and ‘imposed the Inquisition, first on the Neapolitans, then on the Milanese and finally on the Sicilians and other peoples under the pretence of protecting the Catholic religion.’ They had oppressed the Netherlands and supported the enemies of the Queen of England. It was supposedly the hand of God that enabled the Princes of House of Orange-Nassau to defeat the mighty superior power of the Spanish. All orthodox princes (here meaning Protestant princes, of course) had to defend themselves to prevent the entire Christendom in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation from being overwhelmed by the Spanish troops.

To put it bluntly: this was never what the Spanish had intended to do. They simply wanted to bring the provinces they had inherited from their forefathers back under their rule. Other rulers did the same thing all the time – with no more or less violence.

But the Spanish had to be the worst people on earth because their moral depravity meant that people forgot all about the weak legal position of the imperial princes who wanted to reduce their taxes.

What’s really fascinating is that we still unthinkingly believe this propaganda to this day. It’s a good example that proves the old German saying: ‘Wer schreibt, der bleibt’ – history is written by whoever writes it down – and makes it last.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

We purchased this work at Grazer Buch- und Kunstantiquariat Wolfgang Friebes.

If you want to know what it was really like in the dungeons of the Inquisition, read this article from our partner publication CoinsWeekly.

You can read a detailed article on the Leyenda negra here.