Medieval Argentina

One of Avenida Corriente’s many bookstores (courtesy of unileon)

“In 1970, in Buenos Aires, as I was browsing among the shelves of a little antiquarian bookseller on Corrientes, not far from the more illustrious Patio del Tango of that great street, I came upon the Castilian version of a little work by Milo Temesvar, On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess…” So writes the mysterious, erudite narrator in the introduction to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The book he finds on the Avenida Corrientes supposedly contains translated passages from a fourteenth-century manuscript long thought lost; it is now being laid before the reader in the form of the story that follows.

Eco himself was clearly obsessed with Borges, and with Buenos Aires—at least with the idea of it as an obscure, quasi-mystical place where learning is treasured and where esoteric texts are waiting to be unearthed and decoded. Behind every door, there is an idea waiting; behind every idea, there is another, deeper one hidden. This cabalistic idea of the city evokes the idea (or stereotype) of the Middle Ages—and indeed, when Eco isn’t writing his novels, he’s a scholar of medieval philosophy at the University of Bologna.

But the relationship goes both ways. Not only does this city follow Eco (whose column reprinted in Clarín and Página 12 discusses everything from the resistance to digital technology, to the misconception that spinach is iron-rich), it is also obsessed with the idea of medieval Europe, particularly medieval Spain. If for Europe Argentina is sometimes mythical, for Argentina Europe is sometimes didactic—its deeper history serving as a source of illumination. To understand one reason for Argentina’s modern preoccupations with the European 14th century, it may be helpful to look at the life of a historian in the 20th.

Far from home

Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz was a researcher at the Universidad de Madrid until political circumstances forced him out of the library. Opposed to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, he joined the Acción Republicana group; in the subsequent republican government he played several roles for the Popular Front, including Member of Parliament, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and ambassador to Portugal. In 1936, when the Franco government took over and civil war broke out, Portugal declared itself in favor of fascist policies, and Sánchez-Albornoz fled to Bordeaux, France. Only a few years later the Germans occupied France and he was dismissed from his faculty post; once again he was made to flee, this time to Argentina.

And so, in a country far from his own, with specialties in a distant past, this Spaniard suddenly found himself in Mendoza, at the Universidad de Cuyo. He taught there until 1942, when the Universidad de Buenos Aires invited him to come teach in the capital; there, he revamped the study of Spanish history—setting up the Instituto de Historia de España and founding a journal dedicated to the field. But Sánchez-Albornoz never quite adapted to Argentina. He was always primarily concerned with the events in his own country, and from 1959 to 1970 served as President of the Government of the Spanish Republic in Exile. He refused to set foot in Spain again until Franco was out, which didn’t happen until the historian was 83 years old.

It’s fashionable now to read pre-twentieth century history in the light of twentieth century events—i.e. Ernst Kantorowicz’s allusions throughout his books on medieval history to the German Social Democratic Party. But between Sánchez-Albornoz’s academic work, and his political commitments, there really was a connection. Sánchez-Albornoz placed his faith in the idea that any linkages he could draw were not only real, but mattered to the present. His choice of medieval Spain as his area of interest wasn’t arbitrary. During that time Spain’s activities centered on questions of political control and religious tolerance; for Sánchez-Albornoz the events of the medieval period, from the attempt to impose Christianity on the Muslims, to the expulsion of the Jews, were not only inherently interesting, but also highly relevant. The Reconquista helped him to understand aspects of the rhetoric of Franco and his regime, and the feudalism of the Middle Ages not only gave him the material for his three-volume ‘En torno a los orígenes del feudalismo’ but also helped influence his ideas on the redistribution of land for the Republican government.

Despite being removed from his precious archives in Argentina, Sánchez-Albornoz remained exclusively focused on Spanish themes. Perhaps this distance was not entirely positive. “Exile led him to sublimate the image of his country, as he himself recognised, and to focus part of his work on what he called the ‘mystery of Spain,’ its historical enigma,” writes Laura Da Graca of the Universidad de Buenos Aires in a 2005 retrospective. “This obsession with tracing the origin of the ‘temperamental heritage of homo hispanicus,’ to which he attributed all evils, gave rise to the most speculative and least representative of his work as researcher.”

Plaque of Don Claudio Sánchez Albornoz (Photo: Florentino Sánchez)

From Castile to cátedra

The irony, of course, is that Argentina was hardly a peaceful safe haven. Sánchez-Albornoz lived there through the Peronist years, and then through the successive recessions, multiple coup d’états, and purges that followed. Scanning the indexes of the city’s journal of the Institute of Ancient and Medieval History, published on and off since 1948, it’s hard to know whether to be more impressed by the continued commitment to abstruse investigation, or by the blatant political angle many of the pieces on the history of political philosophy seem to have.

It’s worth mentioning Sánchez-Albornoz influenced not just content, but also methodology. His intellectual opponent, the historian Américo Castro, was fond of offering “subversive” explanations of Spain’s past—arguing for instance that some of the most “Hispanic” concepts of all, such as the word “español,” actually derive from minority groups like the Arabs or Jews. Sánchez-Albornoz was adamantly opposed to this approach. For him, Spain had its own distinct identity, influenced but not created by its minorities. In Argentina, a parallel opposition has come to the fore in recent decades. Some say that many “Argentine” ideas were actually Spanish—that, for instance, certain representations of sovereignty were borrowed from Spanish theorists. Others, while clearly aware that Argentina is a country influenced by colonialists and immigrants, argue that it possessed its own homegrown ideas.

What about now? Although it’s impossible to study the Middle Ages without considering religion, modern Argentine historians, perhaps due to the remarkably secular atmosphere of the university, are now heavily interested in the social and cultural aspects of the past. The current professor of medieval history at the UBA has just written a book called “Unequal development in the origins of capitalism: Asymmetric exchange in the first transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Castille, 13th-16th c.” At the Institute de Historia de España set up by Sánchez-Albornoz, projects touching on the medieval period include “Discurses of Power: Ideological Control, Social Discipline, and Symbolic Culture in Spain from the 15th to 17th c.” and “The Construction of Behavior in Spain from the 14th-17th c.: Social Practices and Discursive Genres.”

Is there another layer to these lines of research? Do such obviously politicised approaches reveal something about our preoccupations and hopes for the future, or are they simply doing violence to the facts? Are the historians, as Sánchez-Albornoz did, reading the past into the present and the present into the past? To use one part of history to illuminate another is probably just as mythical a move as Eco’s subtle linking of the Middle Ages to Buenos Aires—but in certain circumstances, can one forgive raising the dead to work on one’s behalf?