Key developments of 1544, & notes on empires, states, and nations

In 1544 CE, most of what was happening empire-wise in the world was sort of “same-old-same-old”. So beneath the bullet points here I’ll make a quick early assessment of what emerges for me as the bigger picture. First, the bullet-points:

  • The King/Emperor Charles V of Spain stepped up his confrontation against France’s King Francis I, having first (in February) done a deal with a bunch of Lutheran lords at the Diet of Speyer, to get them on his side. (The Pope protested but his protests were irrelevant. Charles was “Holy Roman Emperor”, after all.) There ensued bunches of battles in which Spain and England both fought against France. In September, Charles and France concluded a peace; but England’s King Henry VIII, who had captured and held Boulogne in northern France, did not.
  • Henry VIII meantime sent an army that captured some parts of Scotland from the infant Mary Queen of Scots and her powerful regents.
  • In China, Mongols burned some suburbs of Beijing (Peking). These Mongols were part of the Mongol Empire that in the 13th century CE had swept into control of most of the Eurasian landmass; but at the end of the 13th century it split among four contesting branches of Mongol ruling clan. These Mongols threatening Beijing were from the Tümed branch, which had adopted or assimilated into Tibetan-style Buddhism and were led by Altan Khan. English-WP tells us about Altan that he “led raids into the Ming dynasty in 1529, 1530 and 1542 returning with plunder and livestock. In 1550 he crossed the Great Wall and besieged Beijing, setting the suburbs on fire… [T]he reigning emperor of Ming dynasty was forced to grant special trading rights to the khanate, after signing a peace treaty with [Altan] in 1571, allowing it to trade horses for silks, which further strengthened it economically… Altan Khan died in 1582, only four years after meeting with the Third Dalai Lama. He was 74 or 75 years old at the time.” (The image above is a late 13th century painting from the MokoShuraiEkotoba, of Mongols using Chinese gunpowder bombs during a Mongol invasion of Japan, 1281.)

I want to quickly note here that today’s yearly/daily listing, like many of the others I have produced in this project thus far, underlines how unsettled the territorial/political situation was inside Europe, at this time of massive European (mainly Spanish/Castilian, but also Portuguese) expansions into the Americas and elsewhere. For me, this upends the sort of lazy view I’d always had before that the historical sequence was: (1) Nations in Europe create states, and then (2) Some of those states create global empires. No, in the mid-16th century the states in Europe were all– with the possible exception of Portugal– in a state of great flux. And that certainly included “Spain”, which wasn’t Spain at all at the time but still the union of Castile (which had control of the colonies in the Americas) and Aragon.

Back in the 15th century, there had been a lot of flux and fighting between Portugal and the feudal entities that later became Spain. English-WP has some fascinating material on this in its broader and very informative page on the Spanish Empire. Basically, for many decades in the 15th century, the Castilian and Portuguese fleets were jousting for control up and down the Atlantic coast of Iberia. Those battles ended in a broad win for Portugal, whose monarchs were thereafter able to proceed– with full papal endorsement– in their twin projects of expanding their naval reach and control down the coast of West Africa, and consolidating their rule behind fixed and agreed “national” boundaries at home. The two were linked from the get-go.

Until 1492, “Spain” still had to contend with the continuing presence of a functioning Muslim city-state in the Castilian backyard of Granada. Vanquishing that was probably Ferdinand and Isabella’s Job 1. But they both also, because of the intricacies of their respective feudal heritages, had numerous chunks of land throughout the European heartland and right up to today’s Netherlands, that they ruled over and felt obliged, I suppose, to defend and help. The intra-European diplomacy they had to engage in was extremely complex– something that Portugal, with its settled borders and its lack of continent-wide ambitions, was able to avoid. That intra-European diplomacy was essentially feudal in nature (including, by being marked by “dynastic” marriages and the absence of any settled domestic governance mechanisms.) But it was also much complicated by the Protestant Reformation…

Long story short, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that “Spain” was created, as a central governing and administrative entity much more by the need to regularize, profit consistently from, and generally administer the colonies in the New World than it was by the existence of an antecedent “nation”. And then, the existence of a single, emerging “Spanish” state fostered the emergence of a single, more-or-less-settled Spanish nation. Via print capitalism, as Benedict Anderson so convincingly explained.

How else to explain the emergence of differentiated “nations” of people in all those Romance-language areas– “Spanish”, “Portuguese”, “French”, “Italians”, etc?