Nadia Altschul


Ibero-America and Feudalism

My overall intellectual drive has been the attempt to understand the histories that have led us to think the way we think. Likewise, as many others from outside the economic and intellectual centers of knowledge, the peripheral and out-of-sync character of Hispanic topics and Ibero-American histories has always held a central place in my thinking. I continue to work on what many associate with “the middle ages,” although Medievalism has little resemblance with the period between 500-1500 CE that generally correlates with the middle ages as a chronological span. As Neoclassicism is not about Antiquity and its scholars do not always work in departments of Classics, Medievalism or Neomedievalism is similarly transgeographic and transhistorical. This area of research includes the idea of the medieval character of the Islamic State, or the use of chivalry by the far right, with which many today in the United States are more familiar. It also includes the politics and the idea of “the medieval” in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ibero-America, the topic that has been the focus of my research for some time.

What is also peculiar about Neomedievalism in/of Latin American topics, is that the idea of the middle ages seems to be abhorrent and even taboo within Latin American Studies. Within certain strands of decolonial thinking the middle ages may carry the double burden of premodernity as well as that of the inhumanity of the American conquest. How can we disentangle this historiography? I believe the middle ages is an idea, and it needs to be understood and studied as such, in the different times and locations where it has been displayed, rejected, and put to use. Latin America is not medieval (my positions on temporalization are posted in the previous WSIP workshop). But why is it so important that Latin America not be medieval?

While it seems to be a taboo within Latin American Studies, the idea of feudalism and of the middle ages has been studied by scholars like Arif Dirlik and Ali Daud: the case of “feudalism” in Chinese Marxist historiography and in twentieth-century Chinese historiography by Dirlik (1985, 1996); the historiography of the medieval in South Asia and the idea of the medieval in South Asian history by Daud (2012, 2014). The extreme longue-durée of the associations of American postcontact societies with feudalism and medievality seems to hold some of the reasons for this Latin American taboo regarding feudalism and the medieval. As part of my interest in questioning the peripheral and out-of-sync character of Hispanic topics and Ibero-American histories, I will explore this longue-durée association of Iberian postcolonies with medievality and feudalism, and particularly the impressive “backflip” through which Latin America was viewed as inherently feudal because of the medievality of its Iberian conquerors while those same Iberian conquering societies, in particular Spain, were denied the badge of a bona fide feudal organization in the middle ages itself. Put differently, when it counted in European medieval studies, Spain lacked a properly feudal middle ages. When it counted in the American postcolonies to be “modern” and free of feudalism, Ibero America was saddled with the unshakable medieval and feudal past of Spain.

Below are a handful of examples of the early historiography of feudalism in the Southern Cone of Latin America, especially Argentina. They can be read against the backdrop of Adam Kosto’s 2011 “What about Spain? Iberia in the Historiography of Medieval European Feudalism.” As Kosto notes, major European scholars considered that there were two large “gaps” in the feudal world in the West: “One was Scandinavia. The other was Spain” (139).

Esteban Echeverría (1837)

Several associations with feudalism are found in the 1837 lectures of the Salón Literario, founding encounters of the intellectuality of the new creole nation. There, Echeverría discusses Argentine political economy and identifies feudal charateristics as both economic and political. Political feudalism appears under the concept of vassalage, as well as the civilizational belatedness of Spain that was inherited by its colonies:

We were an integral part of Spanish society and, as peoples go through the ages of man, when the revolution erupted we counted with the centuries of existence that society had. It is true that Spain was then the most belated of the European nations and that in terms of enlightenment we found ourselves, due to its paternal governance, in worse state; but it is also true that the revolution, breaking up the vassalage and tearing down the walls that separated us from civilized Europe, opened to us the path of progress . . . . (Reflexiones 23-24)[i]

Bartolomé Mitre (1859, 1887)

Historia de Belgrano y de la independencia argentina in 1859; Historia de San Martín y de la emancipación sudamericana in 1887 (History of Belgrano and Argentine Independence, and History of San Martín and South American Emancipation).

Positions on the feudalism of Ibero-America in both. In 1859, Mitre notes that two currents colonized the River Plate territory: one that was ostensibly not feudal arriving from Spain directly into the River Plate; the other reaching from the former Inca empire and exploiting the interior of the country under a “system of feudal servitude.”[ii] Against the northern feudalistic currents of colonization, the River Plate region was an overall democratic land of equality. Encomiendas and their attendant inhabitants had a feudal character elsewhere in Spanish America but in the River Plate they had lasted only two generations, melded all inhabitants with one another, and created instead a primitive equality that “modified the feudal system of the colony” (I: 7, 8).[iii]

In his later 1887 History of San Martín, the foil is the comparison between Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic America. South America got the worse of the two colonizations. Spain and Portugal transported to their new colonies their “feudal absolutism and servitudes,” although they could not implant their privileges, aristocracy or social inequities (San Martín I: 22).[iv] Luckier North America had been colonized by a more practical nation and a more virile race, infused by a strong moral spirit and better prepared for self-government (I: 25). The monopolist economic policy of England has been the same as that of Spain, and the East India Company had received its territory “as a feudal property,” by conquest and under the king’s sovereignty to regulate its commerce (I: 31).[v] But monopoly had nevertheless led the North American colonies to their success. The difference was the dissimilar abilities of the settlers in North and South America.[vi]

Ernesto Quesada (1898)

La época de Rosas (The time of Rosas). Speaking of the Argentine political crisis of the 1820s, Quesada sees it as the beginning of an “Argentine middle ages” (60).[vii]

So also among us, each forturnate caudillo [strongman] considered the region or province that he dominated his feud, such that the territory was converted into great counties, populated by vassals and subjugated to true medieval lords, with power of justice by gallows and knife, and who exercised even the most fantastical rights of the feudal potentates. Without recourse to the special forms of feudalism, without the previous oath of homage, more accurately covering itself under the external forms of the republican system, the result was the same: the population surrounded and followed the caudillos because they, in turn, protected them against the others and assured the precarious tranquility they enjoyed. (Quesada, La época de Rosas 60)[viii]

José Ingenieros (1908, 1918)

Sociología argentina [Argentine sociology]; Evolución de las ideas argentinas [Evolution of Argentine ideas]. The political view of feudalism as dismemberment and anarchy changes in the twentieth century to focus on the more recognizable type of economic feudalism that is associated with Marx and socialist thinking. Placed in between political and economic approaches, in 1908 Ingeniero highlights political anarchy. Caciquismo or caudillaje (control by military strongment) is “similar to medieval European feudalism.”[ix] Ingenieros presents similar ideas in 1918. Spain transplants feudalism to the Americas because it was itself still feudal at the time of the conquest (38).[x] The so-called anarchy at the beginning of Argentine political independence was “a simple regression to feudalism” (I: 41).

Argentine political life (1810-1830) . . . sired the most complete political disorganization; this was the foundation of a personalist and chaotic politics that historians call “the Argentine anarchy”. That system was a barbarous feudalism. Owners of the land were lords of their dominions: they assembled in themselves political authority and economic privilege. The latifundio was at the same time the primordial cause of caciquismo and of the politico-economic obliteration of the rural proletariat. (Ingenieros, Sociología 51)[xi]

[i] “Nosotros fuimos parte integrante de la sociedad española y, dado que los pueblos pasen por las edades del hombre, debimos contar cuando estalló la revolución los siglos de existencia que aquella tenia. Verdad es que la España entonces era la más atrasada de las naciones europeas y que nosotros en punto de luces, nos hallábamos, gracias a su paternal gobierno, en peor estado; pero tambien es cierto que la revolución, rompiendo el vasallage y derribando las murallas que nos separaban de la Europa civilizada, nos abrió la senda del progreso . . .” (Reflexiones 23-24).

[ii] “sistema de servidumbre feudal” (Buenos Aires: Libería de la Victoria. Imprenta de Mayo; google books 15 July 2016, p.10 / Quinta Edición, Buenos Aires: Imprenta la Nación, 1902. 14-Sept-2016 google books I: 4).

[iii] “lotes de tierras y hombres que tocaban á los colonos europeos á título de conquistadores” (I: 7); “refundirse en la masa de la población,” primitive equality “que modificaba el sistema feudal de la colonia” (I: 8).

[iv] “transportaron á sus nuevas colonias su absolutismo feudal y sus servidumbres;” “no pudieron implantar en ellas sus privilegios, su aristocracia ni sus desigualdades sociales” (San Martín I: 22).

[v] “como propiedad feudal, á título de conquista, reservándose el monarca la absoluta potestad de reglamentar su comercio” (San Martín I: 31).

[vi] In the North, people were apt for mercantile doings, had an abundant population, a free navy, sufficient factories, the instinct to grow capital without decimating the inhabitants, traditions of self-government instead of the suffocating absolutism of a Charles V or a Felipe II, and their individual energy had not been thwarted by fiscal tyranny (I: 33).

[vii] “edad media argentina” (60).

[viii] “Así también entre nosotros, cada caudillo afortunado consideró la región o provincia que dominaba, como un feudo, viniendo de ese modo a convertirse el territorio en grandes condados, poblados por vasallos y sometidos a verdaderos señores medievales, con justicia de horca y cuchillo, y que ejercían hasta los más fantásticos derechos de los potentados feudales. Sin recurrir a las formas especiales del feudalismo, sin el previo juramento de pleito-homenaje, encubriéndose más bien con las formas externas del régimen republicano, el resultado fué el mismo: las poblaciones rodeaban y seguían a sus caudillos porque éstos, a su vez, las protegían de los demás y les garantían la precaria tranquilidad de que disfrutaban” (Quesada, La época 60).

[ix] “caciquismo o caudillaje — régimen semejante al feudalimo medioeval europeo” (Ingenieros, Sociología argentina 40).

[x] “Al constituirse el régimen colonial subsistía en España el feudalismo. La unidad de la nación no era un hecho; las luchas constantes de los señores feudales, fueren de la nobleza o del clero, denuncian la inconsistencia de la monarquía unitaria; . . . . [los] fueros, aunque en apariencia regionales o municipals, eran, simplemente, verdaderos concordatos entre la reyecía y los cacicazgos medioevales” (Ingenieros, Evol Ideas Argentinas 38). He not only follows Sarmiento but quotes directly from Bartolomé Mitre’s Historia de San Martín that Spaniards were persuaded that “el territorio y los naturales de América eran el feudo y los feudatarios de la metrópoli . . .” (Evolución 39n1, quoting Mitre, I:52 [ed. La Nación]).

[xi] “La vida política argentina (1810-1830) . . . engendró la más completa desorganización política; ésta fué la base de una política personalista y caótica que los historiadores llaman ‘la anarquía argentina’. Ese regimen fué un feudalismo bárbaro. Los propietarios de la tierra eran señores de sus dominios: resumían en su propia persona la autoridad política y el privilegio económico. El latifundio fué al mismo tiempo la causa primordial del caciquismo y de la aniquilación politico-económica del proletariado rural” (Ingenieros, Sociología 51).


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

Understanding the (disciplinary) histories that have led to where we are. While the inquiry changes, the peripheral location and out-of-sync character of Hispanic topics / Ibero-America has always had a place in my work. Medievalism Studies is inherently transhistorical – for instance, it includes the politics and the idea of “the medieval” in 19th and 20th century Ibero-America that I research. This area of research also includes other histories and parts of the world, such as the idea of the medieval character of the Islamic State, or the use of chivalry by the US far right, that many in the US today are more familiar with. The topic of feudalism and neofeudalism that I propose below has a transhistorical and transgeographic character. It would also show the extent to which feudalism is a critical invention that has been deployed around the world and still garners critical and political power. One example on the Hispanic side of things would be how Spain was deemed not-feudal in the pre-1500 period (thus an incomplete or even external non-European location) while the feudality of colonising Spain was used in Ibero-America to invent the idea that the postcolonies were feudal after the conquest (thus part of the West but archaic and in need of development).


Provisional sketch of essay:

Related to my current work, I would much enjoy writing on topics related to “feudalism” and/or “neofeudalism.” I find this could be quite illuminating as well as interdisciplinary and transhistorical. I’ve written about this in my current manuscript: one double chapter on “feudalmania” in the Hispanic context, where Ibero-America continues to be described as “pseudo-/neo-/feudal,” and a coda on the current resurgence of neofeudalism in the US. I would particularly enjoy working with social scientists and scholars of other regions to enrich and supplement my own thinking on this. The idea of feudalism has been used and critiqued in contexts like India and China, and probably has particular lineaments in different parts of Africa and from the perspective of Economics and other social sciences.

Regarding format, I have written three co-authored essays in the past and I find that a common topic and different takes or areas of expertise can make for a piece that is larger than the individual parts. I’m also open to other collaborative formats.