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Douglas W. Foard

The Spanish Fichte:

Menéndez y Pelayo

Forty years have now elapsed since the grim-faced soldiers of the Second Spanish Republic retreated before the Nationalist armies

and crossed the Pyrenees into bitter exile. The demise of the

Republic was no momentary setback for those who aspired to a

democratic Spain. It heralded a generation of the subordination of

the Spanish people to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who is

conceded even by one of his harshest critics to have been unques-

tionably the most powerful single ruler in Spanish history’ .’ I

In spite of the singular place occupied by the Franco regime in

the history of modern Spain and the labours of historians to define

it, the nature of Franquismo remains elusive. Journalists, for ex- ample, continue to employ the label ’fascist’ in their references to

the dictatorship, although Stanley Payne’s Falange long ago

demonstrated how carefully General Franco had decimated that

element in his ’Movimiento’. If not fascism, then, what else could have sustained the Caudillo

so long in his domination of a proud nation, except the naked


struments of force? A hint of at least a partial answer to that in-

quiry is provided in a scene from the civil war described by the

Spanish historian, Enrique Sanchez Reyes. During the early mon- ths of the military uprising against the Republic, he reports, Na-

tionalist propaganda officers were charged with rallying civilians to

General Franco’s cause by explaining the ideology which moved the

revolt. For want of any other clear statements of purpose, these of- ficials read excerpts from a history book, Historia de los Heterodoxos Espanoles, to inspire the confused and terrified

citizens of remote Spanish pueblos. From

memory, the Nationalist

Journal of Contemporary History (SAGE, London and Beverly Hills), Vol. 14 (1979),

83-97. 83-

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orators intoned: ’Spain, evangeliser of half the world; Spain, ham-

mer of heretics, light of Trent, Sword of Rome, cradle of Saint Ig-

natius ...

This is our greatness and our unity; we have no other.&dquo;

The author of these lines, Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo

(1856-1912), had died nearly a

quarter of a century before his

words were employed as weapons in the Nationalist arsenal. The

Franco regime, however, seems never to have forgotten this source

of its ideological justification. Its apologists extolled the late

historian as ’the foundation of the national consciousness em-

bodied in the passion of those Spaniards who took part in the 18

July 1936 movement’.3 Even before the Second Republic had been

vanquished, Nationalist presses were busy turning out the initial

volumes of the government-directed Obras Completas of

Menendez y Pelayo. The dictator’s first Minister of Education ex-

plained that Don Marcelino’s publications were, ’indispensable

keys for being able to comprehend and profoundly penetrate the

psychology of our people, the national interpretation of their

history and the basic problems of their culture and thought. 4

As late as 1956 General Franco was demonstrating his esteem for

the author of Los Heterodoxos by participating in services marking the removal of the historian’s remains to their permanent shrine in

the cathedral of Don Marcelino’s native Santander. He listened ap-

provingly as Jose Maria Peman of the Spanish Academy proclaim-

ed to the dictator: ’Your most illustrious moment was this morning when you dedicated your sword before the sepulchre of a simple

professor ...

and said, &dquo;At your command, Maestro&dquo;. This morn-

ing your sword was a ray of light.’5

Sr. Peman’s hyperbole notwithstanding, Menendez y Pelayo was never a simple professor’. His unparalleled academic triumphs

were sponsored by Spain’s conservative elite and punctuated by

stormy public controversy. The eldest son of a provincial

mathematics teacher, Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo performed such intellectual prodigies as a child in Santander that he was

something of a local celebrity and could choose among Spain’s

finest universities for his higher education. In 1875, he earned his doctorate in philosophy and literature from the University of

Madrid and a competitive award as that institution’s outstanding

graduate of the year. He was then merely eighteen and had bested

the brilliant Joaquin Costa in oposiciones to gain the prize.

Don Marcelinos performance in Madrid won for him a con-

siderable grant from the municipal fathers of Santander, enabling

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him to pursue his studies abroad. He had also gained the attention

and friendship of the Marques de Pidal, leader of an ultramontane

political faction later called the Catholic Union. Pidal promoted

Menendez y Pelayo’s scholarly publications and wielded his in-

fluence with the Prime Minister, CAnovas del Castillo, to advance his young protégé to the forefront of the nations academic com-

munity. In 1877 it was the Marques and Prime Minister Canovas

who persuaded a majority of a turbulent session of the Cortes to

reduce the age restriction to twenty-one for those seeking one of the

nation’s highest academic posts - the professorship of Spanish

literature at the University of Madrid. Menendez y Pelayo had only

recently celebrated that crucial birthday.

The Prime Minister’s favours to Don Marcelino even included an active interest in securing a favourable committee of academics to

judge the competitors for the post. Menendez y Pelayo faced some

noteworthy opponents, including the future Radical Liberal Prime

Minister, Jose Canalejas. In the end, neither the protests of Spain’s s

liberal press nor the cheers of the spectators for Don Marcelino’s

rivals were sufficient to deny the appointment to Menendez y Pelayo.

The young professor Was devoted to Spanish nationalism and hoped to further that cause among his countrymen by retrieving the

nation’s past literary glories from oblivion. In pursuit of this

solitary endeavour, Don Marcelino repeatedly found himself to be

the focus of furious public disputation. In 1881 his extem-

poraneous comments on the poet Calderon produced an outcry in

the press, which demanded his resignation from the university.

Shortly thereafter, the Carlists were condemning his works and ac-

cusing Menendez y Pelayo of conspiring with Masons because he

failed to share their enthusiasm for Saint Thomas Aquinas. Disheartened with his teaching career, Menendez y Pelayo resigned from the faculty of the University of Madrid in 1898 to become

Director of Spains Biblioteca Nacional, a post which he occupied

until his death in 1912. Not even the catacombs of that great in- stitution, however, afforded Don Marcelino the sanctuary he crav-

ed. In 1910 the Minister of Public Instruction maligned even his ad-

ministration of the library, charging that Menendez y Pelayo had

notoriously failed to serve the general public and had lavished his

attention on the collection of literary rarities.

Prime Minister Cinovas twice engineered Don Marcelino’s elec-

tion as a delegate to the Cortes, but Menendez y Pelayo rarely at-

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tended its sessions or actively pursued a political career. In his first

major publication he had outlined a proposal for the resurrection

of Spain’s literary greatness through a national campaign of educa-

tion and source preservation. Even though CAnovas was an active member of the ’Society of Spanish Bibliophiles, Don Marcelino

never lived to see his programme embraced by the government. In-

stead, he felt compelled to dedicate his career to that end. During

his lifetime, Menendez y Pelayo undertook to publish nine major

literary or historical studies of Hispanic writers and his Obras com- prise some sixty-five volumes. So intense was Don Marcelino’s

dedication to his cause that in his final years he rarely emerged

from his collections of Spains literary masterpieces. He resided in

the library of the Spanish Academy of History, worked in the

Biblioteca Nacional, and vacationed in Santander, where his family had constructed a considerable building to house his private collec-

tion of books and manuscripts.6 6

Recalling Don Marcelino’s solitary career, Ramiro de Maeztu, a

prominent member of the ’Generation of 98, remembered that he had once criticized Menendez y Pelayo as a ’sad collector of the in-

consequential dead’. Maeztu explained:

When 98 came and with it the bitterness of defeat at the hands of a people who had no traditions [the United States], many of us disdained the value of Menendez y Pelayos studies. What good [we asked] are our coats of arms? Of

what value hoary wisdom if a traditionless people can in combat use our wooden

ships for target practice?7 7

Eventually, the author of these lines came to regret them and to join his countrymen in honouring the memory of Don Marcelino. Spains tributes to Menendez y Pelayo began long before his death

in 1912. The Spanish Academy inducted him into their prestigious

membership in 1881 when Don Marcelino was only twenty-four

years old. Two years later he

was similarly honoured by the

Academy of History and before the turn of the century had been elected to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and the Academy of Fine Arts as well. The government struck a gold medal

in 1909 to honour his achievements and the Spanish Academy went

so far as to put him forward as a candidate for a Nobel Prize in literature. The French Republic seconded Spains tributes by awar-

ding Don Marcelino the Legion of Honour; England elected him to

honorary membership of the Royal Society of Literature; and in 1905 he was accorded membership of the Hispanic Society of

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America. After his death in 1912 a Society of Amigos de Menendez y Pelayo’ undertook to preserve his place in Spanish

history. Today his works and personal effects are enshrined in San- tander, housed splendidly in what was once Don Marcelino’s

private library.8 8

So imposing was Menendez y Pelayos presence in the intellectual life of Spain at the turn of the century that the phrase ’the Spanish

Fichte’ has been repeatedly used by his countrymen to describe his

significance. The comparison between the Spaniard and the

nineteenth-century prophet of strident German nationalism was

first employed not by some Falangist propagandist but by the

distinguished historian, Luis Araquistain. Speaking at the Universi-

ty of Berlin in 1932, Araquistain assured

his audience:


no other

Spanish writer has equalled Menendez y Pelayo in the resurrection

and renovation of Spanish culture


Without him we Spaniards

would be poorer in our understanding of our own culture.&dquo;

Although Raymond Carr’s Spain recalls Menendez y Pelayo as

’the lay saint of the Falange’, Spanish scholars seem generally

reluctant to concede his memory to any one political faction and are virtually unanimous in their praise of his intellectual achieve-

ment. Ramon Manendez Pidal, a noteworthy opponent of the

Franco dictatorship, wrote: Menendez Pelayo seemed to be able to

turn everything he touched into gold

His immense work remains


like a superb lighthouse whose beacon is a guide for those that

follow his light into tranquil harbours.’¡o Pedro Lain Entralgo, author of a masterful defence of Menendez y Pelayos career, ad- mits that he is so devoted to his subject that, ’I have tried to memorize all Menendez Pelayos published works.&dquo;’ Similar ex-

pressions of admiration can be found in the writings of such

democratic stalwarts as Americo Castro, Gerardo Diego and

Gregorio Marafion.12

The few English-speaking scholars who have undertaken com- prehensive studies of Don Marcelino’s career seem to share their

Spanish colleagues’ admiration for his work. Edward Capestany

calls Menendez y Pelayo, ’a universal man of whom the Spanish

ought to be proud; Manual Olguin concluded that he was ’one of

the most extraordinary scholars of all time; and William Furlong

proclaimed, the name of Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo will be

associated with Spain and Spanish literature as long as they exist,

and he will ever be remembered as the Napoleon of Spanish

science’ .13

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Amidst this torrent of adulation, there is some dissent. Miguel de

Unamuno characteristically rejected the prevailing view: ’What

damage the grandiloquent superficiality of Marcelino Menendez y

Pelayo has caused! [He is] the forger of the white legend.&dquo;4 The

Basque philosophers criticism, however, is a discordant note in a

symphony of praise. Guillermo de Torre, a poet living in exile from the Franco dictatorship, could even register his admiration for ’the

great polygraph and concede the Falangist claim upon his

memory. He wrote in 1943:

What little there is of genuine theoretical substance in the current Spamsh regime

  • - discounting its alien importations of Nazi-fascism and its imitative gestures - the programme of restoration so loudly proclaimed by its theorists is nothing but

a consequence of Menendez y Pelayo’s doctrine. 15

In the literature of a nation whose experience has so often been

punctuated by civil war, this apparent consensus among Spanish

writers on the greatness of Menendez y Pelayo is striking, especially

in view of the Franco dictatorships endeavours to legitimize its ac-

tions by evoking his name. This harmony of opinion seems even

more peculiar after examining Menendez y Pelayo’s first major and

most popular publications, La Ciencia Espahvla (1876) and

Historia de los Heterodoxos Espafiples (1880).

La Ciencia Espanpla is a heatedly polemical book. A compila-

tion of Menendez y Pelayos articles written in the course of his

public dispute with a liberal academician, the book went through

four editions before Don Marcelino’s death. It bristles with a proud

defence of the Spanish past, refuting his opponents argument that

the repressive Spanish state had ’denied scientific liberty



choking off its activity completely in Spain for three centuries’.

Buttressing his arguments with an impressive command of bibliography, the youthful Menendez y Pelayo replied to the

charges of his rival, Professor Manuel de la Revilla of the Univer-

sity of Madrid, essentially with three counter-arguments: first,

repression and intolerance were not the cause of the decadence of Spanish science; second, that this decadence was relative and con-

fined to only a few sectors of Spanish thought; and finally, that the

great achievements of the nation’s scientists remain virtually

unknown because of Spain’s fascination with the accomplishments

of foreigners.

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In the course of advancing these propositions, Don Marcelino felt obliged to apologize for the notorious Inquisition. He wrote:

I sometimes admire the tolerance and leniency of those civil and ecclesiastical authorities in dealing with certain well-intentioned ideas, which were more or less

suspicious for their materiahsm or subtle pantheism ...

that Tribunal punished

no one for havmg expressed metaphysical doctrines, whether their own or

otherss, consistent or not with the dominant ideas of the day. One crude pan-

theist [Servetius] did perish in flames, but his torment occurred in Geneva, not

Spain; commanded by John Calvin, not the Tribunal of Faith.

Apparently satisfied that he had adequately expounded this doc-

trine, Menendez y Pelayo then turned to satirizing his opponents


This terrifying name of Inquisition, a bogey-man for infants and a menace for

dolts, is for many the solution for all our problems, a ’deus ex machina’ which

arrives unexpectedly in dangerous situations. Why is there no industry in Spain?

Because of the Inquisition. Why are there bad habits? Because of the Inquisition.

Why are we Spaniards lazy? Because of the Inquisition. Why are there bulls in

Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why do we take siestas? Because of the In-


To prove his contention that Spanish science had been only

relatively ’decadent’ in the three previous centuries, Don Marcelino

trotted out the names of hundreds of Spanish and Portuguese

scholastics, engineers, cartographers, and botanists. Acknowledg-

ing tacitly that no Kepler or Newton appeared in his enumeration,

he retorted:

Revilla seems to believe that the history of science may be reduced to the

biographies of six, seven or eight prodigious men


forgetting the indefatigable

labour of those modest cultivators [of science] who opened and widened the road

for the geniuses.

Furthermore, he argued, Spain had produced scientists of the first

order, but they were ignored: ’That our histories of science do not

mention them, or hardly note their existence, is not strange. These

books are for the most part written by foreign authors.’ The name

of Luis Vives, he asserted, should rank along with those of

Descartes, Kant and Hegel. The reason Vives has been overlooked ’is because of a great historical injustice similar to that which has

caused Columbuss hemisphere still to bear the name of Amerigo


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Whatever the specific merits of Menendez y Pelayos arguments,

the lines quoted above

from La Ciencia Espanola clarify

Unamurro’s phrase, ’the white legend. In seeking to refute those

who portrayed Spanish history as a continuous tale of intolerance

and repression (’the black legend’), Menendez y Pelayo was

creating a counter-image of a hapless Spain, victimized by envious

foreigners and their agents within the nation. The outlines of this

interpretation of the Spanish experience acquired even sharper

definition in Menendez y Pelayos next sally into his nation’s past, La Historia de los Heterodoxos Espanoles. He had already begun

work on this multi-volume essay even before his La Ciencia

Espanvla had come off the presses to spread his fame throughout

his native land.

Los Heterodoxos is more than a catalogue of all the heresies that

have been preached in Spain during the Christian era. It is also an

attempt to define the essence of this nation in terms of Catholic or-

thodoxy. ’The Spanish genius’, he proclaims in the introduction, ’is

eminently Catholic; heterodoxy among us is an accidental and pass-

ing gust of wind’.&dquo; ’Christianity,’ he wrote, ’gave Spain

unity ...

through it we became a nation and a great nation, instead

of a crowd of assorted peoples.’ The eighteenth century, however,

had witnessed a shattering of his confessional solidarity and for this

reason Spain had fallen upon evil times. His portrayal of contem-

porary Spanish life could hardly have been more critical:

Everything wicked, everything anarchic, everything that is wild in our character

is sanctioned and seems to grow stronger with each day. Every element of in- tellectual force languishes in sterile isolation or serves only wickedness. To us there remains neither indigenous science, national politics, or even, saddest of

all, our own art and literature. 19

Authentic Spain, ’the masses of our people, were innocent of

having reduced the nation to such a state. The

country had been

victimized, so runs the burden of his analysis, by northern ’bar- barians, alien dynasts, and intellectual turncoats who admired

everything foreign. Though Spain had known frequent alien invasions, Menendez y

Pelayo saved his pithiest lines for those who had entered the coun-

try from the North. First came the Visigothic hordes, ’who having

previously embraced Arianism, joined to their natural blood- thirstiness the fanaticism of this sect’. These barbarians had left

Spain ’not one sculpture, not one book, not even a memory’

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because ’the individualism or excessive personalism of the Nor-

thern races


Hellenic and

prevents them from comprehending the great

Latin ideas of Fatherland and

City. Thus,

treacherously, the Visigoths allowed the Moors to overrun their


Although he did not spare his readers detailed accounts of

Muslim cruelties to Spanish Christians, Menendez y Pelayo’s ver- sion of the Reconquest is not wholly laudatory. The Cluniac monks

and foreign crusaders brought in their train nothing worthwhile for Spanish civilization’. Worse, their successful repression of the

historic Isidoran rite (1091) still caused him regret and anger. In

spite of this alien intrusion, he noted, ’the irresistible Catholic sen-

timent of the fHispanicjrace suppressed all

instincts of wounded na-

tional pride


Schismatic thoughts occurred to no one’. 21

Don Marcelino conceded that the century preceding the Refor- mation had witnessed ’a recrudescence of barbarity, something akin to a backward step in the course of civilization, but he could

not excuse Luther. Both he and Erasmus were, according to

Menendez y Pelayo, barbarians lacking the true sense of classic

beauty and demonstrating a wicked and envious will against the

greatness of the South [of Europel. This extraordinary thesis of the Reformation as yet another invasion of barbarians is not discreetly

tucked away in Los Heterodoxos, but amplified:

The rapid propagation of Protestantism must be attributed, among other causes, to the inveterate hatred of Northern peoples against Italy, to this enmity of races,

which explains a great part of the history of Europe since the invasion of the bar-

barians ...

until the Reformation. The blood of Armenius, who destroyed the

legions of Varo, forever runs in the Germans. In them there is a tendency toward

divisiveness, which always collides with Roman and Catholic unity. For this

reason the Southern peoples energetically rejected and reject the Reformation.22

In often beautiful prose, Don Marcelino devoted much of the cen-

tral portion of this study to the suppression of the Protestant heresy

in Spain, offering his readers some glorious passages of tribute to

Philip II, the Inquisition and Saint Ignatius. ’Tolerance,’ he an-

nounced at one point, ’is the sickness of epochs of scepticism.

Finally, however, he was obliged to discuss the War of Spanish

Succession and its consequences. ’It is not a pleasant task for one

who has Spanish blood in his veins to write of our nation stripped

of its arms, its treasures, its grandeur (to become] a humble satellite

of France’.

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Menendez y Pelayo was frequently favoured by the reigning Bourbon monarchs of his day, but their patronage did not vitiate his hostility toward theik ancestors of the previous century. Bour-

bon suppression of the Jesuits, for example, he terms an iniquity

which still cries out to

heaven’. Its consequence, he alleged, had

been to make of Spain ’the most backward nation in Europe in all

science and serious study .23

In his account of the nineteenth-century, it is not the Napoleonic

invasion of Spain that captures Don Marcelinos attention so much

as a later alien onslaught - German Idealist philosophy. Many of

its proponents were his colleagues at the University of Madrid, but

that fact did not lessen his highly-personal critiques of their works;

rather, he applauded the government’s 1867 purge of this ’focal

point of heterodox and noxious education’.24 The erudition of the author of Los Heterodoxos is undeniable,

even incredible. The product of all that learning, nevertheless, is a

chauvinistic rendering of Spanish history, tinged with xenophobia

noteworthy even by standards of the past century. Spain had not

erred, according to Menendez y Pelayo’s ’White Legend. The rest of Europe was at fault either for having opposed Spanish policy or for abandoning Spain to its enemies. In La Ciencia, for example,

Don Marcelino told his readers that Spain had struggled gloriously


the twisted spirit of the age and half of Europe united in defence of the Reformation. In the end, we were defeated because we were alone. But we had


performed well and that is enough since great enterprises in history are not judg-

ed merely by their success


We shed our blood for religion, for cul