Elsa Costa: Xenophobia in Early Modern Spain

October 29, 2021

Elsa Costa -  Fulbright-Hays 2018-2019-Duke Center for International and Global Studies

Duke History postdoctoral associate Elsa Costa will be speaking on November 22, 2021 at the Convivencia Lecture Series to discuss "Early Modern Xenophobia in Spain."

In 2018, Elsa was awarded a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship for her research abroad. Her dissertation research took her to Madrid and Mexico City, where she investigated about the cultural origins of the divine right of kings, a notion Elsa contends doesn't belong to the Middle Ages but rather to the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. 

Here, Costa talked with us about her new research projects and how the Fulbright-Hays award helped her complete her dissertation.

Q: On November 22 you will give a talk on "Early Modern Xenophobia in Spain." What brought you to investigate xenophobia in that historic context?

Costa: I am interested in the history of early nationalism. When I was developing my dissertation, I thought about a lot of keywords involved in early modern state formation in Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. "Utility/public utility," "excess," "luxury," "happiness/public happiness," "arbitrations/projects (meaning plans to fix the economy)," "the mystical body of the state," "patriotism" and many others. Many of these words, in addition to encouraging a restructuring of the state along economic lines, also delineated the boundaries of who belonged to the nation and who did not. For example, resident aliens, Roma, priests (especially foreign ones), and even regional cultures (Catalans etc) and so on were often encouraged of being a kind of human excess which prevented Spain's national consolidation. I ended up writing about "public happiness," which sometimes took on xenophobic overtones, but not as frequently as some of the other buzzwords. So with this project I wanted to return to the idea of national consolidation as an inherently xenophobic project. I'm investigating the language, especially the economic language, that was used to rationalize the "othering" of a group of Spanish Christians to the point where they were actually expelled from Spain in one of the largest acts of ethnic cleansing to date, and one of the first to rely exclusively on an ethnic definition of belonging. 

Q: Do you see any similarities and/or differences with the contemporary rise of anti-immigrant sentiment?

Costa: The expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain is really a huge turning point in the history of Western Europe. During the High Middle Ages there were several expulsions of Jews, which, although they were populist state projects disguised as religious projects, relied on religious differentiation to determine who was and was not a Jew. Jewish ethnicity did not factor into these expulsions. The same was true of the Jewish/Muslim expulsion of 1492. Being ethnically Jewish or Arab was not grounds for expulsion: being a practicing Jew or Muslim was. The expulsion of the Moriscos (Moorish Christians) of 1609 was conducted partly on the pretext that the Moriscos were not "real" Christians, but it was heavily colored by the concept of "purity of blood" which had arisen in the aftermath of the 1492 expulsions. In other words, the Moriscos were expelled for being Arab or Berber, and to an extent for speaking Arabic and dressing like Arabs, but not really on religious grounds. This represented a huge turning point towards the modern racialized anti-immigrant sentiment which we often see in Western countries today. I think it's enormously important as a historical moment for that reason.

Q: You were awarded a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship in 2018. How important was this award for the success of your dissertation early this year? 

Costa: Very important. I spent 11 months in Spain which were invaluable in the development of my dissertation. When I arrived in Madrid I was not sure which sources were available to me on "happiness" as a feature of early modern political writing. I had to spend several months in the National Library of Spain looking at sources just to figure out which ones tackled happiness in the most concentrated and comprehensive way. After that I relied increasingly on published sources, but these were much easier to buy and rent in Spain than they would have been had I been in the United States. Had I worked remotely I would have spent a fortune having books shipped from Spain and it would have taken me much longer to finish.

Q: What are your future research projects?

Costa: Right now I am working on a project about how Mexican criticism of Machiavelli in the 17th and 18th centuries was a way for colonial political thinkers to criticize the Spanish colonial administration without arousing hostility from Spain. Criticizing Machiavelli was a mainstay of political writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth century (almost all the Spanish thinkers in my dissertation from that period do it), so that almost all political treatises from that period coming out of Spain included some reference to how Machiavelli had written a "manual for tyranny," but Mexican thinkers started publishing in the "anti-Machiavellian" genre later, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since they weren't saying anything Renaissance Spanish authors hadn't said already, their admonishments against tyranny could not be labeled as treasonous, independentist, and so on.

This article originally was published here.