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European History Quarterly-2013-Villar-657-80

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Catholicism Versus Laicism:

Culture Wars and the

Making of Catholic National

Identity in Spain, 1898–1931

European History Quarterly

43(4) 657–680 ! The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permissions:

sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0265691413499283 ehq.sagepub.com

Joseba Louzao Villar

Cardenal Cisneros University College, University of Alcala, Spain


This article will argue that the ‘nationalization’ of the struggle between clericalism and anti-clericalism in Spain, which began during the revolutionary interlude of the ‘six years of democracy’ (1868–74), reached a climax during the first third of the twentieth century. Despite the variety of different political cultures which developed during the period, the main confrontation was between two great and mutually incompatible visions of the nation, which can be defined as adversarial nationalisms.


Catholicism, culture war, laicism, national identity, Spain

In September 1929, the Spanish journalist Alardo Prats visited the shrine of Nuestra Sen˜ora de la Balma in the Maestrazgo district of Castello´n province, in north-eastern Spain, where every year thousands of pilgrims gathered for a popular local religious festival or romerı´a. In and around the chapel an array of traditional rituals was conducted to expel evil spirits from those who were considered to be possessed. Reporting on these events Prats, who had been a fervent Catholic in his youth, presented harsh criticisms of what he saw as a tragic and superstitious spectacle, which he identified with the ‘ancestral tyranny of the exhausted tradition’ of the Catholic Church and its social and cultural dominance. For such reasons, in the book in which he pulled together his accounts of this experience, he proclaimed that the struggle against clericalism was ‘a true and authentic patriotic duty’.1 There was nothing at all exceptional about such a declaration at this time. The vast majority of Spanish anti-clerical writings denounced the overweening power of Catholicism from republican and progressive perspectives, while linking this

Corresponding author:

Joseba Louzao, Centro Universitario Cardenal Cisneros, Avenida Jesuitas 34, 28806 Alcala´ de Henares, Madrid, Spain.

Email: joseba.louzao@cardenalcisneros.es

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European History Quarterly 43(4)



critique with the advocacy of a distinctive version of national identity.2 In Spain, where a close identification between religion and national identity had been the norm, such ideas were resisted vigorously from Catholic perspectives, giving rise to an active struggle over cultural identity throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in pursuit of the ‘real Spain’.3

This mainly historiographical essay will argue that the ‘nationalization’ of the struggle between clericalism and anti-clericalism, which began during the revolutionary years of the ‘Sexenio Democra´tico’ (the ‘six years of democracy’ between 1868 and 1874), reached a climax during the first third of the twentieth century. In other words, our understanding is that during this period not only was there fierce argument about the proper place of religion in society, but also about the definition of the nation itself. It is therefore impossible to restrict the debate on this cultural struggle to given definitions of the nation.4 Unfortunately, and strange as it may seem, we are still far from achieving an adequate understanding of the complex and tangled relationship between religion and national identity in modern Spain. The history of religion has been slow to develop and has remained historiographically a poor relation, despite the fundamental nature of the questions it raises.5 We lack an integrated study of these realities, which fed constantly o each other, so that many analyses are burdened by exhausted cliche´s, inflected by the memory of the institutional weight of the Catholic Church in the Franco dictatorship’s reChristianization programme and the brutally repressive nature of the dictatorship, especially in its early years. As the distinguished Italian Hispanicist Alfonso Botti has recently reminded us, the religious question in Spain has been unjustly sidelined due to contemporary prejudices in historical analysis.6 It will therefore be necessary to restore its lost importance to religion, returning to established themes in more complex ways, in order to understand how religion contributed to the formation of specific identities, whether related to nation, culture or gender.7

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in spite of the arguments of contemporaries and of a multitude of social scientists who were convinced of the inevitability of its decline, religious conviction was resurgent and capable of gathering strength as a consequence (among other reasons) of the unfolding of cultural and political modernization across diverse European societies, whether in the multi-confessional environment of northern Europe or the traditional Catholic settings of the south.8 National and religious identities, together with political and cultural ones, were articulated reciprocally and inclusively.9 The role of religion in modern nation-building requires multi-dimensional explanations, for it acted both to fortify and to fragment the nationalist movements of the period.10 The imagined incompatibility between religion and nation was therefore only one of the main ideological standpoints of western modernizing discourse.11 European secular nationalism has combined actively with many religious elements and at times has even been shaped by modern religious solidarity.12 Nor can the nationstate itself be seen as a substitute for religion, despite securing legitimacy in fields that were previously dominated by religious feeling, for, at the most popular social levels, religion and nationhood went hand in hand.

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Louzao Villar




In this respect the confrontation between the Catholic and the secular was one of the principal fault-lines within Catholic confessional societies, as in Italy, Portugal or some of the Latin American nations. For this reason we must not regard the Spanish experience as exceptional, as flat and simplistic readings of the violent episodes of the Civil War have sometimes represented it.13 We should also point out that a deeper analysis ought to make distinctions between the wide and internally complex range of positions within both broad groups, and the di erent projects and proposals which resulted. In any case, this conflict made its own important contribution to nation-building, presenting the various political and cultural perspectives (political discourses and mobilization, images and stereotypes, symbolic redefinition, and so on) which directed and integrated, in a ective and emotional terms, the di erent expressions of nationality during the identity crisis provoked by the loss of the colonies in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. In this way, and gathering up the advances made in the study of nationalism through the so-called ‘local turn’, we can demonstrate empirically how local conflicts between clericalism and anti-clericalism shed light on a struggle for the definition of national identity whose importance has hitherto been underestimated. Historical subjects act, think and feel from a specific place or position from which they perceive the reality of their world.14 Such an understanding is absolutely necessary for apprehending the varying forms of religiosity in that, although this period did generate a certain uniformity of spiritual values, religious culture always acquires obvious local characteristics which provide explanations for regional variations and di erences. Moreover, it was in the local setting that the most direct and immediate experiences of nationality and religion were intermingled.

Before proceeding with the argument we must emphasize that writing about the confrontation between the Catholic and the secular in Spain brings sharp and painful di culties of interpretation and presentation in its train. For this reason what follows is more than a chronological narrative: it provides an evidence-based reflection on the historiographical implications of this cluster of problems. It does not present a closed or definitive interpretative schema, but the gathering together and ordering of certain general ideas which are still in an embryonic state.

Nationalism and Religion: The Limits of Nation-Building

in Spain

Modernist or constructionist approaches to the study of nationalism during the last three decades have reached an undeniably stable position thanks to the incorporation of various post-modernist preoccupations.15 This is not surprising, as Dominick LaCapra maintains, because ‘history is always in transit, even if periods, places, or professions sometimes achieve relative stabilization’.16 Taking everything into account, the abundance of studies and critical analyses is so great that a brief summary would be impossible. Focusing on the argument that follows, we therefore confine ourselves to indicating that the classic interpretations of nationalism and the construction of national identity have been dominated by a ‘grand

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narrative’ which accepted a one-dimensional reading of the role of religion in modern society, too closely linked with the contested theories of modernization and secularization.17 It was therefore not surprising to find statements that represented nationalism as a religion, as Carlton Hayes did in his classic work, or exalted it, as did the anthropologist Josep R. Llobera, as the ‘God of modernity’.18

In this international context, a considerable sector of Spanish historiography developed an interpretation of the nation-building process, mediated through contemporary political problems, which emphasized the limitations of its development in the Spanish case, going so far as to label it as weak.19 This narrative was situated within a particular Spanish intellectual discourse, inherited from the pessimism derived from the loss of the Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, and from an anomalous interpretation of the history of Spain in which the Catholic Church was singled out as an object of blame. Moreover, this interpretation was seen as a historiographical corollary of the old argument about the alleged failure of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ in Spain.20 Consciously or unconsciously, this sustained the firm conviction that Spain was di erent, that it was backward in pursuing the path to modernity.21 To some extent these interpretations remained in thrall to a rigid interpretation which represented Spanish history as a confrontation between tradition and modernity, and set up a comparison with an international model that did not exist.22 Among the arguments advanced in defence of such a thesis was the weakness of a Spanish education system undermined by the lack of resources from the state, as well as by the strength of private education in the hands of the Catholic Church, which was thereby converted into one of the main enemies of the development of Spanish national consciousness, while frustrating the modernization process more generally.

In recent years, however, novel and provocative revisionist interpretations have appeared which challenge arguments based on the weakness of the nation-building process.23 The most important contribution has come from the ‘local turn’ in the study of nationalisms within Spain, and a new perspective has become established which emphasizes that in the absence of any defined model or route towards what might constitute ‘progress’, Spain’s trajectory was not so very di erent from the other European nations.24 The persistence of regionalist movements or of the languages of double patriotism did not automatically indicate a weakness in the nation-building process. Moreover, the analysis now moves beyond the classic state-building agencies of nationalization, such as the army or the education system, to open out perspectives on informal aspects which have been neglected until recently but are highly influential.25 Obviously this revision has also a ected views of the nation-building work of the Catholic Church, as recent studies on this theme have highlighted that it was always fully involved in the modernizing and nation-building processes of the modern world.26

Within this general picture of historiographical evolution, critiques of the secularization paradigm have introduced alternative explanatory mechanisms which focus attention on the remaking of various institutions and spiritual perceptions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.27 In this way they seek to take

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account of the complexity and ambivalence of the relationships between religion and modernity. Robert Wuthnow has emphasized the elasticity of modern religiosity and the complex ways in which it adapts to surrounding circumstances.28 These adaptations are not without resistances or contradictions, but the forces of modernity overcome those who do not carry them out.29 As William Callahan indicated in his overview of the history of the Catholic Church in Spain, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Spanish Catholics began a struggle to adapt to the new economic conditions imposed by capitalism and political liberalism.30 This turn of events generated a variety of initiatives, involving the clergy, religious orders and laity, which were infused with the idea of national Catholicism.31

This process of reconstitution was directed by normative conflicts within pluralistic societies, in which fundamental aspects of self-definition and collective identity were to be resolved through political and cultural confrontation.32 As summed up by the sociologist Peter L. Berger, the two key questions involved who we are and how we are to live together. According to Berger conflict usually generates a binary division between simply-presented opposites, in political cultures dominated by Monist interpretations (as in the Spanish case), which at the same time permitted the development and strengthening of multiple identities within a landscape dominated by political polarization. At specific junctures in such antagonism, when normative cleavages were at their most pronounced and produced direct ideological oppositions, it is no exaggeration to identify the outbreak of a genuine cultural war, a political metaphor of satisfying resonance.33 Moreover, since its origins in the German Kulturkampf this mode of analysis has been linked to debates on the definition of society in religious terms. It therefore provides a descriptive approach to understanding in specific circumstances where the radicalization of postures promotes a permanent state of hostility, which may extend to outbreaks of political violence. As a consequence of this, no political discourse in Spain was able to overcome this division or to pull together a definition of the nation which might override partisan divisions.

In turn-of-the-century Europe this cultural war would be strongly influenced by the confrontation between contrasting definitions of the nation. Any debate on aspects of how to live together in such societies came up against di erent ways of understanding how nations were constructed. Small, local everyday disputes over real, concrete issues a ected individuals considerably and mobilized the subjects of the emergent mass society. Symbolic struggles over national identity must be an examination of the multiple dimensions of religious conflict.

The Cultural Struggle for National Identity

The confrontation between clerical and anti-clerical factions at national level began during the ‘Sexenio Democra´tico’ between 1868 and 1874, a period of revolutionary disturbance during which Queen Isabel II was forced into exile and Spain became a Republic. The rival forces of Catholics and anti-clericals had been

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defining their positions during the whole of the nineteenth century, but it was to be the revolutionary dynamic that gave the conflict a new significance for national identity. On one side we find the defenders of a liberal, lay definition of the nation, as expressed in the Constitution of 1869.34 In direct opposition was the Church, which had resisted the idea of the liberal nation. The Catholic Church had not begun its complex involvement in defining the nation until the Concordat of 1851 and the Church’s embrace of conservative dynastic politics. The new engagement was mainly due to the careful ideological construction undertaken by the Catalan cleric Jaime Balmes, which culminated in the classic work of the polymath Marcelino Mene´ndez Pelayo, Historia de los heterodoxos espan˜oles (1880–82).35 This version of the nation saw itself as attacked and wounded by the revolutionary political agenda, denouncing the loss of religious unity and stirring up Catholic popular feelings. The development of this civil strife brought discussion of the nature of the nation-state into daily usage and promoted active political mobilization. Moreover, the restoration of the monarchy after the ‘Sexenio Democra´tico’ marked a clear defeat for the republican project and its secular agenda. The Restoration regime did allow freedom of worship, but it distanced itself from any further extension of religious toleration and from the separation of Church and state, as had been envisaged by the constitutional project of the First Republic (1873).

But the Spanish Church was not satisfied, remaining distrustful of liberalism and aspiring towards a confessional society and political life. This frame of mind produced the gradual construction of a Catholic and nationalist political culture towards the end of the nineteenth century, in which the Church was interwoven with the Spanish nation in a process that contained its own problems and contradictions. The concept of National Catholicism was born out of the self-critical accusations that were levelled at ‘progressive’ Catholic elements within the Franco regime, encouraging the error of analysing National Catholicism as if it were a closed body of ideology, rooted in the Franco dictatorship and based on the restoration of a confessional Christianity, without paying attention to the multiple nuances generated by this discourse over a long period.36 A few brief definitions are necessary to avoid imprecision. National Catholicism was an integrative political culture in which Catholic faith became the constituting element of national identity, in which it was in no sense alien to developments in other national Catholic traditions. Thus it was not only identified with counter-revolutionary thought, but was also a vector for introducing elements of modernity such as capitalist ideas and industrial development.

Through this alliance Spanish National Catholicism became the central element of one of the traditions of the nationalist Right which has been astutely defined as ‘teolo´gico-polı´tica’.37 In other words, it became an authentic political theology of reconquest, in that it advocated a combination of the recovery of a glorious past and a redemptive vision of the future through the imposition of the Kingdom of Christ, basing itself on an organic, corporativist vision of society. We must not forget that as a response to liberal nationalism and international socialism the Catholic Church, in the second half of the nineteenth century, began to articulate

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a ‘theology of the nations’ which attributed a particular role to each country in the divine plan.38 Thus this was not an idea peculiar to Spanish Catholicism, as several examples demonstrate a similar capacity for inventing national characteristics in countries with Catholic traditions, including Portugal, Poland, Ecuador and Mexico.39 This concept of a theology of the nations was apparent in a papal encyclical of Leo XIII:

The two attachments, to Church and Nation, are compatible. Moreover, if we wish to feel this rightly, the supernatural love for the Church and that which is naturally owed to the Nation are two loves that proceed from an identical eternal principle, given that God is the cause and author of both; from which it follows that there can be no conflict between them. Certainly, we can and must do certain things: love ourselves and desire the wellbeing of our neighbours, love our country and its governing authorities; but at the same time we must honour the Church as our mother, and love God with all our hearts.40

But similar ideas could also be found among other Christian denominations, and in 1917, for example, the United States evangelical pastor Billy Sunday asserted that, ‘Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous’.41 In this vein, a few decades later the Bishop of Vitoria in the Basque Country, the Galician Leopoldo Eijo y Garay, summed up the ideological bases of this theology of the nations in a sermon:

It is not that the Catholic religion identifies itself with the nation: no indeed. Just as we do not mix or heap up the love owed to God with that owed to our parents . . . nor does religion, in imposing patriotism along with its morality, identify with a nation, reduce itself to a single territory or confine itself within its frontiers; no; being Catholic itself, it transcends national divisions, and being One and the same for the children of the various countries, it lights up the love of one’s own country in every breast, inspires it with noble ideals, makes it burn with holy enthusiasm, urges it to co-operate in the improvement and enhancement of one’s country by means of virtue, labour, and the cultivation of all the human faculties, in such a way that the more Christian you may be, the more useful you will be to your country, and the better a patriot you are, the better you will fulfil your Christian duties.

Thus Religion and Nationhood were united in all the new daughter nations of the Church which were placed under its maternal direction, and as far as Spain is concerned, we see the illumination of Religion and Nationhood, bright as noon, united closely and intimately with unbreakable ties, and joining its laurels fraternally to weave the imperishable crown of glory of the Spanish people.42

For his part, the priest and teacher Andre´s Manjo´n, in one of the most applauded contributions to the Catholic Congress of Santiago de Compostela

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(1902), emphasized the central role of the Catholic family in sustaining the nation, because:

the nation is not formed out of employees and bureaucracy: its root, base and trunk, spirit and soul, its strength and reserves for the days of special trial, are to be found in the family, and thus whoever deforms, confuses, disturbs, weakens, disheartens, dissolves or demoralizes families is the first and most important enemy of the nation.43

We shall need to locate this conceptual position within its historical context, where we can find answers to the problem of how National Catholicism was understood and experienced. In this political culture a wide and heterogeneous array of often conflicting people and ideas came together. It was not understood in the same way by intellectuals such as Ramiro de Maeztu and Vı´ctor Pradera, as by the clergy, from bishops to seminarians, or by broad sectors of the middle class or the peasantry. Moreover, not all Spanish Catholics, or even all those on the political Right, fell into this category.

In any case, Catholicism, whether at institutional level or experienced informally (reflecting Michael Billig’s concept of the importance of the banal), secured enormous creative and mobilizing potential.44 This is largely because, following the French sociologist Danie`le Hervieu-Le´ger, we can suggest that religious belief pulls together the expression of a faith, the memory of a continuous past, and the legitimating reference to an authorized version of that memory: in other words, a tradition.45 This means that we must not disdain a movement like the Catholic Church which, when it saw its moral universe as in peril and itself as under siege, had a great capacity for promoting collective action.46 In such developments we can see the national level of understanding and action superimposed on the local. But even when the conflict between clerical and anti-clerical positions was of general significance, it was played out through the most diverse of local dynamics and was given added strength by municipal stimuli.47

As evidence of the close relationship between Catholicism and nation, we can cite the fierce polemical conflicts about education which developed at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.48 The secular schools which were closed as a consequence of the anti-clerical actions of ‘Tragic Week’ in Barcelona, when in summer 1909 churches and Catholic schools were burned and several clergy assassinated, reopened in 1910 thanks to the new government led by the liberal Segismundo Moret.49 The Catholic movement exerted strong political pressure at street level against the reopening, organizing well-attended demonstrations and meetings across the whole of Spain. To sum up, the message transmitted by these activities left no room for doubt: seen through this lens, the defence of Catholic education against the perils of secular infiltration could only be a work of patriotism.50 Obviously these mobilizations encouraged the proliferation of articles, pamphlets and books against the advance of secularism in the Spanish educational system. In 1911, Domingo Miral, educationalist and professor in the University of Salamanca, expressed horror at the very thought of how education without religion might a ect

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the Spanish people, in the preface to a book on the question which he himself had translated from German.51 A few years later, at the height of the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the Jesuit Ramo´n Ruiz Amado, who conceived of secularism as anti-patriotic and ‘secular education as anti-patriotic education’, responded conclusively to Miral: ‘the spread of the secular school would be the veritable finis Hispaniae; the end of the Catholic Nation; which is, if it has any significance in the world and in history, the country in which we were born’.52

Subsequently the Catholics responded to an educational directive of Conde de Romanones (1913), another liberal politician, in which the children of non-Catholic parents were exempted from learning the catechism in school, by organizing massive simultaneous collective communion services for children on 1 May, promoted across the whole of Spain by the primate cardinal archbishop.53 This was intended as a definitive response to a measure which many Catholics saw as threatening the overthrow of national identity, following the denunciations of the Carlist pretender to the throne, Don Jaime, and filling devotional and liturgical activities with political significance.54 These debates on the teaching of the catechism were the final repercussions of a phase of intensive anti-clerical mobilization which had begun in the context of the wars in Cuba and the Philippines, where the defeat of 1898 had generated a deep identity crisis which fed into the cultural war over the position of the Church in Spanish society.55 The monarchical system of the Restoration, as envisaged by Antonio Ca´novas del Castillo, gave great assistance to the re-establish- ment of the Church, although it had changed a great deal since the early nineteenth century. During the first decades of the Bourbon restoration political stability was the dominant concern, based on the fictitious and corrupt alternation in o ce of conservatives and liberals, and on religious peace. Nevertheless, with the loss of the last vestiges of Empire, anti-clericalism returned to the centre of the political stage. On the one hand, liberalism, which was recognized in the agreement that the parties should alternate in power, embraced the secularizing forces which had hitherto been identified with the radical republicanism which was shut out from the monarchical political system; and on the other hand, both socialists and anarchists identified with and were incorporated into, the anti-clerical movement, becoming important disseminators of political ideas in this field.56 There is no doubt that disputes about religion revived strongly and became the dominant concern of the Spanish political agenda during the first decade of the twentieth century.

In this conflict-ridden setting, there emerged a reinvention of devotion to the Virgin Mary in Spain, linked to the strengthening of regional Catholic identities and to the developing dynamics of religious confrontation. In fact, the period under investigation lies within the central decades of what might be regarded from a Catholic perspective as the century of the Virgin Mary, which was closely linked to the developing feminization of religion. This century spanned Pius IX’s proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and Pius XII’s definition of the dogma of the Assumption in 1950. In this way the figure of the Virgin Mary was constructed as the central counter-secularizing myth of Catholicism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making use of what

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was already an important element of traditional Catholic worship. There is no doubt that, by means of pilgrimages and sanctuaries, guilds, religious orders and the array of visions of the Virgin Mary which were constructed over the period, from Lourdes to Fa´tima by way of La Salette and Marpingen, the Church intended to o er a lively response to the challenges of the modern world.57

In the Spanish setting there are numerous examples of this symbolic construction of the Virgin Mary, as in the cases of the sanctuary of Covadonga in Asturias, that of Montserrat in Catalun˜a, of the Bien Aparecida in Cantabria and the double regional and national symbolism erected around the cult of the Aragonese Virgin of the Pillar.58 Bearing all this in mind, the present analysis will concentrate on the Basque Virgin of the sanctuary of Begon˜a, which was then a small rural settlement on the outskirts of the commercial and industrial centre of Bilbao. This was a focus of worship which had been gathering strength for more than two centuries, and in the Vizcaya of the turn of the century developed into a unifying symbol of regional Catholic identity, thanks to a lengthy reconstruction which took place throughout the nineteenth century.59 In September 1855 the image of the Virgin was brought down to the settlement, in procession, as an attempt to ward o an epidemic of Asiatic cholera. After the procession the epidemic ended, and this was, of course, attributed to divine intervention. From then on, collective thanks were given every year for the Virgin’s intercession.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the procession, a great pilgrimage was organized from every locality in the province, to demonstrate the Catholic fervour of the people of Vizcaya. However, the pilgrimage turned into an electoral confrontation between Carlists and Liberals (1872–76), as the provincial elections were close at hand, with the result that the corporation of Bilbao, the provincial capital, denied the procession passage through the town. The memory of the last Carlist war, in which a Liberal army had defended the city from the counter-revolutionary forces who backed the dynastic ambitions of the alternative Carlist Bourbon succession, remained strong. At the same time, the Carlists sought to maintain the Basque regional fueros, a distinctive set of norms, laws and privileges which had been established by the ancien re´gime monarchy. This expressed the symbolic confrontation between the rural universe of traditionalist politics, which was to draw in the new Basque nationalism of the end of the century, taking on much of its political and cultural baggage, and the urban liberalism associated with the new industries, as highlighted by the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in his novel Paz en la guerra.60

At the dawn of the twentieth century the canonical coronation of the Virgin of Begon˜a was organized for September 1900, following the earlier Barcelona precedent of the Virgin of la Merced (1888). The region had undergone profound socioeconomic changes. Bilbao, the capital of Vizcaya province, had been transformed during the last quarter of the nineteenth century from a small provincial town of 20,000 people, its growth held back by two civil wars, into an important industrial and financial centre with a rapidly expanding population. The municipal corporation of Bilbao distanced itself from the celebrations, just as it had twenty years earlier, incurring the accusation that it did not respect the Catholic sentiments of

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