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Spain: capitalism, expansion, and settlement, medieval era

Migration A–Z


  1. Phillip Williams

Published Online: 4 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm510

The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration

The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration

How to Cite

Williams, P. 2013. Spain: capitalism, expansion, and settlement, medieval era. The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 4 FEB 2013


Spain in the medieval period had too much land in relation to the number of people or the amount of available water; put simply, there were too few Spaniards and they congregated in areas where there was water, along the banks of the great rivers. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, those two most typical of Spaniards, wandered through solitary wastelands for days on end without encountering another human soul: this was no literary invention on behalf of Miguel de Cervantes, but a common occurrence in his day (Braudel 1972). Georges Duby famously observed that agriculture is a war between men and nature, and if this was the case then conditions in the Iberian Peninsula meant that the farmers faced an implacable adversary. They did so, moreover, with a very limited armory, for medieval technology afforded them few advantages (Duby 1972). French historians, who tend to stress the role of geography in shaping economic development, have described a Mediterranean climate (even a Mediterranean “unit”), meaning a dry weather system with arid summers, and weak, thin soils which suffered from violent erosion and rapid exhaustion. The terrain in Iberia made trade and communication disproportionately difficult, although the mountain ranges or “sierras” also afforded enormous opportunities for grazing and transhumance – that is, the long-distance movement of flocks of livestock in order to take advantage of the plains in winter and the highland pastures in summer (Braudel 1972; Duby 1972; White 1972). Spain boasts geography of extremes, although its features have sometimes been simplified to the point of caricature. In his 1937 poem Spain, W. H. Auden referred to “that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot Africa” (Fletcher 1992: 10–13). An awareness of the comparative difficulty of life in the country underlines how industrious and innovative the Spaniards were, making the most of mountains and forests (even firewood was a valuable commodity). Above all else, they valued every last drop of water and made the most of every well, pool, stream, river, and lake.


  • archaeology;
  • capitalism;
  • colonialism;
  • empire;
  • cultural diversity;
  • imperialism