From the Letters to the Editor column of the October 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Letters to the Editor: On Text and Context: Goya on the Cover

Richard Kagan, October 2008

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To the Editor:

I really enjoyed reading Gabrielle Spiegel’s essay on “getting medieval” in the September 2008 issue of Perspectives on History. It is a bold, intelligent, and daring essay. But I was surprised by the decision to use the Goya—not discussed in the essay—on the cover. The picture is powerful, and one that speaks to Goya’s personal predicament following the end of the Napoleonic regime in Spain—remember that he was (rightly) considered one of the “Frenchified” Spaniards who collaborated with the rather brutal regime of Joseph Bonaparte (which was nothing as compared to the frightfully brutal and tortuous, in this sense of medieval, regime that Napoleon himself imposed upon Egypt starting in 1799—see Juan Cole’s new book on the subject). Upon his return to Spain in 1814, the admittedly brutish Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, revived the all but moribund institution of the Inquisition to deal with Goya and other Spaniards who had collaborated with the French, but by this date torture of the kind Spiegel alludes to was a thing of the past—in fact, the Spanish Inquisition, starting as early as the start of the 17th century, far in advance of other European tribunals of justice, had begun to abandon torture because it was regarded as both useless and ineffective. In this respect, the use of Goya’s painting—while consistent with what I have called “Prescott’s Paradigm”: that is, the image of Spain as backwards, cruel, and medieval in the sense that Spiegel invokes—is not only historically inaccurate but also one that requires further explanation.

—Richard Kagan
Johns Hopkins University