Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Battle Of Lepanto And The Sinking Of The Spanish Armada

I wonder how many of you have heard of one of the events mentioned in this post's title and not the other. In 1571 the combined naval forces of Spain, the Pope and Venice scored a great and unexpected victory over the navy of the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea. 17 years later, in 1588, the same Spanish navy, the dreaded Spanish Armada, suffered a great and unexpected defeat at the hands of the English navy when they attempted to invade England.

Both events have been written about at great length, but what strikes me is that, to the best of my recollection, I have never heard them mentioned in the same breath, as I am doing now. Garrett Mattingly's The Armada, an above-average book about the 1588 battle,

has 3 entries in its index under "Lepanto, battle of," but 2 of those references merely mention that Don Juan of Austria and the Marquis of Santa Cruz had been at Lepanto, and that Sultan Selim II had spoken disparagingly of the battle's significance. Mattingly actually says nothing at all himself about the battle.

The I Tatti Renaissance Library recently published an entire volume of poems in Latin written shortly after the battle of Lepanto and celebrating the Christian victory,

and nowhere in the poems, the index or introduction or well over 100 pages of notes about the battle and its background and significance is any English man or woman mentioned, let alone Elizabeth I, let alone the sinking of the Armada.

I thought that surely HG Wells, in his great 1-volume history of Earth, The Outline of History,

would prove an exception and discuss both battles. But no. And more surprisingly still, the battle he mentions is Lepanto. Maybe he was deliberately thumbing his nose at those of his countrymen who in his estimation went on and on at entirely too much length about the supposed significance for world history of the sinking of the Armada.

Which brings me meandering roundabout to my point: some historians have written at great length about either Lepanto or the sinking of the Armada, either because they felt that it was of great significance in world history, or that its significance had been greatly exaggerated by historians. Either one battle or the other -- and the other was barely worth a mention.

Surely many Spanish sailors and soldiers must have been in both battles, just 17 years apart. Surely they, if no-one else, often thought of both battles at the same time, and considered them to have some connection to each other. Such sailors and soldiers were themselves an obvious connection.

But individual historians have rarely -- if ever -- felt that both battles were worth writing about. Which is my point: the great subjectivity of decisions about what is "historically significant." Surely the treatment by historians of these 2 battles shines a very great light on the fact that objectivity is an illusion. Historians write about what is significant from the point of view of the entire world? No, they cultivate myths of significance. If they are especially sympathetic to Catholicism and/or Spain, they nurture the myth of the significance of Lepanto, they talk up the glorious nature of the Catholic, or Spanish (or Venetian, or Papal) victory, and don't mention the Spanish defeat in 1588. But if they happen to think that England is particularly glorious, they support that preconception by dwelling on the sinking of the Armada, and by making it seem as glorious as they can.

Objectivity, schmobjetivity. There is no such thing. Research these 2 battles and you will be shown objectivity's nonexistence in a particularly striking way.

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