Reader Ointe pointed me – well, all of us actually – to the English translation of a memoir written by a French officer not long after the end of The Peninsular War/War of Spanish Independence. This is available on line and I’ve posted bits about Galicia’s key role in this war on my Galicia site, here. I’m re-formatting the whole thing, for posting tomorrow, but right now here’s a lovely description of the hotch-potch that was Madrid in 1808. With the obligatory reference – albeit indirectly – to the noise levels of the city in the final sentence:-
One is astonished on entering Madrid . . . at the tumultuous concourse of people from the country and the provinces, diversely clothed, going, coming, arriving and departing. Here a Castilian gathers up the ample folds of his cloak with the dignity of a Roman senator wrapped in his toga. There a drover from La Mancha, with a long goad in his hand and clad in a kilt of hide, which also resembles the ancient form of the tunic worn by the Roman and Gothic warriors. Farther on are seen men whose hair is bound with long silken fillets, and others wearing a sort of short brown vest, chequered with blue and red, which reminds one of the Morisco garb. The men who wear this habit come from Andalusia; they are distinguished by their black lively eyes, their expressive and animated looks, and the rapidity of their utterance. Women, sitting in the corners of the streets and in the public places, are occupied preparing food for this passing crowd, whose homes are not in Madrid. One sees long strings of mules laden with skins of wine or of oil, or droves of asses led by a single man, who talks to them unceasingly. One also meets carriages drawn by eight or ten mules, ornamented with little bells, driven with surprising address by one coachman, either on the trot, or galloping, without reins, and by means of his voice only, using the wildest cries. One long sharp whistle serves to stop all the mules at the same moment. By their slender legs, their tall stature, their proudly raised heads, one would take them for teams of stags or elks. The vociferations of the drivers and the muleteers, the ringing of the church bells, which is unceasing, unceasing, the various vesture of the men, the superabundance of southern activity, manifested by expressive gestures or shouts in a sonorous language of which we were ignorant, manners so different from our own, all contributed to make the appearance of the capital of Spain strange to men coming from the north, where all goes on so silently.
If you go to the above extract of Galicia’s role in the war, you'll see that the author was rather critical of the British General, Sir John Moore, who died in the engagement at La Coruña and who is buried in a little grove there, kindly maintained by the city council. His comments – though reasonable-sounding to me – proved too much for the translator, who felt obliged to insert this paragraph:- [These causes are sufficiently known to the English reader; yet it is impossible for the translator, who has the honour to call Sir John Moore a countryman, to pass over this passage without a protest against any censure, or implied censure, conveyed in Mr. Rocca’s pages; and without entreating the reader to turn to the narrative of Sir John Moore’s campaign, where the griefs and vexations of that noble heart are recorded, and the bright page of his military career laid open for the admiration and example of his countrymen.] Which is a relief to those of us who had to learn off by heart as kids a long poem about the unfortunate man's internment.
Commenting on French failures in the mountains of North Iberia, our French officer candidly opines – “In Galicia, Portugal, and the Asturias, we had lost, among the insurgent peasants, that reputation of invincibility, more powerful still than the real force which had conquered so many nations.” You’d think this would have been compulsory reading for the British, Russian and American armchair generals who’ve sent troops into the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan for the last hundred years or more. But apparently not.
Finally . . . I was intrigued by George Borrow’s observation that both the Basque people and their language came to Iberia from the steppes of Tartary. And I wonder what the current view on this hypothesis is.
And, of course, I continue to be impressed by his huge regard for the ‘common man’ of Spain . . .
Who was it said that "Cervantes sneered Spain's chivalry away?" I know not; and the author of such a line scarcely deserves to be remembered. How the rage for scribbling tempts people at the present day to write about lands and nations of which they know nothing, or worse than nothing. Vaya! It is not from having seen a bull-fight at Seville or Madrid, or having spent a handful of ounces at a posada in either of those places, kept perhaps by a Genoese or a Frenchman, that you are competent to write about such a people as the Spaniards, and to tell the world how they think, how they speak, and how they act! Spain's chivalry sneered away! Why, there is every probability that the great body of the Spanish nation speak, think, and live precisely as their forefathers did six centuries ago. . . He who wishes to become acquainted with the genuine Spaniard, must seek him not in seaports and large towns, but in lone and remote villages, like those of the Sagra. There he will find all that gravity of deportment and chivalry of disposition which Cervantes is said to have sneered away; and there he will hear, in everyday conversation, those grandiose expressions, which, when met with in the romances of chivalry, are scoffed at as ridiculous exaggerations.
You didn’t really think I was going to write a post this week without mentioning him, did you?
And you'll appreciate that GB probably didn't include himself in the tribe of scribes writing about what they knew not . . .