Tamar Herzog. Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 400 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-73538-5.
Reviewed by Jean A. Stuntz (West Texas A&M University)
Published on H-War (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Tamar Herzog sets out to prove that national boundaries are not set by military actions nor by treaties but instead by local actions of people living in the border area. To make this point, she looks first at the colonial possession of Spain and Portugal in South America and then at border disputes between Spain and Portugal in the Iberian Peninsula.
The book is divided into two parts with two chapters in each part. Part 1, "Defining Imperial Spaces: How South America Became a Contested Territory," begins with a brief overview of the papal bulls separating Spanish and Portuguese territories, followed by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Far from deciding the issue, the treaty was just the beginning of disputes over which European nation could claim sovereignty over non-Christian land overseas. Herzog analyzes several disputes about interpretation of the treaty, subsequent agreements and treaties, and diplomatic negotiations between European powers in order to show that, in the end, they were not what mattered. Instead, it was the actual use and possession of lands by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and missionaries that formed the eventual borders.
Part 2, "Defining European Spaces: The Making of Spain and Portugal in Iberia," traces the history of these two countries from the ninth century. The emergence of Portugal as a kingdom unaffiliated (most of the time) with the Spanish kingdoms is covered in detail. Herzog differs from most historians who see this as part of the reconquest and instead shows it to be the result of local political factions aligning with one king or the other in order to pursue their own individual goals. While the military played a role, so did the church, sovereign cities, and landowners. Legal disputes over land rights, family honor, and municipal rights had more power over what the people saw as the border than did missives from distant kings.
The book is extensively researched and detailed, especially in the portions where Herzog analyzes the various lawsuits. The author presumes that the reader is already completely familiar with Spanish history, Portuguese history, colonial South America, and legal jargon. This could make the writing intimidating to a non-expert. Paragraphs that are over a page in length do not make understanding of the already complex arguments easy. The author includes introductory remarks to both parts, and each chapter has a conclusion that helps the reader navigate the dense material. The argument is interesting. The book is better suited for a class in international relations, Iberian history, or legal study of borders than for military history.
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Jean A. Stuntz. Review of Herzog, Tamar, Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas.
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