A black legend is a historiographical phenomenon in which a sustained trend in historical writing of biased reporting and introduction of fabricated, exaggerated and/or decontextualized facts is directed against particular persons, nations or institutions with the intention of creating a distorted and uniquely inhuman image of them while hiding their positive contributions to history. The term was first used by French writer Arthur Lévy in his 1893 work Napoléon Intime, in contrast to the expression "Golden Legend" that had been in circulation around Europe since the publication of a book of that name during the Middle Ages.
Black legends have been perpetrated against many nations and cultures, usually as a result of propaganda and xenophobia. For example, the "Spanish Black Legend" (Spanish: La leyenda negra española) is the theory that anti-Spanish political propaganda, whether about Spain, the Spanish Empire or Hispanic America, was sometimes "absorbed and converted into broadly held stereotypes" that assumed that Spain was "uniquely evil".
The term was first used by Arthur Lévy in 1893:
However, if we study the life of the emperor properly, we will soon get rid of the legends, both the golden legend, and the legend that we may call the Napoleonic black legend. This is the truth: Napoleon was not a God, nor was he a monster— Arthur Lévy, Napoleon Intime
Historian Manuel Fernández Álvarez defined a black legend as:
... cuidadosa distorsión de la historia de un pueblo, realizada por sus enemigos, para mejor combatirle. Y una distorsión lo más monstruosa posible, a fin de lograr el objetivo marcado: la descalificación moral de ese pueblo, cuya supremacía hay que combatir por todos los medios sine die.
... the careful distortion of the history of a nation, perpetrated by its enemies, in order to better fight it. And a distortion as monstrous as possible, with the goal of achieving a specific aim: the moral disqualification of the nation, whose supremacy must be fought in every way possible.— as cited in Alfredo Alvar's book, La Leyenda Negra (1997:5)
According to historian Elvira Roca Barea, the formation of a black legend and its assimilation by the nation that suffers it is a phenomenon observed in all multicultural empires, not just in the Spanish Empire. The black legend of empires would be the result of the following combined factors:
- The combined propaganda attacks and efforts of most smaller powers of the time, as well as defeated rivals.
- The propaganda created by the many rival power factions within the empire itself against each other as part of their struggle to win more power.
- The self-criticism of the intellectual elite, which tends to be larger in larger empires.
- The need of the new powers consolidated during the empire's life or after its dissolution to justify their new prevalence and the new order.
The said black legend tends to fade once the next great power is established or once enough time has gone by.
Common elements of black legends
The defining feature of a black legend is that it has been fabricated and propagated intentionally. Black legends also tend to share certain additional elements:
- Permanent decadence. Black legends tend to portray their subjects as being in a permanent estate of degeneration.
- Degenerated or polluted version of something else. The subject is portrayed as a degenerated form of another, usually another civilization, nation, religion, race or person, who represents the true, pure and noble form of whatever the subject of the black legend should have been, and that tends to coincide with whoever is building the legend.
- Accidentality of merit. Black legends tend to minimize the merits they cannot fully erase or hide, by either portraying them as "mere luck", opportunism or, at best, as isolated qualities.
- Obligatory moral actions. When a noble action by the subject cannot be denied, it is somehow presented as done out of self-interest or out of necessity.
- Natural moral inferiority and irredeemable character. The black legend has a final tone in which no hope of improvement is given, for the defects have been there from the beginning and cannot be overcome due to, usually, moral weakness. It is usually shown by tales with:
Narrations of black legends tend to include: Strong pathos, combined with a narrative that is easy to follow and emotionally loaded, created by:
- Detailed, gruesome and morbid descriptions of torture and violence, which in many cases does not seem to serve any practical purpose.
- Sexual elements, either extreme sexual depravity or repression or more often a combination of both.
- Ignorance. Lack of intellectual refinement or independence.
- Greed, materialism, accusations of disrespect for sacred, or very important institutions or moral rules.
- A theme, usually greed, cruelty, sadism or bigoty, that constructs a consistent character and remains stable through the legend, even if the specific "proofs" to support it may change or even become opposite to the initial ones.
- Simplicity of elements, often repetition of the same anecdotes or scenarios with different variations. Motivations for actions are often offered, but they are either one single motivation or two, negative, clear cut, and constant.
The Russian Black Legend
There is an argument to be made about Russia suffering from a black legend of its own. Forgeries such as The Will of Peter the Great would be part. Lydia Black describes in her work "Russians in Alaska" what she considers part of the development of a Russian black legend.
The Roman Black Legend
Growing bodies of evidence have shown that many of what was "known" about Rome's late days, regarding reports of moral decadence, sexual depravity, and excess – the stories about Romans making themselves vomit in order to keep eating – had little to no ground in reality. These elements all fit the model of a black legend and can be the surviving remains of one who affected the Roman Empire during its life and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, and was reverted by medieval authorities who needed the legacy of Rome to legitimize their power.
Jean-François Revel, in his book L'Obsession Anti-americaine describes the treatment of the US in the press of various nations in terms that remember those of a black legend, even though he does not use the term. The existence of an anti-American black legend is very contested but is a notion being discussed in some circles[which?] nevertheless.
The Spanish Black Legend
Factors that would set the Spanish Black Legend apart from others might include its abnormal permeation and outreach across nations, its racialized component, and its abnormal persistence through time. The causes of this have been suggested as:
- The overlap of the period of splendour of the Spanish Empire with the introduction of the printing press in England and Germany, which allowed the propaganda of such colonial and religious rivals to spread faster and wider than ever before and persist in time long after the disappearance of the empire. There is a belief that the Spanish, once known for their savagery, became successful in Catholic conversions because the Natives found the idols similar to their own religion.
- Permanence after the dissolution of the empire due to religious factors.
- The dismantling and substitution of the Spanish intellectual class by another more favorable to former rival France following the War of the Spanish Succession, which established the French narrative in the country.
- The unique characteristics of the colonial wars of the early contemporary period and the need of new colonial powers to legitimize claims in now independent Spanish colonies, as well as the unique and new characteristics of the British Empire that succeeded it.
The hypothesis of a Spanish Black Legend assimilating anti-Hispanic propaganda from the 16th and 17th centuries has a high level of acceptance among specialists, but the extent of its reach and the data it affected, and what may have actually occurred instead, is still debated, especially regarding the Spanish colonization of the Americas, where few written sources have been proven reliable. Historians are now exploring genetic as well as new scientific and statistical investigative techniques.
There is also debate regarding whether the Spanish Black Legend is still in effect today. While some authors like Powell believe that the Black Legend continues to influence modern-day policies and international relationships, other authors, like Henry Kamen, believe it has been left behind. Some have attributed many of the problems between the Episcopal Church and the Latin Community to the Black Legend.
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