Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz

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Bust of Sánchez-Albornoz in the plaza that bears his name in Ávila

Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz y Menduiña (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈklauðjo ˈsantʃeθ alˈβornoθ]; Madrid April 7, 1893 – Ávila July 8, 1984[1]) was an eminent Spanish medieval historian, statesman, and president of the Spanish Republican government in Exile during the rule of Francisco Franco.

Education and early career[edit]

Sánchez-Albornoz was born in Madrid to a prominent political family from the provincial capital of Ávila and attended the Central University of Madrid, where he obtained a licentiate degree in letters and philosophy in 1913 with first class honours. One year later, at age 21, he was awarded a doctorate degree in history with a thesis entitled "La Monarquía en Asturias, León y Castilla durante los siglos VIII al XIII. La Potestad Real y los Señoríos". He quickly established himself as the country's preeminent young scholar of medieval Spanish history, particularly the history of the monarchy and royal institutions in the early Middle Ages.

By 1920, Sánchez-Albornoz had already held several prestigious university chairs when he was offered the chair in Spanish medieval history at Madrid held by his late thesis adviser, Eduardo de Hinojosa. In 1926, he was inducted into the Real Academia de la Historia—the youngest member up to that time ever admitted to the elite scholarly institution. By 1931, he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters and served as rector of the Central University the following year. During this time, he took a hiatus from his academic pursuits to join the newly established republican government, serving in parliament as a representative from Ávila, and later in several other prominent posts, including Minister of Education.

Exile and later career[edit]

During the early years of the Spanish Civil War, Sánchez-Albornoz was appointed the Spanish Republic ambassador to Portugal. When the government in Lisbon declared its support for Francisco Franco, he was dismissed from his post and he fled with his family to France and then, in 1940, to Argentina, where he would spend more than four decades in exile as both a scholar and leader of the democratic anti-Franco movement abroad.

After a brief post at the University of Cuyo in the northern province of Mendoza, Sánchez-Albornoz was offered a position at the University of Buenos Aires where he created a center for Iberian medieval studies and founded a historical journal, the Cuadernos de historia de España. During these years, he remained a tremendously productive scholar, writing extensively on early Spanish history and training young Argentine and other Latin American scholars to work on medieval documents and legal texts.

For Sánchez-Albornoz, the work of recovering the roots of the Spanish character and its political institutions in the Middle Ages was an extension of his political commitments to the republican Spanish state he had been a part of in the 1930s.

Between 1962 and 1970, Sánchez-Albornoz served as president of the council of the Spanish Republican Government in Exile and used his reputation and numerous invitations to speak abroad as a platform to promote the restoration of democracy in Spain.

Even when Franco extended an amnesty to regime critics in 1969, Sánchez-Albornoz refused to return until the dictator had died.

Sánchez-Albornoz's scholarship came to focus on the kingdoms of Castile and León and the evolution of social and economic institutions under the influence of external pressures, whether Germanic (Visigothic) or Muslim/Arab. In his monumental, three-volume history of early feudalism that he had begun composing in France before the outbreak of war, En torno a los origines del feudalismo (1942), Sánchez-Albornoz emphasized the contributions of Visigothic culture and legal institutions to early Spanish history, particularly the monarchy and its relationship to the nobility and other segments of society. He also emphasized the emergence in Spain of a free peasantry in advancing the frontier regions during the Reconquista that complicated the development of serfdom and hierarchical structures of lordship historians described elsewhere in feudal Europe. While an earlier generation of scholars had also tended to focus on questions about the continuity of Roman influences in medieval Iberia, Sánchez-Albornoz instead argued that the Visigothic invasions of the fifth century had created a new, uniquely Hispanic, civilization which defined Spanish history and the Spanish people from that point forward, even during the centuries of Arab occupation.

Dispute with Américo Castro[edit]

This conviction about the origins of a unique Spanish national identity led to a notable academic feud with another scholar in exile, Américo Castro, who had moved to the United States and taught at Princeton University. Castro's ground-breaking book, España en su historia (1948; Engl. trans. 1954) posited that "Spanish" culture was essentially a hybrid one, produced over the course of centuries by the intermixing of Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations and traditions. Castro coined the term "convivencia"—loosely translated as "living-together-ness" or "cohabitation"—to describe the multicultural, religiously tolerant and dynamic society of medieval Spain. Sánchez-Albornoz—who regarded Castro's interdisciplinary, literature-focused methodology as insufficiently rigorous and scholarly—responded with a new study, España: una enigma histórico (1956), that argued for the persistence of a pre-Arab invasion Spanish culture and national identity grounded in the reproduction of key legal, political, and economic institutions. While he did not deny that Muslims and Jews were an important presence in medieval Iberia, Sánchez-Albornoz maintained that they contributed little creative energy to the processes of history or state-building and insisted upon an enduring idea of Spanish nationhood and identity that transcended the vagaries of history and the temporary influence of outside groups.

While few academic historians today still subscribe to Sanchez-Albornoz's ideas about an essential national Spanish "character" which motivates history, there is still a lively scholarly debate over convivencia as a historical model for understanding medieval Spain.[2]

Return to Spain[edit]

In April 1976, six months after the death of Franco, Sánchez-Albornoz returned to his homeland for the first time in more than forty years and was given a hero's welcome, particularly in his family town of Ávila. He returned to Buenos Aires after a brief stay, but moved back to Ávila permanently in July 1983.

He died one year later, on 8 July 1984 at the age of 91 and was buried in the Cathedral of Ávila.

The Fundación D. Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz [1] in Ávila was established shortly after his death to preserve and promote his scholarly legacy.

During his long and distinguished career, Sánchez-Albornoz received dozens of awards and honorary degrees from institutions and nations around the world and was a member, or corresponding member, of numerous scholarly academies.[2]

Sánchez-Albornoz was survived by two daughters, and a son, Nicolás (born 1926), who went on to become a noted scholar of Latin American demographic history, author of La población de América Latina (1973, trans 1974, frequently republished).[3]


  1. ^
  2. ^ See for example the collection of articles in Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, ed. Vivian B. Mann, Thomas F. Glick, Jerrilynn Denise Dodds (New York: G. Braziller, 1992)
  3. ^ es:Nicolás Sánchez-Albornoz


  • José Luis Gómez Martínez, "Américo Castro y Sánchez-Albornoz: Dos posiciones ante el origen de los españoles." Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 2l (l972): 30l-320.
  • James F. Powers, "Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz y Menduiña," in Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline, vol. 1, ed. Helen Daimico & Joseph B. Zavadil (New York, 1995), 233–246.
  • Luis G. de Valdevellano, "Don Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz y Menduiña," Boletin de la Real Academia de la Historia 181 (1984):337–45.
  • Peter Linehan, "A History of Isolation," Times Literary Supplement, 11 October 1985, 1144.
  • Fundación Claudio Sanchez-Albornoz biography (in Spanish)