The economic consequences of the Spanish Reconquest: the long-term effects of Medieval conquest and colonization

“The history of no other European people has been so decisively modified by a frontier as Castile, for century after century”

–Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, in Burns (1989, p. 325).


This paper shows that a historical process that ended more than five centuries ago, the Reconquest, is very important to explain Spanish regional economic development down to the present day. An indicator measuring the rate of Reconquest reveals a heavily negative effect on current income differences across the Spanish provinces. A main intervening factor in the impact the Reconquest has had is the concentration of economic and political power in a few hands, excluding large segments of the population from access to economic opportunities when Spain entered the industrialization phase. The timing of the effect is consistent with this argument. A general implication of our analysis is that large frontier expansions may favor a political equilibrium among the colonizing agents that is biased toward the elite, creating the conditions for an inegalitarian society, with negative consequences for long-term economic development.

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  1. 1.

    Examples of this vibrant literature are Engerman and Sokoloff (2000, (2002), Acemoglu et al. (2001, (2002), Bockstette et al. (2002), Banerjee and Iyer (2005), Angeles (2007), Gennaioli and Rainer (2007), Acemoglu et al. (2008), Baten and van Zanden (2008), Feyrer and Sacerdote (2009), Becker and Woessmann (2009), Iyer (2010), Dell (2010), Gallego (2010), Acemoglu et al. (2011), Bruhn and Gallego (2012), Easterly and Levine (2003, (2016), Ashraf and Galor (2013), Chaney (2013), Cook (2014), Fenske (2013, (2014), Alsan (2015), and Hansen et al. (2015).

  2. 2.

    In the territories of the southern plateau and Andalusia, the Crown granted large estates (or encomiendas) to the military orders and the nobility (Brenan 1943). “An encomienda was an estate given by the King in señorío, or with full manorial rights, for one lifetime or for some determinate period only. The Comendador was the title of the temporary possessor, who enjoyed all or most of the rights of the King. After the twelfth century encomiendas died out except in the military orders, in which they were the recognized form of land tenure” (Brenan 1943, p. 113).

  3. 3.

    This historical overview draws on Sánchez Albornoz (1932), Brenan (1943), Domínguez-Ortiz (1955), Herr (1958), Vicens Vives (1969), Malefakis (1970), Sobrequés (1972), Carrión (1975), Ruiz-Maya (1979), Glick (1979), Mestre-Campi and Sabaté (1998), and García-Ormaechea (2002).

  4. 4.

    Spanish historiography labels repopulation as the process of colonization of the reconquered lands by the Christian kingdoms. In this paper, we use the terms colonization and repopulation indistinctly to refer to this process.

  5. 5.

    The northern and mountainous territories that did not fall under Muslim control were characterized by the existence of few large estates, as well as by a social structure composed of a majority of free men and little class differentiation (Glick 1979).

  6. 6.

    Under royal jurisdiction, the peasantry faced a smaller tax burden than under noble jurisdiction, where seigneurial duties were added to state taxes (García-Ormaechea 2002).

  7. 7.

    Following the example of the Holy Land crusaders, the Castilians created three great military orders that served as armies for the kingdom to conquer Muslim lands and defend the Christian frontier. The order of Calatrava was founded in 1158, the order of Santiago in 1170, and the order of Alcántara in 1176, all during the second half of the twelfth century, a period from which military orders grew in importance due to their key role in the defense of the frontier (González Jiménez 1989).

  8. 8.

    Regarding the possibility that the concentration of land in Andalusia after the Reconquest merely reflected the situation under Muslim domination, Malefakis (1970) states that it is indisputable that land concentration in Moorish times was lower than under Castilian domination.

  9. 9.

    The positive effect of rate of Reconquest on municipality size is robust to controlling for geographic variables such as soil quality, altitude and distance to the coast. As a falsification test, we also show that rate of Reconquest is not significantly related to the average size of ancient (pre-medieval) settlements. Due to space considerations, detailed results are available in (Supplementary) Appendix A.

  10. 10.

    The initial area of resistance is omitted from the analysis since, arguably, it is not fully representative of the dynamics of the frontier expansion to which the rest of Spain was subjected. In the provincial analysis, this territory comprises Asturias, Cantabria, and the three Basque provinces. Note, however, that the exclusion of these provinces is a conservative decision since our hypothesis may also be applicable to them. This region represents the case of a natural (long-term) repopulation process of a territory, and, therefore, a suitable comparison group, for which we can assume a rate of Reconquest of zero. As shown below, the effect of the rate of Reconquest is robust to the inclusion of these five provinces.

  11. 11.

    More specifically, and in order to make the numbers manageable, this indicator is expressed in \(100 \hbox { km}^{2}/\hbox {year}\).

  12. 12.

    We believe this way of proceeding does not conflict with provinces being considered as administrative units. Current provinces are indeed much more recent than the Reconquest itself. They were created in 1833 following Javier de Burgos plan. In addition, provinces are used as observational units because of data availability and because that is the standard practice in this literature.

  13. 13.

    Throughout the analysis, we apply the Davidson and MacKinnon (1993)’s recommended simple degrees of freedom correction by multiplying the estimated variance matrix by \((n/n-k)\). This Stata’s built-in correction is particularly relevant here due to the relatively low cross-sectional dimension.

  14. 14.

    The omitted category in the regression is dry steppe. Wooded steppe entailed a closed forest, including mixed conifer-broadleaf forest; and dry steppe implied sparse vegetation with open wooded vegetation types and a more temperate climate. See Olsson and Paik (2013) for more details.

  15. 15.

    Olsson and Paik (2013) use this data source to analyze the effect of the early transition to agriculture on current development in the western agricultural core.

  16. 16.

    In this regard, we follow Bairoch (1988), de Vries (1976), and more recently, Acemoglu et al. (2002), who argue that urbanization is a good proxy for economic development, since urban societies require an advanced agriculture and a developed transport infrastructure.

  17. 17.

    One needs to be cautious with the negative coefficient on urban population density in 800 given the low number (only 8) of non-zero observations for that year.

  18. 18.

    As documented by, among others, González Jiménez (1989, p. 57), in medieval Castile military potential was closely associated with wealth. Cabrera Muñoz (2006, p. 126) provides several examples of the military power exhibited by the greatest and also wealthiest noble families in the Castilian part of Andalusia.

  19. 19.

    The extent of Muslim weakness is another factor that is likely related to the rate of Reconquest, since it seems clear that the Reconquest advanced faster when the Muslim adversary was weaker. Given the inherent difficulty in measuring Muslim weakness at each point in time and the fact that this factor is orthogonal to the economic potential of the reconquered territories, we do not pursue any further its inclusion in the control set. Note that this orthogonality condition is likely to be satisfied given the full dismantlement of Muslim structures that took place, particularly after the expulsion of the Muslim population from the reconquered territories. See more details on this in Oto-Peralías and Romero-Ávila (2016).

  20. 20.

    Another possible way to analyze the Muslim cultural legacy is by looking at the Moorish ancestry in the current population of each province. The correlation between Moorish ancestry and the number of centuries under Muslim domination is nonetheless below 5 %. In Sect. 7 we discuss this question in more detail.

  21. 21.

    In addition to being the seat of government bureaucracy, which represents a flow of rents to its inhabitants, Madrid is the hub of Spain’s radial communication network, reflecting traditional government centralism (Herr 1958). This provides the capital of Spain with a privileged position as a business location.

  22. 22.

    These specifications allow us to address the issue of the extent to which the speed of Reconquest varied relative to a uniform movement along the north-east/south-west axis. If our baseline results remain robust to the inclusion of these controls, that would go a long way in addressing endogeneity concerns.

  23. 23.

    The variable urban population density in 800 that was found individually significant at the 5 % is not included because the existence of only 8 non-zero observations could distort the results for the whole analysis. In addition, we omit log distance from Mainz due to a correlation of 98 % with distance from Paris.

  24. 24.

    Appendix C incorporates the rate of Reconquest into the baseline specification in alternative functional forms: in quadratic form, in log-linear form and in quartiles. In the quadratic specification, the rate of Reconquest terms are highly significant, and the negative marginal effect appears linear for most of the values of the rate of Reconquest, only flattening at a value of rate of Reconquest corresponding to the \(90{\mathrm{th}}\) percentile (17.9). In the log-linear specification, log rate of Reconquest enters with a highly significant negative coefficient. In the quartiles specification, the dummies for the second, third and fourth quartiles of rate of Reconquest exhibit a negative coefficient. However, it is the fourth quartile corresponding to the areas in which the Reconquest was conducted faster that has the statistically significant larger negative effect on current development.

  25. 25.

    More specifically, provinces are classified according to the century in which they were reconquered. For each century, we compute the total land area reconquered in that period, differentiating between the areas conquered by Castile and Aragon. Then, the rate of Reconquest in a given province is estimated as the total land area that was reconquered in the century in which that province was reconquered.

  26. 26.

    See Appendix D for a replication of Tables 1 and 2 when using the full sample of provinces.

  27. 27.

    In this regard, we follow Sakalli (2014) who faced an East-West gradient problem in his analysis of the effect of coexistence of different religious groups on Islamic religiosity, secular education and development in the context of the deportation of the Armenian population in Turkey in 1915–1916.

  28. 28.

    A scatterplot and some regressions, controlling for the latitude coordinate corresponding to the centroid of each Reconquest stage, are presented in Appendix H.

  29. 29.

    The inclusion of all these controls together, along with the province-level fixed effects, is particularly important here. With only 45 observations in the province-level analysis, we could not control for all the individual regressors together, since we would run out of degrees of freedom. Instead, we opted for including in the same specification only those regressors that were found individually significant at least at the 10 % level.

  30. 30.

    As we did for the province-level analysis, we can conduct the analysis using only the 16 Reconquest stages as observational units. The dependent variable in this case is the average value of each of the three proxies for local development, and the independent variable is the rate of Reconquest. Not surprisingly, there exists a negative relationship between both variables, even after controlling for the latitude coordinate corresponding to the centroid of each Reconquest stage. A scatterplot and the regression outputs are presented in Appendix I. An additional exercise, shown also in Appendix I, is to regress local development on the 16 stages-of-reconquest fixed effects (one dummy variable for each stage) and latitude, for the sample of 7644 municipalities. This specification only exploits within stage-of-reconquest variation. The absence of a statistically significant relationship among the three municipality-level outcome variables and latitude within Reconquest stages is reassuring that a North-South gradient is not driving our results.

  31. 31.

    For total Roman road density, the coefficient of correlation is significant at the 10.7 % level. Detailed results are provided in Appendix K.

  32. 32.

    This analysis omits those control variables that are meaningless when the dependent variable is a measure of pre-Reconquest development, namely, Crown of Aragon, Madrid, border with Portugal, the coal dummy, and distance from Paris as the cradle of the Enlightenment movement.

  33. 33.

    There appears to be only a marginally significant positive relationship for the cases of density of urban population in 1000, 1200 and 1700.

  34. 34.

    In this regard, the evidence presented so far dismisses such a possibility, since the effect is quite robust to many geographic controls, and the rate of Reconquest is not related to indicators of early development.

  35. 35.

    The fact that Spain began its industrialization around 1860 is well reflected in the evolution of the railway network, which grew from less than 400 kilometers in 1855 to 5,076 kilometers in 1866 (Pascual and Sudriá 2002).

  36. 36.

    Appendix N contains several tables regressing log GDP per capita in 2005 on the alternative proxies for level of development available in Spain since the year 800: density of urban population over the period 800–1850, urbanization rate over the period 1600–2001, and log industrial output per capita between 1860 and 2005. Over the 800–1000 period, one can observe negative correlations, which could be due to the low number of non-zero observations for such periods. From 1000 to about 1850 correlations appear highly insignificant and very low, whereas it is only since 1860 that higher correlations are observed. This suggests that income persistence in Spain is a late nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon. A very intuitive picture of these correlations is provided in Fig. A6 in Appendix N. In the same appendix there is also a table showing the relatively high and positive correlation among the three development proxies at several points in time since 1860.

  37. 37.

    The disentailment absorbed a large mass of capital, which would have been otherwise devoted to forming an industrial base or constructing the railroad network with domestic capital.

  38. 38.

    According to Nadal (1997, p. 64), the suppression of the Ancient Regime and the process of land disentailment clearly acted in favor of the landed nobility—which increased the ownership of land holdings to a much larger extent than the loss in jurisdictional rights—and against the mass of landless peasants, who shifted from a status of serfdom with access to land to one of free men deprived of land. And those that remained as tenants experienced a dramatic increase in the rent paid to landlords. All this would betray the spirit of the liberal legislators of the Cádiz Constitution of 1812, which was nonetheless abolished in March 1814 by a military coup by Ferdinand VII who restored an absolutist regime until the mid 1830s.

  39. 39.

    Galor et al. (2009) provide an interesting link by which land inequality may lead the landed elite to block education reforms, and thus, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. This argument may be applicable to the Spanish case, given the large differences in land inequality across provinces. Our evidence below shows that a faster rate of Reconquest working through a more unequal distribution of economic power is associated with lower literacy and enrolment rates.

  40. 40.

    In Acemoglu et al. (2002, p. 1273)’s words, “extractive institutions may become much more inappropriate with the arrival of new technologies. [...] Therefore, there are reasons to expect that institutional differences should matter more during the age of industry”.

  41. 41.

    See Appendix P for a more detailed account of the implications of persistent inequality in the distribution of land in Spain.

  42. 42.

    The plantation system in the Caribbean that employed slave labor is a case in point, since a small landed elite forced the vast majority of the population to work for low wages.

  43. 43.

    For example, still in 1860, at the beginning of the industrialization period, Andalusia was the second wealthiest region, ahead of Catalonia and the Basque Country, with a level of GDP per capita about 36 percentage points above the Spanish average. Yet just seventy years later, in 1930, Andalusia was among the poorest regions, with a level of GDP per capita of only 77 % of the Spanish average (data from Rosés et al. 2010). See Appendix Q for a case study of our theory applied to the diverging development paths of Seville versus Barcelona.

  44. 44.

    We proceed in this way because military orders were mostly composed of members of the nobility, with masters (maestres) and commanders usually forming part of the higher nobility (Vicens Vives 1969; Mestre-Campi and Sabaté 1998; Alvarez-Palenzuela 2002).

  45. 45.

    We consider this as a clear-cut proxy for historical structural inequality, which is referred to as a type of inequality that is historical in the sense that has exhibited high persistence over centuries, and structural in the sense that it is a class-based inequality that measures the relative size of the landless workers class relative to land owners and tenants. In an agrarian economy where land is a major factor of production, if landownership is highly concentrated, broad segments of the population have to work for landlords, earning low wages and living in miserable conditions. This was indeed the situation for a broad mass of the population in large estates regions.

  46. 46.

    al-Andalus, the unique Muslim domain in Western Europe, achieved by far the highest level of prosperity on the continent (Chejne 1999). Its economy was based on a developed and partially irrigated agriculture, a significant arts and crafts industry and flourishing trade. Furthermore, a monetary system was in place, contrasting with the primitive economy of the northern Christian kingdoms (Vicens Vives 1969; Glick 1979).

  47. 47.

    It is also worth mentioning the marked differences between the western part of Spain, with a relatively high proportion, and the eastern part with a relatively low proportion. Adams et al. (2008) seek to explain these differences in the history of enforced relocation and expulsion of the Moorish population.

  48. 48.

    In contrast, the partial \(\hbox {R}^{2}\) of the structural inequality measures (0.23 for landless workers in 1797, 0.45 for landless workers in 1956 and 0.29 for noble jurisdictions) is comparable to the partial \(\hbox {R}^{2}\) of rate of Reconquest (Table 2, column 1), which equals 0.35.

  49. 49.

    Regarding political participation, it is important to note that at that time a limited suffrage system based on capacity and fiscal criteria was in place.

  50. 50.

    The negative impact of a low level of human capital appears in line with the evidence provided by Maloney and Valencia (2014) on the lack of technical capacity of former Spanish colonies at the time of industrialization, which emanates from the deficient technological capacity in the metropolis. They could also reflect inherited cultural and institutional factors, intrinsic to peninsular society organization.


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Diego Romero-Ávila would like to dedicate this article to the memory of his father, Pedro José Romero de Ávila Aguilar, for encouragement and support throughout his career. A previous version of this article was presented at the 2014 American Economic Association Meeting held in Philadelphia (January 2014) and at the EH Clio Lab UC Second Annual Conference held in Santiago de Chile (August 2014). The authors are particularly indebted to Oded Galor (the Editor) and the anonymous referees of this Journal for valuable comments and suggestions that led to a substantial improvement of the original manuscript. We also thank Marcella Alsan and James Fenske for detailed comments on an earlier version of this article. Thanks also go to participants at the 2014 AEA meeting, EH Clio Lab UC Second Annual Conference, 2016 Royal Economic Society Annual Conference, and seminars at Pablo de Olavide University, Malaga University and Vienna University of Economics and Business for valuable comments. The authors are indebted to Joan R. Rosés, Julio Martínez-Galarraga and Daniel A. Tirado for sharing with us province-level data on GDP, and industrial and agricultural output in 1860 and 1930. Thanks also go to archival staff of the Provincial Historic Archive of Seville for helping us with the access to some of the data employed in this research program. The authors acknowledge financial support from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology (grant ECO2009-13357), the Spanish Ministry of Economics and Competitiveness (grant ECO2012-35430), and the Andalusian Council for Innovation and Science (Excellence Project SEJ-4546).

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Table 9 Description of variables (I)

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Oto-Peralías, D., Romero-Ávila, D. The economic consequences of the Spanish Reconquest: the long-term effects of Medieval conquest and colonization. J Econ Growth 21, 409–464 (2016).

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  • Economic development
  • Political power
  • Structural inequality
  • Spanish Reconquest
  • History

JEL Classification

  • C21
  • N2
  • O1