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The enemy is brutal and violent. How do you put a human face on them?

Raymond Fagel, university lecturer in General History, wrote a book about his research on Spanish commander Mondragón. He spared Zierikzee during the Eighty Years’ War and is considered to be ‘the good Spaniard’. What led Fagel to research this topic? And how does such research work? We asked him:

On Thursday 16 July there will be a symposium at the Stadhuismuseum in Zierikzee, where Raymond Fagel will present his book and the exhibition of the same name will be opened.

Read more about the book presentation
Raymond Fagel

How did you come up with the idea for this research?

‘For years I have been doing research into the relations between the Spaniards and the Dutch in the early modern period, especially regarding the sixteenth century. Since 1997 I have been organising lectures on the siege and relief of Leiden in collaboration with the 3 October Vereeniging and became increasingly interested in the early days of the Eighty Years' War.  

A few years ago, I successfully applied for an NWO Free Competition about: Facing the enemy. The Spanish army commander during the first decade of the Dutch Revolt, 1567-1577. In the Netherlands, the Eighty Years’ War is often seen as a kind of independence war against a cruel Catholic Spanish occupation. Until the arrival of the Nazis during the Second World War, the Spanish military were the most hated enemies in Dutch history.

In the national story of the Eighty Years’ War it is clear who is good and who is evil. In reality, however, it was a civil war in which the Dutch fought each other. It was strategically very convenient to put all the blame on the Spaniards. However, by looking at the Spanish military (Facing the enemy) we can completely flip the perspective. The Dutch Revolt looked much more like the chaotic civil war in Syria than we (would like to) think.’

Exactly how does it work, your research?

‘With this research, I try to come as close to the concrete events and stories as possible. I call this technique the study of ‘episodical narratives’, the often very factual texts about the events.

Also vital to this research is working with both Spanish and Dutch sources. You can compare them with each other. Initially these are mainly chronicles and historical works. These more public sources are combined with letters written by the Spanish commanders themselves. They show an entirely different perspective. In the history of the Revolt, these letters have actually never been used. In the archives of the Dukes of Alva in Madrid, especially, there are still hundreds of letters located. You look at descriptions of concrete events and look into how those stories have evolved.’

It must be special that an exhibition has been made about your research and that NWO will make a video. How do you feel about this and how did this happen?

‘Research into actual events during the Revolt brings you closer to a local level. Like with the collaboration on the siege and relief of Leiden in 1574. But also about the siege and capture of Zierikzee in 1576, in which Cristóbal de Mondragón plays a central part. It is easy to combine my research with the history of local events. That is how I came into contact with people from the Stadhuismuseum in Zierikzee who were eager to create an exhibition about this commander. Moreover, I discovered that a portrait of this commander was still in possession by his descendants in Spain. We managed to bring the painting (two metres high) to the Netherlands and have restored it here. It is now on display at the exhibition in Zierikzee until 22 November.

The original plan was for the exhibition to open in April, together with a new hotel in Zierikzee that bears the name of the Spanish commander. It was to be a celebration of several day, with the Spanish ambassador and the heirs of Mondragón visiting from Spain. Unfortunately, those big plans did not go ahead due to the Corona crisis.

In the end, we intended to slowly get back on track with a small book presentation, but thanks to the more flexible measures as of 1 July, there are more available options. I was presently surprised by the NWO’s request to make a film about the project. I didn’t know they did things like that and I hadn’t counted on more publicity. The hotel is also planning on organising an opening, so we can still create a programme for 16 July.' 

NWO will make a video about Raymond Fagel’s research. This video will be available on YouTube from 16 July and will be shared on this page.

NWO Research project: Facing the Enemy

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About Raymond Fagel

Dr. Raymond Fagel (1962) is a university lecturer in General History and Early Modern times at the University of Leiden. He has dozens of publications to his name about relations between the Dutch and the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. In his NWO project Facing the Enemy. The Spanish Army commanders during the First Decade of the Dutch Revolt (1567-1577), he studied the Spanish commanders of the Duke of Alva. Cristóbal de Mondragón (1514-1596), de goede Spanjaard uit de opstand, got published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name in the Stadhuismuseum Zierikzee

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