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I Wonder Why...?

I will be writing about aspects of Spanish history and their traditions. I am a very curious person and have always needed to know "why" they do it, and "how" it came about. So over the years while living in Spain I have made a conscious effort to discover "el porque de las cosas" and I will be sharing them with you. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

The Mystery of Elche
10 October 2019

'The Mystery of Elche' is a cultural treasure of the people of Elche and one of the most outstanding jewels of the Valencian cultural heritage, as its pronouncement as National Monument in 1931, and its inclusion, in 2001, in the first Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, show.

It is a lyric drama of medieval origins, that has been staged since the 13th century, one of the customary representations of the Assumption in Mediterranean Europe. The play is based on several texts from the Apocryphal Gospels, quite popular during the Middle Ages. The text is written in the Valencian language, apart from a psalm and a few verses in Latin, and it has a total of 259 verses. The musical part offers the most noteworthy characteristics. The melodies come from different periods being added to by different composers.

This extraordinary religious drama, the only living example of primitive lyric theatre, is also the only one in the world to be staged inside a church – the Santa María Basilica – thanks to a special dispensation granted by Pope Urban VIII. It is divided into two acts. The first is the dormition of the Virgin Mary, in the presence of the apostles and angels. The second is Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven. The Mystery of Elche is a beautiful show, with exquisite Medieval music. The play consists of the angel descending on the 'Mangrama', with a beautifully decorated white palm in his hands, which he presents to the Virgin Mary. She then presents it to the Apostle John. The palm is kissed by Mary before being handed over to the apostle, thus anointing it with the finest of blessings. This grace transcends to the town when the branches of the palm are handed out following the play. Then, the 'Misteri' is taken to the streets in a procession of the 'burial' of Mary with songs from the 'Festa' and the participation of actors.

The first and second act is represented on 14 and 15 August respectively every year, and entrance is free. There are dress rehearsals 11, 12 and 13 August which can be attended purchasing a ticket. In even-numbered years, there are special performances in October and November as well. In this case, the two acts are performed on 1 November (first act in the morning and second in the afternoon) and the dress rehearsals are 29 and 30 October. As in the summer, the 1 November performance is free, while tickets must be purchased for the dress rehearsals. Tickets go on sale from the end of July. 

For more information - https://www.misteridelx.com/misteri/

 

 



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Almost time to put them away...
23 August 2019

You may swear by them or recently discovered them this Summer, but shortly it will be time to put them away for next year. I have a couple of pairs, and I just love them. They are so simple yet so versatile in style. The espadrille has been around for centuries maybe even thousands of years. The Archaeological museum of Granada owns a pair of espadrilles that were found on human remains inside the “cueva de los murcielagos” (the bat-cave). It is estimated that these shoes are around 4000 years old. Clearly, they are a very primitive version of today’s 'alpargatas'.

 

 

This light sandal, as we know it today, made with jute rope or braided hemp and with linen fabric, originates from Spain, where, already, they were being worn around the XIII century by the King of Aragons’ infantry men. Its name is derived from “esparto” which is a kind of plant that was originally burned then braided to make the soles. The town of Cervera del Rio Alhama in La Rioja is considered the birthplace of Espadrille manufacturing.

It was during the XIII century that the production of these shoes truly spread. Since it is a handcrafted shoe, making the treads employs many workers. The alpargatero’s (or espadrille maker) only job was to make the rope soles, while the seamstresses sewed the fabric and the band. At the beginning of the XIX century, Mauléon (a French city located in the Atlantic Pyrenees) began selling them in vast quantities. The first people to wear them were the catalano-aragonese military soldiers then subsequently by the priests. Around 1880, most espadrilles were sold to mine workers, but they were also exported to South America. It was the time of the “hirondelles”, which were young girls from the aragonese valleys who came to work in the espadrille factories between the fall and winter seasons.

 

Around 1950, fashion evolved and this forced alpargata makers to reinvent the shoe with a more sophisticated design that was better suited to the times. This contributed, during the 1960s, to a special order of shoes for the Parisian festivities by the most celebrated designer of the time, Mr. Yves St-Laurent. He asked for an espadrille with a heel, which had never been done before. Suddenly, it was all the rage! Today, almost all the women who live in the southern regions have a pair of alpargatas with heels and ribbons that tie around the ankle.

Today, espadrilles are still extremely popular both in France and in Spain, especially in the summer. People seemed to like it because of the sole, which is 100% natural, molds itself to the shape of the foot, and allows the skin to breathe. The simplicity of this shoe makes it very versatile and therefore easy to match with all sorts of different styles. If the espadrille has already been around for 4000 years then it’s not about to go out of fashion now!!

 



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The Shearing of the Beasts
31 July 2019

Earlier this month, the young “aloitadores” of Sabucedo, Pontevedra, gathered the wild horses, placed them in a “curro”, shaved them and branded them...

La Rapa das Bestas (The Shearing of the Beasts) is a popular festival which has been in existence since the 18th century. It consists of gathering the wild horses in the mountains, placing them in a “curro” (corral or enclosure), shaving them and branding them. All of this is held in Sabucedo (Pontevedra, Galicia) on the first Saturday, Sunday and Monday of July.

The “curro” in Sabucedo is the most famous of its kind, and its unique feature is that no ropes, sticks or other devices are used to tame the animals. The “aloitadores”, the ones charged with holding the beasts while they are being shaved, may only use their skill and body to perform the job.

Another specific feature of La Rapa das Bestas in Sabucedo is that the “bajada”, or the leading of the horses to the place in Sabucedo, is an integral part of the celebration itself, and hundreds of people from Galicia and beyond participate in it. In 2007, La Rapa das Bestas was declared a Festival of International Tourist Interest.
On Saturday morning (the first day), very early and before climbing the mountain, a stirring mass is held where they address prayers to Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of Sabucedo, to ensure that no accidents or other unfortunate events happen during the festival.

 



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Look Closely!
26 June 2019

At a small museum in the small village of Ordino in Spain's neighbouring country of Andorra, you’ll find some of the smallest works of art in existence. Visitors must look through microscopes that magnify the artwork 300 times in order to see these tiny masterpieces that are otherwise nearly invisible to the naked eye.

 


The Miniature Museum features the works of Ukrainian microminiaturist Nikolai Syadristy, an artist who is renowned for being the best in the world at miniature art. In fact, the word “microminiature” was invented because of the pieces of art he created. From signatures on the tip of a human hair to a bottle on a single grain of sand, to a caravan of camels inside the eye of a needle, you’ll find 13 very impressive Syadristy works at this museum.

 

 

 


Unrelated to the miniature art, the museum has also thrown in an impressive collection of crucifixes from throughout the centuries and heaps of handmade Russian nesting dolls along with a few other miscellaneous artifacts. Although Syadristy’s works have significant monetary value, he does not sell them as he wants them to remain on public display.

 



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A Brief History of Spanish Serrano Ham
28 May 2019

Generally speaking, the term jamón serrano refers to a leg of pork that has been preserved in the traditional way – first salted and then cured by exposure to mountain breezes for a period of between six and 36 months.

In common usage, in order to differentiate between hind-quarters (on which there is more, and better, lean meat) and fore-quarters, the word ‘jamón’ is used for the former and ‘paleta’ or ‘paletilla’ for the latter. On the evidence of the Real Academia Española database, it can be inferred that, although the word ‘jamón’ appears in Spanish texts from the late 16th century on, this Frenchified neologism (derived from the French ‘Jambon’) did not pass into general currency until the closing decades of the 19th century. However, it was then adopted so enthusiastically that it completely supplanted the traditional term ‘pernil’ (which appears in the occasional text from 1490 and is derived directly from the Latin ‘perna’, meaning : leg).

As for different categories of jamón, historical references do not differentiate between one breed of pig and another, but rather identify perniles by their place of provenance. This is because, until the 19th century, Spanish pigs were almost exclusively of the breeds known as ‘Ibérico’, and were raised on the extensive principle, feeding largely on acorns in the natural environment of the dehesa (wooded scrubland). In the last few decades, the term ‘Ibérico’ has come to denote products of a quality superior to those derived from other, intensively farmed, breeds. In the mid-20th century, foreign cross-breeds invaded the Spanish market, overtaking the native breeds and relegating them to a few pockets of traditional resistance.

The prehistory and history of serrano ham in Spain is, therefore, primarily the history of Ibérico ham, which I will go into more detail about in another post.

Nowadays, technically and legally speaking, the term ‘jamón serrano’ refers to a Guaranteed Traditional Specialty (GTS), a specific designation protected by EU Regulation 2082/92 in which a set of characteristics is defined, including both traditional and modern production techniques, and always with reference to non-Ibérico, white pig breeds. That said, some Protected Designations of Origin are recognized as guarantees of fine quality: Jamón de Teruel (from the Autonomous Community of Aragón) and Jamón de Trevélez (from the heart of the Granada’s Alpujarras, in Andalusia) are examples of quality products with a long tradition behind them, and that stand out from ‘jamones serranos’ in general.

Although American-bred pigs were imported into Spain and other parts of Europe from the 16th century on, all were descendants of the Ibérico. The first Asian pigs (which fattened more readily), and other European varieties (Belgian White, Duroc-Jersey, Landrace, Large White, Pietrain…) for cross-breeding with Ibérico pigs, started arriving in the mid-18th century and throughout the 19th. Indeed, livestock farming made a gradual recovery between 1917 and 1936, with the selection of breeds, both Spanish and foreign, increasing and herds becoming larger.

After the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), the process went into reverse: between 1942 and 1950, the nation’s pig herd diminished by 20%. Improved economic conditions from the late 1950s on were reflected in an increasing demand for meat, especially pork, which was cheaper. Bigger demand resulted in extensive farming systems being thrust aside while fattening stations multiplied, so that from 1959 to 1985 the situation known as the ‘traditional livestock crisis’ occurred, and within that the ‘Ibérico pig crisis’. Pork consumption increased spectacularly, as did the intensive production and industrialization required to achieve it, to such an extent that traditionally produced Ibérico ham accounted for a mere 5% of the total by 1985.


Significantly, in 1955, pregnant sows of foreign breeds Landrace and Large White represented only 1% of the total, while in 1974 they represented 81%, and in 1986 90%. Between 1986 and 2006, Spain’s total pork production increased by 44%, making it the second biggest pork producer in the EU (15%), after Germany (22%).



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Coffee in Spain - How do you like yours?
16 May 2019

One of Spain’s greatest pleasures is sitting outside and enjoying a relaxing cup of coffee. Coffee plays an important role in many countries and Spain is not different with a very strong coffee culture. The weather all year round makes for an enjoyable coffee sitting out under a clear blue sky soaking up the sun even on a chilly winter day. However, customs as always have been engrained on how and when coffee is enjoyed. For example, it is unthinkable for a Spaniard to order a café con leche after a meal, that is reserved for breakfast or maybe the "merienda" – the afternoon snack. After a meal, it would be a ‘Cortado’ or a ‘Bombón’ or a ‘café solo’ or a "Cortado tocado de Baileys" or a Carajillo if you prefer something a little stronger.

As you can see the options are endless and whichever region you go to they will have a name for a certain type of coffee. For those coming to Spain for the first time, this can get a little confusing as the options are endless. It all comes down to offering the customer the opportunity to enjoy a coffee as they like it, allowing them to personalise their coffee as they wish. This can get extremely confusing for a waiter who is not experienced, as a simple table of 4 can become a real tongue twister when repeating the order. In the summer it is common to hear: 

I want a ‘Cortado del tiempo, Descafeinado de máquina, corto de café y tocado de Bailey’s con la leche muy caliente en vaso de cristal’ 

And that’s just one order, multiply it by 4 and ask the guy to repeat the order without taking note and it requires a little practice, especially if everyone has their own way of ordering coffee. But that’s the beauty of Spain, don’t be afraid to ask for it the way you want it. In some places like Málaga they have established a system of 9 variations for the combination of coffee and milk, originally designed to avoid wasting coffee in times of need when coffee was very expensive such as after the civil war; some like it stronger and some prefer it weaker, but who would have thought that you would need to establish nine variations to content the customers, have in mind that we are talking about a small glass here of about 120ml so there isn’t much room for error. Throughout my time in Spain I have come across many different ways of having a coffee and I thought I would pull together all the ones I can remember, I am sure there are many missing from the list but maybe you can help to add to the list by kindly leaving a comment at the end of the post. So here goes, the first list are established names, some particular to a region and the second list are the different ways to personalise how you coffee is served :

    
1.    Café Solo: Same as an espresso
2.    Café Americano:  Half a glass of coffee and then topped up with hot water
3.    Café con Leche:  Standard white coffee normally 50/50 coffee and milk. Normally for breakfast/mornings. Served in a cup.
4.    Café con leche corto de café: White coffee with slightly less coffee in it 30/70   coffee and milk. 
5.    Café Cortado: Coffee with milk served in a small glass, normally for after meals. 50/50 Coffee and milk

In Málaga and areas in the region, these are the 9 variations established originally by the bar Café Central -

 

 

6.    Café Bombón/Biberó/Goloso: Served in a small glass. Condensed milk is poured into the bottom of the glass and the coffee is added on top. Same glass as a Cortado. You mix it with the spoon.

7.    Carajillo / Café Brulé: Coffee with a dash of Brandy – the proper version of this involves heating up the brandy with a lemon zest and 4 coffee beans, it is then passed through a small sieve and added to the black coffee.

8.    Asiático: Typical in Cartagena and other areas of Murcia. It is a black coffee with Condensed milk, Brandy, Licor 43 and cinnamon.
9.    Belmonte/ Trifásico: Black coffee with condensed milk and Brandy
10.  Barraquito: Popular in the Canary Islands. It has Coffee, milk, and condensed milk. It can also include, cinnamon, lemon and liquors.
11.    Manchado: in Murcia this is a Bombón with less coffee.
12.    Suau: A Catalan summer drink – Coffee, Soda, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Served with ice.
13.    Café Granizado – Iced coffee with crushed ice in a slush drunk with a straw

 

 

Personalising your coffee:

Del tiempo ó con hielo: served with a glass of ice to pour the coffee into and drink it cold.
Descafeinado de máquina: Coffee machine decaffeinated 
Descafeinado de sobre: Nescafé in a sachet.
Tocado de ………… – add any liquor/spirit such as Bailey’s or whisky
Temperatura del leche – leche caliente / leche natural
Corto de Café – Just over a half measure of coffee.
En vaso (de cristal) – served in a glass
En taza -  served in a cup


So you can see how easy it is to order a : 

‘Cortado del tiempo, Descafeinado de máquina, corto de café y tocado de Bailey’s con la leche muy caliente, en vaso de cristal, por favor’ !

How do you like yours?

 

 



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What's the story behind the 'Capirote' - Spain's conical hat at Easter?
18 April 2019

 

A capirote is a pointed conical hat that is used in Spain. It is part of the uniform of some brotherhoods including the Nazarenos and Fariseos during Easter processions and reenactments in some areas during the Holy Week in Spain. 

Historically the flaggelants are the origin of these current traditions, as they flogged themselves to do penance. Pope Clemens VI ordered that flagellants only under control of the church could perform penance; For this he decreed "Inter sollicitudines". This is considered one of the reasons why flaggelants  often hide their faces.

The use of the capirote or coroza was proscribed in Spain and Portugal by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Men and women who were arrested had to wear a paper capirote in public as sign of public humiliation. The capirote was worn during the session of an 'Auto-da-fé'. The colour was different, conforming to the judgement of the office. People who were condemned to be executed wore a red coroza. Other punishments used different colours and drawings to show the punishment to be received.

 

When the Inquisition was abolished, the symbol of punishment and penitence was kept in the Catholic brotherhood. However, the capirote used today is different: it is covered in fine fabric, as determined by the brotherhood. Later, during the celebration of the Holy Week/Easter in Andalusia, penitentes (people doing public penance for their sins) would walk through streets with the capirote. The capirote is today the symbol of the Catholic penant: only members of a confraternity of penance are allowed to wear them during solemn processions. Children can receive the capirote after their first holy communion, when they enter the brotherhood.

Historically the structure is called the capirote, but the brotherhoods cover it with fabric together with their face, and the medal of the brotherhood that is worn underneath. The cloth has two holes for the penant to see through. The insignia or crest of the brotherhood is usually embroidered on the capirote in fine gold.The capirote is worn during the whole penance. In Sevilla, it is not allowed to enter the cathedral without the capirote.


In New Orleans during the period between the Rebellion of 1768 and the abolishment of the Spanish cabildo, the more risqué Mardi Gras celebrations of the traditionally French Catholic residents were strictly curtailed by incoming Spanish clergy. The anti-Catholic 'second' Ku Klux Klan that arose at the beginning of the twentieth century may have modeled part of their regalia and insignia on the capirote and sanbenito as a sardonic nod to the enforcement of these restrictions on masquerades a century earlier.

 



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The Worlds Most Iconic Sweet
15 March 2019

Up until the late 1950s, sweets were different shapes and colours. But children, being children, would pop them in and out of their mouths regularly to examine them, to talk to friends, to hide them from parents or to put them in their pockets for later. This meant that kids and sweets were a messy mix.

 In 1958 Enric Bernat created a universally appealing sweet that would make kids and parents happy.

In the early 1950s, Bernat worked for an apple jam factory called "Granja Asturias". After he proposed the idea of making lollipops, the investors left so Bernat took over the company in 1958. He built the production machines and sold a striped bonbon on a wooden stick for one peseta each.

Bernat’s original idea was a piece of candy on a fork. After several experiments with small forks, Bernat saw the opportunity for production on a larger scale. Before the first Chupa Chups lollipop hit the market, however, the fork was substituted with a wooden stick as a safer and less expensive alternative

Bernat got the idea of a "bonbon with a stick" from a cursing mother as her child got sticky hands from melting sweets. Bernat felt that at that time, sweets were not designed with the main consumers — children — in mind. Shopkeepers were instructed to place the lollipops near the cash register within reach of children's hands, instead of the traditional placement behind the counter and Chupa Chups stood out from other sweets with displays that were cute, curious and creative.


At first, he decided to call it “GOL”, imagining the sweet was a bit like a football and an open mouth was a bit like a football net.

But it wasn’t quite catchy enough, so he hired an advertising agency to come up with a creative new name for him, Chups.

Then, consumers stepped in. The catchy jingle used to market Chups proved so successful, that it changed the name of the sweet! 

Get something sweet to lick, lick, lick, like a Chups.

Get something sweet to lick, lick, lick, like a Chups.

It’s so round and it lasts so long.

“Lick, lick lick a Chups”     [“Chupa, chupa, chupa Chups”]

 

 

Sales of Chupa Chups lollipops abroad prompted the need for a modernised wrapper design. For this important task, a visit was paid to Salvador Dalí, who, in less than an hour created the famous daisy logo. He also changed the logo to only two colours and insisted that his logo be positioned on top of the lollipop so that it could be seen perfectly from every angle. This very logo is still pretty much the logo in use today. And these little changes made it iconic.

In 1988 it was revamped a little and that is the design that has stuck till today. Bright, cheerful and unique, it has proven universally popular with the public. It has become the definitive icon for a world famous brand. 

 

 

The Chupa Chups Company was a success. Within five years Bernat's sweets were being sold at 300,000 outlets. After the end of the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939–75), the self-funded private company went international. In the 1970s the lollipops appeared in Japan and Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia, as well as Australia. In the 1980s it expanded to the European and North American markets, and in the 1990s to most Asian countries, including South Korea and China. Nowadays billions of lollipops a year are sold in over 150 countries.



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What does the adjective “Spanish” mean in other languages?
07 March 2019

In the Spanish language, a wide range of objects and ideas are defined by a nationality, from the so-called Russian salad (ensaladilla rusa) to the English wrench (llave inglesa), and expressions such as “voting like a Bulgarian” (votar a aprobación a la búlgara), which refers to decisions that receive unanimous approval, typically out of fear.

But what does the adjective “Spanish” mean in other languages? When, and for what reason, is “Spanish” used as a descriptor? 

A group of phrase-lovers points out that the word Spanish and Spain appears in many expressions in foreign languages. On the one hand, certain languages associate Spain with the strange and incomprehensible. For example, in Slovak, saying that something is “a Spanish town” (To je pre mňa španielska dedina), means it doesn’t make any sense. The same expression exists Czech (španělská vesnice).

In German there is a similar association; if something sounds strange and unreliable, then it “sounds Spanish” (das kommt mir spanisch vor). And in French, “speaking like a Spanish cow” (parler comme une vache espagnole) is to speak very bad French.

However, when we cross the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, the word carries a completely different meaning, particularly in the world of viral memes and social media jokes. Saying a person “cries in Spanish” means they are over-the-top and exaggerate their feelings of distress. And the expression “speaking in Spanish” refers to all kinds of seduction abilities, associated with the stereotype of the “Latin lover.”


A second group points out that “Spanish” often has negative connotations, with the adjective unfairly used to describe unwelcome events and problems.

The most obvious example is the so-called Spanish Flu a reference to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 40 million people (including Austrian painter Gustav Klimt). Although the pandemic did not break out or spread from Spain, it is described as the Spanish flu in English, Slovak (španielska chrípka), Portuguese (gripeespanhola) and German (Spanische Grippe).

The flu was given this title because of the attention it received in the Spanish media. Other international media filled their pages with news of the First World War and censored information about the effects of the disease so as to not appear weak before their enemies. But Spain, which did not participate in this war and did not have to worry about its image, faithfully reported the news on the flu and paid for it with its name.

The adjective “Spanish” is also negatively used in the French phrase a “Spanish hotel” (l'auberge espagnole), which describes a place that is messy and disorganized. This was the title of a 2002 French film by Cédric Klapisch about a chaotic student apartment belonging to a group of European students in Barcelona on their Erasmus year (known as The Spanish Apartment and Pot Luck in English). Meanwhile, the French phrase to “make castles in Spain” (faire des châteaux en Espagne) is the equivalent of saying something is pie in the sky.

Other negative uses of the adjective are related to the Spanish Inquisition. For example, certain torture methods used during the Inquisition are described as “Spanish” in other countries. In Slovak, a “Spanish boot” (španielska čižma) refers to the iron casting that was placed on a person’s leg to crush their bones.

In English, a Spanish tickler is the name given to a metal claw that was used to rip flesh away from the bone. Another example is the English phrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” which refers to an unexpected visit from a threatening figure. This phrase comes from a well-known episode of Monty Python.

Other uses of “Spanish” in foreign languages are less negative. In ancient battles, to defend a strategic area, sharpened stones were stuck into the ground with their points facing outward. This made it hard for horses to walk and forced riders to take the road by foot. Examples of this are seen on pre-Roman walls in Celtic and Iberian areas. The invention has been called the “Spanish rider" in German (Spanischer Reiter) and in Slovak (španielsky jazdec).

Interestingly in Spain however, this defense mechanism is called “fields of stones” or the “horse of Friesland,” an allusion to Friesland, a province in the Netherlands.

When it comes to food, the word “Spanish” has a variety of meanings. Unsurprisingly, Andalusian olive oil is called Spanish oil outside of Spain (sometimes, sadly, Italian olive oil). But it also has more unexpected uses. In Germany, “Spanish” is used to describe paprika (spanischer Paprika); in Italy, ice cream with sour cherries is called spagnola (even though the berries are not eaten in Spain); in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a meat roll stuffed with vegetables is known as a “Spanish bird” (španělský ptáček and španielsky vtáčik respectively).

Generally speaking, what is “Spanish,” according to others, tends to be associated with the outrageous, the exotic or based on common stereotypes.



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The history of the Spanish Flu
26 February 2019

Did the so-called “Spanish flu,” an epidemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919, really start in Spain? For almost a century Spaniards have either borne this mark of shame with resignation, wearily telling the world that it had to start somewhere, or have put the blame on neighboring France.

A study by Spanish and US scientists points out that the pandemic was dubbed “Spanish Influenza” by the world because the press in Spain widely reported the outbreak in its early stages between May and June of 1918. Spain was not involved in World War I, and its media had no restrictions, while the main European nations and the United States, embroiled in the conflict, censored all news relating to the pandemic for fear of a decline in troop morale.

That said, the team of researchers, from the University of the Basque Country, Madrid’s Complutense University, and the Bethesda National Institutes of Health, as well as Arizona State University, are not ruling out the possibility that the pandemic may have originated in Spain. The paper, published in BMC Infectious Diseases, is the most detailed study of Spanish flu ever carried out, and establishes that Spain was certainly very badly hit by the pandemic and that Spanish cities were definitely early sources of the virus.

As yet, there is no incontrovertible evidence that the virus emerged in Spain, although some of the authors believe it may well have. Antón Erkoreka, the director of the Basque Museum of the History of Medicine, says that such a hypothesis is perfectly possible, “but it has yet to be proved: perhaps the newspapers were right when they called it Spanish flu.”

In fact, the accepted version of events traces the first case of Spanish flu a long way from Spain, and before the first cases were reported in Spain: to March 4, 1918, at Camp Funston, Kansas, where US troops waiting to be sent to fight in Europe were stationed. Although the flu spread rapidly, it was no more lethal than any recorded in previous years. To begin with, the worst symptoms of the new epidemic were mild respiratory problems of the kind that still kill around half-a-million people every year around the planet.

But the virus that came to be known as Spanish flu had its own plans to enter the pages of infamy. At a certain point during the summer of 1918, it underwent a mutation, or a group of them, which converted it into the most efficient agent of death in history. Again, according to historical reconstructions used to this day, the first case of the second wave was not recorded in Spain, and dates to August 22, 1918, in the French port of Brest, used as the entry point for around half the US troops that had joined France and Britain in fighting Germany in April 1917.

“By April of 1918, the virus was in Europe,” says Erkoreka, “both among the troops as well as the civilian population; but this wave didn’t result in many deaths. Later though, the outbreak in Madrid that May was significant, both in terms of the high death rate, as well as the way that it affected people across class barriers: even King Alfonso came down with it between May and July,” he says, noting that the Spanish monarch did not belong to a high-risk group: he was aged 32, well-fed, and in good physical shape, but the virus was no respecter of palace walls.

The flu spread rapidly through Spain: the authors estimate that up to 237,000 people died out of a total population of 20 million. But by the autumn of that year, the mortality rate in Madrid had begun to fall in comparison to the provinces. This is an effect well understood by epidemiologists: the population of the capital had been exposed to the virus, and was by now immunized against its variants, but was now also able to help spread it. This process, say the researchers, shows that the virus had mutated during the summer. Those infected during the early stages were relatively fortunate because they developed immunity to the second stage of the virus.

Previous studies of Spanish flu have generally discarded the idea that the pandemic originated in Spain, suggesting that it was already present in France in 1916 and that it was brought to Spain by unskilled Spanish and Portuguese labourers working in France. But these workers may well have taken the deadlier mutation of the virus back with them to France after the summer of 1918.

The Spanish-US team’s work, supported by a wealth of statistics, shows that just about every province in Spain was hit by the flu. There were three viral waves between January 1918 and June of 1919, moving from north to south, a process that can only partly be explained by socio-economic factors says the team.



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