views updated


LOCATION: Central Spain
POPULATION: Approximately 11 million
LANGUAGE: Castilian Spanish
RELIGION: Roman Catholic


Castilians, who inhabit Spain's central tableland, have dominated Spain politically since the 16th century. The area traditionally referred to as "Castile" (meaning land of castles) comprises two present-day regions: Castile and León and Castile-La Mancha. Its original inhabitants were Iberians and Celts who were conquered by the Romans and the Moors. The Reconquista—the centuries-long crusade to drive the Moors from Spain that began in the 8th century—was centered in Castile, a region known for its religious devotion and fierce warriors, epitomized by the regional hero El Cid, who became the subject of epic poetry.

By 1492, when the Reconquista was finally completed with the expulsion of the Moors from Granada, Castile had became a center of political as well as military power, a result of the 1469 marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon. The pair united the two territories 10 years later when Ferdinand succeeded to the throne of his kingdom. Ferdinand and Isabella made important governmental reforms, notably, reducing the influence of the nobles and crusading orders and consolidating power in the hands of a central authority with a regional seat in Castile. (Castile also became the center of authority for the Spanish Inquisition, beginning in 1478.) In the following centuries, the fortunes of Castile, located at the center of power, rose and fell with those of the Spanish Empire. The golden age of the 16th century was followed by wars that eroded Spain's power, and the Bourbon dynasty was installed at the close of the Wars of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Castile was caught up in the 19th- and 20th-century struggles between supporters of the monarchy and those who desired the formation of a republic. In the 20th century, Spain remained officially neutral in both world wars. Coming to power at the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the regime of Francisco Franco aided the Axis powers during World War II, with the result that Spain was left out of the Marshall Plan that aided in the postwar reconstruction of Europe. The nation did, however, become a member of the United Nations in 1955. Predominantly rural areas such as Castile—where the postwar period was referred to as the "years of hunger"—experienced large-scale emigration. Following Franco's death in 1975 and the installation of a democratic regime in 1978, Cas-tile experienced greater opportunities for economic development. Spain became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1982 and joined the European Union (EU) in 1986.


Castile is located within Spain's central tableland, or meseta. It is a region of hot, dry, windswept plains broken in places by chains of low mountains, with elevations varying from 600 m to 900 m (2,000-3,000 ft) above sea level. There are few trees, and much of the terrain is covered by encinas, which are similar to dwarf oaks, or by scrub. The main bodies of water are the Duero and Tagus rivers. The seasons are quite extreme, switching from very cold to very hot almost immediately, with little spring or fall. Castilians traditionally describe their climate with the following proverb: Nueve meses de invierno y tres mese de infierno, or "Nine months of winter and three months of hell."

The Castile region represents one-third of the territory of Spain and about one-quarter of the population of approximately 45 million, mostly concentrated in major urban areas such as Madrid, Toledo, and Valladolid. The rural areas, by contrast, are much less densely populated, and their population continues to fall as residents relocate to the cities or immigrate abroad. Madrid has a population of 5.5 million.


Though several distinct languages are spoken throughout Spain, Castilian (Castellano) is the country's national language, a status it garnered as a result of Castile's long-standing political dominance. Used in government, education, and the media, Castilian is the language that people in other countries identify as "Spanish." Two of the main regional languages—Catalan and Gallego—are Romance languages that bear some degree of similarity to Castilian. Euskera, a language spoken in the Basque Country, is very different not only from Spanish but from any other European language. Other Spanish dialects include Andalusian, Aragonese, Asturian, Leonese, and Valencian. Spain's linguistic differences have been a source of political tension, and today, Catalan, Gallego, and Euskera (Basque) are also designated—together with Castilian—as official languages in their respective regions. They are taught in the schools and appear alongside Castilian on all street signs.

oneun, uno
Th ursdayjueves


The Castilians' great cultural hero is El Cid Campeador, an actual historical figure (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar) of the 11th century whose life passed into legend with the composition of the Spanish national epic based on his life, Cantar del Mio Cid (The Poem of the Cid). This warrior of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors) is celebrated for qualities that still resonate with Castilians: a strong sense of honor, devout Catholicism, pragmatism, devotion to family, and integrity.


The Castilians, like the Spanish population in general, are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. They are known for their adherence to church doctrine and high degree of religious observance. Many attend church every Sunday, and a number of women go to services every day. However, the traditionally strong influence of village priests over their parishioners' lives has declined in recent years.


Besides New Year's Day and the major holidays of the Christian calendar, Castilians celebrate the national holidays of Spain: Saint Joseph's Day (March 19), the Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (June 29), Saint James's Day (July 25), and National Day (October 12). The most important religious holidays in Castile are Easter and Christmas. In addition, every village observes the feast day of its patron saint with a gala celebration that includes many distinctly secular events, such as bullfights, soccer matches, and fireworks. Residents parade through the streets carrying huge papier-mâché figures called gigants (giants) and cabezudos (big heads or fat heads). The gigants are effigies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, while the cabezudos portray a variety of figures from history, legend, and fantasy. Madrid's Festival of San Isidro comprises three weeks of parties, processions, and bullfights.


The sacraments of baptism, first communion, and marriage are occasions for large and expensive social gatherings at which families show their generosity and economic status. Military service is also considered a rite of passage for Castilians, as it is for most Spaniards. Quintos, young men from the same town or village who go into military service in the same year, form a closely knit group that collects money from neighbors to organize parties and serenade girls. The period of compulsory military service has been greatly reduced since the 1990s, and the government plans to replace compulsory military service with a voluntary army.


Tempered by the harsh, barren landscape of their homeland, Castilians are known for their toughness, frugality, and endurance. Isolated by Castile's vast expanses of arid land, rural inhabitants rely closely on their immediate neighbors, living in small clusters of houses. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders and new ideas.


Although Castile is home to large cities such as Madrid and Toledo, it remains a primarily rural region, and much of its population is dependent on agriculture. In rural villages, the traditional house combines the family's living quarters with a stable and barn that have a separate entrance. The kitchen is arranged around an open-hearth fireplace (chimenea). The most common building material is stucco, although stone houses are common among wealthier inhabitants.

Castilians have access to the same level of modern medical care as their neighbors elsewhere in Spain, where the average life expectancy is 78 years. Despite their reliance on modern medicine, it is not unusual for Castilians to invoke the healing powers of a patron saint when a loved one is ill, and traditional folk medicine, including herbal remedies, is still practiced in some remote rural areas.

Castile is the hub of Spain's transportation network. All of the nation's highways, rail lines, and air routes pass through Madrid because of its central location. The city also has a modern subway system. In the country, dirt and gravel roads are common, and burros are still used for transportation in some small villages.


Castilians tend to delay marriage until the age of about 25, when the man has completed his military service and the couple has achieved a degree of financial independence. Courtships are carefully monitored, as scandal reflects not only on the couple themselves but also on the reputations of their respective families. During the marriage ceremony, members of the wedding party hold a white veil over the bride and groom to symbolize the future submissiveness of the wife to her husband. Newlyweds are expected to set up their own household, although it is common for the bride's parents to help the couple buy or build a house, which is often located in the parents' own neighborhood. Only church marriages were recognized in Spain until 1968, when civil ceremonies were first allowed by law. Divorce has been legal since the 1980s. A man is much more likely to divorce his wife than vice versa. Because of the intensity of the divorce process and the strong Catholic influence in the country, Spain has the third lowest divorce rate on the European continent.


For everyday activities, both casual and formal, Castilians wear modern Western-style clothing, similar to that worn elsewhere in Western Europe and in the United States. Traditionally black clothing was worn to church, and the elderly in rural villages still observe this custom.


Pork and other pig products—ham, bacon, and sausages—are staples of the Castilian diet. The region's most famous dish is cochinillo asado, roast suckling pig, for which the city of Segovia is especially well known. The city of El Bierzo is known for another popular dish, botillo, composed of minced pork and sausages. Castile has a traditional soup— sopa castillana, containing pork, eggs, bread, garlic, and fat—but it is no longer widely eaten. Beans of all kinds are a regional staple, including red beans, white beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Tapas, the popular snacks eaten throughout Spain, are also popular in Castile. Tojunto, beef or rabbit with tomatoes, is a typical dish of the area. Bizcochos borrachos are sponge cakes soaked in brandy. Serrano ham and olla podrida (rotten stew) are well known in León. Saffron is often used in cooking, and it is highly prized in the area. Like people in other parts of Spain, Castilians take an extended lunch break at midday, called a siesta. This tradition has waned as people have become busier; only about 25% of Spaniards still take a siesta. Castilians typically eat dinner late, between 9:00 pm and midnight.


For young Castilians, like other Spanish children, schooling is free and compulsory from the ages of 6 to 14, when many students begin the three-year bachillerato course of study. Subsequently, they may opt for one year of college preparatory study or vocational training. Castile is home to Spain's oldest university—the Pontifical University of Salamanca, founded in 1254—as well as the University of Madrid, which has the highest enrollment in the country.


Castile's literary tradition dates back to the 12th-century epic poem Cantar del Mio Cid (Poem of the Cid), which celebrates the life and exploits of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a Castilian warrior who gained fame during the Reconquista. The fictional El Cid, embodying the ideal Castilian, has captured the popular imagination for generations, serving as the subject of a play by the French playwright Corneille and a Hollywood movie starring Charlton Heston. The most famous Castilian writer is Miguel de Cervantes, author of the 17th-century classic Don Quixote, a masterpiece of world literature and a milestone in the development of the modern novel. At the turn of the 20th century, the poet Antonio Machado, a member of a group of writers and artists called the "Generation of 1898," wrote of Castile's decline from its onetime position of power:

Castilla miserable, ayer cominadora, envuelta en sus andrajos, desprecia cuanto ignora.

Miserable Castile, yesterday lording it over everybody, now wrapped in her rags scorns all she does not know.


Castilian agriculture consists of small family farms that raise barley, wheat, grapes, sugar beets, cork, tobacco, olives, and other crops. Many farms also raise poultry and livestock, and almost all farm families have at least one or two pigs. Income from the family farm is usually supplemented by a small business or by salaried jobs—often in government—held by one or more family members. Tourism is a major employer in the city of Burgos, and Valladolid is an industrial center and grain market. Food processing plants employ many workers in Salamanca.


The most popular sports in Castile are soccer (called futból ) and bullfighting. Bullfighting events are often conducted during fiestas. Spaniards have a love for sports and events that involve big crowds and loud cheering. Other favorite sports include cycling, fishing, hunting, golf, tennis, and horseback riding. Horse racing takes place in Madrid at Zarzuela Hippodrome.


Spaniards spend more time and money on collective celebrations than any other country in the world. Castile's warm climate fosters an active nightlife in its cities, much of it outdoors in streets, plazas, taverns, and restaurants. These are known as fiestas, and they are a strong part of the culture. After work, Castilians often go for a stroll ( paseo ), stopping to chat with neighbors along the way or meet friends at a local café. A dinner date in Madrid may take place as late as 10:00 or 11:00 pm, followed by a trip to a local club. Sunday afternoon is another traditional time for a stroll. Castilians, like people throughout Spain, also enjoy relaxing at home with their favorite television programs. The dance of Jota is known in Castile, and the bolero is a dance that has been performed in La Mancha since the 16th century.


Castilian pottery is typically decorated with brightly colored pictures of birds and other animals. Fine swords have been made of Toledo steel—famous for its strength and flexibility—since the Middle Ages. Craftspeople continue this tradition to the present day, inlaying the steel with gold and silver and crafting intricate designs on swords, jewelry, and other objects. The Spanish government has taken steps to ensure that traditional crafts, or artenia, survive against competition from mechanized industry.


As in other rural areas of Spain, Castile has suffered from a high rate of emigration since World War II. Between 1960 and 1975, the population of Castile and León declined from 2.85 million to 2.55 million; that of Castile-La Mancha dropped from 1.38 to 1.04 million. The Castilian provinces of Avila, Palencia, Segovia, Soria, and Zamora had smaller populations in 1975 than in 1900.

Because of its long coastline, Spain has had many problems with foreign parties in North Africa, Latin America, and Europe, trafficking drugs along the border. The country also has problems with alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, as do other modern nations.


Spain has historically been a male-dominated society, and women have stood in the background for much longer than in other Western European countries. The women's movement began in 1976 with marches in Madrid. Spain's 1978 constitution included an equality clause for all Spaniards, thereby creating a legal basis for women's equality. The most offensive restrictions on women's rights took place during the Franco era. During the 1980s, women gained more rights to ownership and property. Laws allowing women to seek sanctuary from abuse were created at this time. Divorce laws were enacted in 1977.

Homosexuals were highly repressed under the Franco regime—more so than any where in modern Europe, with the exception of the Salazar regime in Portugal. The 1978 constitution, however, gave homosexuals equal rights. The 1960s and 1970s brought far more tourism to Spain, exposing urban areas to gay culture. In all, 80% of homosexuals in Spain live as couples, a reflection of the country's strong sense of family and the importance of relationships. As of 2008 Spain was one of five countries in the world that had legalized same-sex marriage.


Cross, Esther, and Wilbur Cross. Spain. Chicago: Children's Press, 1985.

Crow, John A. Spain: The Root and the Flower. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Facaros, Dana, and Michael Pauls. Northern Spain. London: Cadogan Books, 1996.

Gratton, Nancy. "Castilians." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures (Europe), edited by Linda A. Bennett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Hubbard, Monica M., and Beverly Baer, eds. Cities of the World: Europe and the Middle East. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Kenny, Michael. A Spanish Tapestry: Town and Country in Castile. London: Cohen & West, 1961.

Lye, Keith. Passport to Spain. 2nd ed. New York: F. Watts, 1994.

Madariaga, Salvador de. Spain: A Modern History. New York: Praeger, 1958.

Ortiz-Griffin, Julia L., and William D. Griffin. Spain and Portugal Today. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Schubert, Adrian. The Land and People of Spain. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Stanton, Edward F. Culture and Customs of Spain. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

US Department of State, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. "Background Note: Spain." (7 May 2008).

—revised by C. Corrigan

About this article


Updated About content Print Article