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What is the black legend?

What is the black legend?

black legend is a historiographical phenomenon in which a sustained trend in historical writing of biased reporting and introduction of fabricated, exaggerated and/or decontextualized facts is directed against particular persons, nations or institutions with the intention of creating a distorted and uniquely inhuman image of them while hiding their positive contributions to history. 

The Black Legend (Spanish: La Leyenda Negra) is a style of historical writing or propaganda that demonizes the Spanish Empire, its people and its culture.


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The term was first used by French writer Arthur Lévy in his 1893 work Napoléon Intime, in contrast to the expression "Golden Legend" that had been in circulation around Europe since the publication of a book of that name during the Middle Ages.


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Historian Manuel Fernández Álvarez defined a black legend as:

... the careful distortion of the history of a nation, perpetrated by its enemies, in order to better fight it. And a distortion as monstrous as possible, with the goal of achieving a specific aim: the moral disqualification of the nation, whose supremacy must be fought in every way possible.

— as cited in Alfredo Alvar's book, La Leyenda Negra (1997:5)


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It is a phenomenon observed in all multicultural empires, not just in the Spanish Empire

The black legend of empires would be the result of the following combined factors:

  • The combined propaganda attacks and efforts of most smaller powers of the time, as well as defeated rivals.
  • The propaganda created by the many rival power factions within the empire itself against each other as part of their struggle to win more power.
  • The self-criticism of the intellectual elite, which tends to be larger in larger empires.
  • The need of the new powers consolidated during the empire's life or after its dissolution to justify their new prevalence and the new order.


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Common elements of black legends

The defining feature of a black legend is that it has been fabricated and propagated intentionally. Black legends also tend to share certain additional elements:

  • Permanent decadence
  • Degenerated or polluted version of something else.
  • Accidentality of merit.
  • Obligatory moral actions.
  • Natural moral inferiority and irredeemable character.

Narrations of black legends tend to include: Strong pathos, combined with a narrative that is easy to follow and emotionally loaded, created by:

  • Detailed, gruesome and morbid descriptions of torture and violence
  • Sexual elements
  • Ignorance


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This article is about the general historiographical phenomenon.

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