spanish historical
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curator's extended introduction

The European discovery of the New World dramatically changed the course of Spanish history. It also opened a vast new field for Spanish historical writing. The modern development of historiography as a social science had its beginnings in the Renaissance. The chronicles of the early Middle Ages amounted to little more than chronological lists of kings and facts in which no analysis of the causes and effects of political, military, and religious life can be found. A concern for the national or secular explanation of events was incorporated in the writing of history for the first time by the Florentine Humanist Leonardo Bruni, who thus revived the Greek intellectual tradition. Spain’s close contacts with Italy–the kingdom of Aragon had long included the southern part of the Italian peninsula–allowed her to participate in that tradition already in the fifteenth century, when a number of histories recorded the last stages of the Reconquest war against the Moors and the efforts by Castile and Aragon to unify the various kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula under one monarchy.

Early Spanish historical writing about the discovery and conquest of the New World made special demands upon authors. First of all, because European readers were unfamiliar with the setting, it was necessary for historians to provide full geographical descriptions of the new territories. Secondly, these early histories necessarily had to deal not only with the enterprises of the Spaniards and their encounters with the natives, but also with the present characteristics and eventually the pasts of the non-European civilizations encountered in the Americas. These two requirements posed a major challenge for historians, for which the newly revived authors of ancient Greece and Rome, who did not even know about the existence of the New World, could not be of much help. Worse yet, the Bible also contained no helpful precedents for dealing with such problems. Thus, the historiographical tradition begun in 1492 had to fill an unparalleled void by a painful process of acquiring knowledge. Historical writing developed from mere descriptions of the aspect and customs of New World peoples to an analysis that could ultimately answer in a satisfactory way the central questions posed by the discovery: Who were these newly found people and how are they related to the inhabitants of the Old World?

Inevitably, the Spanish historian’s point of view was Eurocentric, and as a result, his view of both the physical and the human landscape was limited by his beliefs, traditions, and cultural environment, and frequently tainted by social and religious prejudice. Still, the late eighteenth-century German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, arguably the first person to study the fauna, flora, and peoples of the Americas in a modern, systematic way, expressed his astonishment at the large amount of accurate observations valuable to later scholars and scientists that had already been accumulated. It also must be noted that the variety of cultural perspectives displayed by historians was significantly enriched after some mestizos and Indians adopted the craft of historian. Their works brought about a reassessment of the values and the ideas of the people who had conquered and settled the continent. The legacy of Spanish historical writing has been fairly synthesized by professor A. Curtis Wilgus with these words: “It will not be surprising that some records and accounts by these men—there were no women—were inaccurate, inexact, prejudiced, imaginative, mystical, metaphysical or downright fictitious. On the whole, nevertheless, the histories were honest, realistic, valuable, even though many cannot meet today’s standards of historical probity.”

To understand fully the implications of the role of historiography in European thought one must point out that in the sixteenth century the division of knowledge into the modern disciplines and fields had not yet taken place. History included areas now seen as part of the natural sciences, such as biology, botany, zoology, etc., commonly referred to as natural history, as well as areas now included in the social sciences such as sociology, ethnography, and anthropology, which pertained to the realm of moral (also called general) history. Because of the breath of “history” in this period, the contribution of Spanish historiography of the New World to the intellectual history of the West can hardly be overstated, although it has not been widely recognized. European historiography was enriched by this new body of literature that contained the earliest descriptions of the physical and human landscape of the New World. While this wealth of information provided fundamental data for the development of other established areas of knowledge such as linguistics, political theory, biology, medicine, and agriculture, it also led to the creation of new ones. The extensive discussions in Spain about the nature of human behavior, stimulated by the encounter with the Indians, were a major contribution to the development of anthropology as an independent social science. Disputes over the conflicting rights of natives and invaders also provided Francisco de Vitoria with the materials to lay the foundations of international law.

The special set of circumstances under which the process of historical writing was accomplished produced important changes in the role of the historian as well as in the characteristics of the text itself. The ideal historian of the Renaissance was a Humanist who, detached from the facts he narrated, ordered and analyzed his sources in a way similar to the modern scholar. Circumstances were different in the first two centuries of colonial life; so our approach to the subject of historical discourse must necessarily embrace a much broader definition of that genre. Although not a few of the historians of the New World were true scholars, many of the writings we must consider were produced by authors who do not belong in that select category, but who were, instead, military, civilian, or religious officers directly involved with the facts they described. Sometimes these narrators were simple soldiers (soldados cronistas) who recounted the campaigns of discovery and conquest in which they had participated. Fully aware that they did not always possess the necessary training to write history in the learned fashion, they tended to compensate for their lack of formal education by expressing the simple truth, strongly reassured by their having been direct witnesses of the facts they narrated. In another category of non-learned historical discourses were works that were originally legal documents, such as letters, official reports (relaciones), or depositions required by the crown in fulfillment of its need to be informed about recent events. These writings were not meant to be formal histories, nor did their authors consider themselves historians, although we may now ascribe to these works the title of histories because of their meaningful contribution to the elucidation of the past or because of their precious value as the first narratives of important events.

Naturally, the considerations that we are presenting here affect in a major way both the tone and the perspective of the texts. Historians throughout the ages have had a number of intentions--praise of individual or collective heroism, expressions of faith, justifications for authority and particular institutions--and all of these appear in rich variety in the Spanish works of our period. That these authors were often directly involved with the events reported often led to subjective assessments, and their texts may contain very personal statements about the political, military, religious, and legal aspects of the Spanish presence in the New World. Furthermore, the encounter with America raised a great number of controversial issues that were very much alive when the historian took up his pen. The interpretation of the past thus led not infrequently to direct calls for future official action concerning the events described. By approving or condemning past behavior historians were often seeking to modify official current policy, or perhaps were hoping to obtain compensation for services rendered to the monarchy, services made explicit in the text. This editorial content is a distinctive characteristic of the New World historical discourse of the time.

It is easy for us, five hundred years after Columbus’s landing on a Caribbean island, to comprehend the immense consequences of that encounter between peoples who until then had remained isolated from each other. But, as professor J. H. Elliott has noted, we must bear in mind that Europeans took a very long time to understand the consequences of the exploration and European colonization of the New World. The case of great minds of that time, like Erasmus or Cervantes, who remained largely indifferent to the discovery, reflected a prevalent attitude rather than an exception. Following the invention of the modern techniques of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, Europeans were being flooded with a spurious literature of imaginary travels and chivalric romances that freely mixed fact and fiction while at the same time reassuring the reader of their true content. In such a cultural context, it is not surprising that historians reporting on America tended to be overly insistent about the truth of their accounts and to overstate the importance of their observations and narratives, for they had to promote that cause among readers who could quickly dismiss these writings as grossly exaggerated facts and even mere fiction. We may easily agree with Francisco López de Gómara’s famous claim that the discovery of the Indies was the most important event of human history after the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but I find no evidence that such a belief was shared by anyone else in that time.

The list of actually published Spanish books on the New World is certainly a long one. But even so, a number of relevant works, including some masterpieces of the genre, remained in manuscript form until modern times. There are several reasons for this. One of the ways the Spanish crown tried to protect its political and economic interests was through censorship. Since 1502 a royal license issued by the Consejo Real (after 1554, by the Consejo de Indias) was required to allow publication of any book dealing with the Indies, and this resulted in works being banned for publication due to their highly controversial subjects or because the Spanish feared the works would give away classified information. In other cases, publication was not possible for lack of a financial sponsor. Finally, we must take into account that many works of historiographical value were not intended for publication at the time they were written. This rather large group includes most of the relaciones by conquistadors as well as documented ethnographic studies by churchmen which circulated internally within their religious orders.

This exhibit aims to show the rich variety of Spanish historiographical works produced in Spain and her colonies during the first two hundred years of her involvement with the New World. Making a narrow selection out of such a vast field necessarily requires a balance between the various groups of books to be considered, and regrettably not every work that scholars deem valuable may be included. I have given preference naturally to titles published before 1700, but a few important ones that were published later have been included as well. The exhibit is arranged thematically, but also follows a chronological order of events whenever possible.

 

 
 

 

   
    Exhibition text written by Angel Delgado-Gomez; installed by Susan Danforth.
 
 
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