Martín de Azpilcueta’s Manual for Confessors and the Phenomenon of Epitomisation
The ‘epitomization’ of learned culture was not a new phenomenon in the sixteenth century. Ancient and Medieval European cultures had previously experienced the phenomenon of condensing and transforming learned knowledge, in several disciplines. This also applied to legal literature as we can see, for example, in the great development during the Middle Ages of juridical lexicography, including dictionaries, legal promptuaries, and summae.
Even if this process is not new, the sixteenth century marks a turning point. The development of printing and the new philosophical need for a renovated approach to knowledge in all the disciplines, allowed the spread of new literary genres and led to a new organization of knowledge, which started to be methodized and epitomized like never before.
As a part of the Project Knowledge of the Pragmatici. Presence and Significance of the Pragmatic Normative Literature in Ibero-America in late 16th and early 17th Centuries, developed in the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre (‘Sonderforschungsbereich’) 1095 at Goethe University, bearing the title “Discourses of Weakness and Resource Regimes”, this sub-project started in 2016 and ended in 2018.
It aimed to analyse how canonistic and moral theological knowledge was condensed in the pragmatic literature. Addressing codes of conduct, this literature, which included confessional writings, catechisms, and moral theological instructions, became particularly important, especially in the case of the Spanish monarchy, for establishing dominion in the remote frontier context of the early modern empire.
A first part of the research was dedicated to a historiographical reconstruction of the theoretical question of epitomization. A second part of the research, which constituted the core of the project, was dedicated to a case study, which allowed understanding the conceptual and methodological specificities of the epitomization of canonistic and moral theological knowledge in the pragmatic literature. This part of the project was dedicated to the Manual for Confessors written by Martín de Azpilcueta (1492-1586). Through the study of Azpilcueta’s Manual, the project analysed the epitomization process not only as a simplification but also as a condensation, modification and, in a certain way, abstraction of knowledge.
Azpilcueta was one of the most important canon lawyers and moral theologians of the time. His manual was published in 1552 in Portuguese, quickly translated into Spanish and received, in a brief period, multiple editions and translations. It was one of the most influential works of moral theology in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a ‘bestseller’ in the book trade with the New World – and itself subject to various processes of adaptation.
The project analysed, first of all, the sources of Azpilcueta’s Manual. By placing the book in the framework of Azpilcueta’s learned works expressly dedicated to the topic of confession and penitence, related to his teaching activity in Salamanca and Coimbra, the project focused on the way in which he transposed learned university knowledge, expressed in Latin, into a practical manual for confessors, conceived - in the beginning - in vernacular language, and addressed to a different audience, with different practical tasks than his other works. The first step was making a list of all the editions and translations realized during Azpilcueta’s life in order to identify the primary editions made under Azpilcueta’s supervision.
Focusing on the lexicon and with a philological approach, the project studied the process of epitomization, by analyising different editions and translations of the text, starting from the 1549 edition of the manual for confessors, attributed to a Franciscan Friar, Rodrigo do Porto, which was printed with Azpilcueta’s introduction and his explanations of several obscure points. Special attention was paid to the way canon law and theological knowledge were arranged within the several alphabetic indexes, tables of content, source tables as well as in the apparatus of marginalia.
The project also investigated the possible influence of the moral questions raised by the Jesuits’ activity in the border areas of the Portuguese empire on the process of epitomization expressed in the Manual.
Some archival and library research were necessary for the accomplishment of the project. Following Azpicueta’s biographical path, research has been mainly conducted in the libraries and Archives of the cities most touched by Azpilcueta’s intellectual life and works: Salamanca, Coimbra and Rome.
Image: Martín de Azpilcueta, Manual de confessores y penitentes, Valladolid 1570
(Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá; Photo: Otto Danwerth)