Presence, Diffusion and Function of Pragmatic Normative Texts in Spanish America (16th-17th Centuries)

Presence, Diffusion and Function of Pragmatic Normative Texts in Spanish America (16th-17th Centuries)

Completed Project

What do we know about the presence, diffusion and function of pragmatic normative texts in early modern Spanish America? Manuals and instructions written for the juridical work of lawyers, notaries and scribes, called “prácticas”, were quite common in Spain and in Spanish America. However, this research project has not dealt primarily with such “secular” texts but has focused on pragmatic normative literature from the religious field. The initial assumption was that especially compendia of treatises on moral theology and canon law, such as manuals or extracts, as well as catechetic instructions and penitential literature were central media in the diffusion of normative orders. After all, about 70 % of the books circulating in the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries were of a religious kind.

One approach for answering the above mentioned question has been offered by the analysis and evaluation of the scientific literature dealing with the production, possession and circulation of books in the Spanish monarchy, in particular in the New World. Starting from the early studies of José Toribio Medina, followed by Irving Leonard‘s classic work until the modern scholarship growing considerably since the 1980s, research provides pertinent case studies from the perspective of various disciplines. These studies are based in part on early modern library catalogues, on the lists of acquired books, on sources stemming from import controls and censorship as well as on research from book studies and cultural history which provides insight into the estates of book owners and into the book production of the early printing presses in Mexico and Lima.

A challenging task was the collection of this dispersed knowledge in a comprehensive bibliography. Studies from legal history contain information on juridical books; the church and mission history and the history of theology deal with pastoral, catechetic and moral theological works; book studies concentrate on local production. A systematic analysis of this literature and of the edited sources provided an overview on the pragmatic normative literature present in Spanish America during the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as on the related practices of imparting normative content in different visual forms.

A stock-taking in regional perspective, focusing on New Spain, Peru and New Granada, was necessary for such a work of “normative mapping”. Which types of pragmatic literature can be detected in personal and institutional libraries? Whereas the research on the book possession of bishops, friars and priests, of colonial authorities and of wealthy settlers offers rich material, the investigation on book collections of institutions and corporations –such as cathedral chapters, monasteries of different orders, Jesuit colleges and universities as well as parishes– is not that advanced.

In any case, the analysis of the trans-Atlantic book trade and the distribution of the books imported from Seville was of great importance. It is estimated that at least 85 % of the books circulating in America were imported; they were printed not only in Spain but in other European cities as well. The rest of the books were supplied by the few printing presses that had received a royal license in Spanish America: they operated in Mexico City (1539), Lima (1584), Puebla de los Angeles (1640) and Guatemala (1660). It has been interesting to find out which genres of pragmatic literature were printed in America and which genres were predominantly imported – or had to be imported (because of monopolies).

As the current research did not provide convincing answers for all the questions raised, a number of archives and libraries was visited and consulted. Relevant sources in Spanish and Mexican archives were, e.g., inventories which can be found in notarial protocols about the purchase or legacy of books. In Sevilla, export documents and ship registers with respect to books were studied. Of special importance, moreover, were institutional book collections, owned by convent libraries or by secular clergymen.

In this respect, post-Tridentine canon law created some pertinent norms: The Third Provincial Councils of Lima (1582-1583) and Mexico (1585) as well as numerous South American synods stipulated that clerics had to own certain types of pragmatic texts. Based on the investigation of ecclesiastic inspections, the actual presence of books in the parishes and in priests’ houses could be examined. Apart from canon law decrees, priests were supposed to possess pastoral texts (e.g. on the administration of sacraments), catechetic works and some treatises on moral theology. Recent research about the Archbishopric of Lima could identify in this latter category a diversity of works that even in frontier regions were present: compendia of moral theology, penitential summae and manuals, written by authors like Martín de Azpilcueta. The smaller the formats were –octavo, duodecimo and less–, the more portable were the books for everyday use.

So down to the local level, books provided resources of pragmatic normativity. Beyond this modern but quite expensive medium, other sources, more difficult to grasp, existed which were of great importance for the presence and diffusion of normative concepts: manuscripts. Frequently, they were transcriptions of didactic works and texts for professional use; in ecclesiastic institutions, small treatises, reports, synods, sermons etc. were copied. Moreover, prohibited works or texts which had not yet been approved could circulate in manuscript form. Looking at erudite culture of Mexico in the 17th century, research has demonstrated that it was less written culture but oral transmission and the presence of manuscripts that were decisive for the circulation of ideas. If this result applies to those works directed to practitioners in the field of religious normativity, too, is an intriguing question that might be answered in future investigations taking into consideration further Spanish American regions.

In sum, this research project aimed at the following paramount question: What importance and functionality can be attributed to the presence of pragmatic texts for the establishment of colonial governmental structures and their normative order? Our results strongly suggest that the dissemination of “popular literature” stemming from moral theology, in whatever kind of medial form and literary genre, decisively contributed to the constitution of knowledge regimes and legal spaces in early modern Hispanic America.

The research, completed in the fall of 2018, not only resulted in a collective volume and a book chapter but as well in an extensive bibliography about colonial Ibero-America:

Danwerth, O.: La circulación de literatura normativa pragmática en Hispanoamérica (siglos XVI-XVII) = The Circulation of Pragmatic Normative Literature in Spanish America (16th-17th Centuries). In: Actas del XIX Congreso del Instituto Internacional de Historia del Derecho Indiano: Berlin 2016. Vol. 1, pp. 359 - 400 (Ed. Duve, T.). Dykinson, Madrid (2017)
Danwerth, O.: A Basic Bibliography on the History of Ibero-America and the Spanish Caribbean in the Colonial Period. (2020), 159 pp.
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