Producing normative knowledge in the margins.
The handwritten annotations of Alonso de la Vera Cruz


For some decades now, the study of various types of libraries (such as those held by universities, convents or private individuals etc) has provided very important information for understanding the reading interests both of important individual figures in theology and law as well as of communities producing normative knowledge, regulations and decisions.

While working with catalogues, letters and inventories of various kinds allows the researcher to know which books were owned and (probably) read by certain individuals and communities, the study of reading marks and marginal notes in books from the same library substantially broadens our research perspectives. It allows us to reach conclusions that are highly relevant for the history of reading and the transmission of knowledge. In this kind of in-depth research, the patterns and habits of reading, underlining, condensing, summarising or commenting traceable in the annotated copies are analysed as fundamental steps in broader processes of normative knowledge production.

One of the most important readers and annotators of books in the early stages of Spanish colonisation in America was Alonso de la Vera Cruz (1507–1584), who had been a student of Francisco de Vitoria at the University of Salamanca. After his arrival in the Viceroyalty of New Spain as an Augustinian missionary (1536), Vera Cruz became one of the intellectual leaders of the broad missionary contingent deployed by the Spanish Crown in the American and Asian continents. Along with his duties as a moral theologian, missionary and teacher in the Augustinian colleges and the newly established University of Mexico (1553), Vera Cruz also played an important role as an international book buyer and organiser of some of the first libraries on the American continent. These were established in convents such as Tiripetío and Tacámbaro in Michoacán and the Colegio de San Pablo in Mexico City.

By analysing the books that Alonso de la Vera Cruz acquired for various Augustinian convents in New Spain and used as fundamental 'tools' to write his own works, underlining and annotating them profusely in many cases, the research project Producing normative knowledge in the margins investigates the 'workshop' of one of the first and most transcendental American moral theologians. Firstly, the detailed study of readings and annotations allows us to see which passages from works written in the European context were relevant for a Renaissance reader engaged in teaching and catechetical work in the New World. Secondly, by tracing the echoes of these annotations in the extensive work written by Vera Cruz himself, it is possible to reconstruct the complex processes of normative knowledge production in detail. Initiated in many cases by a reflection noted in the margins next to a traditional opinion, these processes lead to interesting cultural translations into contexts unforeseen by those authorities.

Thirdly, taking into account Vera Cruz's work as a teacher, his annotations are illustrative of the academic and practical formation received by the first theologians and bachelors of arts trained on the American continent itself. They allow us to evaluate the elements of continuity and differentiation with respect to the European academic tradition. 

Finally, the parallel study of Vera Cruz's readings, notes and writings allows us to better understand an intellectual and social context that, despite being separated from Salamanca by thousands of kilometres, continued to be markedly 'Salamancan'. Vera Cruz and his contemporaries working in the Iberian Peninsula – such as Soto, Azpilcueta or Covarrubias, the contemporary figures to whom he refers most frequently – had common topics of interest, working methods, reference authorities and a similar panorama of readings. The research on the books used and written by Vera Cruz is thus a fundamental part of a wider exercise of redefining the School of Salamanca. The intense circulation of alumni, readings, debates and ideas between Salamanca and New Spain in the middle decades of the 16th century, stimulated by actors such as Vera Cruz, invites us to rethink the School of Salamanca as both an epistemic community and a community of practice made up of theologians and jurists who exercised a multitude of tasks – not only academic – in a global and polycentric network.

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