Knowledge of the pragmatici

Knowledge of the pragmatici

Completed Projects

Presence and Significance of Pragmatic Normative Literature in Ibero-America in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries

By the third decade of the sixteenth century, once the first settlements had been established in the Caribbean as well as in Central and South America, the Spanish monarchy had to confront the task of establishing its dominion over huge populations and across vast distances, albeit with limited human and material resources. In light of the scarcity and the remoteness, great importance was accorded to propagating and implementing codes of conduct and modes of behavioural control – not just among European settlers, but also over the indigenous populations.

As a part of the Collaborative Research Centre (‘Sonderforschungsbereich’) 1095 at Goethe University, bearing the title “Discourses of Weakness and Resource Regimes”, this project started in 2015. It draws on the broader historical context described above to ask what norms and mediatic forms had been put to service by the Iberian monarchies to regulate codes of conduct in the period spanning between the 16th and mid-17th centuries. This study has centered predominantly on “normativity”, its conventional and mediatic sources, not least on “law” and the functionality of these normative orders. However, the core of this project draws less on conventional sources of legal history, meaning the large stacks of textual collections pertaining to the norm setting practices of higher authorities or other early modern legal sources from the Castilian tradition and ius commune. Instead, special attention was being paid to modalities of normativity and their special mediatic forms primarily established to reach out to “practitioners” – and, in particular, sources from the fields of moral theology, pastoral or catechetic literature. Research on private book collections and on book circulation has shown that they predominantly included popular works, namely small compendia, summaries of greater moral theological works and, in part, of juridical treatises that were notably used in Hispanic America.

The project builds on the hypothesis that “pragmatic literature”, in particular, the strand that powerfully refers back to the tradition of moral theology, may have gained in significance and functionality in the remote frontier context of the early modern empire, lacking in any standard of control: particularly because this body of works did not represent complex instructions or a sophisticated normative framework, or even direct command of the authorities. What on the one hand was regarded as “weakness” could now also be viewed as “strength”: precisely its succinct and concise quality may have rendered this strand of pragmatic literature functional; instead of focusing on law and its enforcement, the works concentrate on the innate force of human conscience, inculcated by way of rituals and discourses.

These texts were simultaneously “weak” and “strong”, not only because it was possible to tie them in with Christian traditions of a weakness discourse. They were perceived as weak for the lack of theoretical complexity compared to the challenging scholarly treatises and also because in general they could not be enforced like the rule of law. They were “strong”, on the other hand, in a pragmatic sense, as their flexible normative underpinnings enabled them to take up those notions of legitimacy and basic moral assumptions which became a part of the moral economy of colonial society. Not least in the imperial peripheries, where the American territories were located at the beginning and where vast swaths of the Americas continued to remain even after different centres were established in the composite monarchy, these adaptable and pragmatic texts addressing codes of conduct, such as confessional writings, catechisms and moral theological instructions, became particularly important: even in places where the reach of law was limited or non-existent, the practice of specific regulations and notions of “proper” behaviour were effectively mediated through ecclesiastic institutions and actors, but also through the omnipresent religious symbols and their consistent inculcation.

The investigations conducted in the course of the project could substantiate the assumption  that such a constellation of resources was responsible for generating, even minimally, normative conceptions of social order and thereby also establishing a system of rule: Juridical normativity and institutions consolidated in a process of differentiation – resources central to the formation of the early modern European state – were substituted by religious normativity and pragmatic literature, which characteristically offered greater scope for interpretation. As a result, the situation that emerged could be construed as “weak” when compared to the European context. But set against the backdrop of the challenge of the colonial project, it could be viewed as a functional normative order.

Moreover, the project helped to bring to light not just the practical significance and functionality of this type of sources, which has received scant attention for a long time, but also its intellectual weight. It has been demonstrated that the perceived weaker nature of this literature does not merely suggest – as often assumed – a form of vulgarization; on the contrary, it is possible to see herein a conscious and considerable work of abstraction.

Different individual examinations have contributed to find solutions to the overarching research question (see sub-projects). Apart from the study of book circulation in early modern Ibero-America, complementary case studies were conducted which analyzed procedures of knowledge condensation as well as the functionalization of moral theological and legal bases through pragmatic literature in Mexico and South America. These works have considerably enhanced our knowledge of the initial question and lead to important insights, analyses and discoveries of sources, opening up new perspectives.

The main results of this research project, completed in the fall of 2018, have been published in April 2020 as an edited volume:
Thomas Duve / Otto Danwerth (eds.):
Knowledge of the Pragmatici:
Legal and Moral Theological Literature and the Formation of Early Modern Ibero-America

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