Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Iberian Theories of Empire: An Interview with Giuseppe Marcocci

By Elsa Costa

Giuseppe Marcocci is an Official Fellow and Lecturer in History at Exeter College and Associate Professor in Iberian History (European and Extra-European, 1450–1800) at the University of Oxford. His research has mostly focused on religious history and the history of political culture. He has written on conversion and persecution of religious minorities in the Iberian kingdoms and their overseas possessions, Spanish and Portuguese debates over race and slavery, as well as the Iberian theories of empire and colonial authority across the Iberian globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His latest book The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2020) reconstructs the transformation of historical writing in the age of exploration.

Marcocci spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Iberian Theories of Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (volume 83, issue 4).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this wonderful article, which encouraged me to question my assumptions about intellectual interchange between Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century. In my own work I highlight the permeability of the barrier between what we normally conceive of as Renaissance humanism and what we call Spanish scholasticism, but reading this piece I became a little more aware of the extent to which this is a pan-Iberian story. I want to start with a very ambitious question. By the time of Vitoria, as you explain, the tendency is for the Portuguese to believe in the Pope’s real power to adjudicate international disputes, while Vitoria famously asserts that the papacy only has religious power. This comes in the wake of enormous concessions given to Spain and Portugal by a relatively strong, pre-reformation papacy—the bulls Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex for Portugal in the 1450s, and the pase regio in the Americas granted to Spain between 1493 and 1508. How is it that the Portuguese become so content with the Pope’s ability to make these huge grants by personal fiat, while Vitoria is uncomfortable with personal mediation and insists on staying within the impersonal (and more secular) realm of natural law? Is this strictly a matter of territorial dispute, i.e., the Portuguese attachment to their alleged papal mandate to exercise maritime control of Africa, Asia, and Brazil? 

Giuseppe Marcocci: Thank you very much for this question, Elsa. Should we reduce Portuguese theories of empire to a matter of mere political interest, and therefore see them as less relevant or sophisticated than the Spanish? I don’t think so. True, the Portuguese empire was relatively weak. It had to fight for its survival almost from the start, but it ended up being the early modern empire that lasted longer than any other, which I believe also depended on ideological factors. The assumption that only great empires have real imperial ideologies is wrong.

The possibility of considering together two rather dissimilar empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese is what makes the perspective that you call “pan-Iberian” so productive. It is a perspective that invites us to do something other than comparative history. Its origin can be traced back to the debate over global history and connected history that took place at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris about twenty years ago. Books like Serge Gruzinski’s Les quatre parties du monde (2004), or Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s articles on the connected histories of the Iberian empires in the American Historical Review (2007), have changed the field, or at least the rhetoric of the field. There is some excellent work on the so-called “Iberian world”––which is better understood as a mosaic than in flat binary terms in any case. One has only to think of historians like Fernando Bouza, Pedro Cardim, Tamar Herzog, or Stuart Schwartz, to name a few. Too often, nonetheless, the word “Iberian” in the title of an article or a volume disappointingly corresponds to an exercise in juxtaposition or, even worse, assuming excessive uniformity. Nor is the idea of an “Iberian world” unproblematic. While scholars grapple with the significant fact that at some point in the sixteenth century, areas as distant as Central and South America, the Iberian Peninsula and various other territories in Europe including large part of Italy, coastal outposts and strips of land in North, West and Southeast Africa, the Persian Gulf, Western India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and South China came to participate in aspects of Iberian culture, they may easily gloss over local histories. As ethnohistorians show for Colonial Latin America, indigenous sources can allow us to rewrite the history of the Spanish conquest. Therefore, it is important that we do not understand the notion of “Iberian” as self-sufficient, as if studying what the Spaniards and the Portuguese did and said is all that matters.

In my book The Globe on Paper (2020), which is about histories of the world written in Renaissance Europe and the Americas, I argue that we should listen more carefully to the conversations that occurred across cultural, linguistic, and political borders in the early modern world. This also applies to theories of empire. Imperial ideologies have been the subject of much comparative analysis since Anthony Pagden’s Lords of All the World (1995), but the depth of their mutual interaction and exchange is still rarely considered, especially when it comes to early modern European empires. Surprisingly enough, this is particularly true in the case of Spain and Portugal. We have a lot in common here, such as the Catholic political thought and the legacy of the Roman imperial tradition. We have writings and thinkers who moved across the two sides, and well beyond the metropolitan centers. There was a large conversation going on, partly encouraged by religious orders and their global networks, and of course, the union of the crowns under the same Habsburg monarchs between 1580 and 1640 was also important. But as you rightly point out, there were also considerable points of divergence between Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire.

To come to the time of Vitoria, clearly imperial debates did not occur in mid-air. Charles V’s annoyance at papal interference in his overseas dominions, especially after the falls of the Aztec and Inca polities dramatically reconfigured the Spanish enterprise in America, was not unrelated to his invitation to Vitoria to deliver public lectures on the rights of indigenous people in Salamanca. But we would have a very poor understanding of what was going on if we reduced Vitoria’s rejection of the papal power to grant a Christian ruler the right to conquer lands inhabited by non-Christians to an attempt to please Charles V. The same would go if one argued that the Portuguese attachment to mid-fifteenth-century papal diplomas was merely driven by the aim to defend an advantageous position respect to European competitors. The Portuguese perfectly knew that papal power was a double-edged sword. They had learned it after Columbus’s return from the first journey to the Caribbean. It was no chance that the crisis triggered by Alexander VI’s concessions to Ferdinand and Isabella was resolved autonomously by the two monarchies with the Treaty of Tordesillas.

After 1494, both Iberian sides shared the principle that the global order established at Tordesillas was inviolable and its exact definition was a matter to be decided between them. How to achieve this in relation to the papacy was another issue. Of course, individual thinkers were important. By the time of Vitoria, ideological lines as regards the Portuguese empire were largely dictated by traditionalist theologians, among whom stood out Pedro Margalho, curiously enough the main competitor of Vitoria for the main chair in Theology in Salamanca a few years earlier. Even on a personal level, there was something deeply Iberian in the distinct directions taken by Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire in 1530s. But there is another way to look at things. It has to do with law. The supremacy that was acknowledged to Roman imperial law in Spain, as a result of the Castilian tradition of the Siete Partidas and the very fact that Charles V was also the Holy Roman Emperor, placed Vitoria in a context that encouraged the recovery of natural rights discourse in a way that Canon law, which had the highest priority in case of controversy in Portugal and obviously could not overlook papacy, would never do. Hence, the importance that we reflect on the strong jurisdictionalism that distinguished Portuguese theories of empire. It alerts us to their rich and complex nature. For instance, the exercise of interpretation of papal diplomas as carried out by the royal council called Mesa da Consciência, established in 1532, was certainly generative of creative thinking.

More generally, what I tried to show in the article is that when one looks at the circulation of people and ideas, it becomes difficult to say what exactly is Spanish or Portuguese in Iberian theories of empire. At first, this may seem an exaggeration. But if we think of imperial ideology as a fluid debate instead of a rigid doctrine, we cannot disregard that not infrequently important Spanish thinkers lived for long time in Portugal and spoke and wrote about the Portuguese empire, as was the case with Monzón or the Doctor Navarrus (but also famous Jesuits such as Molina or Suárez, who were professors in Coimbra). There were also Portuguese jurists who were active in territories of the Spanish monarchy, such as Afonso Álvares Guerreiro in Naples or Serafim de Freitas in Valladolid. And of course, our knowledge is limited by the fact that there were many levels of discourse as well as self-censorship. No one appeared to follow Vitoria’s ideas in mid sixteenth-century Portugal, which clashed with an official line that was content with papal diplomas, but his teaching circulated through manuscripts. The Spanish Martín de Ledesma, one of his disciples, held the main chair of Theology in Coimbra. Vitoria’s ideas were presumably discussed in some of his lectures. Certainly, they are referenced in handwritten commentaries by Portuguese theologians from the second half of the sixteenth century. But even when it became more accepted to quote and even use Vitoria’s arguments, roughly around 1570s, there were still theologians in Portugal who approved his positions in their personal notes but refuted them in their published work.

Please forgive the very long response. That is what happens when you ask very ambitious questions! I will be more brief in my next answers.

EC: My second question is closely related to my first. In your discussion of Afonso Álvares Guerreiro, you mention how the Portuguese papalist position becomes associated with reviving medieval positions which either refuse to ascribe any legitimacy whatsoever to pagan polities, or which place very low barriers to just war against pagan polities. In your perception, does this association between ultramontanism and Christian expansionism go back to the Crusades (which can be interpreted partly as a bid to keep peace among Europeans by lowering the barriers to war outside Europe), or does it emerge specifically out of the context of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese maritime activity, along with the struggle to remain independent from Spain?

GM: There has been much debate over the legal framework that emerged in association with the Crusades and its importance for European exploration. I think that specific aspects of its legacy can be traced in some papal diplomas concerning Iberian penetration into North Africa, or in the justification of the right to reduce persons of African descent to perpetual slavery, which was granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century. However, I tend to be skeptical about interpretations that emphasize direct continuity between medieval confrontation with Muslims, including the fragmented process that some historians still call Reconquista, and the cultural background to early modern Iberian imperialism. This is not to deny that medieval theories matter when it comes to your question about the right to wage war against non-Christian polities in the context of Spanish or Portuguese theories of empire. James Muldoon is the scholar who probably has the most accurate and influential work on this topic. It seems to me that what Guerreiro was concerned with is the thirteenth-century dispute over papal power. The position that became more popular and was still prevailing among early modern Iberian thinkers, was a moderate one, if still quite bellicose. It was usually ascribed to Pope Innocent IV, who argued that the Vicar of Christ had only indirect power over those who lived outside the Christian world and could not deprive them from their right to self-government and freedom only because they were not Christians––or were “pagans,” if you prefer to use the language of the sources. Guerreiro adhered to a more aggressive interpretation, which was promoted by Cardinal Hostiensis and the likes, according to whom it was always licit to wage war against non-Christians for the sole reasons that they were not Christians. The same position had been held in fourteenth-century Portugal by Alvarus Pelagius, a Franciscan friar from Galicia whose writings had a few editions between the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. However different, both doctrines of papal power significantly expanded the pontiff’s right to promote military action against non-Christians beyond Muslims. Therefore, these doctrines were of particular interest during the early age of European exploration.

I should clarify that the fact that the Portuguese recognized papal authority as a valid source of legitimacy for their empire is not the same thing as saying that they endorsed the doctrine of direct papal power over non-Christians. The diplomas that were granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century were based on an ingenious reinterpretation of the doctrine of indirect power according to which the pope had the right to entrust a Christian prince with sending armies against non-Christians who infringed natural law. Medieval theories were seen as repertoires of arguments that could always been reused and transformed for specific needs. Guerreiro was a supporter of the doctrine of direct papal power and, although he was Portuguese, he lived in Naples and did not refer to the Portuguese empire in his writings. Conversely, Martín de Azpilcueta, better known as Doctor Navarrus, was a Spanish canon lawyer who taught and wrote against such doctrines when he was professor in Coimbra. He made reference to its recent use to justify conquests in the Americas, although rather vaguely. His preference was for the doctrine of indirect papal. Navarrus coincided with the official Portuguese imperial ideology on this point. It is worth recalling, nonetheless that in the end the doctrine of indirect papal power complemented the theory of just war, which was broadly interpreted and still used extensively in early eighteenth-century Brazil to enslave indigenous people.

EC: The debate over Machiavelli’s claims about Roman religion in the Discourses on Livy is one which was very common in sixteenth-century Iberia. Yet the way in which it maps to the debate over the legitimacy of pagan polities and the right of conquest is ambiguous. On the one hand, if Roman religion was completely illegitimate and did not in any sense secure God’s favor, this would seem to map to the Portuguese papalist argument that pagan polities have little essential legitimacy. On the other hand, the argument that pursuing “worldly glory” is not such a bad thing, quietly paraphrased from Machiavelli, frequently shows up in encomia for Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion (and in mirrors for princes in general). Can you speak a little more about why you chose to open with this particular debate?

GM: With pleasure. In the first place, I wanted to show that there was a moment in which even when it came to religion, Iberian theories of empire could still go beyond scholasticism. The debate over Machiavelli and his praise of the civic religion of the ancient Romans as opposed to Christianity with respect to encouraging military valor, was very intense in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It came well before the strong interest in The Prince, which is evident in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Jesuit writers and their dissimulative strategies. Machiavelli’s position in the Discourses on Livy hit a raw nerve. It was also because of the insinuation that the true heirs of the Roman soldiers were the Turks. This was highly problematic from the point of view of Catholic empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese. Why did God permit the Roman empire to become so great? Why was something similar happening again with the Ottomans? It was a truly Iberian debate, in which many famous humanists engaged, from the Spanish Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda to the Portuguese João de Barros. Some of them harshly condemned Machiavelli as an author who favored pagans and Muslims, others were captivated by his idea of a link between religion and military value and endeavored to reconcile his argument with a Christian perspective. Several scholars have explored this dispute over Machiavelli since Adriano Prosperi highlighted its importance in an article from the late 1970s. In a volume that Lucio Biasiori and I edited in 2018, the mid sixteenth-century Iberian discussion is presented as being part of a much deeper and ambivalent interaction between the reception of Machiavelli and the perception of the Islamic world in early modern Europe and beyond. But what mostly interests me in the clash between Monzón and Azpilcueta in the 1540s, to which I specifically refer in my article, is that this debate between two Spanish thinkers taking place in Portugal helps us understand why official attitudes towards Machiavelli deteriorated so rapidly there unlike in Spain, whose inhabitants continued to be allowed to read his writings, including the Discourses on Livy, for another forty years or so.

The other reason that I decided to open my article with this episode is that it demonstrates that Iberian theories of empire were not static. Not only did they provide a set of arguments to be used against rival empires, but imperial ideologies themselves were the outcome of internal conflicts and a periodic redefinition of power relations among different thinkers. For long time, Catholic political thought and the Roman imperial tradition were the two main sources of inspiration for Iberian theories of empires, but there was a clear hierarchy. After roughly the mid-sixteenth century, classical culture could remain a point of reference only if purged from its most dangerous elements, whose risks Machiavelli exemplified. The hegemony of scholastic theology was obtained through episodes such as the public exposure of Monzón’s conciliatory approach toward the Discourses on Livy. Obviously, things changed over and over again. Historians of Iberian imperial ideologies and cultures, nonetheless, may show greater awareness of these tensions and anxieties as well as the domestication that the Roman imperial tradition went through over the course of time. The point is analyzed in works that are milestones in the field, such as Marie Tanner’s The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (1993), and Sabine MacCormack’s On the Wings of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru (2007). I also believe that there is still a lot to learn from authors such as Marcel Bataillon or, on a less compelling intellectual level, José Sebastião da Silva Dias.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy and political thought.

Featured image: Baptism of Philip II (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Think Piece

A Book of Battle: Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo and La ciencia española

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Statue of Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo at the Biblioteca Nacional de España

Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo’s La ciencia española (first ed. 1876) is a battlefield long after the guns have fallen silent: the soldiers dead, the armies disbanded, even the names of the belligerent nations changed beyond recognition. All the mess has been cleared up. Like his contemporaries Leopold von Ranke, Arnold Toynbee, or Jacob Burckhardt, Menéndez Pelayo has been enshrined as one of the nineteenth-century tutelary deities of intellectual history. Seemingly incapable of writing except at great length and in torrential cascades of erudition, his oeuvre lends itself to reverence—and frightens off most readers. And while reverence is hardly undeserved, we do a disservice to La ciencia española and its author if we leave the marmoreal exterior undisturbed. The challenge for the modern reader is to recover the passions—intellectual, political, and personal—animating what Menéndez Pelayo himself called “a book of battle [un libro de batalla]” (2:268).

Gumersindo de Azcárate

La ciencia española is a multifarious collection of articles, reviews, speeches, and letters that takes its name from its linchpin, a feisty exchange over the history of Spanish learning (la ciencia española). The casus belli came from an 1876 article by the distinguished philosopher and jurist Gumersindo de Azcárate, who argued that early modern Spain had been intellectually stunted by the Catholic Church. Menéndez Pelayo responded with an essay vociferously defending the honor of Spanish learning, exonerating the Church, and decrying the neglect of early modern Spanish intellectual history. Azcárate never replied, but his colleagues  Manuel de la Revilla, Nicolás Salméron, and José del Perojo took up his cause, trading articles with Menéndez Pelayo in which they debated these and related issues—was there such a thing as “Spanish philosophy”?—in excruciating detail.

The exchange showcases the driving concerns of Menéndez Pelayo’s scholarly career: the greatness of the Spanish intellectual tradition, critical bibliography, Catholicism as the national genius of Spain, and an almost-frightening sense of how much these issues matter. This last is the least accessible element of La ciencia española: the height of its stakes. Why should Spain’s very identity rest upon abstruse questions of intellectual history? How did a group of academics merit the label “the eternal enemies of religion and the patria [los perpetuos enemigos de la Religión y de la patria]” (1:368)?

Here we must understand that La ciencia española is but one rather pitched battle in a broader war. Nineteenth-century Spain was in the throes of an identity crisis, the so-called “problem of Spain.” In the wake of the loss of a worldwide empire, serial revolutions and civil wars, a brief flirtation with a republic, endemic corruption, and economic stagnation, where was Spain’s salvation to be found—in the past or in the future? With the Church or with the Enlightenment? By looking inward or looking outward?

Karl Christian Friedrich Krause

Menéndez Pelayo was a self-declared neocatólico, a movement of conservative Catholics for whom Spain’s identity was indissolubly linked to the Church. He also stands as perhaps the foremost exponent of casticismo, a literary and cultural nationalism premised on a return to Spain’s innate, authentic identity.  All of Menéndez Pelayo’s antagonists in that initial exchange—Azcárate, Revilla, Salmerón, and Perojo—were Krausists, from whom not much is heard these days. Karl Christian Friedrich Krause was a student of Schelling, Hegel, and Fichte, long (and not unjustly) overshadowed by his teachers. But Krause found an unlikely afterlife among a cohort of liberal thinkers in Restoration Spain. These latter-day Krausists aimed at the intellectual rejuvenation of Spain, which they felt had been stifled by the Catholic Church. Accordingly, they called for religious toleration, academic freedom, and, above all, an end to the Church’s monopoly over education.

To Menéndez Pelayo, Krausism threatened the very wellsprings of the national culture. The Krausists were “a horde of fanatical sectarians […] murky and repugnant to every independent soul” (qtd. in López-Morillas, 8). He acidly denied both that Spain’s learning had declined, and that the Church had in any way hindered it:

For this terrifying name of “Inquisition,” the child’s bogeyman and the simpleton’s scarecrow, is for many the solution to all problems, the deus ex machina that comes as a godsend in difficult situations. Why have we had no industry in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why have we had bad customs, as in all times and places, save in the blessed Arcadia of the bucolics? Because of the Inquisition. Why are we Spaniards lazy? Because of the Inquisition. Why are there bulls in Spain? Because of the Inquisition. Why do Spaniards take the siesta? Because of the Inquisition. Why were there bad lodgings and bad roads and bad food in Spain in the time of Madame D’Aulnoy? Because of the Inquisition, because of fanaticism, because of theocracy. [Porque ese terrorífico nombre de Inquisición, coco de niños y espantajo de bobos, es para muchos la solución de todos los problemas, el Deus ex machina que viene como llovido en situaciones apuradas. ¿Por qué no había industria en España? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué había malas costumbres, como en todos tiempos y países, excepto en la bienaventurada Arcadia de los bucólicos? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué somos holgazanes los españoles? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué hay toros en España? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué duermen los españoles la siesta? Por la Inquisición. ¿Por qué había malas posadas y malos caminos y malas comidas en España en tiempo de Mad. D’Aulnoy? Por la Inquisición, por el fanatismo, por la teocracia.]. (1:102–03)

What was called for was not—perish the thought—a move away from dogmatism, but a renewed appreciation for Spain’s magnificent heritage. “I desire only that the national spirit should be reborn […] that spirit that lives and beats at the base of all our systems, and gives them a certain aspect of their parentage, and connects and ties together even those most discordant and opposed [Quiero sólo que renazca el espíritu nacional […], ese espíritu que vive y palpita en el fondo de todos nuestros sistemas, y les da cierto aire de parentesco, y traba y enlaza hasta a los más discordes y opuestos]” (2:355).

Title page of Miguel Barnades Mainader’s Principios de botanica (1767)

Menéndez Pelayo practiced what he preached. He is as comfortable discussing such obscure peons of the Republic of Letters as the Portuguese theologian Manuel de Sá and the Catalan botanist Miguel Barnades Mainader, as he is in extolling Juan Luis Vives, arguing over the influence of Thomas Aquinas, or establishing the birthplace of Raymond Sebold. Menéndez Pelayo writes with genuine pain at “the lamentable oblivion and neglect in which we hold the nation’s intellectual glories [del lamentable olvido y abandono en que tenemos las glorias científicas nacionales]” (1:57). His fellow neocatólico Alejandro Pidal y Mon imagines Menéndez Pelayo as a necromancer, calling forth the spirits of long-dead intellectuals (1:276), a power on extravagant display in La ciencia española. The third volume of La ciencia española comprises nearly three hundred pages of annotated bibliography, on every conceivable branch of the history of knowledge in Spain.

I am aware how close I have strayed to the kind of pedestal-raising I deprecated at the outset. Fortunately, we do not have to look far to find the clay feet that will be the undoing of any such monument. Menéndez Pelayo’s lyricism should not disguise the reactionary character of his intellectual project, with its nationalism and loathing of secularism, religious toleration, and any challenge to Catholic orthodoxy. His avowed respect for the achievements of Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain is cheapened by a pervasive, muted anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: La ciencia española speaks of “the scientific poverty of the Semites [La penuria científica de los semitas]” (2:416) and the “decadence [decadencia]” of contemporary Islam. When he writes, “I am, thanks be to God, an Old Christian [gracias a Dios, soy cristiano viejo]” (2:265), we cannot pretend he is ignorant of the pernicious history of that term. Of the colonization of the New World he baldly states, “we sowed religion, science, and blood with a liberal hand, later to reap a long harvest of ingratitudes and disloyalties [sembramos a manos llenas religión, ciencia y sangre, para recoger más tarde larga cosecha de ingratitudes y deslealtades]” (2:15).

It is no coincidence that Menéndez Pelayo’s prejudices are conveyed in superlative Spanish prose—ire seems to have brought out the best of his wit. “I cannot but regret that Father [Joaquín] Fonseca should have felt himself obliged, in order to vindicate Saint Thomas [Aquinas] from imagined slights, to throw upon me all the corpulent folios of the saint’s works [no puedo menos de lastimarme de que el Padre Fonseca se haya creído obligado, para desagraviar a Santo Tomás de ofensas soñadas, a echarme encima todos los corpulentos infolios de las obras del Santo]” (2:151) “Mr. de la Revilla says that he has never belonged to the Hegelian school. Congratulations to him—his philosophical metamorphoses are of little interest to me [El Sr. de la Revilla dice que nunca ha pertenecido a la escuela hegeliana. En hora buena: me interesan poco sus transformaciones filosóficas]” (1:201). On subjects dear to his heart, baroque rhapsodies could flow from his pen. He spends three pages describing the life of the medieval Catalan polymath Ramon Llull, whom he calls the “knight errant of thought [caballero andante del pensamiento]” (2:372).

At the same time, many pages of La ciencia española make for turgid reading, bare catalogues of obscure Spanish authors and their yet more obscure publications.

*     *     *

Menéndez Pelayo died in 1912. Azcárate, his last surviving interlocutor, passed away five years later. Is the battle over? In the intervening decades, Spain has found neither cultural unity nor political coherence—and not for lack of trying. Reactionary Catholic and conservative though he was, Menéndez Pelayo does not fit the role of Francoist avant la lettre, in spite of the regime’s best efforts  to coopt him. La ciencia española shows none of Franco’s Castilian chauvinism and suspicion of regionalism. Menéndez Pelayo chides an author for using the phrase “the Spanish language [la lengua española]” when he means “Castilian.” “The Catalan language is as Spanish as Castilian or Portuguese [Tan española es la lengua catalana como la castellana or la portuguesa]” (2:363).

Today the Church has indeed lost its iron grip on the Spanish educational system, and the nation is not only no longer officially Catholic, but has embraced religious toleration and even greater heterodoxies, among them divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion. We are all Krausists now.

If the crusade against the Krausists failed, elements of Menéndez Pelayo’s intellectual project have fared considerably better. We are witnessing a flood of scholarly interest in early modern Spain’s intellectual history—historiography, antiquarianism, the natural sciences, publishing. Whether they know it or not, these scholars are answering a call sounded more than a century before. And never more so than when they turn their efforts to those Menéndez Pelayo sympathetically called “second-order talents [talentos de segundo orden]” (1:204). In the age of USTC, EEBO, Cervantes Virtual, Gallica, and countless similar resources, the discipline of bibliography he so cherished is expanding in directions he could never have imagined.

Charles II of Spain

Spain’s decline continues to inspire debate among historians—and will continue to do so, I expect, so long as there are historians to do the debating. The foreword to J. H. Elliott’s still-definitive survey, Imperial Spain: 1469–1716, places the word “decline” in inverted commas, but the prologue acknowledges the genuine puzzle of explaining the shift in Spain’s fortunes over the early modern period. Menéndez Pelayo could hardly deny that Charles II ruled an altogether less impressive realm than had his great-grandfather, but would presumably counter that whatever the geopolitics, Spanish letters remained vibrant. As for the Spanish Inquisition, his positivity prefigures that of Henry Kamen, who has raised not a few eyebrows with his favorably inclined “historical revision.”

La ciencia española is at once the showcase for a prodigious young talent, a call to arms for intellectual traditionalism, and a formidable if flawed collection of insights and reflections. As the grand old man of Spanish letters, a caricature of conservatism and Catholic partisanship, Menéndez Pelayo furnishes an excellent foil—or strawman, for those less charitably inclined—against whom generations can and should sharpen their pens and their arguments.

La lutte continue.

Think Piece

Cheek Rending, Bodies, and Rape in Medieval Castile, c. 1050-1300

by guest contributor Rachel Q. Welsh

In medieval Castile, between about 1050 and 1300, local municipal lawcodes, or fueros, looked to the body for proof of rape. These fueros provided detailed and practical sets of laws and privileges to newly founded or conquered towns before the advent of centralized royal law, and they were intended to encourage settlement and establish civic order on the expanding Castilian frontier. Although the fueros set harsh penalties for rape, a valid claim hinged on the woman’s own actions of public self-mutilation. In order to prove rape, a woman had to appear publicly within three days of the assault and rend her cheeks, tearing at her face with her fingernails until it bled. If the woman did not appear carpiendo y rascando, “tearing and scratching,” she was not to be believed, according to texts like the Fuero de Alba de Tormes.

Woman mourner, sacramentary of Ivrea, c. 1000, Northwest Italy. Biblioteca Capitplare d’Ivrea, codex 86, f. 199 verso. Miniatures reproduced in Luigi Magnani, Le miniature del sacramentario d'Ivrea e di altri codici Warmondiani. Codices ex Ecclesiasticis Italiae Bybliothecis Delecti, Phototypice Expressi (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1934), tav. XXXVII.
Woman mourner, sacramentary of Ivrea, c. 1000, Northwest Italy. Biblioteca Capitplare d’Ivrea, codex 86, f. 199 verso. Miniatures reproduced in Luigi Magnani, Le miniature del sacramentario d’Ivrea e di altri codici Warmondiani. Codices ex Ecclesiasticis Italiae Bybliothecis Delecti, Phototypice Expressi (Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1934), tav. XXXVII.

image-2The physical action of cheek rending is not unique to these Iberian lawcodes, as it was also part of a larger Mediterranean practice of ritual mourning, in which mourners raised loud laments and tore their hair, faces, and clothing.
These self-mutilating actions were especially associated with women, however, and women’s mourning bodies were understood within a framework that linked bodily expressions of emotion with unrestrained sexuality and self-mutilation. For example, John Chrysostom suggested in a homily that women tore their bodies and clothing not to demonstrate grief, but to show their bodies and attract lovers. Because Iberian women tore their cheeks both as part of ritual mourning and as proof of rape, however, what little scholarship mentions cheek rending as proof usually explains it away in terms of grief and emotion: Distraught women tore their faces in grief at the shame and dishonor of rape. While this could explain why an individual woman might rend her cheeks, it does not explain why the legal system would require torn and bleeding cheeks as proof.

In thinking about cheek rending as proof of rape, I propose that we think of it first as a real, physical action, not just as a ritual or cultural performance. The municipal fueros themselves are very practical legal codes, without overt ideological goals; they deal with everyday life on the Castilian frontier, and they regulate such mundane things as which days Jews and Christians could use the bathhouses or how bakers should be fined for heating their public bread ovens badly. The stipulations on rape and cheek rending should be read within this straightforward framework. The verbs used in Latin and Romance to refer to cheek rending—including rascar, grafinar, mesar, carpir, desfacer, cortar—signify real physical violence; the mourners scratch, rip, tear, cut, and strip their faces. The thirteenth-century Primera Crónica General describes women mourners as tearing and scratching their faces (tornandolas en sangre et en carne biva), stripping them back to blood and to open wounds. Alfonso X’s great royal legal code, Las Siete Partidas, condemns excessive mourning and refers to cheek rending as disfiguring. Moreover, it forbids priests from administering the sacraments to mourners until they had healed from the marks they had made on their faces. This suggests that cheek rending left real visible marks on mourners’ faces, that their bodies were literally marked, and possibly even scarred, with grief. Images of mourners rending their cheeks bear this out, as many show bloody red lines on the mourners’ faces. A medieval medical text on treatments for women, included in the Trotula collection, even describes an ointment which the women of Salerno used to treat the marks on their faces which they made in mourning for the dead (contra maculas in facie quas faciunt salernitane pro mortuis). If women tore their cheeks both in mourning and in rape, would widows and raped women then have the same facial marks or scars?

Scene of mourning at an honorable death, with women rending their cheeks, late 13th century Castile. From Cantiga 152, Cantigas de Santa Maria. Image reproduced in Heath Dillard, Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), plate 20.
Scene of mourning at an honorable death, with women rending their cheeks, late 13th century Castile. From Cantiga 152, Cantigas de Santa Maria. Image reproduced in Heath Dillard, Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), plate 20.

Because cheek rending was a bodily action performed through real, bleeding bodies, I further suggest that any examination of cheek rending as proof of rape should consider larger questions of how bodies, and especially women’s bodies, functioned before the law. Scholarship on emotion and gestures suggests that weeping was seen as a sign of sincerity, and cheek rending as proof of rape suggests a similar connection between outward appearance and internal mental state. The definition of rape in the fueros hinges on intent, consent, and believability, and in many fueros the cheek rending requirement falls under the heading “What woman should be believed concerning rape[?]” (Qual mugier deue seer creyda por forçada). Cheek rending might actually go further than just proving intention and sincerity, however, as many of these same towns also used the ordeal of hot-iron and the physical bodies of women to prove guilt or innocence. This ordeal was used only with women and only with women accused of certain kinds of bodily, secretive crimes, including poisoning, abortion, prostitution, and witchcraft. For these crimes, the law bypassed the woman’s testimony to access the truth directly from her body.

Mourners tearing their hair and faces in grief, c. 1295, Castile. 1 of 8 wooden panels originally in the chapel of San Andrés de Mahamud (Burgos). The Plañideros panels are currently in Sala 19 of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna, in Barcelona, catalog numbers 004372-003, 004372-004, 004372-005, and 004372-006.
Mourners tearing their hair and faces in grief, c. 1295, Castile. 1 of 8 wooden panels originally in the chapel of San Andrés de Mahamud (Burgos). The Plañideros panels are currently in Sala 19 of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Cataluyna, in Barcelona, catalog numbers 004372-003, 004372-004, 004372-005, and 004372-006.

But why only women’s bodies? If men were dishonored, they proved their civil cases through character witnesses and testimony, not through self-mutilation and bleeding cheeks. I am only beginning sustained research, but I suspect that there’s something about the body itself, an understanding that bodies – and especially female bodies, which were seen as more material and less spiritual than male bodies – could somehow demonstrate truth. In cheek rending as proof of rape, women mark and even mutilate their bodies to make visible the internal violence and dishonor of rape; in ordeal, perhaps, the body speaks for itself.

Rachel Welsh is a doctoral candidate in Medieval History at New York University. Her dissertation focuses on ordeal and the use of the body as legal proof in medieval Iberia, and she is interested more broadly in medieval medical, theological, philosophical, and legal understandings of the body as a potential conduit of truth.

Think Piece

Félix de Azara: Drawn from Life

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Decades before Darwin set out on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, Félix de Azara (1742–1821) observed many of the same species of animals and plants that the famed Englishman would see during his journey. Charged by the Spanish army with the task of drawing maps of the Spanish and Portuguese territories in the Río de la Plata region of what is now Paraguay and Brazil, Azara arrived in South America on March 12, 1781 and remained in the region for twenty years. The expedition proved long and monotonous, providing the curious, assiduous Azara with much time to observe the wildlife and peoples near the Río de la Plata.

During his time in South America, Azara amassed a significant collection of natural history objects. In 1788, he sent an extensive set of birds for study to the Royal Cabinet of Natural Sciences—what is now the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid—by way of José Moñino y Redondo, the Conde de Floridablanca (1728–1808), who was chief minister in charge of Spain’s foreign policy. Azara had preserved the birds using aguardiente, a strong grain alcohol. In a letter dated September 13 of the same year to Eugenio Izquierdo de Rivera y Lazaún, the director of the Royal Cabinet, Azara indicated that he hoped to “gather all of the species of birds, describe them and send them” to Spain (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and Calatayud Arinero 1984, 198). The box later arrived at the Cabinet with 107 specimens inside.

The personnel in Madrid did not view the specimens with as much enthusiasm as Azara did. The arduous journey—as well as the alcoholic aguardiente—had been unkind to the “avecillas.” Vice director of the Cabinet, José Clavijo Fajardo, sent his thanks to Azara via the Conde de Floridablanca, but only for drafts of Azara’s Remarks on the Natural History of the Birds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata and not for the ill-preserved birds. The naturalists at the museum saw them as worthless for taxidermy and study. Tragically, the Cabinet could not accommodate the unidentified, aboriginally-named birds in Azara’s collection (Figueroa 2011). Since neither Buffon nor Linnaeus had referenced any of the species that Azara identified, Clavijo considered them uninteresting and disposed of them (Calatayud Arinero 2009, 90-91).[1]

While this anecdote serves as an example of the capriciousness of what survives the sands of time and what does not in terms of objects of natural history, it also illustrates the attitude at the Spanish institution—and among educated Spaniards themselves—toward Azara during his lifetime. The Cabinet rejected Azara’s specimens because it operated within a different knowledge paradigm that did not value the same objects and methods of science that Azara, separated by an ocean, had developed for himself. Azara was not Bernard Shaw’s itinerant British sailors in the South Pacific, for whom “the problem of observing and interpreting what they saw…was…a simpler matter…than for the exiles and missionaries who followed them” and began this new, foreign way of life. Azara was not enjoying merely “extended, if dangerous, holiday;” he had, in fact, a “deep emotional break…[from] a homeland never, perhaps, to be seen again” (Shaw 1950, 85).

Azara’s lack of professional training as a naturalist may have played a role: although he was well-versed in mathematics and the physical sciences, his practical biological knowledge was self-taught. Azara maintained that his observations of animals as they lived in the wild prevented him from drawing the same mistaken conclusions as European naturalists. In his introduction to his treatise on quadrupeds, Azara stressed that he

[put] all my care to tell the truth without exaggerating anything, and to know and express the characters of the animals whose descriptions I made in their presence. Because of this I have been less at risk to fall into the errors that those who have not been able to observe them alive have not been able to avoid; those who have beheld them emaciated, hairless and dirty in cages and chains; and those who have sought them in cabinets: where, in spite of care, the injury of time must have altered the colors heavily, changing the black into brown, etc.: and no skin, nor the best-prepared skeleton, gives the exact idea of the shapes and sizes (Azara 1802, i-ii).

He lambasted armchair scientists who made all of their discoveries not in the field but using stuffed skins and bones in the museum (Cowie 2011, 5).

Azara’s professional contemporaries at the Royal Cabinet did not refuse his work in its entirety. Azara enjoyed some success from his publications in his home country as well as other European nations. Yet his books were not as effective at describing the birds as were the birds themselves. Different forms of knowledge held value over others.

Through illustrations was one way that Azara could command an audience. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue in their work on objectivity, “Whatever the amount and avowed function of the text in an atlas, which varies from long and essential to nonexistent and despised, the illustrations command center stage” (Daston & Galison 1992, 85). Azara incorporated drawings of the bird and animal species he discussed in his numerous multi-volume tomes on the flora, fauna and ecology of the South American region where he lived. His best-known works include the aforementioned Remarks on the Natural History of the Birds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata and Remarks on the Natural History of the Quadrupeds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata, for which he tried his hand at illustration as well, despite his admitted lack of skill (Azara 1802, iv). For the French edition, Azara hired an illustrator, but he drew from the specimens in the Paris Museum rather than from life (Cowie 2011, 135). Azara could not have it all: he had to choose between his crude drawings from the field or professional depictions of dead museum specimens. Explore the pictures below to make your own assessment. What explanatory power do these images hold?

1 Anteater

The black anteater, one of the two varieties that Azara studied, as illustrated in the French edition of his Voyages. Azara commissioned these illustrations from specimens that he identified in the museum in Paris as correctly corresponding to those in his notes from South America (Azara 1850, 4). He corrected a falsely held notion in Europe that every anteater was female and that their proboscides substituted for something more phallic in the act (Azara 1802, 65).

2 Azara's rat

Azara was the first to identify a significant number of animal and plant species during his time near Río de la Plata, including this species of rat. Modern evolutionary biologists continue to examine his own taxonomic and naming practices as well, since he classified many mammals and birds using hybrid binomials that scientists still employ today, despite his ignorance of proper practice in Linnaean nomenclature. One set of researchers, hailing from institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History as well as the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, updated Azara’s taxonomic description of varieties of opossums in order to conform with present-day research. They state that Azara’s “descriptions are detailed enough to permit unambiguous identifications of many species” (Voss et al. 2009, 406-407).

3 Azara's bird

Forty pages of descriptions and notes accompanied the birds that Azara sent to the Royal Cabinet, which totaled 84 specimens of 61 different species. He listed the birds’ descriptive, hybrid indigenous-and-Spanish names such as the “Tugüay-machete” and the “Yby̆y̆aù sociable” (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and Calatayud Arinero 1984, 197). In a detailed four-columned list, he also included the sex and assessments of the condition of the individual specimens (Figueroa 2011).

4 Azara map 1809 English

Azara did adhere to his original mission, lest one forget what that was. He made some efforts to draw maps of the region, such as the snippet of this comprehensive one included in the beginning of the 1838 English edition of his treatise on quadrupeds. The act of surveying proved extremely difficult not just for him but also for the Spanish representatives sent to other South American regions. Historian of Latin America Tamar Herzog describes the hurdles that they encountered, such as

treaties [that] often mentioned rivers, settlements, and mountains that never existed or were not located where the parties had imagined. Others had a different name in Spanish and Portuguese. Because the territory was not only huge but also unknown, experts[’]…work degenerat[ed] into endless debates regarding where rivers flowed and where mountains were located.

Just as with the sixteenth-century treaty of Tordesillas, Herzog writes, “these experts thus failed to reach concord on how a theoretical, imaginary line described in a European document would become a concrete, material reality in the Americas” (Herzog 2015, 32).

5 Azara Goya

A work featuring Félix de Azara appears in yet another Spanish institution, but it is perhaps neither in the expected medium nor in the expected museum. In 1805, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya painted Azara’s portrait, which now hangs in the Goya Museum in Zaragoza, Spain. Azara wears his military regalia, replete with sword, cane and well-pressed uniform. Yet, his intellectual pursuits also figure into the symbolism of the scene. He holds in his right hand a paper, indicating he is a learned man. Most wonderfully, behind him is a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Taxidermied felines grace the lowest shelf while his beloved birds overflow on the others, tucked away for study when necessary.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.