During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Spain was arguably the most powerful country in Europe and administered an empire that extended around the globe and generated an enormous amount of documentation. Anyone who wants to study Spain or any part of its global empire has to able to read that documentation. Fortunately, the Spanish language had more or less acquired its modern form by the late fifteenth century, and handwriting had more or less acquired its modern form by the early eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the old handwriting—paleography—from the late fifteenth through the seventeenth century is often very difficult, and it is even more difficult to get training in the skills necessary to decipher it.
Under the auspices of the Newberry and the sponsorship of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I just finished directing a seminar in Spanish paleography, which ran from June 3 to June 21. There were fifteen participants from institutions all over the United States, selected from a pool of sixty-six applicants. Most were advanced graduate students who need skills in Spanish paleography for their dissertation research. A few were young scholars already embarked on careers in teaching or archival sciences. They are interested in history in the broadest sense, focusing on literature, society, music, art, politics, science, religion, law, government, and combinations of those fields. A few had considerable experience with Spanish manuscripts but needed more practice to become proficient. Others had less experience but knew that paleographic skills would be crucial to their future research.
For the most part, we worked from photocopies of typical document forms, such as official reports, powers of attorney, sales of land, royal decrees, and so on. We were also able to view a variety of manuscripts in the Newberry’s collection from Spanish America and the Philippines, as well as Spain. These included documents regarding noble status, land ownership, royal decrees, lawsuits, and dictionaries translating local languages in the Americas into Spanish. We also viewed some beautiful examples of Spanish calligraphy and manuscript illumination, quite different from the difficult hands common in everyday documents. In three weeks, we could only begin to sample the wide variety of documents that the seminar’s participants will encounter in their research. Nonetheless, they all improved their skills and their confidence in dealing with the materials. They also formed friendships that will serve them well as they advance their careers.
Posted by Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor in Comparative Early Modern History, University of Minnesota