Humanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Libraries of New Spain

By Mathes, W. Michael | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Humanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Libraries of New Spain


Mathes, W. Michael, The Catholic Historical Review


W. MICHAEL MATHES*

The final decades of the fifteenth century witnessed revolutionary changes in the political, cultural, and technological development of western Europe. On the Iberian peninsula the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were politically unified in 1469 through the marriage of their monarchs, Isabel and Fernando. This, in turn, led to establishment of the Castilian language as lingua franca in what became known as the Kingdom of Spain, legalization of orthodox Roman Christianity as the state religion through installation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1482, and expulsion of Moslems and Jews a decade later. Contemporary with these events, and not unrelated to them, the intellectual revival of Greek and Roman classical linguistics, philosophy, and literature, Humanism, a reaction to rigid medieval religious scholasticism, owed its spread and acceptance throughout western Europe to the parallel development of printing with movable metal type, allowing production of books in greater quantities, at lower cost, than theretofore possible. The expansion of this intellectual movement into the New World, and its widespread acceptance is evidenced by the presence of humanistic works in libraries, private and conventual, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in New Spain, primarily in the City of Mexico, the cultural center of the Americas during those years. It has often been said that a person is known through his books, and this is certainly a valid adage in tracing cultural trends within a society.

Humanism in Spain was initiated by Elio Antonio de Nebrija, father of Castilian lexicology and historian of Fernando and Isabel, through publication of his Introductiones Latinae at Salamanca in 1481. A text in Castilian designed for use by women appeared in Salamanca in 1486, and an edition annotated by Lorenzo Valla was printed at Barcelona by Nicholas Spindeler in 1505; Nebrija's monumental work subsequently appeared in countless editions throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, becoming the fundamental Latin grammar in the Spanish empire.'

As the sixteenth century opened, Humanism, as defined through the writings of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, achieved unrivaled popularity in Spain. The first modern world power, with her American empire in full expansion, the nation forged by Fernando and Isabel achieved intellectual distinction through Cardinal Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros, developer of the university complex of Alcala de Henares and editor/publisher of the great polyglot (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean) Complutensian Bible, printed by the university printer, Arnao Guillen de Brocar. Although unsuccessful in his invitation to Erasmus to join the University of Alcala in 1516, Ximenez supported teaching and publication of his works, and thus established a firm base of humanist scholars in Iberia. Ascension to the Spanish throne in 1516 by Charles I, himself a native of Flanders and attended by numerous Flemish advisors, provided political protection and legitimacy to the Erasmian school created by Ximenez.1

Nevertheless, for as much as the king and his Flemish court advanced Humanism in Spain, his election as Holy Roman Emperor made it subject to criticism and dangerous disrepute. The trans-Pyrenees nature of the crown brought Spain into central European politics, and the revolutionary propositions of Martin Luther posted at Wittenberg in 1517 alerted the Holy Office to questionable and marginally unorthodox views, including any form of criticism of the Church and its clergy. Illuminists (alumbrados), a group of Spanish mystics, by 1524 were generally found guilty of the former, and Erasmists, frequently involved in the latter, by 1527 were often intellectually associated, and thus soon found themselves equated to heretical Lutherans in the newly expanded view of the Inquisition. By 1529, Erasmists were subject to full prosecution by the Holy Office, a condition present throughout the century, varying only by degrees according to the sentiments of the tribunal. …

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