Juan Bautista de Avalle-Arce
The dean of the Spanish historians of the discovery and conquest of the Indies is without question Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, to use his name the way he signed his books. Although primarily known as an historian, including among Spanish literary critics, Oviedo was much more than that. Indeed, the more we know about his life, the more we may be able to illuminate his historical writing.
Oviedo led a fascinating life, the details of which he told and retold in the very frequent autobiographical sections of his many works. He was born in Madrid, as he constantly reminded his readers, in June-July 1478.1 He was tremendously proud of his identity as madrileño, long before Madrid became the capital of Spain, referring to his birthplace as "Madrid, such a noble and famous village, and like an egg yolk, placed right in the centre of its circumference." He also tells us that his family was originally from the North, from Oviedo, and that they were "well-known noblemen, of illustrious lineages."2 Oviedo projected a self-conscious attitude of nobility, which has led some critics to suspect that his family may not have been so noble as he claimed.
Indeed, in all likelihood his name was not Fernández de Oviedo, but rather Valdés. For instance, he always claimed to have no relationship with the many persons named Oviedo that were mentioned in his books. And in his Batallas y quinquagenas, as part of the biography of a Captain Valdés of the Royal Guard of the Catholic King, Oviedo interjects that "the principal heraldic arms that I carry through my father and grandfather are the arms of Valdés."3 Furthermore, in 1548 Oviedo published in Seville the Rule of Spiritual Life,4 and on the front page he had the painter reproduce the arms of Valdés. Finally, his favorite son, to whom he resigned some of the Central American offices he held as a result of his activities as a conquistador, was called Francisco González de Valdés. It should thus be clear that the great historian was really Valdés, but given the prevalent Spanish onomastic anarchy he chose the name Fernández de Oviedo.
Oviedo spent a significant part of his life as a courtier. He served briefly in