Curriculum Vitae Survey Scientific Team Bibliography Links



James Amelang and Antonio Castillo-Gomez




Ego-Documents in Early Modern Spain

The purpose of this brief text is to outline some of the main characteristics of Spanish autobiographical writing from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.[1] I would open by emphasizing that very little is known about these matters for Spain, where the study of autobiography lags considerably behind the rest of Europe. The reasons why things are this way are rather complex, but one can begin by mentioning the widespread belief that there simply was no autobiography in early modern Spain. Also of importance is the fact that historians of Spain have, by and large, left the subject of autobiography in the hands of literary historians, who tend to focus on fairly narrow range of texts. For some time now I and others have been making bores of ourselves by insisting that early modern Spain was actually quite rich in autobiographical writing, particularly if one applies to this category of text a broad, "ego-documents" definition. We have also beaten the drums in favor of historians needing to do a much better job in employing autobiography as sources in our work-- with mixed results, to be sure. 

My concern here is with autobiographical writing defined in a deliberately lax, ego-documents way. By this I mean diaries, memoirs, first-person travel accounts, family chronicles, autobiographies proper (including spiritual ones), and the like. It is not at all difficult to reconstruct the broad range of available ego-documents. Referring to these works as a corpus is, however, a bit more of a challenge. This is something I for one am reluctant to do. I prefer to think of first-person writing as a textual practice whose traces have survived into the present in very accidental and fragmentary ways-- too accidental and fragmentary, in fact, to be conveyed by a term like "corpus", with its air of solid assurance of thorough coverage. Still, certain characteristics surface and resurface among these writings that seem specific, if not unique, to Spain. For the time being I would signal five major features of early modern Spanish ego-documents.[2]

They are: 

1. The extraordinary amount of what could be called bureaucratic autobiography. By this I mean first-person narratives that were called into existence not by the voluntary will of the author, but rather by the largely impersonal and on occasion unwelcome imperatives of other parties. This hardly comes as a surprise, when one considers that early modern Spain in general, and the kingdom of Castile in particular, had given rise to the largest and most precociously developed state apparatus in the whole of Europe. Tens of thousands of individuals-- many but not all of them in the military-- wrote what were called memorias de servicios when seeking some sort of recompense for their (or their kinsmen's) service to the king.[3] Another variant of this bureaucratic autobiography was the traza. This term-- literally meaning "trace", in the sense of design-- was the first-person narrative of one's life prisoners interrogated by the most notorious part of the state system, the Inquisition, had to render as a matter of standard procedure beginning sometime in the later sixteenth century. Ordered to give the details of their lives, suspects rendered these informal and spontaneous tales orally. Their transcription by the tribunal's scribes assured that these impromptu exercises in autobiography on one's feet took on written form, and that they now patiently await in the archives the attention of historians.[4] 

2. The high visibility of spiritual autobiography. To be sure, such texts were produced in abundance throughout virtually all of Europe. However, Spain seems to have developed a particularly rich tradition in first-person, even intimate writing on religious matters. So much so, in fact, that it produced what may have been the single most influential spiritual autobiography of the period, the Life of Teresa of Avila, first published in 1588. This point may seem to be all too obvious, but it is worth mentioning because of the lingering impact of a sort of Weber thesis of early modern autobiography, which links its flourishing to the Reformation, and to a new individualism and flair for introspection closely (and sometimes exclusively) associated with Protestants. That such individualism and the forms of writing it engendered also existed within the Catholic sphere is something few historians question these days. Still, it needs mentioning, especially since so many otherwise well-informed persons continue to believe that the sum total of early modern Spanish religion was the Inquisition.[5] 

3. Early modern Spain gave rise to the earliest and most highly developed tradition of fictional autobiography, in the form of the picaresque novel. Even more relevant to our concern with popular autobiography is the curious fact that this genre took shape as the first-person account by a narrator (female as well as male) of explicitly lower-class origins. Other literary traditions were quick to imitate Spanish models; their absorption and reelaboration in seventeenth-century France and eighteenth-century England are particularly well known. 

4. One of the major reasons why it is difficult to generalize about early modern Spanish autobiography is the existence of certain firm patterns of regional distribution and differentiation. This affects both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of first-person writing. In regard to the former, my impression is that eastern Spain-- specifically Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands-- produced far more ego-documents than those found in other areas. In regard to the latter, one can point to certain forms of first-person writing that help explain this preponderance. The greater abundance in the Levant took the form of more family and civic chronicles, account books, and diaries. One could say on the other hand that Castile "specialized" in spiritual autobiography, the prevalent genre within its range of personal documents.[6] 

5. Castile in particular, and Spain as a whole, also produced a large swath of what might be called the "autobiography of empire". By this I mean those first-person texts provoked into existence by the distance overseas expansion brought into being. The student of popular personal expression would find most interesting here the enormous number of vernacular letters-- relatively few of which have survived-- ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic wrote each other.[7] But this textual ensemble also included the abundant first-person narratives written by explorers, conquistadores, missionaries, and others who took on the task of describing their experiences in the New World to the Old. 

            I would emphasize once again that this is a far from complete list of characteristics, and that moreover many of these traits are not very sharply focused. Bringing this assembly of texts into clearer view is an urgent task for historians of early modern Spain, and one that would be best done by undertaking concrete comparisons with other such texts elsewhere-- ideally under the aegis of the type of international, cross-cultural collaboration of the sort envisioned in this project.

[1] This text reproduces portions of a talk on "Popular Autobiography in Early Modern Spain: Observations General and Particular" delivered at a conference on "Memoria, famiglia, identità tra Italia ed Europa nell’età moderna" held in Trento in October 2007 (proceedings forthcoming).

[2] The following supplements some earlier observations I made in "Spanish Autobiography in the Early Modern Era", in Winfried Schulze (ed.), Ego-Dokumente: Annäherung an den Menschen in der Geschichte. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1996, pp. 59-71, and "Comparando la escritura autobiográfica en España e Inglaterra durante la Edad Moderna. ¿Qué se debe hacer?" in J.C. Davis and Isabel Burdiel (eds.), El otro, el mismo: Biografía y autobiografía en Europa, siglos XVII-XX. Valencia: Universitat de València, 2005, pp. 63-72.

[3] For a description of the protocols shaping this sort of bureaucratic text, see Rosa Mª Gregori Roig, "Representación pública del individuo: Relaciones de Méritos y Servicios en el Archivo General de Indias, siglos XVII-XVIII", in Antonio Castillo Gómez and Verónica Sierra Blas (eds.), El legado de Mnemosyne: Las escrituras del yo a través del tiempo, Gijón: Trea, 2007, pp. 355-379.

[4] There is an excellent selection in English of these narratives, in Richard L. Kagan and Abigail Dyer (eds.), Inquisitorial Inquiries: The Brief Lives of Secret Jews and Other Heretics, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. For more reflections on this unusual source, see my "Tracing Lives: The Spanish Inquisition and the Act of Autobiography", in a volume edited by Rudolf Dekker and Arianne Baggerman (forthcoming from Brill, Leiden, 2009).

[5] For more on this genre, see my "Women's Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern Spain: From Sacred Conversation to Mistero Buffo", Dimensioni e problemi della ricerca storica, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 63-74.

[6] I briefly explore this difference in first-person writing traditions in "Cataluña desde Europa: Las raíces de una cultura autobiográfica", in Catalunya i Europa a l'Edat Moderna. Actes del IV Congrés d'Història Moderna de Catalunya. Pedralbes, vol. 18, 1998, pp. 457-462.

[7] For a selection in English translation, see James Lockhart and Enrique Otte (eds.), Letters and People of the Spanish Indies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.