James Amelang and
Ego-Documents in Early Modern Spain
purpose of this brief text is to outline some of the main characteristics of
Spanish autobiographical writing from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.