The following pages introduce a much longer essay from Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: critical essays, ed. David A. Boruchoff (New York: Palgrave / St. Martin’s Press, 2002, in press). As the title “Historiography with License: the Catholic Monarch and the Kingdom of God” suggests, this longer essay seeks to show how the artistic and rhetorical means used to animate the writing of history under the Catholic Monarchs sought as well to acclaim an ideal of Christian kingship that might guide the nation and its rulers in the future. As a result, although the historiography of the Catholic Monarchs has been seen as propaganda, one might instead conclude that these works envision an ideal toward which all Christians are admonished to aspire. For if Isabel’s chroniclers bear witness to policies that are intolerant of difference and often rigorous in its suppression, so too do they reveal the inadequacy of intolerance and rigor as a foundation for the Christian nation.

            The relevance of this analysis to colonial America consists in the effort to bring to light the artistic means used to turn the documentary impulse of history to a didactic and above all normative purpose, so that its value resides not only in individual or collective experience, but in more universal understanding.



Historiography with License: the Catholic Monarch and the Kingdom of God


                                                                                    David A. Boruchoff


“That’s where the truth of history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They could as well have passed over such matters in silence out of fairness,” said don Quixote, “for there’s no need to write down actions that neither change nor alter the truth of history if they must result in disesteem for the hero. In truth, Aeneas was not so merciful as Virgil paints him, nor Ulysses so prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That’s so,” replied Sansón; “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another as an historian: the poet can relate or sing things, not as they were, but as they ought to have been, and the historian has to write them, not as they ought to have been, but as they were, without adding or taking anything at all from the truth.”

—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha[1]



            When fray Jerónimo de San José set out in 1651 to define the demands of history, he said that “it is more seemly that the historian not be present” at the events he presumes to study, “because then, unencumbered by his own opinions and knowledge, . . . his mind might be free and dispassionate to judge and learn the truth by examining the relations of other people, without the love and affect of his own relation to them.”[2] Like many of his contemporaries, San José supposed that the ardor of personal interest might compromise the ability to record the cold, hard facts of history, a belief that made him forsake the age–old precept that “no one among the ancients wrote history unless he had taken part in and seen the things to be put into writing.”[3] Whereas a similar concern for impartiality moved Fernán Pérez de Guzmán to insist in 1450 that, while the historian need “be present at the principal and notable acts of war and peace, . . . history should not be published while the king or prince in whose time and domain it was composed is living, so that one be free to write the truth without fear,”[4] San José goes further by suggesting that we might accede to higher knowledge by “conforming and accommodating ourselves to the heavenly impulse and divine motion,” indeed becoming “instruments of the divine in human matters.”[5]

            Although it might seem that the resulting insights surpass our comprehension, San José contends that this need not be the case in the history of a nation, insofar as the key to collective being resides in the hearts and souls of the people. This idea, akin to the notion of intrahistory popularized at the end of the nineteenth century by Miguel de Unamuno,[6] is given expression in San José’s work by an extended metaphor that suggests both the difficulty and the contradictions of the historian’s task. For if on the one hand it is his lot to work with “the shadows and demons of forgotten events,” on the other it is the nature of his craft and the challenge of his genius, not merely to sift among “dust and ashes or at best the arid bones of buried corpses, that is, the imprint of deeds whose memory has all but completely perished,” but also:

like another Ezekiel prophesying upon them, to gather them, to unite them, to string them together, giving each its niche, place and proper seat in the disposition and body of history; to add, for coherence and strength, nerves of well–bound conjectures; to dress them with flesh, with rare and notable arguments; to stretch upon the body so disposed a handsome skin of varied and flowing narration, and, finally, to infuse it with the breath of life, with the energy of an expression so vivid that the things with which it deals seem to pulse and move about between pen and paper; all this is needed to give life to the body of a history organized only from ancient fragments.[7]

In this way, by breathing new life into forgotten events, history gives proof of knowledge that exceeds, yet defines, the present moment.

            This notion of history as a set of transcendent laws and conditions is typical of the Baroque, insofar as the past is accorded importance above all for its ability to inform an understanding of the human condition in general. It is thus that San José states that “what appear to be details in an historical work should be seen as matters written, not for today, but for posterity, not for those of us who are alive and present, but for others absent and yet to come.”[8] By the sixteenth century, this ideal defined “the end principally sought in history,”[9] influencing literary theory by revisiting the relationship of poetry, philosophy and history in Aristotle’s paradigm, which explains that the functions of the historian and the poet differ, “not in the one writing prose and the other verse,” but because

the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a universal statement I mean one as to what such or such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do—which is the aim of poetry, though it affixes proper names to the characters.[10]

Although controversial, the new understanding of history as an exemplary and universal, more than documentary, medium was endorsed by authorities of the stature of Philip II’s royal chronicler, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1549–1625), who notes that, “with the same incidents . . . always happening, those that have passed instruct us, so that, when reckoning upon our present circumstance, we may learn what is to come.”[11]

            The touchstone in this development was not surprisingly the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, of whom the humanist professor, chaplain and historian, Lucio Marineo Sículo, wrote in De Hispaniae laudibus (1497):

God almighty conjoined them so that they might be an example of life and virtue for all mortals, who should revere them on earth, not as princes, but as heavenly agents in the manner of Christ and indeed as participants in all divine things—the greatest and holiest renown, momentous fame, singular virtue, true sanctity, lawful liberality, most perfect clemency, preeminent faith and piety, equal justice and finally assiduous devotion to religion, all other innumerable virtues and most honorable pursuits—, whose immortal praises cannot even be set forth in words by any human intelligence.[12]

Marineo Sículo would recall this ideal of Christian kingship as the euphoria of reconquest Spain gave way to more uncertain times. With Isabel and Ferdinand’s successors in mind, he would insist on the importance of the Catholic Monarchs as an example, not merely of success, but of the respect for divine virtue that enables such success to occur, and declare in De rebus Hispaniae memorabilis (1533) that “history is truly written, not for the living who took part in its exploits and shaped them as authors, but instead for descendants yet to be born.”[13]

            Given this concern for exemplarity and essential factors, it is no wonder that later authorities, such as San José, would direct the historian to the skeleton, and not the body, of human relations, since the intent of such labor is to seek the coherence of “vestiges that lie as in the grave, wasted away and dismembered in monuments of venerable antiquity, as written works came for this reason to be called.”[14] In order quite literally to redress the absence occasioned by the putrefaction of time and neglect, San José prescribes that the panoply of art—“a handsome skin of varied and flowing narration”—replace other more ephemeral products of endeavor while ensuring that readers perceive the underlying truth, the “bones, nerves and muscles that must show themselves more distinctly in historical narrative.”[15] The fragility of the sources with which historians must deal indeed leads San José to contend that “it is the inevitable obligation of one who writes of ancient matters to examine point–by–point (albeit differently than would a teacher or a litigant) aspects that other authors have touched upon, binding together the nerves of one’s arguments with the firm stuff, like bones, of historical testimony, finally extricating the clean and tender truth from amid these spiny arguments.”[16]

            By giving preeminence to the anatomy of history, San José consigns passion to the domain of literary expression, where it might animate, but not alter or disguise, the facts at issue. Although he insists that accord be paid to “the terms, expressions and words that antiquity brought into use in matters of religion, dogma and doctrine, and that, ever since, have always been observed and revered,” San José understandably allows that reverence for tradition need not rule the practice of history as a whole. As long as one is prudent, since the historian’s first duty is “to choose what should be made eternal in history,” he concedes that “one need not constrain ingenuity and eloquence with the vulgarity of old–fashioned speech,” because “style changes like everything else that is subject to time, . . . clothing itself each century in the language and proper idiom of new expressions and phrases, just as trees are covered each year with new foliage.”[17]


*          *            *


            My purpose in citing this treatise, written by an author more versed in the theory than the practice of history, is to provide a point of reference from which one may look back on the role that historiography had in shaping a new understanding of the king and the Spanish nation during the preceding centuries. Although it is tempting to ascribe San José’s reluctance to treat the actual substance of recent events to the indications of decline and despair that had become increasingly evident to his countrymen in the first half of the seventeenth century,[18] one should note that, whereas the presumption to supplant personal experience with the dispassion of art is typical of the Baroque, the compulsion to redress the deficiencies of history’s actors is, on the contrary, a feature of Spain’s emergence as a nation–state. Indeed, many of the images used by San José to describe the body of history are prominent in fray Luis de León’s description of literary exegesis in De los nombres de Cristo (1583):

You do not draw these things you now say from within yourself, nor are you even the first to bring them to light, because all of them are sown and scattered, as it were, in both divine books and holy doctors, some here and others there; yet you are the first I have seen or heard who has made a sort of body or fabric of them all, pairing each thing with its mate, setting them in their proper places, and connecting and ordering them all. And though it is true that each of these things enlightens and teaches us when we read it in books where it is found on its own, I nevertheless do not know how it is that, when they are conjoined and ordered as you have now done, they fill the soul with light and admiration together, and, it seems, open for it a new door to understanding.[19]

Much as the reworking of religious auctoritas affords Luis de León’s readers with insight into how they might address or redress the spiritual “errors that wage war on the Church in this miserable time [of Lutheranism],”[20] the challenge of writing history in an earlier period of political uncertainty—the first years of Isabel I’s reign—was conditioned by the ambition to provide an artistic, judicial and philosophical framework, not only propitious to the interests of the crown, but mindful of more transcendent and exacting criteria of the sort that might guide the nation and its citizens in the future.

            One may begin to address this concern of historiography in early modern Spain by considering a once dominant mode of writing about human events that is all but neglected today. Known in Spanish as anales, relaciones, registros, memoriales and crónicas, these works conform to the typology and parameters first set down by Aristotle, insofar as they conceptualize history as an orderly and open–ended process, in which the forward march of time overshadows the dénouement of any single intrigue, so that, in Aristotle’s words: “history has to deal not with one action, but with one period and all that happened in [it] to one or more persons, however disconnected the several events may have been.”[21] Later historians such as San José astutely note that this observance of external chronology may reassure us that an account is truthful, “but it cuts off incidents, leaving them without due consideration, and readers unsatisfied, more eager to seek out the interrupted thread than to pursue a new report, like one who has had a tasty morsel snatched from his mouth only to be given another, yet prevented from swallowing any; each incident is carried off at the best moment.”[22] In this, the effect of traditional forms of historical prose differs from that of fiction, as Jacques Amyot saw in the sixteenth century, since, by forgoing chronology, fiction “causes great admiration in its readers, sparking in them a passionate desire to hear and understand the beginning, even attracting them with an ingenious reading of its tale, for they do not understand what they read at the beginning of the first book until they see the end of the fifth.”[23]

            The observance of chronology might seem, indeed, to impede the transmission of ideas and precepts, insofar as the division of history into discrete and regular units such as calendar years does not lend itself to synthesis, anamnesis, typology and other didactic or dramatic means commonly used to elucidate meaning. Nevertheless, such works proclaim the significance of seemingly individual events with an air of certainty made possible by hindsight. Epistemology is infused in the fabric of life itself, allowing these chronicles to combine the apparatus of dialectical and rhetorical study, the means by which the reader might not only attain systematic knowledge, but be persuaded of the author’s particular, though perhaps less explicit, perspective.[24]



[1] Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605/1615) 2.3, ed. Martín de Riquer, 2 vols. (Barcelona: Editorial Juventud, 1971), 2: 560. All translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. In all cases, I have sought to provide exact translations in accordance with etymology and historical usage.

[2] Jerónimo de San José, Genio de la Historia, ed. Higinio de Santa Teresa (Vitoria: Ediciones “El Carmen,” 1957), p. 359.

[3] Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive originum 1.41.1, ed. Wallace M. Lindsay, 2 vols. (1911; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), n. pag. San José refers to this as a “rigorous law” and an “inviolable law,” and traces the word “history” to the Greek verb historeîn, meaning “to see and know.” This principle is restated by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in the preface to part 1 (1535) of his Historia general y natural de las Indias, ed. Juan Pérez de Tudela Bueso, 5 vols., Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 117–21 (1959; rpt. Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1992), 1: 9: “the blind man knows not how to define colors, nor can he who is absent testify to these matters as can one who sees them.” In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a number of historians directly address this problem as it bears upon the effort to synthesize a complete and balanced account of the sort taken for granted today. For example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo interrupts his history of the conquest of Mexico as follows: “And before going further, I wish to say—due to what certain very curious gentlemen have asked me and indeed have the right to know—how is it that I can write in this account things that I did not see, since I was then amid the conquests of New Spain when our solicitors handed over the letters, tributes and gifts of gold that they were bringing to his majesty, and had those disputes with the bishop of Burgos? To this I say that our solicitors wrote to us, the true conquistadors, about what was happening, [telling us] letter–by–letter in installments about the matter of the bishop of Burgos and how his majesty saw fit to rule in our favor, and the way in which these things occurred.” Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (ca. 1575–80), ed. Miguel León–Portilla, 2 vols. (Madrid: Historia 16, 1984), A: 213.

[4] Fernán Pérez de Guzmán, Generaciones y semblanzas (1450), ed. Jesús Domínguez Bordona, 6th ed., Clásicos Castellanos 61 (Madrid: Espasa–Calpe, 1979), pp. 5–6.

[5] San José, Genio de la Historia, p. 245.

[6] From the premise that we are wont to forget “that even as systems, schools and theories pass on, the sediment of the eternal truths of the eternal essence goes about forming itself; that rivers that will lose themselves in the sea carry with them the detritus of mountains, and form fields of alluvium with it,” Unamuno contends that traditions may be thought of “as the sustenance of history, as its sediment, as the revelation of what is intrahistoric, of what is unconscious in history.” Likening the present moment to the sea’s surface, he then argues that it is the “suboceanic coral that lays the foundation upon which arise the small islands of history. Upon august silence, sound rests and lives; upon immense and silent humanity arise those who put voices into history. This intrahistoric life, silent and continuous like the bottom of the sea itself, is the substance of progress, the true tradition, the eternal tradition, not the tradition of lies we are wont to look for in the past, buried in books and papers, and in monuments and rocks.” Miguel de Unamuno, “La tradición eterna” (1895), in En torno al casticismo, 7th ed. (Madrid: Espasa–Calpe, 1968), pp. 26–28. Unamuno’s influence is plain in Américo Castro, La realidad histórica de España, 8th ed. (Mexico: Editorial Porrúa, 1982), p. 13: “To write the history of the life of a people implies making visible their awareness of being existent, the will and impulse that make up this existence, and the collective and dynamic structure by virtue of which the people in question seem consistently to move themselves throughout their existence in time.”

[7] San José, Genio de la Historia, p. 360. The subtext for this passage is Ezekiel 37:1–14, in which Ezekiel is told to prophesy upon a valley of dry bones while God addresses these bones with the words: “I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live.” The analogy between the works of God, of his prophets and of historians is resumed at several points in San José’s treatise; for instance, in the assertion that the intent even of profane history is to “improve the conventions of living and writing, which, when faced with an example, try to equal it” (p. 411). San José’s particular expertise was ecclesiastical history and hagiography, with, among other works, biographies of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, and the collection Vidas de veinte religiosas insignes (Lives of Twenty Renowned Women of Religion). This focus sites his endeavors in an intermediate position between divine and profane history, but also, as he says, “very close to divine history, for in the saints’ lives is found much of what matters most in teaching virtue and proper conduct in secular life relative to eternal life” (p. 415).

[8] San José, Genio de la Historia, p. 275.

[9] In the prologue of his translation L’histoire aethiopique de Heliodorus (Paris, 1547), Jacques Amyot defines “the end principally sought in history” as “to instruct oneself in the concerns of future times with examples from past times.” In Historia etiópica de los amores de Teágenes y Cariclea, trans. Fernando de Mena (Antwerp, 1554), ed. Francisco López Estrada (Madrid: Aldus, 1954), p. lxxix.

[10] Aristotle, Poetics 8 (1451b), trans. Ingram Bywater, in The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, The Modern Library (New York: Random House, 1954), pp. 234–35. This teaching is glossed by Cicero in De oratore 2.15.62.

[11] Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Discursos morales, políticos é históricos inéditos de don Antonio de Herrera, cronista del rey don Felipe Segundo, ed. Juan Antonio de Zamácola (Madrid: Imprenta de Ruiz, 1804), p. 1.

[12] Lucio Marineo Sículo, De Hispaniae laudibus (Burgos: Fridericus Riel de Basilea, 1497), fol. 37v.

[13] Lucio Marineo Sículo, Lucii Marinei Siculi . . . opus De rebus Hispaniae memorabilis (Madrid: Per Michaelem Eguía, 1533), fol. 105r.

[14] San José, Genio de la Historia, p. 360.

[15] San José, Genio de la Historia, p. 299. San José immediately contrasts this concern of history for internal structures to those of poetry and oratory, in which “movement, vigor, pride and a sort of bristling mane of eloquence show themselves more.”

[16] San José, Genio de la Historia, pp. 397–98.

[17] San José, Genio de la Historia, pp. 310, 377 and 305. These words paraphrase vv. 60–62 of Horace’s Ars poetica, or Epistula ad Pisones: “As with passing years forests change their leaves, / and the first to have opened fall: so too do long–established words grow old, / and those newborn flourish and thrive in the manner of youths.” Q. Horati Flacci opera, ed. Edward C. Wickham, rev. H. W. Garrod (1901; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), n. pag.

[18] See John H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469–1716 (1963; rpt. New York: Meridian/New American Library, 1977), pp. 281–380. The comparison between San José and Unamuno is again apt, insofar as Unamuno’s praise for intrahistory is made amid, and in reaction to, what he calls as “the ongoing marasmus of Spain.” En torno al casticismo, p. 125.

[19] Luis de León, De los nombres de Cristo, ed. Cristóbal Cuevas García, 3rd ed. (Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1982), p. 278.

[20] Luis de León, De los nombres de Cristo, p. 279.

[21] Aristotle, Poetics 23 (1459a), in The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, p. 256. Isidore of Seville refines these ideas in Etymologiarum 1.44.1–4: “The types of history are three. What is done in one day is called ephemeris. What Latin speakers call diurnal, the Greeks call ephemeral. Kalendaria divide things into single months. Annales, into single years. Whatever is worthy of memory in domestic or military affairs, at sea and on land, through the years is recorded in entries called annales, due to annual events. History is a thing of many years or times, set down with diligence in books in annual entries. But what separates history from annals is that history deals with those times we have seen, whereas annals deal with those years our age has not known.” This approach is practiced by Pero López de Ayala (1332–1407) in the preface to his Crónicas—“I will begin with the year that the king reigned according to the year of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the era of Caesar, which have been counted in Spain from long ago to the present; within each year, I will divide the history of that year into chapters”—, and in the final entry for 1351: “By the good order of chronicles, it is customary that, at the end of each year when the history is finished, one relate some notable deeds that took place in other parts of the world that year.” In Crónicas de los Reyes de Castilla, ed. Cayetano Rosell, 3 vols., Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 66, 68 and 70 (Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1953), 1: 400 and 424. López de Ayala illustrates this method in his Crónica de don Pedro I by listing the year not only by the Christian and Roman calendars, but also by those of Jews and Muslims. This is accompanied by an explanation of the etymology and usage of terms such as “era,” and of why each calendar begins at a different point in time.

[22] San José, Genio de la Historia, p. 292.

[23] Amyot, prologue to L’histoire aethiopique de Heliodorus, in Historia etiópica de los amores de Teágenes y Cariclea, p. lxxxi.

[24] Aristotle discusses dialectic in Topics 1, and treats its relationship to rhetoric, and the nature of both, in Rhetoric. The significance for history of these faculties is evident in the following: “None of the arts theorize about individual cases. Medicine, for instance, does not theorize about what will help to cure Socrates or Callias, but only about what will help to cure any or all of a given class of patients: this alone is its business: individual cases are so infinitely various that no systematic knowledge of them is possible. In the same way the theory of rhetoric is concerned not with what seems probable to a given individual . . . , but with what seems probable to men of a given type; and this is true of dialectic also. Dialectic does not construct its syllogisms out of any haphazard materials, such as the fancies of crazy people, but out of materials that call for discussion; and rhetoric, too, draws upon the regular subjects of debate. The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning. The subjects of our deliberation are such as seem to present us with alternative possibilities: about things that could not have been, and cannot now or in the future be, other than they are”; and, “The proper subjects of dialectical and rhetorical syllogisms are the things with which we say the regular or universal Lines of Argument are concerned, that is to say those lines of argument that apply equally to questions of right conduct, natural science, politics, and many other things that have nothing to do with one another.” Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2 (1356b and 1358a), trans. W. Rhys Roberts, in The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, pp. 27 and 30–31.