Category Archives: Proposal

Proposal: The Impact of Contact with the Americas on Catholic Spain

For Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile, 1492 was supposed to change the course of Spanish history. The Treaty of Granada ended a 700-year-long war in which Christians fought to retake the Iberian Peninsula from Islamic rule. The “Reyes” further fulfilled their self-proclaimed purpose of championing Catholicism with the expulsion of the Jews from their region. All of the necessary measures were in place to begin the unification of the land they respectively controlled. It was, however, the land not yet under their control—the discovery of continents not yet within their realm of knowledge—that changed the course of human history in 1492. In a time charged by religious conflict, the founding of completely different people groups and territory represented an opportunity to expand Catholicism and Empire. A discussion of primary and secondary sources from the fields of history, art and literature during the period offers insight into this world of religious agenda and how contact with the Americas impacted Spain in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

In order to trace the beginning of religious reformation in Spain back to the discovery and exploration of the Americas, I will engage many different types of primary sources. First, there are a series of political documents intended to address the treatment of indigenous inhabitants that secondarily point to the responsibility of Spanish subjects to live a life of exemplary, even superior, religious conviction. The first, De Indis De Jure Belli, written by philosopher Francisco de Vitoria in 1532 asserts the supremacy of the Church over Empire. Speaking from a legal standpoint, Vitoria uses political models to illustrate the right of the Church to act with spiritual fervor, though not to the detriment of civil power. A question thus followed regarding the Indians of the New World as to whether or not they would be considered citizens of Spain. Juan Gines de Sepulveda represented the right of conquest school of thought at the Valladolid debate in Spain, presenting there in 1550 the philosophy put forth in his 1547 The Second Democrates. Sepulveda argues the inferiority of the Indians in comparison to the “natural qualities of judgment, talken, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religion” of the Spanish. He believes the conquest and evangelization of the Americas is not only the right but also the responsibility of the church. In 1590, Jose de Acosta published his Natural and Moral History of the Indies to offer a broader understanding of the New World and its contents in addition to the people. Most helpful to my study, however, is his handling of this new information—the attempt to fit it into the existing religious framework of Europe.

The second type of useful primary source are those regarding the religious framework of Europe between the Reconquista and the Counter-Reformation. This Counter-Reformation is typically viewed as having started in earnest by the 1560s, with the commission of the Roman Catechism, meant to instruct clergymen in the way of spirituality and theology. Primary documents, such as St. Teresa’s The Way of Perfection (c. 1550), regarding the individual approach to spiritual life speak to the changing religious norm before the traditionally recognized beginning of Catholic Reformation. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola (1522-1524) represents this category, wherein St. Ignatius asserts the importance of individual spiritual outlook and meditation. Primary sources like these offer a view of religion from the perspective of religious leaders. Art and Literature during the Golden Age constitute a third important pool of primary sources. Literature made a transition during this time from the romance of knights and figureheads to novel style—the representation of everyday life. Surprisingly, generally missing from literary accounts of everyday Spanish life is mention of religion. When the Church does appear, it is presented as corrupt and hypocritical. The anonymously published Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) are two examples of this rising tradition. The artistic works of painters such as Francisco de Zurbaran and Luis de Morales are also of interest, given that they exhibit the religious, mystic style of Spanish art during the period of the Counter-Reformation and the glorification of the Catholic monarchy and aristocracy.

While these legal, religious, literary and artistic primary sources provide a view into specific aspects and dates in 16th and 17thCentury Spain, secondary sources regarding those sources provide a larger context for studying the impact of the New World on Catholicism in Spain. In The Fall of Natural Man (1982), Anthony Pagden identifies the different schools of thought regarding the early question of the classification of Indians and what it means to spread Spanish society. This source is best at incorporating theological, legal, and historical approaches to the period. An interesting commentary on religion comes from Linda B. Hall’s 2004 Mary, Mother and Warrior, wherein the Professor of History at the University of New Mexico tracks the veneration of the Virgin Mary. She argues that evangelization led to the combination of ritual, indigenous belief and traditional Catholic Doctrine, leading Spaniards  to view theirs as purer, superior Catholicism. James A. Parr of the University of California at Riverside Department of Hispanic studies gives attention to the literary tradition of the 14th to 17th centuries in Spain in Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Related Subjects (2004). He pulls from literature of the era many different themes—the most important for my research being the religious aspect of fiction novels. One of Parr’s main points is to distinguish between art history and literary history. Necessary, then, are sources pertaining to the artistic trends of the era. Stephen Greenblatt provides a thorough study of the methods by which Spaniards classified Indians of the early modern period—particularly through art—using travel narratives, judicial documents and legal reports in Marvelous Possessions (1992). Lastly, Marjorie Trusted discusses the importance of sculptures and replication for the spread of Catholic devotional images in her 1997 work,Art for the Masses: Spanish Sculpture in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Together I will use these categories of secondary sources to provide broader context for the issues addressed in the primary sources of the same topic.

Much has been written about the impact of Spain on the Americas. It is easier to prove causal relationships when examining the object of conquest than it is to argue the effect of a world considered inferior by Spaniards on the Empire, reaching its height by 1492. Still, it is necessary to study the latter, as it would be careless to assume that the discovery of a new world would not affect the existing order of life. I believe this is especially true in regards to religion, which was a heated topic going into the 16th Century after the Reconquest and expulsion of the Jews. The Counter-Reformation is thought to have begun in the 1660s. What I expect to find in further research of my primary and secondary sources, however, is that religious reform began much earlier, with the beginning of the evangelization of the New World. The desire to spread Catholicism in the west dramatically impacted the need to address issues within the faith in 16th and 17th Century Spain.