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Territories of History

Humanism, Rhetoric, and the Historical Imagination in the Early Chronicles of Spanish America

By Sarah H. Beckjord

Publication Year: 2007

Sarah H. Beckjord’s Territories of History explores the vigorous but largely unacknowledged spirit of reflection, debate, and experimentation present in foundational Spanish American writing. In historical works by writers such as Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Beckjord argues, the authors were not only informed by the spirit of inquiry present in the humanist tradition but also drew heavily from their encounters with New World peoples. More specifically, their attempts to distinguish superstition and magic from science and religion in the New World significantly influenced the aforementioned chroniclers, who increasingly directed their insights away from the description of native peoples and toward a reflection on the nature of truth, rhetoric, and fiction in writing history. Due to a convergence of often contradictory information from a variety of sources—eyewitness accounts, historiography, imaginative literature, as well as broader philosophical and theological influences—categorizing historical texts from this period poses no easy task, but Beckjord sifts through the information in an effective, logical manner. At the heart of Beckjord’s study, though, is a fundamental philosophical problem: the slippery nature of truth—especially when dictated by stories. Territories of History engages both a body of emerging scholarship on early modern epistemology and empiricism and recent developments in narrative theory to illuminate the importance of these colonial authors’ critical insights. In highlighting the parallels between the sixteenth-century debates and poststructuralist approaches to the study of history, Beckjord uncovers an important legacy of the Hispanic intellectual tradition and updates the study of colonial historiography in view of recent discussions of narrative theory.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Series: Penn State Romance Studies


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pp. 1-13

Many scholars have highlighted the richness of early modern writings on the New World, pointing to the complexities of narrative postures taken by writers who were often both participants and commentators on the project of discovery and conquest that Claude Lévi-Strauss once called humanity’s...

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1: Historical Representation in the Spanish Humanist Context: Juan Luis Vives

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pp. 15-41

in this passage of his treatise on writing history (De historia: Para entenderla y escribirla, 1611),1 the humanist Luis Cabrera de Córdoba (1559–1623)2 praises the discipline of history in the highest terms. Historical knowledge, he states, fosters a type of clairvoyance otherwise denied humans and grants a perspective that ostensibly enables one to overcome the natural limitations ...

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2: Conjecture and Credibility in the Historia general y natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Fern

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pp. 43-85

The kinds of hopes for and anxieties about the writing of history expressed by Vives are refl ected, albeit indirectly, in the early historical narratives of the discovery and conquest of the New World. Although one fi nds few explicit references to the preceptive authors or works in these accounts, historians Gonzalo ...

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3: Vision and Voice: The Historia de las Indias by Bartolom

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pp. 87-125

Like fernández de oviedo, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) in his Historia de las Indias1 endeavors to come to practical terms with both the humanist norms for “true” history and with the prior historical accounts concerning the New World.2 But where Oviedo had built a strategy of dismissing the ...

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4: History and Memory: Narrative Perspective in Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España

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pp. 128-162

In this chapter i examine the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (ca. 1495–1584) with an eye to problems of narrative temporality, distance, and perspective and what they might suggest about the question of narrative reliability in his work. I hope to show that a study of some of the salient textual properties of the Historia verdadera brings ...

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pp. 163-169

the reflections concerning the relationship between language and truth in history in the context of empire neither began nor ended with the early Spanish chroniclers of America. One could trace the intellectual lineage of this topic as far back as Thucydides, who links the imperial power struggles of Athens to a breakdown in language and, ultimately, to a tragic collapse of ...


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pp. 171-184


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pp. 185-191

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271022093
E-ISBN-10: 0271022094
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271032788
Print-ISBN-10: 0271032782

Page Count: 201
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Penn State Romance Studies