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  • Milton in Revolutionary Hispanoamerica
  • Mario Murgia

In 1905, five years before the onset of the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910–20), the Chilean historian and bibliographer José Toribio Medina Zavala published his Historia del Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición en México (A history of the tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Mexico), which he dedicated to the Mexican president Porfirio Díaz as a token of friendship and admiration.1 Medina devotes an entire chapter of his lengthy account of the life and deeds of this American branch of the Spanish Inquisition to the matter of prohibited books. In chapter 23, the historian relates how, given an evident growth in (illegal) book commerce between the Iberian Peninsula and the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and Mexico in particular, the Inquisition eventually found itself struggling to exert efficient control over the overseas book trade.2 The situation became so troublesome in the second half of the eighteenth century that, according to Medina, "los Inquisidores no lograban echar mano á ninguno que tuviese los libros que diariamente iban anatemizando" (Inquisitors did not manage to lay their hands on those who possessed the books that they anathemized on a daily basis).3 [End Page 203]

This anecdote concerning the increasing failure on the part of the Inquisition's ecclesiastical court to deal with intellectual and literary smuggling in the late stages of the Spanish Empire would remain on the level of historical generalization were it not for the fact that Medina provides a most peculiar exception to such inquisitorial inefficiency. A certain Carlos—presumably Charles—Loret, a young French surgeon residing in the Mexican city of Jalapa in 1768, was "acusado de tener el Paraíso perdido de Milton y enjuiciado y castigado hacía poco con abjuración y destierro á España" (accused of having Milton's Paradise Lost, and tried and punished not long ago with abjuration and banishment to Spain).4 We do not know which edition of the epic Loret may have been reading, or if he approached the poem in the original English. However, since Paradise Lost had already been translated in its entirety into French and only partially into Iberian Spanish by the 1760s, we might speculate that Loret had been breaking the (ecclesiastical) law in either of these two languages, but most probably in his mother tongue.5 And yet, it is significant that out of the "muchos libros prohibidos" (many prohibited books) that were confiscated on that particular occasion, only Paradise Lost and Milton were explicitly mentioned by title and surname. This tells us, first, that given the magnitude of Loret's punishment, both the peruser and the poem in his possession were held up as particular examples of seditiousness for the reading public. Second, and perhaps more important, an educated man reading Paradise Lost illegally in provincial Mexico betrays the existence of a potential cultured readership, however limited it might have been, for Milton and at least his major poetry in that localized region of the Americas.

This example confirms that reading Milton in Spanish-speaking America, even in intellectually selected circles, could be a difficult and even dangerous business. As has been documented, Milton's name first appeared in the 1707 edition of the Spanish Catholic Inquisition's Index Librorum Prohibitorum.6 The Index classifies Milton as a heretic and, moreover, as a "Class I" author whose entire oeuvre should be avoided: "Aquellos Autores cuyos Libros están todos prohibidos, se señalan, poniendoles una estrellita (*), [End Page 204] ó con esta señal I. cl. (I.a Classis ó de I.a Clase)" (Those authors whose books are all prohibited are signaled with an asterisk [*] or with this signal I. cl. [I.a Classis or of the 1st. Class]). This had changed in the 1790 Index, which simply reads, "Milthonius (Joan.), Angl. I. cl.," minus the asterisk.7 As Angelica Duran states insightfully, "The 1790 index moves away from bold assessments of individuals' personal and spiritual status as heretic. In some ways, that move participates in the construction of modern forms of reception that situate authors within their historical roles and emphasizes networks of power relations, overriding attention on individuals...


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